Moral Positionality in Social Justice Advocacy and Leadership

When President Obama established the Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault in January 2014, campus-based sexual violence was squarely in the national spotlight.  Although important, this attention came decades after countless students, faculty, and administrators began the fight on their campuses. We may be at a tipping point where pursuing justice for survivors of sexual violence is taken seriously; however, it is naïve to assume this momentum will continue without advocacy by individuals working with others to sustain the change begun on college campuses.

My focus here is on character in the context of social justice advocacy. I believe character is at the core of ethical professional practice, yet it is difficult to understand because it stems from personal desires that motivate our values into action. This deeply felt commitment to a cause could lead to intense conflict with others. We each have had colleagues who are gripped by their passion for a cause that seems marginally relevant to us. Even our most like-minded colleagues will view social justice from their respective positions with varying levels of intensity.

Drawing on findings from an on-going study of professional dispositions I show how working together as advocates for social change demands that we be explicit about our moral positions in dialogue with our colleagues. I conclude my comments with some questions for reflection.

Character in Ethical Professional Practice

Student affairs practitioners demonstrate character on a daily basis through conduct reflecting their best intentions (Humphrey, Janosik, & Creamer, 2004). Peterson and Seligman (2004) contend that an individual’s character is fluid rather than fixed, and that one’s traits are “stable and general but also shaped by the individual’s setting and thus capable of change” (p. 10). To place character in the context of ethical professional practice, I will briefly revisit the framework introduced in my last column.

The ethical leadership framework (Table 1) is intended to guide reflection and dialogue on issues with moral implications, like responding to sexual violence. It has three domains: (a) consciousness, the awareness of self and context; (b) capacity, the knowledge and skills to act; and, (c) character, the will and courage to act. These domains cut across three levels of practice: (a) practitioner, the intrapersonal realm of thoughts, emotions, desires; (b) profession, the interpersonal dimension of collaboration and practice; and (c) institution, collective social entities like universities, governments, and other organizations.  For each level of practice I offer a fundamental question to prompt reflection and dialogue on ethical practice: Who am I? Who are we? and, What is our influence?

My focus here is the character domain. Character permeates our profession, manifest in the practitioner who joins with colleagues to advocate for students in the institutions that regulate our work. The complete framework also reminds us that ethical practice requires more from practitioners than truth-telling and collaboration. We must also be aware of ethical issues and competent enough to respond authentically as individuals in a profession that has teaching, leading, and advocacy as its mission and contribution to higher education.

Level of Practice Critical Questions Consciousness Capacity Character
Practitioner Who am I? Aware Competent Authentic
Profession Who are we? Learners Servants Colleagues
Institution What is our influence? Teaching Leading Advocating

Advocacy: Benefits and Costs of Ethical Practice

Surprisingly, advocacy is not among the ten professional competencies in student affairs; social justice receives passing mention as one of several themes for professional development activities (ACPA & NASPA, 2010). These gaps are puzzling, for as Harrison (2010) argued, “if there is a core function within the student affairs field, it is advocating for students, securing their place at the table where decisions that affect them are made” (p. 167). Social justice advocacy is infused in our work; however, it cannot be fully realized without our colleagues.

Advocacy has benefits and costs. At its best, acting on behalf of others is reflected in this statement from the ACPA Presidential Task Force on Sexual Violence in Higher Education (2015):

The development of the capacity and competency to lead in thought and action about the crisis of sexual violence will ensure we, as a profession, move beyond compliance and toward the creation of a holistic and coordinated approach to address sexual violence issues on campus. In this way all educators, from graduate students in student affairs preparation programs and new professionals, to faculty and Senior Student Affairs Officers, will become the champions of culture change regarding the problem of sexual violence on campus (p. 19)

This description of individuals working with colleagues to advocate for institutional change exemplifies the character domain outlined in the framework.  It is also very difficult to achieve. More often, we find ourselves in conflict with colleagues who may agree on the outcome (justice), but not the means to achieve it (advocacy, activism, or hedging).

Conflict weighs heavily on advocates. Some become martyrs, who end up socially and politically isolated, while sellouts eventually submit to the status quo (Harrison, 2010). More unfortunate are advocates who turn on their colleagues. The madvocate “tries to change minds through anger, righteous indignation, guilting, gossiping, and moral outrage” (Viray & Nash, 2014, p. 21). Ostensibly madvocates justify their tactics as truth-telling; ultimately, they “stumble on their own regrets when their actions are not in alignment with their moral values” (Viray & Nash, 2014, p. 26).

Beyond aligning values and behavior, I contend authentic advocates (and leaders of all kinds) must develop the character strength to respect what their colleagues, in good faith, bring to the table, especially if these positions run counter to their deeply held beliefs. Dialogue around touchy ethical issues can be more productive when we can articulate our moral positions.

Moral Positionality

In the search for principles or philosophies to justify our ethical actions, we would do well to acknowledge the fluidity of our moral positions. Research shows how our subconscious desires (Green, 2014), responses to perceived competition (Weeden & Kurzban, 2014), and implicit prejudices (Banaji & Greenwald, 2013) motivate our ethical choices.

If we truly seek collaboration with our colleagues, then we should contextualize our views by disclosing what I refer to as our moral positionality: the location from which we are advocating our opinion on a given issue within a dynamic field of conflicting possibilities for ethical action. The progressive tense for the verb to advocate is intentional, signifying that we never occupy the exact same moral position on every issue. As professionals, we’re engaged in an endless moral performance, motivated by desires (for justice) and restrained by an institutional pressure to keep things as they are (i.e., “let’s wait to see if this goes away”).

Locating your moral position isn’t easy to do. Even in hindsight, we have a hard time describing our positions in a dilemma, much less doing it in the heat of the moment. My hope is that with repeated practice in a constructive setting, we can open the door of self-awareness a little wider and take a step toward understanding our colleagues’ positions as well. This can establish a foundation for collaborating on areas of mutual concern.

The Study: Conflict, Character, and Context in Ethical Practice

These ideas about ethical positionality originated from a study of ethical practice. Character was defined as a synthesis of a practitioner’s values and motives, as described by theories of moral maturity (Rest, 1994) and educator dispositions (Burant, Chubbuck, & Whipp, 2007; Sockett, 2009). Participants (n=50) recalled an ethical conflict from their professional practice, which they felt was resolved appropriately. I gathered narrative data on the content of their conflicts and the abilities, motivations, and values each used to respond ethically.

Analyzing each participant’s response, I looked for examples of motivation and values in response to the ethical conflict. Next, I looked for instances where these intersected. I presumed that these intersections captured a description of their character. I categorizing exemplars of character into four moral positions. Before I introduce the positions, I present some of the findings below.

The Stuff of Character: Motivation and Values

A participant’s motivation was situated along a continuum. At one end was the self (intrinsic), while situation (extrinsic) was on the other. An orientation to self is not self-interest or egoism; rather, it is the motivation to act in a way that demonstrates personal dignity and ethical integrity (Mennuti & Creamer, 1991). The participants spoke of intrinsic drives, such as honor and satisfaction:

•I had to tell someone. I don’t believe there was a law mandating me to do it, but there’s an unwritten ethical law that says you have to do it.

•I’m not really motivated by a check. I’m glad that I have a good-paying job, but what really drives me is helping others and seeing students and colleagues succeed.

At the other end of the continuum, motivation was influenced by the context of the situation. Those who exhibited orientation to situation, spoke of accountability or conflict avoidance:

•I was doing the job I was chosen to do in that particular situation. I’m held accountable to create an organizational culture and communicate expectations on institutional policies, regulations, codes, federal and state laws.

•I’m a people pleaser. I avoid conflict. I’m definitely a non-confrontational person. I think 90% of the time my flight response is the first to react.

Character is also comprised of values, which reveal how participants prioritize the issues at stake in the ethical conflict. As with the motivation data, values was arrayed on a continuum from means-based to ends-based (Kidder, 1995).

Means-based values prioritize laws or duties over relationships or the context of the conflict. Participants judged the “rightness” of their actions by how they lived up to principles they considered to be self-evident:

•I wasn’t going to be able to live with myself if I knew that I had willfully violated the law to satisfy the whims of my boss. I couldn’t live with the consequences of that.

•I believe people have to live up to their actions. If it means they lose benefits, then that’s the consequences. They have to deal with it.

Ends-based values are best expressed by the saying, “the ends justify the means.” Participants’ placed greater weight on the impact of their actions on people and situations than on fulfilling laws, principles or rules. Flexibility and outcomes were important considerations:

•I don’t like to call it policy. Policy is for HR issues or accounting problems. I prefer to say “office guidelines.” With guidelines you can be a little more flexible.

•I always ask, what is it that I want people to do? I want to know how I can deliver the message in a helpful, rather than confrontational way.

Moral Positions in Ethical Professional Practice

I now describe four moral positions, based on instances where the participants’ values and motives aligned in practice. All participants occupied one of these positions as they resolved their conflicts. Two caveats: I cannot generalize these beyond the participants in the study; also, it’s possible there are more positions than just these four.

Pragmatic idealist. These individuals believe that rules are important to know and to follow, but those in authority are not always in touch with what other people need. When making an ethical decision, the impact on people should be the most important consideration. One participant declared: “It is up to those of us who have some power to navigate the system and make it work for people.”

Principled realist. Consistency is the most important for these “by-the-book” people. Rules provide a common source of authority and they must be followed. Actions have consequences that apply regardless of the situation. People who break rules have a right to explain their behavior, but ultimately the rules will determine who is responsible and what will happen if the rules are broken.

Principled idealist. Conventional values and respect for institutional structure are very important to these people, who rely on enduring principles as a foundation for their actions. They are wary of radical views or those who would overturn the order of things in an arbitrary way. They respect others’ right to question authority, yet they tend to support the structure of the institution in most instances.

Pragmatic realist. These people choose their battles wisely. Ethical actions are strategic and can be paused for a time if it means living to fight another day. If they sense that those in authority are not ready to support their position they will reassess their plans rather than challenge authority directly. One participant said, “I’m not so quick to act if it will prove to be a wedge between me and my boss.”

To be clear, these are not fixed identities or stable personality types. Rather, they are sites, any of which individuals may occupy, more than once, as they discern the best approach to resolve a specific conflict or concern. As transitory sites, it should also be noted that there is no developmental progression or a “better way to be ethical” implied in these positions.

Based on peer debriefing in classes and presentations, these positions seem to resonate with practitioners. Most tend to gravitate toward the pragmatic idealist position. This makes sense: Our profession has pragmatic roots (Young, 2003) and attracts people with an idealistic desire to improve the lives of students. I will admit, however, that I’m happy to see there are usually one or two people who occupy the other positions in the context of their ethical conflict. I validate their positionality and honor their courage to take a position that may go against the grain in our profession. It isn’t easy to be in the moral minority!

Getting to We: Colleagues in the Profession

So, what does this mean for advocates and other leaders? Sometimes our moral positionality is not aligned with our colleagues’ views. This is not a character flaw. Each of us has varying degrees of ethical awareness, ability, and desire to advocate for change. It is unprofessional to slander those who hold views different from ours. This typology promotes collegiality by giving us language to make our desires less implicit and more authentic. In doing so, we can begin to address the next critical question: Who are we? As colleagues, we are both learners, who acquire new skills and ideas, and servants who support each other to achieve common goals like advocacy for social justice.

Reflection Questions

  1. Reflect on a recent ethical conflict. Where would you place your motivation and valuation on the scales?  How about colleagues who were involved in the conflict?
  2. When have you found yourself at odds with the prevailing moral positionality of your colleagues? Is there a pattern across the conflicts? How did you reconcile the conflict both internally and with others?
  3. How do the moral positions in the typology reflect your experience with colleagues? Would you add or revise the positions? Why?


ACPA Presidential Task Force on Sexual Violence Prevention in Higher Education (2015). Beyond compliance: Sexual violence prevention report and recommendations for ACPA Governing Board. Author: ACPA: College Student Educators International.

Banaji, M. R., & Greenwald, A. G. (2013). Blindspot: Hidden biases of good people. Delacorte Press.

Burant, T. J., Chubbuck, S. M., & Whipp, J. L. (2007). Reclaiming the moral in the dispositions debate. Journal of Teacher Education58(5), 397-411.

Greene, J. (2014). Moral tribes: Emotion, reason and the gap between us and them. Atlantic Books.

Harrison, L. M. (2014). How student affairs professionals learn to advocate: A phenomenological study. Journal of College and Character, 15(3), 165-178.

Kidder, R. M. (1995). How good people make tough choices. New York: Morrow.

Mennuti, R. B., & Creamer, D. G. (1991). Role of orientation, gender, and dilemma content in moral reasoning. Journal of College Student Development, 32(3), 241- 248.

Peterson, C. & Seligman, M. E. P. (2004). Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification. Oxford University Press.

Rest, J. R. (1994). Background: Theory and research. In J. R. Rest & D. Narvaez (Eds.), Moral development in the professions. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Sockett, H. (2009). Dispositions as virtues: The complexity of the construct. Journal of Teacher Education, 60(3), 291-303.

Viray, S. & Nash, R. J. (2014). Taming the madvocate within: Social justice meets social compassion. About Campus, 19(5), 20-27.

Weeden, J., & Kurzban, R. (2014). The hidden agenda of the political mind: How self-interest shapes our opinions and why we won’t admit it. Princeton University Press.

Young, R. B. (2003). Philosophies and values guiding the student affairs profession. In S. R. Komives & D. B. Woodard, Jr (Eds.) Student services: A handbook for the profession (pp. 89-106). New York: John Wiley & Sons.

About the Author

Jonathan O’Brien is assistant professor of educational leadership and coordinator of the Student Development in Higher Education master’s program at California State University, Long Beach. He teaches law and ethics and qualitative research methods. Jonathan has worked at public and private universities in Missouri, Kentucky, and California. His consulting and scholarship focus on assisting students in personal crisis and promoting professional conduct in student affairs practice.

Please e-mail inquiries to Jonathan O’Brien.


The ideas expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the Developments editorial board or those of the ACPA Governing Board, Leadership, or International Office Staff.

Becoming the Culturally Prepared Professional You Need to be: Preparing to Better Serve Your Students

Becoming a professional that is highly effective in the profession and specific role on campus is an ongoing challenge.  As many of us find responsibilities and tasks expanding in our professional roles, it is increasingly difficult to meet these needs while engaging in professional development activities.  An area often overlooked amongst the multitude of our professional responsibilities is developing one’s cultural preparedness or competency.  In an ever-evolving higher education environment that continues to see increased accountability measures, we as practitioners need to be sure we are prepared to engage the cultural challenges presenting on campus and in the surrounding communities.  This is ever apparent in the United States as the past year has seen headlines related to racial tension and sexual assault issues facing both campuses and the larger society.

While attending several professional conferences this past spring the issue of competence, preparedness, and how student affairs/services professionals best serve students from a cultural perspective was a consistent topic.  Developing a degree of cultural preparedness is not a universal or straightforward skill set, but is rather a collection of awareness, experiences, knowledge, open-mindedness, and adaptation.  I am reminded of this each year as I work with undergraduate and graduate interns in an overseas setting.  Becoming culturally competent is a never-ending lifelong process, and one that begins with having a realistic self-view, understanding of your personality, and an ability to interact with others within a social context.  Culture is understood, applied, and interpreted in a multitude of ways and can apply to a vast number of human attributes.  Culture is “the collective programming of the mind distinguishing the members of one group or category of people from another” as defined by Dutch social psychologistGeert Hofstede, who did a pioneering study of cultures across modern nations.  The “category” mentioned can refer to nations, regions within or across nations, ethnicities, religions, occupations, organizations, or genders.

To illustrate the value of culture in higher education the Association of American Colleges & Universities, in an extensive project from 2007-2009, developed common core expectations to undergraduate learning within a basic framework of expectations.  This established a core set of values and means of assessment on campuses at various levels.  As a result, 16 value rubrics were created, including one on Intercultural Knowledge and Competence.  This rubric suggests a systematic way to measure how one identifies with their cultural influences, analyzes them with others, and adapts to new encounters.   It emphasizes the need of campus communities to meaningfully engage with others, consider historical and political contexts, and focus the impact of culture on learning.

As one academic year closes and you prepare for the next I challenge you to become a more culturally prepared professional.   The following sections offer some insights and items for consideration on how each of us, no matter our personal make-up and campus community, can work to become more culturally prepared professionals, allowing us to better serve our students and campuses.

As a note, the list below is a general list of key focus areas and potential opportunities.  Each person must develop an individual strategy based on ones personal make-up (self-awareness, knowledge, history, etc.), current campus and personal environment, perceived needs, and engagement opportunities.

Cultural Self-Awareness

Cultural experiences develop an individual’s preparedness and growth. Higher education is increasingly global, with an increase in the exchange of students and student affairs professionals domestically and internationally. Cultural experiences and exposure provide for both personal and professional growth, however, being aware and competent is increasingly becoming a necessary twenty-first century skill.  The key to cultural understanding and awareness begins first with an understanding and awareness of self.    We each have a keen sense of self-awareness, however this awareness may often not be fully explored.  Essential to this is the ability to accurately evaluate and see yourself as others see you.

Such self-exploration is not one size fits all and we each are unique persons, based on our knowledge and experiences.  Further, having a language fluency or knowledge is not enough.  To expand self-awareness engaging in interactions needs to take place in order to further allow for self-evaluation.

Possible Suggestions

  • Identify your heritage, personal attributes or identifiers, likes, dislikes, tastes, hobbies, etc.
  • Explore your cultural framework and determine experiences that you can undertake to expand your cross-cultural horizons.  Understand your present limits.
  • Change a pattern or routine and try something different or unfamiliar to expand beyond your current comfort zone (could be food, language, socialization, travel, etc.).
  • Practice exploring new topics related to diversity and culture by engaging in tactful and productive dialogues.
  • Converse with close friends and family on how others perceive you.
  • Consider completing an inventory or assessment on personality or self-perception to better understand how you see and interact with the world around you.

Understanding Local & Campus Culture

As with anything we must know where we are or where we came from in order to know where to go.  This is especially important in our professional roles on campus.  Every country of the world, state, in the union, city or town has a unique make-up comprised of numerous historical, social, economic and other influences.  Further, institutions of higher learning (as any company or corporation) have an institutional culture as well built on traditions, civic, and campus climates.   Each of these impact factors creates a context under which we work and our students learn, with our work still about serving students first and foremost. In order to embrace the cultural atmosphere seek to identify the major cultural features, the impacts on the campus and local communities, and how this information can support your efforts in better serving these communities.

Possible Suggestions

  • Participate in, volunteer to help with, or attend major activities or festivals in the local community.
  • Identify the local heritage and key cultural groups and activities that define your community.
  • Identify the international and domestic diversity populations on your campus and locally.
  • Participate in, volunteer to help with, or attend activities facilitated by the Office of International Student Services.
  • Identify the goals and objectives of your campus, and your division or department, towards internationalization, globalization, multiculturalism, and diversity.

Seeking Cultural Exchanges

The American Council on Education (ACE) in 2011 stated:

It is the obligation of colleges and universities to prepare people for a globalized world, including developing the ability to compete economically, to operate effectively in other cultures and settings, to use knowledge to improve their own lives and their communities, and to better comprehend the realities of the contemporary world so that they can better meet their responsibilities as citizens.

In preparing students for a globalized world ACE specifies the task of higher education institutions, and indirectly the professionals serving them, to promote personal and professional interests linked to knowledge and cultural preparedness.   Although study and work abroad opportunities are very rewarding, other opportunities exist that are less invasive.  Cultural exchanges exist in many forms and do not always require one to uproot and spend months or years in another part of the country or overseas.  These can be found on campus, in your local community, through entertainment, books, online, and many other mediums.

Once you are intentionally self-aware and have identified the cultural influences that impact your local environment, it is important to seek out opportunities for cultural exchange. Such exchanges can be formal and informal, part of your professional role or personal hobbies, and can be significant in time/commitment or single exchanges.  From campus international week activities, lecture series, and language dialogue programs, to off-campus cultural meals, foreign films, and ethnic festivals, a multitude of exchanges exist.  The important key is to intentionally and actively seek a meaningful exchange opportunity for you.

Possible Suggestions

  • Be sure to respect all the ways in which people differ, including personalities and preferences, for effective interactions and exchanges.
  • Get involved with the international community on your campus or locally, volunteer to help with the Office of International Student Services.
  • Network with colleagues who have studied or worked overseas.  Engage meaningful conversations with students or in student programs promoting culture or diversity.
  • Look into taking courses about different cultures, religions, international issues, or higher education courses that have a focus on international education or students.
  • Consider participating in service trips or personal travel to international locations or regions of interest.
  • Work, Intern or Study Abroad – requires serving/interacting with a unique local & institutional sub culture.

Gain Exposure to New Things

Understanding one’s self, the local/campus communities, and seeking cultural exchanges are each important steps in expanding cultural awareness and preparedness.  Another important aspect, inherent throughout, is the willingness to gain exposure to new things.  Be willing to go outside of your comfort zone; try different foods & customs, be immersed in an unfamiliar context, and challenge yourself to grow.  Don’t let your inhibitions and fears limit you. Exploring culture is a lifelong process, and one that no one individual can be masterful in all situations.  Embrace diversity, culture, and push yourself to grow through new experiences.

Several suggestions and ideas of how to gain exposure have already been stated in this piece. Below are further ideas for consideration.

Possible Suggestions

  • Enhance your awareness of diversity and culture. Each includes a wide spectrum of differences that may include innate characteristics, such as age, race, gender, ethnicity, mental and physical abilities, or other orientations.  Additionally, acquired characteristics such as education, income, religion, work experience, language skills, geographic location, or family status present some additional differences.
  • Seek culinary experiences at a restaurant that maintains the culture and cuisine of the nation it represents. Look for a restaurant with direct links to the represented country, or is using authentic recipes.
  • View films and listen to music from other countries or regions.
  • Join online communities, professional organizations, or other web-based resources to connect with people from different nations or cultures.
  • Consider a mentoring or exchange program with someone from a different background.
  • Visit a history or cultural museum nearby or when traveling elsewhere to understand the ethnicities of the people who settled in the locale.
  • Travel to a community outside your own to learn about their culture and history,

backgrounds, religious and cultural practices, languages, cuisine, etc.


Students represent even more diverse populations and are influenced by multinational and multi-cultural factors.  As student affairs/services professionals we need to prepare ourselves to embrace students at both an interpersonal and intercultural level.  Self-awareness is paramount to embracing cultural understanding and must begin with reflection, knowledge, and open-mindedness. Student bodies are expanding and more representative of the global population, bringing multiculturalism and diversity issues in unique ways to our classrooms, residence halls, and campus engagement efforts.  Exploring culture allows each of us to develop as competent professionals and individuals.  The process enables each of us to review our attitude, skills, and knowledge leading to more effective and appropriate behaviors and communications.

Discussion Questions

  1. What does your division, department, or office do to develop in team members’ cultural awareness and exposure?  What efforts do you do?
  2. What are key cultural factors and influences that impact your campus?
  3. Are you aware of resources and activities to expand ones cultural knowledge and exposure on campus?  In the local community?
  4. How do you actively expand your cultural awareness, exposure, and competency both professionally and personally?

About the Author

Tadd Kruse is Assistant to the President for Institutional Planning and Effectiveness at the American University of Kuwait (AUK).  With fifteen years of higher education administrative experience and having worked at institutions in the US, UK, and in the Middle East, he has spent more than a decade working abroad. He has experience in international education on a variety of fronts including international student housing, study abroad, exchange programs, and he co-founded and still oversees the Student Affairs Graduate Summer Internship Program at AUK.  Tadd has served as Senior Student Affairs Officer, founded a department at a start-up institution, and worked in a variety of professional fields within Student Affairs.

Please e-mail inquiries to Tadd Kruse.


The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the Developments editorial board or those of ACPA members, Governing Board, Leadership, or International Office Staff.

An Ode to the Community College Academic Advisor

Higher education and student affairs is a broad field where individuals with a variety of skill sets can contribute to the overall success of an institution. Working with students can be technical, navigating between red tape, periods of policy reform, and crunching numbers related to enrollment, tuition, and complex curricular changes. Many corners of the field may require highly developed interpersonal skills, empathy, motivation, and an understanding of student development theory. The ability to leverage a bureaucratic environment, establish positive relationships in intense political cultures, and deliver exceptional service in high-stress situations are also desirable skill sets for professionals working in higher education settings.

While many professionals can lean into limited facets of this work, the Academic Advising office is often the intersection of them all. Within those four walls, a team of professionals switches between high-level, low-level, analytical and soft skills day in and day out.

Advising in the Community College

In many ways, community college Academic Advisors are the rock stars of higher education, as those most successful in impacting students are constantly striking a balance between technical knowledge and compassionate guidance. Perhaps more frequently than in other areas of an institution, they often shoulder the institution’s enrollment and retention pressures, while still maintaining a commitment to the best interests of students. An Advisor’s work often involves helping students make sense of overly complex curricular pathways, aligning majors to ever-changing workforce opportunities, identifying bottlenecks in the student experience, and sometimes guiding students away from their dreams.

This is especially true in community college settings where the “other duties as assigned” line in the job description often delivers more than meets the eye.

Recently, I was selected to oversee the development and implementation of our College’s One-Stop center, which will join together high-volume student service areas like Admissions, Records and Registration, and Financial Aid. As a result of this assignment, a great deal of my time recently has been spent facilitating conversations with departments across the Enrollment Management and Student Services division. While many of the conversations focused on the scope, training, and transactions within the center, my meeting with the Advising team included high-level concerns about the support structures in place after the student completes the enrollment processes within the center. As one Advisor mentioned, without the oversight of Residence Life (infrequently found at community colleges), Academic Advisors often fulfill the role of caretaker, mentor, and guide throughout the entire student experience. This support, as she pointed out, is critical as the College streamlines its transactional services.

Her point has stuck with me, and has caused me to see the Advisor role differently within the context of a community college setting. As a former Academic Advisor myself, and now an administrator providing leadership to an Advising unit, I have always understood the profound impact quality academic advising can have on student success. I have even naturally expanded my advising philosophy to fit into the community college setting, though without much reflection. In the absence of Residence Life and other services provided by four-year institutions, community college Advisors are often responsible for building a similar safety net around the students they serve.

When I take a step back and look at the Advising department I currently lead, I can see the swelling of Advisor responsibilities within our setting. While providing guidance related to curriculum makes up a large portion of the Advisor role, individuals are also expected to help a largely first-generation population understand what it means to be a college student. They look into the eyes of students who have turned to our college as their last hope to obtain an education and improve their lives, and help them find a motivational spark. They are often responsible for telling students they can no longer return to the institution due to their low grades, or that the career an individual has been trying to build may no longer be an option due to a competitive admission process.

While these discussions are commonplace in any academic advising setting, they are often complicated by the “last option” nature of a community college opportunity. Early in my career, while working at a semi-selective four-year institution, I was able to facilitate these conversations with students knowing they would leave my office with other options. The local regional campus or community college would welcome the students who left our university and provide them another chance at an education. While still impacting me as an Advisor, these discussions seemed easier when an alternate option lie within reach.

Institutional completion agendas and retention plans often challenge Advisors to think critically about alternative pathways available to struggling students. Where a student’s plan to transfer to a four-year college begins to crumble, an Associate of Applied Science degree may present a viable option for career options. A developmental education student’s bumpy path may present an opportunity for a certificate on which a degree can be built later on. Countless articulation agreements can open doors that may be the perfect for some students, but a recipe for disaster for others. When community colleges fail to foster success in students’ lives, the doors for future education begin to close. The pressure to retain students and ensure they leave with a credential is profound within this type of setting.

Community college advising requires an exceptionally high level of compassion, coupled with a whole lot of grit. As underprepared students embark on their educational journeys, the learning curve can be steep, the stakes high. When barriers such as grade point average, past criminal history, lack of family support, and financial strain appear, they often appear in a profound way for a community college student. Without a complete understanding of the resources available to them, the Advising office often becomes the primary location of refuge. Students remember the person who assisted them at the front door, and equate college Advisors to the guidance counselors who may have assisted in the distant past.

Good Advisors dissect the student experience for clues, and can skillfully deconstruct a student’s struggles or triumphs and weave together carefully tailored plans of action. The Advisor brain balances active listening while simultaneously connecting the story to appropriate campus resources, weighing options, and thinking within the context of the college’s complex policies and curriculum. For the student, the Advisor is an educational equivalent of Grand Central Station; he or she is the sounding board where all the facets of an overwhelming college experience intersect and branch out.

Breaking the Advising Burnout Cycle

Given the heavy lifting involved in academic advising at a community college, one of my biggest challenges is keeping morale high and motivation strong among the Advisors I supervise. Their days are often repetitive, structured, and demanding. Not surprisingly, a college’s priorities and focus on outputs like enrollment, retention, and persistence reinforce the belief that Advisors should simply see as many students as possible. As a result, the field has become known by many as a high burnout area within many Student Affairs divisions. Keeping advising teams motivated requires a commitment to diversification of job tasks, which is often counterintuitive to the idea that Advisors should be ready at all times should a student walk in the door.

In my experiences both as an Advisor and an administrator in this student services area, I have found that breaking down the walls around advising helps to lessen workload, form partnerships, and increase visibility on campus. During low student traffic periods in my current office, Advisors can often be found staffing an outdoor table or approaching students about their plans for attending next semester. These interactions break the cardinal rule regarding Advisor coverage by taking Advisors out of the office. However, this has not only helped students connect with Advisors, but helped the team to shake up their routine and feel more connected to the campus community. Likewise, these outreach efforts are usually followed by a surge in student traffic as individuals who conversed with Advisors in a casual setting often stop by to continue the dialogue or utilize the department for additional support. A proactive and targeted stroll around campus can almost always reach more students than a team of Advisors waiting for students to walk through the door. As an administrator, I just needed to think differently about what an advising team can do, and redefine the expectations surrounding how we connect with our students.

By nature, many Advisors are lifelong learners who crave not only information but also a clear understanding of how systems, processes, and curricula impact the way students move throughout institutions. They are often the ultimate student advocates in the community college setting, and show keen awareness about barriers, bottlenecks, and complexities that create stumbling blocks for students. Because of this, advising departments rely heavily on strong partnerships and open flows of communication surrounding processes at the college. For example, our team has established a mutually beneficial relationship with our campus Financial Aid department. This partnership has created areas for cross-training among both teams, as well as helped Academic Advisors contextualize how student situations can have both academic and financial consequences. A strong understanding of Financial Aid requirements regarding completion and progress frames a more holistic approach when working with students, and helps Advisors provide guidance from a variety of perspectives.

As mentioned early on, Advisors draw upon a large knowledge base in order to respond to the needs of each individual student while maintaining an understanding of overall student behavior patterns. While any Advisor training program should include a heavy amount of informational material, the introduction of related content can enrich the required knowledge base as well. For example, advising team staff meetings can include conversations about diversity, poverty, unemployment, religion, cultural competency, counseling, workforce trends, safety…the list goes on. Nearly any topic relating to human behavior can add depth and dimension to an Advisor’s toolkit if a culture of learning is established early on among an advising team. This steady stream of information, training, and learning continually refreshes the work of an Advisor, and provides a variety of lenses through which to view individual student situations and the college experience.

While advising remains a high burnout area within many college settings, the field of community college Advising provides an excellent training ground from which other experiences can take root. Few other areas within student services foster such a broad foundation and complex understanding of the college’s inner workings, and an Advisor is likely to bring this wealth of expertise to other levels or areas of the institution.

Parting Thoughts

Whether you read this article from the vantage point of an Advisor, supervisor, faculty member, or professional from an area outside of academic advising, I hope that you can now see the role of the Academic Advisor with renewed appreciation – especially within the community college setting. These teams build safety nets around students and think on their feet to help students navigate the complexities of the college environment. They are open to partnering with you, other colleagues, and can serve as dedicated advocates for change within an institution. Advisors see what others may not when it comes to student barriers, and witness the student experience, good and bad, firsthand. With them, they carry an astounding amount of knowledge, talent, and problem-solving abilities.

Perhaps I am biased given my experiences earning my professional stripes through academic advising. However, I owe it to those with whom I share this unique perspective to give the field a shout out and highlight who I believe to be the rock stars of higher education. I hope that you will pass this shout out along the next time you pass a frazzled Advisor in the hallway, send a stressed out student to the advising office when other referral options don’t seem quite right, or pass by a long queue of students just before the start of the semester. Behind these interactions are your college’s unsung heroes who carry a unique mix of information and care in an effort to help students find their way.

Discussion Questions

  1. What is the perception of academic advising at your campus? How are Advisors viewed by various members of the campus community, such as high-level administrators, faculty, students, and staff?
  2. From your vantage point, what should be the role of a community college Academic Advisor?
  3. Academic Advisors are often challenged to improve the college’s retention rates, predict success barriers, and improve enrollment numbers. Do you think Advisors should be at the center of these initiatives, and what other areas from within the community college can advising centers partner to meet these demands?

About the Author

Marisa Vernon serves as the Assistant Director in the Center for Advising, Support and Exploration at Columbus State Community College in Columbus, Ohio, where she leads a large team of professional Academic Advisors and serves as the project co-manager for the College’s intergrated student services initiative. Marisa has seven years of higher education administrative experience at open enrollment institutions specializing in two- and four-year degree programs and transfer preparation. Before joining Columbus State Community College, she was the Assistant Director for First Year Experience at Kent State University’s Stark Campus in North Canton, Ohio, and has also worked at the Northeast Ohio Council on Higher Education.

Please e-mail inquiries to Marisa Vernon.


The ideas expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the Developments editorial board or those of ACPA members or the ACPA Governing Board, Leadership, or International Office Staff.

The Cheating Epidemic: Reducing Academically Dishonest Behaviors Amongst College Students

Overview: Student Cheating in Higher Education

In the field of higher education there are countless ethical issues that student affairs professionals encounter on a daily basis. Of these issues, student academic dishonesty is one of the most prevalent that student affairs professionals must address. While academic dishonesty can take many forms—from using a “cheat sheet” on an exam to plagiarizing an entire research paper—cheating is detrimental not only to the student who engages in the behavior, but to the field of higher education as a whole. Higher education institutions assist in students’ development in various areas, including ethical development and understanding of rigorous academic and research standards. As student cheating is at odds with this mission it is imperative that student affairs professionals make efforts to reduce the rate of cheating behaviors occurring at their institutions. To do so effectively, those working in the field must not only understand the prevalence of academic dishonesty within college settings, but also the various reasons why students choose to cheat. It is through the utilization of this knowledge that student affairs professionals can employ strategies to reduce cheating behaviors, thus fostering student development and preparing college students to become ethical and responsible members of society.

While an abundance of research has examined the prevalence of cheating in higher education, studies differ in their projection as to how much college students actually engage in cheating.  According to Wotring (2007), “[m]any studies classify students as cheaters if they acknowledge having ever cheated at any time, in any way, during their college studies,” and, based on this definition, 47.2% to 70% of college students cheat (para. 4). In a study conducted by Newstead, Franklin-Stokes, and Armstead (1996), the authors found that over half of all undergraduate students cheat, while research done by Nonis and Swift (2001) indicated that between 30% and 96% of college students engage in this behavior.

Students with low self-esteem and little confidence in their academic abilities are more likely to cheat than those who are highly confident (Moeck, 2002). Moreover, scholars have suggested that underclassmen and business majors are more likely to cheat than their peers (Gerdeman, 2000). Though several researchers have examined whether sex plays a role in cheating behavior, and some studies have indeed suggested that male college students cheat more than female students, others have not found evidence to support this possibility (Gerdeman, 2000; Jordan, 2001; Wotring, 2007). Inconsistency also exists regarding whether age plays a significant role in regards to cheating tendencies: while many studies suggest that younger students may be more likely to engage in academically dishonest behaviors than older students, at least one study has been conducted in which the opposite was found (Jordan, 2001). Interestingly, community college students may be less likely to cheat than their counterparts at four-year institutions (Wotring, 2007). It is possible that the shorter time period that students typically spend at community colleges compared to four-year institutions may at least partially impact cheating behaviors (Wotring, 2007).

Motivations for Cheating

It is important for student affairs professionals to understand why students choose to engage in cheating behaviors in the first place; for example, advances in technology have simply made it easier for students to plagiarize or purchase prewritten papers or exchange answers during exams through the use of cell phones (Boehm, Justice, & Weeks; 2009; Hensley, 2013; Moeck, 2002). For some students, the appeal of being able to secure readily available work may be too good to pass up. Moreover, the pressure to achieve high grades also serves as a motivating factor for students to cheat. Moeck (2002) explained that many students may feel the need to obtain high grades to satisfy family members or to secure beneficial opportunities for themselves, and cheating may be viewed as a way to ensure that these grades are achieved. Relatedly, students with low GPAs tend to cheat more than those with high GPAs (Gerdeman, 2000; Hensley, 2013; Moeck, 2002; Wotring, 2007). Students with low GPAs may desire to achieve academically but do not understand how to do so in a beneficial and appropriate way, thus resulting in cheating.

The inability for some students to manage their time effectively is another reason that cheating happens in college (Hensley, 2013). Many students procrastinate to the point that cheating may seem necessary in order to complete course assignments before deadlines. Others juggle so many obligations and responsibilities that the amount of time that they designate to spend on coursework does not allow them to give their work the attention it needs, and cheating allows them to get their work accomplished quicker. Of course, for students who perceive a class or assignment to be boring or unnecessary, cheating can allow them to invest relatively little effort into completing assignments (Gerdeman, 2000; Hensley, 2013). If students perceive professors as being uninterested in the courses they teach, this too increases the likelihood that cheating is utilized (Gerdeman, 2000).

An important point that must be recognized when discussing cheating in higher education is that many students enter college in order to secure degrees that they believe will lead them to secure satisfactory employment upon graduating, rather than to gain a well-rounded education (Moeck, 2002). Cheating may be viewed as a reasonable way to obtain this goal, and little importance may be placed on how new learning is gained throughout college.

It is also worth noting that peer perceptions of cheating play a large role in whether a student chooses to cheat or not. Gerdeman (2000) stated that “studies have consistently indicated that students are more likely to cheat if they observe other students cheating or if they perceive that cheating is commonplace or acceptable among peers” (p. 3). Furthermore, Jordan (2001) found that college students largely do not believe that cheating is acceptable. Student affairs professionals must keep in mind the power of peer opinions when developing initiatives that aim to reduce this behavior.

Preventing Student Cheating

Student affairs professionals can utilize various strategies in their daily practice to help reduce student cheating and promote academic honesty. Boehm et al. (2009) stated that a preventative approach to dealing with cheating is likely more effective than a punitive one. The authors explained that one of the best ways for student affairs professionals to combat student cheating is by providing faculty with training on academic honesty, as variation can exist among professors as to what practices qualify as cheating or are worthy of punishment (Boem et al., 2009). Consistent messaging regarding what constitutes cheating can allow students to recognize that their institution holistically values honesty.

While it may seem intuitive that ensuring students know their college’s policy regarding academic honesty is useful to reducing cheating, it is important that student affairs professionals communicate the policy to students through a variety of channels (Boehm et al., 2009; Gerdeman, 2000). Aside from including academic dishonesty policies in the student handbook and on the college’s website, student affairs professionals should encourage all faculty members to incorporate policies in their syllabi and talk with students about its significance. This policy should be broadcast to students throughout their college years, with emphasis of its importance first being made to new students during orientation programs (Hensley, 2013; Jordan, 2001). Boehm et al. (2009) also stated that it can be useful to have students actively contribute to the development of their institution’s academic honesty policy, as students will likely have a vested interest in adhering to rules that they helped create. As students’ perceptions of how their peers view cheating is a significant factor that contributes to their own decisions to cheat or not, this recommendation is worthy of considerable attention. Moreover, faculty and staff should work together to foster a campus climate that is conducive to discussion about the school’s academic honesty policy so students feel comfortable asking questions about it (Moeck, 2002).

Student affairs professionals should assist faculty members in providing clear examples of what constitutes cheating so students have a thorough understanding as to which practices are permissible and which are not (Boehm et al., 2009; Moeck, 2002; Wotring, 2007). Colleges serve a wide array of individuals, and first-generation college students, international students, or those from diverse racial and ethnic groups may not understand what academic honesty entails or may define cheating in dissimilar ways (Moeck, 2002). For those working in community colleges, institutions that typically “serve a student body of greater diversity” than four-year colleges, this point is particularly salient and must be addressed (Wotring, 2007, para. 3).

It is important that student affairs professionals make students aware of the various academic support services provided by their institutions (Hensley, 2013). Emphasizing the benefits associated with utilizing tutoring, academic coaching, or other services that aim to help students succeed can help students recognize that there are various alternatives to cheating in order to obtain good grades. By highlighting the success stories of students who have utilized academic support services in the past, student affairs professionals can normalize the process of seeking help when needed for first-year students or those who may be less inclined to seek assistance. Students should understand that effort rather than perfection is valued more in higher education and connect effort with the use of academic resources (Hensley, 2013). Students should also recognize that they are capable of achieving the grades that they desire through hard work and determination, and it is thus important that student affairs professionals help students develop confidence in their abilities (Hensley, 2013).

Lastly, both faculty members and student affairs professionals should work to help support students in dealing with the stressors that they face as they move forward in their college careers by providing them with information on relevant services, including counseling (Moeck, 2002). As many college students will face the pressure of juggling classes, extracurricular activities, part-time or full-time work, and family obligations, those working in higher education must teach students effective methods for dealing with stress and emphasize that cheating is not a simple way to maintain a successful academic record in the midst of a hectic semester or when taking a time-consuming course (Hensley, 2013).


While temptations to cheat during college will always exist, and will likely intensify as emerging technology further simplifies the process and the pressure on college students to obtain high grades persists, it is vital that student affairs professionals work to reduce the rates that students engage in academically dishonest behaviors. Through collaboration with faculty members and implementation of campus-wide initiatives, student affairs professionals can relay to students the seriousness and value associated with academic honesty. In doing so, they can enrich the experience that students have while attending college and indirectly illustrate how ethical behavior is an important component to a successful life.

Discussion Questions

  1. What role does campus climate play in either enticing or discouraging academically dishonest behaviors amongst college students?
  2. How can higher education institutions uphold policies against academic dishonesty while respecting diversity and differing opinions as to what constitutes cheating?


Boehm, P., Justice, M., & Weeks, S. (2009). Promoting academic integrity in higher education. The Community College Enterprise, 13(1), 45-61.

Gerdeman, R. D. (2000). Academic dishonesty and the community college. ERIC Digest, #ED447840.

Hensley, L. (2013). To cheat or not to cheat: A review with implications for practice. The Community College Enterprise, 19(2), 22-34.

Jordan, A. (2001). College student cheating: The role of motivation, perceived norms, attitudes, and knowledge of institutional policy. Ethics & Behavior, 11(3), 233-247.

Moeck, P. (2002). Academic dishonesty: Cheating among community college students. Community College Journal of Research and Practice, 26(6), 479-491.

Newstead, S. E., Franklin-Stokes, A. & Armstead, D. (1996). Individual differences in student cheating. Educational Psychology, 88(2), 229-241.

Nonis, S. & Swift, C. (2001). An examination of the relationship between academic dishonesty and workplace dishonesty: A multi campus investigation. Journal of Education for Business77(2), 69-77.

Wotring, K. (2007). Cheating in the community college: Generational differences among students and implications for faculty. Inquiry, 12(1), 5-13.

About the Author

Alison Andrade earned a Bachelor of Science in Sociology from Fitchburg State University in May 2013 and a Master of Education in Student Affairs Counseling from Bridgewater State University in May 2015. During graduate school Alison served as a Graduate Assistant in Bridgewater State University’s Academic Achievement Center, as well as an intern in Bristol Community College’s Office of Disability Services. Alison is currently searching for a position in academic advising and hopes to work extensively with first-year students and those on academic probation.

Please e-mail inquiries to Alison Andrade.


The ideas expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the Developments editorial board or those of ACPA members or the ACPA Governing Board, Leadership, or International Office Staff.

Digital Storytelling in Graduate Curricula: Innovation in Student Affairs Preparatory Programs


Student affairs professionals must be able to engage with technology in their pedagogy and practice (Council for the Advancement of Standards in Higher Education [CAS], 2012; ACPA & NASPA, 2010). Faculty in student affairs graduate preparatory programs should therefore provide graduate students with knowledge, perspectives, and skills to identify and utilize appropriate technology and media resources for use in their daily practice. Digital storytelling is a pedagogical tool that can not only develop graduate students’ technological competence, but also facilitate greater understanding of student development and learning.

Digital stories are short vignettes that combine storytelling with multimedia (Rossiter & Garcia, 2010). Digital stories require students to discover and compile unique narratives using voice, image, and/or music through innovative technology (Gazarian, 2010). According to Barrett (2006), digital storytelling facilitates student engagement, reflection, project-based learning, and effective integration of technology into instruction. Digital storytelling is a social pedagogy in that it has the potential to create community and facilitate dialogue (Bass & Elmendorf, 2007). It is a powerful tool for practitioner-scholars because digital stories have the potential to change the ways others do their work (Meadows, 2003). In graduate education, digital stories enable students to understand and apply classroom knowledge in a practical manner while also developing their competence with technology.

The purpose of this article is to explore the utility of digital storytelling in graduate curricula through the experiences of one graduate preparatory program. Through this assignment, students developed technological competence, enhanced their understanding of theory and its application to practice, and fostered partnerships with student affairs professionals. This article describes the content of the course and digital story assignment, as well as lessons learned from both student and instructor perspectives.


The Higher Education program at The University of Alabama (UA) offers MA, Ed.D, and Ph.D programs for students interested in developing their knowledge and understanding of higher education. The program promotes professional development and critical thinking skills to help students identify and address problems at the institutional level as well as the field of higher education as a whole, and implement effective policies and practices based on sound research and educational theory.

Student Development Theory I (SDTI) is a required course in UA’s Higher Education program and is designed to introduce students to various families of student development theories. In fall 2013, Dr. Jason C. Garvey and Louis Shedd co-taught SDTI to help students learn and apply student development theory in their professional practice. Throughout the manuscript, both provide their perspectives and experiences through a unified instructor voice. To supplement the instructors’ perspectives, the manuscript also contains insights from former students who took SDTI in fall 2013. The student perspective is provided by Elizabeth McDonald, Kelsey Taylor, and John Tilley, representing all students’ voices to the best of their abilities.

Assignment Overview

The major assignment for SDTI was Student Reflection through Digital Storytelling. The purpose of this assignment was to learn the stories of a particular group of students and then generate student development theories grounded in these stories. SDTI students were placed in groups of two or three, and each group selected a population of students who shared similar qualities with each other, like a social identity (e.g., race or religion) or an experience (e.g., Honors College or international students). There were five components to this assignment: group contract and rubric, data collection, theory development, theory critique, and digital story. Each assigned group developed a contract and rubric that outlined general guidelines for their assignment collaboration. Groups developed a list of interview questions based upon experience and theoretical foundations learned in SDTI, and each member was required to interview at least two students who fit into the population they chose. In addition, group members each attended and observed at least one social event or organization meeting that targeted members of their chosen group.

Once students completed their interviews, each group developed a summary of information they observed and began to develop an emerging theory of development for their student population. Next, groups organized their themes into a core development story, using data to explain and support the themes they presented. Groups then considered the similarities and differences between their emerging theory and student development theories studied in class.

Groups were required to present their findings in digital story format in an interactive and creative manner. Each story was approximately 5-7 minutes and included multimedia such as video clips, images, and audio files. The project culminated in a public viewing and discussion of all digital stories, characteristic of academic and professional conferences. Several key stakeholders at UA attended the digital story premiere event, including College of Education faculty and students, Division of Student Affairs staff, interviewees, and students’ supervisors and colleagues.

Students were evaluated using a rubric across nine dimensions: achieved learning outcomes, performed data collection, learned students’ stories, demonstrated understanding of content, developed complexity of thought and creativity, generated student development theory, achieved depth of critical analysis, created digital story, and utilized teamwork. Portions of the syllabus were adopted from the Association of American Colleges and Universities VALUE Rubrics (2013) and from Dr. John Dugan (2009) at Loyola University in Chicago.

Findings and Lessons Learned

Both the students and instructors learned a great deal from the digital story assignment experience. The following section provides an overview of important lessons learned, each from a unique perspective.

Student Perspective

Students agreed that the digital story assignment helped them to delve into existing student development theories and understand how these theories apply to students on a college campus. By interviewing students on campus and comparing findings with existing student development theories, SDTI students were able to make connections between the unique experiences of their chosen student populations and the developmental trajectories outlined in existing theories. Throughout her experience, Elizabeth McDonald recalled feeling overwhelmed at the number of theories to utilize, but found clarity in brainstorming sessions with her group members and listening to participants’ narratives. Ultimately, the assignment helped breathe life into the theories learned in class and helped students reflect on ways they might use their knowledge of theory to facilitate student development in their practice.

Although a goal of the assignment was to strengthen the partnership between the Higher Education program and the Division of Student Affairs, some groups utilized departments in academic affairs or reached out to student organizations via informal networks to identify students to interview, which translated into a broader campus audience at the digital story premiere event. Students noted that the project helped them better understand classmates’ professional roles on campus. They also became more aware of campus resources and how students can utilize them more effectively. For example, throughout the assignment John Tilley learned more about Veteran and Military Affairs and the Crimson Secular Student Alliance as resources for students. In general, students were less concerned with larger goal of interdepartmental collaboration and more concerned with navigating the theory and technology pieces of the assignment.

Based on student feedback, the most difficult part of the assignment involved technological aspects of the digital stories. A majority of the class only had experience with Prezi and Microsoft PowerPoint and little experience with more advanced software. Kelsey Taylor recalled feeling slightly overwhelmed with Final Cut X, but utilized the Sanford Media Center (SMC) employees for guidance. Other students received help from staff at the SMC and they were able to quickly learn how to better use applications such as iMovie and Final Cut X. Upon completing the assignment, students felt that the required technology components were difficult but effective tools for better understanding student development theories.

Instructor Perspective

From the instructors’ perspectives, the three main objectives for the assignment were to develop technological competency, enhance students’ understanding of student development theory, and facilitate stronger partnerships with the Division of Student Affairs. Neither instructor had a strong understanding of digital media production, which presented a number of challenges. The most notable challenges included creating a realistic set of assignment requirements and goals, clearly articulating requirements and expectations of the assignment, and being prepared to address questions and concerns in an informed and helpful manner. Fortunately, the instructors were able to partner with the Director of the SMC to expand their knowledge of digital storytelling, learn about resources at the university for students, create realistic expectations for students, and develop a general timeframe for how long the different aspects of the assignment might take. Following advice from the SMC Director and reflecting upon prior experiences, the instructors embedded the digital story assignment with multiple, modular components to provide a framework for timeliness and frequent feedback.

Technological skills were the main hindrance to students’ successes throughout the assignment. Few students had any multimedia experience and although the instructors actively tried placing at least one student with multimedia experience in each group, some students felt overwhelmed with the technology components. Although the technological aspects of the assignment were difficult, the instructors felt that it was important to challenge students to broaden their multimedia skills in order to prepare them for entry-level jobs in student affairs and higher education. The instructors envisioned these skills as not only beneficial to their job candidacy, but as an increasingly imperative skill for all student affairs practitioners.

Additionally, students had difficulty translating components of a standard research assignment into a 5-7 minute digital story. The digital story assignment was significantly different than the types of assignments to which the students were accustomed. For first-year master’s students, the scope and depth of the assignment was much greater than what they had experienced as undergraduates but they were enthused with the potential creativity of the project. Doctoral students struggled with understanding how the digital story could enhance their academic writing and were therefore reluctant to pursue a final project that did not adhere to the typical doctoral-level course research assignment for the program.

In particular, students had trouble beginning the assignment, understanding the role and expectations of traditional research, and envisioning the final product. At the beginning of the semester, some groups were slow to make serious efforts on the assignment due to their unfamiliarity with creating a digital story and a mild sense of intimidation. Many of the students’ questions and concerns were addressed by an in-class presentation from the SMC Director and examples of digital stories shared by the instructors. However, students still felt overwhelmed by the projected time required to create and edit the video. As students moved on to the editing phase of the digital story, groups struggled to find a compelling way to visually represent the information outside of their interview portions, particularly their emerging theory, within the video. The instructors attempted to assist groups during class discussions, but ultimately the groups who utilized the SMC lab and staff found greater success than groups that chose to work outside of the SMC lab.

Pedagogically, the instructors recognized the opportunity for the digital story assignment to have impact on the graduate students and the campus community beyond the SDTI classroom experience. As such, they created a movie premiere night to invite College of Education faculty and staff from the Division of Student Affairs, including students’ supervisors and senior administrators. The movie premiere opened new opportunities for collaborations with the Division of Student Affairs and the Higher Education program. Sharing intimate undergraduate student narratives facilitated an openness and commonality between movie premiere attendees and the graduate student creators. In creating the digital stories, students became more aware of the processes and complexity of student development. Upon viewing the digital stories, attendees became intrinsically connected to the digital story participants and creators. The narratives also enabled practitioners to view student learning and development from a unique vantage point, possibly shifting perceptions on their collective work in student affairs.


From student and instructor perspectives, the digital story assignment was an innovative and pedagogically interesting approach to learning student development theory. Much of the assignment directly addressed both CAS (2012) standards for Masters-Level Student Affairs Professional Preparation Programs and the ACPA & NASPA (2010) Student Learning and Development professional competencies. By demonstrating the utility of digital storytelling, the instructors provided graduate students with additional technological skills to design and implement unique tools in their future professional practice in an applied and contextualized way (ACPA & NASPA, 2010).

CAS (2012) standards and ACPA & NASPA (2010) professional competencies encourage interaction with student affairs functional areas in order to gain an understanding of institutional cultures and develop effective practice. Through both the digital story interviews and public movie premiere, the digital story assignment actively facilitated partnerships with student affairs professionals on campus. Bass and Elmendorf (2007) describe digital storytelling as a social pedagogy that builds community. Students sharing their digital story narratives initiated a “process of bonding and cross-cultural alliance” (Benmayor, 2008, p. 199) between Division of Student Affairs staff, faculty, graduate students, and undergraduate students. The audiovisual narratives facilitated an empowering and relatable space whereby all attendees felt affirmed and connected to the social realities of undergraduate student experiences. Digital storytelling audiences are viewed not only as viewers but also as learners who can interact and shape the narrative and creative space (Dorner, Grimm, & Abawi, 2002). In their essence, digital stories spark creativity and innovations with practice (Meadows, 2003), thereby potentially impacting the cultural perceptions of divisional staff.

It is critical for future student affairs practitioners to be competent and confident with multimedia technology for their work in promoting student learning and development. Digital storytelling is a unique approach that not only enhances students’ learning and development, but also helps foster an appreciation for technology among student affairs practitioners.

Discussion Questions

  1. How can faculty best use digital storytelling to promote effective professional practice among graduate students?
  2. In what ways can digital storytelling be used to facilitate graduate student learning and development outside of the classroom context?
  3. In what other ways might digital storytelling be used to facilitate partnerships between academic departments and student affairs departments, or between multiple student affairs departments?
  4. How might digital storytelling be used in student affairs beyond the realm of graduate student development?


ACPA: College Student Educators International & NASPA: Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education (2010). Professional competency areas for student affairs practitioners. Retrieved from

Association of American Colleges and Universities. (2013). VALUE: Valid Assessment of Learning in Undergraduate Education. Retrieved from

Barrett, H. (2006). Researching and evaluating digital storytelling as a deep learning tool. In C. Crawford, et al. (Eds.), Proceedings of Society for Information Technology and Teacher Education International Conference 2006 (pp. 647–654). Chesapeake, VA: AACE.

Bass, R., & Elmendorf, H. (2007). Social pedagogies framework. Retrieved from…

Benmayor, R. (2008). Digital storytelling as a signature pedagogy for the new humanities. Arts and Humanities in Higher Education, 7, 188-204.

Council for the Advancement of Standards in Higher Education (2012). CAS professional standards for higher education (8th ed.). Washington, DC: Author.

Dorner, R., Grimm, P., & Abawi, D. (2002). Synergies between interactive training simulations and digital storytelling: A component-based framework. Computers & Graphics, 26, 45-55.

Dugan, J. (2009). ELPS 433 (001): Student Development in Higher Education. Retrieved from

Gazarian, P. K. (2010). Digital stories: Incorporating narrative pedagogy. Journal of Nursing Education, 49(5), 287-290.

Meadows, D. (2003). Digital storytelling; Research-based practice in new media. Visual Communication, 2, 189-193.

Rossiter, M., & Garcia, P. A. (2010). Digital storytelling: A new player on the narrative field. In M. Rossiter & C. Clark (Eds.), New directions for adult and continuing education: Narrative perspectives on adult education. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

About the Authors

Dr. Jason C. Garvey is an Assistant Professor of Higher Education in the Department of Educational Leadership, Policy, and Technology Studies at The University of Alabama. Jay’s research examines the experiences of diverse individuals in higher education and student affairs primarily through the use of quantitative methodologies, with specific focus on LGBTQ students, faculty, and alumni. Jay’s teaching philosophy emphasizes social justice reflection and action through relationship development and student self-discovery, utilizing technology and assessment purposefully and innovatively. He has taught both graduate and undergraduate courses in student development theory, assessment and evaluation, counseling, research methods, diversity and social justice, and student affairs, among others. Jay’s national service is primarily within ACPA: College Student Educators International where he served as Director of Education for the Standing Committee for LGBT Awareness and is on the Commission for Professional Preparation Directorate.

Louis Shedd is a Ph.D. student in the Higher Education program at The University of Alabama. He serves as a Research Associate for The University of Alabama’s Education Policy Center.

Elizabeth McDonald is a Graduate Community Director in Housing and Residential Communities at The University of Alabama. She is a second year master’s student in The University of Alabama’s Higher Education program.

Kelsey Taylor is a Graduate Community Director in Housing and Residential Communities at The University of Alabama. She is a second year master’s student in The University of Alabama’s Higher Education program.

John Tilley is a Community Director at Clemson University. He is a recent graduate of The University of Alabama’s Higher Education master’s program.

Please e-mail inquiries to Jason C. Garvey.


The ideas expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the Developments editorial board or those of ACPA members or the ACPA Governing Board, Leadership, or International Office Staff.

Challenging Straight White College Men (STR8WCM) to Develop Positive Social Justice Advocacy

In recognition of the recent 30th anniversary of the Standing Committee on Men & Masculinities (SCMM), the SCMM has launched a series exploring the concept of intersectionality as it relates to collegiate men.  Contributing authors will explore how dimensions of race, religion, gender, and other social identities converge and shape the experiences of college men and how higher education professionals can best assist these students. 

Where Are All the White Men?

The image of the White man who displays anger, entitlement, and hatred towards individuals who differ in gender, race, or sexual orientation seems ubiquitous in media and society (Kimmel, 2013).  Even in college, men from majority backgrounds frequently express their frustration with diversity or social justice efforts they say exclude them (DiAngelo & Sensoy, 2014; Roper, 2004).  The perspective that most White college men are apathetic to efforts that foster equality or social justice is well established.  To offer another perspective, this paper explores the productive ways in which White college men articulate their engagement in and responsibility for positive social justice action.

Frequently, White men at predominately White institutions come from mostly White schools and neighborhoods, in which adults have failed to challenge them to discuss what it means to be privileged (Banks, 2009).  In college, the situation often remains unchanged; faculty and student affairs professionals with privileged identities have largely left the diversity education of majority students to people of color, White women, and/or members of the LGBT community.  Unless challenged effectively during college, heterosexual White men may leave college no more adept at functioning in a diverse world than when they entered.  College educators, especially those who identify as heterosexual White men, must understand their responsibility to better engage male college students from privileged groups to see themselves as a part of diversity work and social justice education (Cabrera, 2012).

Student affairs educators, including the authors of this article, have tried different ways to engage heterosexual White college men in diversity programs and social justice education.  One method is to encourage heterosexual White college men to explore what Abes, Jones, and McEwen (2007) called multiple models of identity development.  Specifically, men should consider how race, gender, and sexual orientation intersect and shape identity in the college context.  Men should also be encouraged to interrogate and articulate their privileges based on race, gender, and sexual orientation.  Despite these efforts, student affairs educators continue to lament the lack of heterosexual White college men engaged in diversity work, aside from those who may actively resist it.

If we do not accommodate the social and developmental needs of privileged groups, they may not “make the shift” to acknowledging privilege and working for justice (Goodman, 2011).  Men should also be encouraged to actively explore their role or responsibility in fostering social justice advocacy, or to develop what some scholars describe as social justice ally behaviors (Broido, 2000; Reason, Broido, Davis, & Evans, 2005).  This paper provides a sampling of results from our multi-institutional qualitative research study, at 13 institutions of higher education throughout most regions of the United States, highlighting the voices of heterosexual White college men.  Participants shared tentative thoughts of what diversity and social justice means and what might motivate them to participate differently.

The STR8WCM Project

The Straight White College Men (STR8WCM) Project originated from a simple question that college educators frequently ask: Where are all the straight White men?  Is their absence from diversity or social justice coursework or programs a function of widespread apathy?  Is their absence a form of active avoidance or resistance?  What should college educators do differently to engage and challenge straight White college men to develop a commitment and responsibility for fostering social justice?  And which college educators must assume greatest responsibility for this engagement?

To date, the sample for the STR8WCM Project includes 89 heterosexual White men and an additional 89 students who identify as women, persons of color, or members of the LGBTQIA community to provide counter stories or voices different from those of the men in the study.  The researchers utilized grounded theory methodology (Charmaz, 2006), which is firmly based in a constructivist epistemology.  Focus groups explored the concepts of power, privilege, oppression, social justice engagement, and responsibility, and they co-constructed meaning in interaction with researchers and peers.


A team of four researchers conducted team coding (Wiener, 2007) to identify common themes from participants across all institutions.  Two themes that speak specifically to productive masculinity (Harper & Harris, 2014) of heterosexual White men emerged from the research:  vulnerability and responsibility.  Men who display attitudes and behaviors associated with productive masculinity seek to disrupt sexism, racism, and homophobia in their communities, which contributes to safer and more inclusive campus climates for all students.


Many of the participants discussed their need to be affirmed by friends, showed angst about attending a diversity event by themselves, expressed desire to belong to a supportive peer group, and displayed anxiety about being “called out” as the only heterosexual White male participant in a course or program.  Yet, several participants also expressed the need for connecting more deeply to the topic of diversity.  For example, Jay (all names changed) shared that a deeper understanding was essential to changing ingrained male behaviors:

I think it’s important, when you learn why things are hurtful to other people…or why things were hurtful when they were happening in the past…because then it makes you actually think about it.  Instead of you just saying a word, it doesn’t mean anything to you.  But when you get the reverse side of it, and you can learn about why that hurts someone, then it makes you understand.

In another group, participants shared how people (both people of color and Whites) assumed a sense of White solidarity (DiAngelo & Sensoy, 2014).  In this exchange, Peter and Carl expressed concern about how peers perceive them and the effect of those perceptions on their self-identity.

Carl: I have a friend who came out to me after knowing him for a couple years…. He was afraid, since…he classified me as a jock…to tell me at first, because he thought I would take it the wrong way.

Peter: I kind of had the same situation in high school.  A friend…came out to me.  [Well,] he didn’t really come out to me, but he came out to my girlfriend and [said], “Don’t [say anything].”[ He…didn’t feel comfortable telling me, and he didn’t want me to judge him.

This opened up a conversation about why, as a group, White heterosexual men are perceived as less open and more reticent to support people from diverse backgrounds.  The men seemed genuinely hurt that they would be perceived as racist or homophobic until proven otherwise.  Rather than seeking to distance themselves from each other, they sought connection through conversation.


Several participants sensed their responsibility in fostering social justice but were unsure about how to proceed.  Blake discussed how choosing teaching as a profession helped him learn more about the need to be a positive role model:

I’m trying to look for what to say…but just going into education, you have to respect everyone’s backgrounds, and I’m a lot more tolerant [and] humble about that.  I [have made offensive] jokes…like everyone else growing up, but now looking back…I just [think] that was stupid.

When he entered college, Blake was not sure how to interrupt unacceptable peer behaviors like joking and feared his peers ostracizing him if he expressed a different opinion.  However, throughout his college career, he learned the importance of humbling himself and not reinforcing stereotypes through active participation or silent acceptance of others’ behaviors.  Sense of responsibility also emerged from several other focus group conversations:

Barney: I think that, absolutely, there’s a responsibility.  It begins with even just recognizing that these things are happening every day.  I think it also begins with seeing racism or sexism, just realizing that it exists…[and] calling it out when you see it, just if someone is saying something racist, just let them know that, “Hey, that is hurtful.”

Jim: I feel like we’re focusing a lot on race here, or forgetting about sexuality… I’d love to hear what you guys have to say about it.

An unscripted conversation about sexism, racism, and homophobia followed.  Focus group participants expressed how much they valued having these conversations in small groups with other White men, and how they wished they had those opportunities more frequently.

For Jay, these conversations occurred in a gender studies course.  He expressed how his thoughts on gender changed because of the class:

[I] share[d] in class one of my experiences walking home from a social gathering.  I was just walking down a street and there was this woman, 100 to 200 feet in front of me.  [And] I could see far in the distance…a single male approaching.  And…right before she was about to cross his path, she angled off to cross away to avoid him.  So…I never thought in my mind people would actually do that to actually avoid possibly being raped. Because it was like 1:30 in the morning.

When Jay met the woman at a traffic light, he asked her whether she needed someone to walk with her.  She looked at him as if not sure she could trust him, and replied, “No.”  Taking the class helped Jay develop a sense of responsibility that emerged from his growing awareness and considering the experiences of others—in this case, women on campus.  Jay is working to understand how his approach may be viewed as paternalistic, but sought greater consultation with his peers about how to enact his responsibility.

Implications for Student Affairs Practice

Engaging STR8WCM is Men’s Work

Focus groups conducted by researchers who identified as White, heterosexual men seemed a natural setting for participants to be open and vulnerable about the topic of social justice and diversity.  The connection deepened when focus group mediators were open and empathetic, and participants responded favorably and honestly.  While individuals of any race, gender, or sexual orientation can engage college men in dialogue, the primary responsibility of developing social justice advocacy in straight White men should rest on college educators who identify as members of dominant social groups.  Educators should explore spaces on campus inside and outside of classrooms that allow White college men to explore identity, to interrogate and challenge privilege, and to develop responsibility for acting in solidarity with marginalized peers.  Which men’s spaces on your campus might be appropriate to begin these conversations (e.g., fraternities, single-gender residence halls, athletic teams)?

Compassionate Challenge is Necessary

STR8WCM Project participants are undoubtedly privileged, but they may not feel powerful, indicative of the paradox of masculinity, or the paradox of men’s power (Kimmel, 2013).  Men as a group have power over women and other less dominant social groups.  Participants expressed genuine pain when others considered them racist, sexist, and homophobic.  Some student affairs professionals may not relate to these feelings, and may feel triggered by privileged or potentially ignorant comments White men make.  Still, we should approach men from majority groups with a stance of critical humility and compassion (ECCW, 2012).  If college men have not experienced diversity in the predominately White settings they occupy, they may struggle to understand oppression in any of its forms.  But the STR8WCM Project is beginning to show that heterosexual White college men are ready to begin this discussion and accept responsibility for showing solidarity with marginalized peers on campus and in society.  College educators who belong to dominant groups must answer the call and engage, challenge, and develop more White college men to actively advocate for diversity and social justice.

Discussion Questions

  1. In what ways are you, particularly if you identify as a heterosexual White male, role modeling responsibility for college men to act in solidarity with marginalized groups?
  2. How might meeting the emotional and developmental needs of heterosexual White college men function to reinforce their privilege and/or disrupt it?
  3. How do you, as practitioners, find a stance between harsh judgment (villainizing heterosexual White college men) and excessive empathy (approving of their withdrawal or demands for “safe” spaces) in your social justice education with men who identify with a dominant social group background?  How does your own identity impact your ability, interest, or responsibility in the work?


Abes, E. S., Jones, S. R., & McEwen, M. K. (2007). Reconceptualizing the model of multiple dimensions of identity: The role of meaning-making capacity in the construction of multiple identities. Journal of College Student Development, 48(1), 1-22.

Banks, K. H. (2009). A qualitative investigation of White students’ perceptions of diversity. Journal of Diversity in Higher Education, 2(3), 149-155.

Broido, E. M.  (2000). The development of social justice allies during college: A phenomenological investigation. Journal of College Student Development, 41(3), 3-18.

Cabrera, N. L. (2012). Working through Whiteness: White, male college students challenging racism. Review of Higher Education, 35(3), 375-401.

Capraro, R. L. (2010). Why college men drink: Alcohol, adventure, and the paradox of masculinity. In S. R. Harper & F. Harris III (Eds.), College men and masculinities: Theory, research, and implications for practice (pp. 239-257). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Charmaz, K. (2006). Constructing grounded theory: A practical guide through qualitative analysis. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

DiAngelo, R., & Sensoy, Ö. (2014). Getting slammed: White depictions of cross-racial dialogues as arenas of violence. Race, Ethnicity, & Education, 17(1), 104-128.

European-American Collaborative Challenging Whiteness (ECCW). (2012). White on White: Communicating about race and White privilege with critical humility. Understanding and Dismantling Privilege: The Journal of the White Privilege Conference, 2(1), 1-21.

Goodman, D. J. (2011). Promoting diversity and social justice: Educating people from privileged groups (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Routledge.

Harris III, F., & Harper, S. R. (2014). Beyond bad behaving brothers: Productive performances of masculinities among college fraternity men. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 27(6), 703-723.

Kimmel, M. (2013). Angry White men: American masculinity at the end of an era. New York, NY: Nation Books.

Reason, R. D., Broido, E. M., Davis, T. L., & Evans, N. J. (Eds.). Developing social justice allies. New Directions for Student Services, (110), 17-28. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Roper, L. D. (2004, November/December). Do students support diversity programs? Change, 48-51.

Wiener, C. (2007). Making teams work in conducting grounded theory. In A. Bryant & K. Charmaz, (Eds.), The SAGE handbook of grounded theory (pp. 293-310). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

About the Authors

Victoria Svoboda, Ed.D., is an Assistant Professor of Student Affairs Administration at the University of Wisconsin – La Crosse.  Her research interests include the fluidity within and intersections between class, race, and gender.  She is focused on social class issues and equity/inclusion in higher education.

Please e-mail inquiries to Victoria Svoboda and follow her on Twitter.

Jörg Vianden, Ed.D., is an Associate Professor of Student Affairs Administration at the University of Wisconsin – La Crosse and the principal investigator for the STR8WCM Project.  His research focuses on college men and masculinities, as well as student persistence. 

Please email inquiries to Jörg Vianden and follow him on Twitter.


The ideas expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the Developments editorial board or those of ACPA members or the ACPA Governing Board, Leadership, or International Office Staff.

Out of the Shadows: One Queer Researcher’s Journey

ACPA’s Standing Committee for LGBT Awareness began from a collaborative idea at the 1983 convention. More than 30 years later, SCLGBTA is thriving in its commitment to mobilize members of ACPA – College Student Educators International to build community, empower advocacy, and advance knowledge with people of all genders and sexualities. This Developments series celebrates 30 years of LGBTQ issues and identities in student affairs from three perspectives: administration, research, and association. Each essay explores the history and current status of LGBTQ individuals in higher education, providing insights into current and future advocacy.

In his 1932 book, titled The Sociology of Teaching, Waller offered the following:

“Homosexuality is a deviant, contagious, and dangerous disease that could and should be avoided in the schools by firing teachers who demonstrated homosexual traits including, carriage, mannerisms, voice, speech, etc.” (Waller, as cited in Tierney & Dilley, 1998, p. 51).

The climate of fear offered by Warren was also evident in higher education where the expulsion of students believed to be gay was a commonly adopted practice among colleges and signaled a belief that homosexuality was caused by the influence of those determined to spread its ills. Colleges and universities during this era thus viewed same-sex attraction and, more pointedly, the behaviors accompanying it, as a reflection on the institution as a whole and sought to distance themselves from it (for a comprehensive history see Marine, 2011). Pre-1970’s research on and about queer and trans spectrum people further pathologized their lives (Beeymn & Rankin, 2011; Marine, 2011). Post-1970’s research offered visibility to queer and trans spectrum people on college campuses leading researchers to explore ways to understand their identities and their experiences (Marine, 2011; Renn, 2010; Tierney & Dilley, 1998).

It was within this environment that I found myself, an “out” lesbian, working in higher education in the late 1970’s. Unbeknownst to me at the time, I would be intimately involved in a social justice movement that eventually led me to a research agenda focusing on the experiences of queer and trans spectrum faculty, staff, and students on college campuses. Renn (2010) and Marine (2011) offer more comprehensive reviews of the evolution of research in higher education focusing on gay, lesbian, bisexual, queer, and transgender faculty, staff, and students. I encourage readers interested in this history to read their thorough and thought provoking reviews. I chose to focus this essay on the study of the climate in higher education for queer spectrum and trans spectrum people both as a researcher and a participant.

According to Hill and Grace (2009), the United States academic environment promulgates a dominant heteronormative culture. With its entrenched tendency to replace heteronormativity, fighting back has proven an arduous task requiring the courage and persistence of activist researchers. As one of many advocates and activists in the 1990’s at Penn State fighting for visibility and inclusion, we had worked quietly and consistently to urge the institution to include sexual orientation in its stated nondiscrimination policy. A Task Force was charged by then President Joab Thomas to examine the need for adding sexual orientation in the policy and my task, with Lee Upcraft, Bill Tierney, and Estela Bensimon as mentors, was to provide a study that examined the climate for lesbian, gay, and bisexual faculty, staff, and students at Penn State. The “perfect storm” erupted when at the same time. Then women’s basketball coach Renee Portland publicly offered that one of her three “training rules” include “no lesbians.” As I was then serving as the women’s softball coach, my vocal disapproval of Coach Portland’s remarks led to my dismissal (see the documentary Training Rules). The Task Force project became my dissertation and the impetus for my life-long research.

Campus Climate for Queer Spectrum and Trans Spectrum People – A Summary

Early literature (1980-1999) indicated a lack of tolerance toward queer and trans spectrum members of the academic community. (For a detailed review of this literature please refer to Rankin, et al. 2010). The research documents that queer and trans spectrum people on campus were subjected to physical and psychological harassment, discrimination, and violence, all of which obstructed achievement of personal, educational, and professional goals. Based on my dissertation work and continued interest in these issues on campus, the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force (NGLTF) and Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education (NASPA) provided me with a small grant to conduct the first national Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender (LGBT) campus climate survey in 2003. The results paralleled those of the earlier studies indicating that 33% of LGBT students experienced some form of harassment, with 11% of respondents indicating they had experienced physical violence enacted on the basis of their perceived or actual sexual identity. The overall climate was described by respondents as “homophobic” and many people indicated that they hid their sexual identity or gender identity to avoid discrimination and harassment. Further, only 5% of participants felt that their colleges addressed issues related to sexual and gender identity.

The queer and trans spectrum research since 2003 has exploded. In a search of articles in education journals with lesbian, gay, bisexual, and or transgender content since 2003, over 6,000 references were cited, many of them focusing on the experiences and perceptions of sexual and gender minorities intersecting with other identities (e.g., race, class, spirituality). However, in 2003 only 99 campuses had offices or centers that focused on the issues and concerns of queer and trans spectrum people. In 2010, that number had risen to 160. With the rise in queer and trans spectrum research and concurrent increase in student services, it was time for a follow-up climate assessment.

My Campus Climate Research Journey

In 2010, with support from Campus Pride, I worked with an amazing team of colleagues that resulted in the 2010 State of Higher Education for LGBT People report (Rankin, Blumenfeld, Weber, & Frazer, 2010) Based on the research that underscores the importance of the perception of non-discriminatory environments in achieving positive educational outcomes for students (Aguirre & Messineo, 1997; Flowers & Pascarella, 1999; Whitt, Edison, Pascarella, Terenzini, & Nora, 2001) and to successful personal and professional development of employees (Settles, Cortina, Malley, & Stewart, 2006), the report documents the experiences of nearly 6,000 students, faculty, staff and administrators who identify as queer or trans spectrum at colleges and universities across the United States. The results suggested that queer and trans spectrum students, faculty, and staff experience a climate in higher education that often interferes with their ability to successfully work or learn on campus. One quarter (23%) of queer spectrum staff, faculty, and students reported experiencing harassment (defined as any conduct that has interfered with a person’s ability to work or learn). Almost all participants identified their sexual identity as the basis of the harassment (83%). An even greater percentage of trans spectrum students, faculty, and staff reported experiencing harassment (39%), with 87% identifying their gender identity/expression as the basis for the harassment. Due to this challenging climate, more than half of all faculty, students, and staff hid their sexual identity (43%) or gender identity (63%) to avoid intimidation. The challenging climate had a direct influence on persistence given that one-third of queer-spectrum (33%) and trans-spectrum (38%) students, faculty, and staff have seriously considered leaving their institution. These numbers were significantly higher for queer and trans people of color.

It seems appropriate that my most recent climate assessment was to study the influence of climate on the academic and athletic success of student-athletes. How ironic that the governing body that was silent when I was dismissed for being too vocal about my own “queerness” and the heterosexist environment in sport in 1996 provided a grant, inclusive of questions on sexual identity and gender identity, to study student-athlete experiences. The larger report included an examination of multiple identities and offered significant differences in academic and athletic success for student-athletes based on racial identity, gender identity, sexual identity, divisional status, disability status, and sport (see Rankin et al., 2011). Campus Pride provided a grant to report on the responses of the 401 queer spectrum student-athletes and the 7 trans spectrum student athletes. When examining the academic success of heterosexual student-athletes and queer spectrum student-athletes there were no differences in academic or athletic success. However, when climate is introduced, queer spectrum student-athletes have significantly lower levels of academic success and athletic success than their heterosexual counterparts (Rankin & Merson, 2012).

The intersections of societal climate, campus climate, and the climate in intercollegiate athletics are inextricably tied to my own personal journey. In her analysis of the literature, Renn (2010) called for renewed attention to the selection of thoughtful methods for answering questions about queer spectrum and trans spectrum identities and challenges in substantive ways including the continuation of large-scale studies of campus climate. I am thrilled that the body of knowledge on queer spectrum and trans spectrum is growing both in depth and breadth. I am equally excited that the research on queer and trans spectrum people in academe is continuing and inclusive of the influence of campus climate. For example, Garvey’s 2014 national study on the experiences of queer spectrum and trans spectrum alumnae and Woodford’s 2013 national project examining queer and trans spectrum student success. I am also buoyed by the recent acceptance of queer spectrum and trans spectrum researchers in the higher education profession as evidenced in the Queer Special Interest Group in the American Educational Research Association and the new Queer Scholarship group at the Association for the Study of Higher Education. Our work is no longer in the shadows. Many thanks to those who lit the way. Time to pass the torch.

Discussion Questions

  1. Has your campus conducted a climate assessment inclusive of sexual identity and gender identity questions? If the response is “no”, what are the obstacles to conducting an assessment inclusive of these questions?  If the response is “yes”, what actions were realized (metrically measurable outcome) based on the results of the assessment?
  2. Given the importance of documenting our history, is there an historical account of the queer spectrum and trans spectrum movements on your campus?  If not, what are the challenges to developing an historical time-line of queer and trans spectrum milestone events on your campus?
  3. What actions have you personally taken to ensure that your campus provides a nurturing environment for queer spectrum and trans spectrum students?


Aguirre, A., & Messineo, M. (1997). Racially motivated incidents in higher education: What do they say about the campus climate for minority students? Equity & Excellence in Education, 30(2), 26-30.

Beemyn, G., & Rankin, S. (2011). Lives of Transgender People. New York, NY: Columbia University Press.

Flowers, L., & Pascarella, E. (1999). Cognitive effects of college racial composition on African American students after 3 years of college. Journal of College Student Development, 40, 669-677.

Grace, A. P., & Hill, R. J. (2004). Positioning queer in adult education: Intervening in politics and praxis in North America. Studies in the Education of Adults, 36(2), 167-189.

Marine, S. B. (2011). Stonewall’s legacy: Bisexual, gay, lesbian, and transgender student in higher education. ASHE Higher Education Report, 37(4).

Rankin, S. (2003). Campus Climate for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgendered People: A National Perspective. New York, NY: National Gay and Lesbian Task Force Policy Institute.

Rankin, S., Blumenfeld, W. J., Weber, G. N., & Frazer, S. (2010). State of higher education for LGBT people. Charlotte, NC: Campus Pride.

Rankin, S., & Merson, D. (2012). LGBTQ College Athlete National Report. Charlotte, NC: Campus Pride.

Rankin, S., Merson, D., Sorgen, C., McHale, I., Loya, K., & Oseguera, L. (2011). Student-Athlete Climate Study (SACS) Final Report. University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University.

Renn, K. A. (2010). LGBT and queer research in higher education: The state and status of the field. Educational Researcher, 39(2), 10.

Settles, I. H., Cortina, L. M., Malley, J., & Stewart, A. J. (2006). The climate for women in academic science: The good, the bad, and the changeable. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 30(1), 47-58.

Tierney, W. G., & Dilley, P. (1998). Constructing knowledge: Educational research and gay and lesbian studies. In W. Pinar (Ed.), Queer theory in education (pp. 49-71). Princeton, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Publishing.

Whitt, E. J., Edison, M. I., Pascarella, E. T., Terenzini, P. T., & Nora, A. (2001). Influences on students’ openness to diversity and challenge in the second and third years of college. The Journal of Higher Education, 72(2), 172-204.

About the Author

Dr. Sue Rankin retired from the Pennsylvania State University in 2012 where she most recently served as an Associate Professor of Education and Senior Research Associate in the Center for the Study of Higher Education. Over her 36-year tenure at Penn State, Dr. Rankin has presented and published widely on the intersections of identities and the impact of sexism, genderism, racism and heterosexism in the academy and in intercollegiate athletics. Dr. Rankin’s most recent publications include the 2010 State of Higher Education for LGBT People, The Lives of Transgender People (2011) and the NCAA Student-Athlete Climate Study (2011). In her consulting work, Dr. Rankin has collaborated with over 120 institutions/organizations in implementing climate assessments and developing strategic initiatives. Dr. Rankin is a founding member of the Consortium of Higher Education LGBT Resource Professionals, a network of professionals doing advocacy work for LGBTQ people on college campuses. Dr. Rankin is the recipient of the ACPA 2008 Voice of Inclusion Medallion, an award that recognizes individuals who embody the student affairs values of social justice. In 2013, Dr. Rankin was selected as the ACPA Standing Committee for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Awareness’ Senior Scholar.

Please e-mail inquiries to Sue Rankin.


The ideas expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the Developments editorial board or those of ACPA members or the ACPA Governing Board, Leadership, or International Office Staff.



This column is third in a series about ACPA’s L.A.M.P. (Lead. Amplify. Mobilize. Partner.) strategy for discernment about our work as an association.  I want to talk about  “M”–mobilizing the ACPA community as part of a larger social movement for equity and inclusion for all people.

It is an exciting time to be an ACPA member because we are in a period of significant social upheaval and disruption worldwide—a time that Frederick Douglass called “earnest struggle:”

If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation are men who want crops without plowing up the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters…Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.

We are social justice educators.  Therefore, it is our job to invite students and engage them to learn about injustice.

We use many different methods to facilitate this learning.  I am very energized by the early results of ACPA Video On Demand’s series Confronting the Reality of Racism in the Academy.  More than 17,000 people visited the series in the first 60 days.  In addition to the first recordings at the Saint Louis University campus and Ferguson, the Missouri State Chapter for ACPA has now completed nine segments to continue the work in their community.

Another great opportunity to learn together occurs at our annual convention.  There is nothing more compelling than several thousand ACPA members showing up in one place and “thinking out loud together.”   I can’t wait to see us all in Montréal.  Imagine ACPA in French and English!  If you have not watched the Tampa convention series on ACPA Video On Demand (, I encourage you to do so.  Don’t miss what these extraordinary human beings had to say to us.

In some ways the Tampa Convention was the best of times and the worst of times.  I felt pulled in many directions because sometimes our process of working together is messy.

Our Convention Team did a fantastic job of creating a learning environment in which we intentionally “unpacked” current social upheaval about race, gender identity and trans* identified persons, immigration and undocumented status, navigating religious diversity and accessibility.   We invited Eboo Patel, Jose Antonio Vargas, Stephanie Hammerman, Laverne Cox (she cancelled on-site and appeared by SKYPE) and Michael Sam to replace Laverne’s on-site speech (he cancelled).  We then asked Stephen Quaye and Jamie Washington to replace them both on site and they graciously agreed to do so.

Cancellation by a keynote speaker ten days before Convention is a mountain to overcome.  Cancellation by that speaker’s replacement made a volcano out of that mountain.  We were stressed and worried about filling the slot and some of our members were equally worried about how we filled it.  After vetting a list of trans* identified replacements for Laverne, we ultimately chose Michael Sam.

Some members felt that we did not do the right thing in doing so.  They protested at Convention.  Some members protested their protest.  It is fair to say that the majority of people did not directly engage in either process.  We are still working to understand each of these responses and how we should work more skillfully with one another towards the common goal of asserting human dignity and justice.

Most of our challenges bring us to a place of “both/and” rather than “either/or.”  Our speaker choices were a “both/and” in that I believe that the worldview the speakers brought to us was stellar.  I am grateful to each of them.  And, not everyone agreed with our choices.  Some felt negatively impacted and we grieve that reality while feeling excited about the extraordinary “push/pull” mobilizing force that was present in the stories of the speakers.

Every day since Tampa I have noticed things that were not visible to me before I heard Jose talk about his experience as an undocumented resident.  Every day, I have seen the impact on Muslim members of my local community in ways I have not seen in the past.

I hope we will repeat the good work of inviting people who are leading social and cultural change through different means than associations.

Not long after Tampa, we published an objection to the passage of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in Indiana. We launched a Move On petition that more than 1800 people signed.  Some people felt we were “too radical” in our approach and did not agree with the Association taking the position that we did.  Some people thought we should have boycotted Indiana and we did not.

As I work through each opportunity to talk to members about various actions we take as an Association, I am reminded of Peter Dreier’s question to his students:

What happens when people within the same social movement disagree over strategy, tactics, or goals? When are such differences useful and when do they undermine a movement’s effectiveness? Every movement faces this dilemma.

We have to face that dilemma while refusing to go silent or dormant.  It is still the work of social justice educators to mobilize people toward common good. My hope is that we choose to agree to disagree when we must, yet always remain in solidarity about the movement toward full equity and inclusion for all human beings.  Thank you for your contributions on our campuses and in your communities.

Moving from Serendipity to Intentionality

 Moving from Serendipity to Intentionality

On a Friday night in late April of 1987, during the spring of my sophomore year, I was attending a movie with friends in Brody Hall at Michigan State University (MSU). Back then, the Residence Hall Association screened movies in select lecture halls across campus. We didn’t have Netflix. We didn’t even have cable; just ABC, NBC, CBS, and PBS (if the rabbit ears were adjusted just right).

After the movie, an event happened that changed my life forever.

On my way out of the lecture hall I ran into a friend of mine, Stacy Huffman, from my hometown of Saginaw, MI, who had also been attending the movie. As friends who hadn’t seen each other in a while (after all, it was a 2100 acre campus of 30,000+ students), we caught each other up on our lives. As the semester was nearing an end, our discussion moved to our summer plans in Saginaw. Stacy said that she was going to be staying on campus working for the Academic Orientation Program. She continued to tell me they were looking for one more orientation leader and encouraged me to apply. The interviews were the next day and there was an open slot at 8:00 a.m.

I got up early, wiped the sleep from my eyes, ate my Wheaties, and headed to the interview. A few days later I was notified that I had been selected as an orientation leader. This was an exciting opportunity. Serendipity opened the door to my first student affairs job and my career – although I didn’t comprehend it at the time.

Fast forward to June of 1993. Frustration and anxiety were setting in because I had recently graduated with my master’s degree from MSU and, unlike my classmates, was still job searching. And searching. And searching. There had been a few phone interviews and even a couple of campus interviews, but nothing panned out. Self-doubt became all-consuming as I wondered why no one wanted to hire me despite what I thought were excellent grades and extensive experience.

When hope was waning, serendipity struck again.

I received a call from the Department of Residence Life at the University of New Hampshire for an on-campus interview. A hall director job at UNH was my “perfect” job from the start of my search. Unfortunately for me, a few weeks before, shortly after the phone interview, I was told that they had hired other individuals for their open spaces. However, a residence hall director had decided to leave UNH in June, opening up a position. I jumped at the chance for a campus interview. I distinctly remember sitting outside my hotel – The New England Center, which was embedded in a beautifully wooded area, saying that I could live and work here. Those words came true and two months later I was packing up a U-Haul to make the trip Durham, New Hampshire for my “perfect” job. This position created the foundation for who I am as an educator today. Plus, UNH was where I met my current partner, Terri. Call it destiny. Call it kismet. Or maybe it was just chance. But, this result was certainly not intentional.

The orientation leader position began my career in student affairs but working for the Department of Residence Life at the University of New Hampshire changed how I approached my job. While I learned many things during my six years as a hall director (YES – six years living in), one word has stuck with me and was the concept that compelled me into assessment work.  That word is “intentionality.” During numerous staff and supervision meetings hall directors discussed how we were being intentional in our outreach to students and in our programming. Intentionality became a mantra for my work then and the driving force for the assessment work I have been undertaking the past 15 years.

Synonyms for serendipity include chance and accident while synonyms for intentionality include designed, deliberate, and planned. While not antonyms of one another, the concepts of serendipity and intentionality are opposed to one another creating a tension we continue to struggle with in regard to learning in higher education. All too often we assume or think that learning is happening outside of the classroom and we aren’t doing as much as we can to intentionally foster it. Today, we can no longer rely on serendipity to ensure student learning and success.

External demands for accountability are increasing the need for intentionality. The completion agenda dominates the national discourse of higher education. Students, parents, and legislatures are questioning the return on investment of a college education and want to known what students are learning after paying exorbitant amounts of money. College administrators are questioning the value of student affairs in an era of service provision where students are customers and clients. During a program session with college presidents at ACPA15, when asked what the priority should be for student affairs professionals, all panelists stated that college student educators need to be able to demonstrate how they and their work positively contributes to student learning and retention. The completion agenda at the federal and state level is a major thrust behind the current accountability movement in higher education.

More important than external calls for accountability are the internal calls for accountability that originate from inside each one of us as college student educators. We chose this profession for our careers because of the desire and need to positively impact lives of college students. Thus, we strive to do the best job we can to assist students.  As a field, we need to make intentionality an interwoven thread in the fabric of everyday practice to ensure student success, both academically and personally.

Intentionally isn’t rocket science. It can be explained in a simple four-step process outlined by Linda Suskie (2009). The first step is to begin with what you want students to achieve (aka outcomes which can be learning, operational, or program). Once outcomes are identified, existing literature and other evidence are used to identify strategies to foster those outcomes in step 2. Step 3 is to collect and analyze data to determine if the outcomes are achieved and how outcome achievement can be improved. The final step is the most important – closing the loop by making improvements. Intentionally is a process, not a destination.

Assessment cycle by Linda Suskie (2009)

How Can ACPA Help You Be More Intentional

ACPA’s focus is student learning. As stated in our mission “ACPA supports and fosters college student learning through the generation and dissemination of knowledge, which informs policies, practices and programs for student affairs professionals and the higher education community” (ACPA, 2015). There are many ways ACPA can help you foster student learning, development, and success.

Individuals can leverage ACPA to help foster and support student learning by accessing the scholarship that is generated in a variety of ways. ACPA’s signature publication is the Journal of College Student Development. There are articles in each issue pertinent to faculty and practitioners alike. Previous issues include scholarship regarding experiences of Asian American and Latino/a students at an HBCU, the academic performance of Black emerging adults, a method to increase the grade point averages of fraternity members, and others.

About Campus is a scholarly publication directed towards practitioners. This bi-monthly magazine provides insights to improve practice in higher education. Past issues include articles addressing positive psychology, long-term success in work and life, as well as high impact practices.

In addition to these publications, and Developments, which you are reading now, ACPA also sponsors books and monographs. This past year ACPA published Job One 2.0: Understanding the Next Generation of Student Affairs Professionals which focuses on the first jobs of college student educators as well as Working With Students in Community Colleges: Contemporary Strategies for Bridging Theory, Research, and Practice which provides approaches to support community college students in their success. Additional publications can be found here. ACPA books and monographs coupled with our other publications provide faculty and practitioners a library of invaluable scholarship to inform further research and practice.

Another major way that ACPA supports student learning, development, and success is assisting college student educators across the spectrum of higher education by bridging theory to practice. Some of this work is done through our acclaimed professional development events. Most of our activities are driven by curricula rooted in research. Upcoming events include

You can find additional professional development events here.

Theory to practice is also addressed in other venues including ACPA On Demand and Higher Ed Live, sponsored by ACPA. ACPA On Demand is collection of pre-recorded videos covering a variety of topics relevant to college student educators. Higher Ed Live is a weekly talk show viewed online covering critical emergent issues in higher education. Recorded versions of the shows are available the Higher Ed Live website and podcasts are available in iTunes.

As college student educators, we need to be much more intentional in how we cultivate student learning and development. While learning may happen by serendipity, we can rely on it no longer. Our students – our future – are too important to rely on chance. ACPA is your go-to source for research, scholarship, and proven practices for fostering student success. Tap into the resources now!


ACPA (2015). Mission, vision, and values. Retrieved on April 8, 2015 from

Suskie, L. (2009). Assessing student learning: A common sense guide (2nd Ed). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

From the Editor – Summer 2015

From the Editor

Summertime Greetings! Welcome to the Summer Issue of Developments.  For those who have just recently wrapped up an academic year I hope you are finding time to enjoy the warmer weather and a bit of “down time” on campus.  For those working in summer programs of all varieties, thank you for your outstanding work over the summer.  Transition programs, summer camps, and academic year preparations are so important, and summer can be a wonderful time on campus as we welcome or prepare to welcome new members of our campus community.

I hope you will take the time to engage the summer issue, which is full of some enticing and thought-provoking articles.  We are wrapping up our Series on the LGBTQ Retrospective and also beginning a new series sponsored by the Standing Committee for Men and Masculinities. The focus of this series of articles, which will run over the next few issues, is on college men and intersectionality.

The article on straight white college men pairs well with other articles in this issue, including the Ethical Issues column, which focuses on the morality of social justice ally development.  We encourage you to utilize these articles not only for your own professional development, but also with other staff and faculty, and perhaps even with students.  As Dr. Cindi Love reminds us in her column, “mobilization” is an important part of the work we do as college student affairs educators, particularly around issues of social justice.

This issue also features some outstanding columns focused on the importance of academic advising, brought to us by Marisa Vernon, as well as skill and attitude development to increase cultural competence, brought to us by Tadd Kruse.

Finally, I encourage you to read Alison Andrade’s perspective on reducing cheating behaviors in college students, as well as the Innovative Ideas article, focused on digital storytelling.  This piece was brought to us by the faculty and students at the University of Alabama, and offers a fantastic opportunity for faculty and staff who work in the classroom to think about different ways of engaging students with technology.

Finally – I want to put in a plug, encouraging everyone to think about registering for ACPA 2016 in Montreal. Registration is now open. Taking advantage of the early bird registration is a fantastic way to ensure you are registered, and gives you plenty of time to ensure you are prepared to join our Association in Montreal (Don’t forget your passport!)

Enjoy the summer and look for our next issue at the start of the 2015-2016 academic year.