Women As Students: Two Personal PhD Reflections and Suggested Practical Strategies

Women As Students: Two Personal PhD Reflections and Suggested Practical Strategies

Sonja Ardoin
North Carolina State University
Lindsey Katherine-Dippold
Rio Salado College

In celebration of our 40th Anniversary, members of the Standing Committee for Women are pleased to sponsor a Series in Developments. Our Series, “Women As,” explores how women’s intersecting identities (race, class, gender expression and performance, sexuality, religion, etc.) impact women’s experiences in different roles. Thus, authors share their ideas as women who are leaders, faculty, caregivers, and/or students. In support of a feminist approach to research and learning, articles will reflect an array of insights including practical strategies, research findings, lessons learned, arts-based research, visual inquiry, narrative inquiry, and reflections. We encourage you to utilize the discussion questions included in each article to stimulate your thinking and enhance your work in the classroom and/or workplace.


Women serve in multiple roles concurrently, such as employees, parents, children, spouses, caretakers, friends, volunteers, and students. Women experience these roles through the intersection of their identities including, but not limited to, race, ethnicity, gender, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation, ability status, religion, and age. Women’s varying roles and identities can provide them with advantages and/or disadvantages in academia. Women’s role as students, specifically as doctoral students, is one that warrants attention as the total number and percentage of women obtaining doctoral degrees steadily increases and the time it takes to complete the degree is increasing as well. In education, the median number of years for doctoral degree completion rose from 12.6 in 1975 to 19.4 in 2000 (Hoffer et al., 2001). The increasing time to earn their degree reflects the struggle women have with finding and maintaining balance between all of their various roles; in fact, according to Stimpson and Filer (2011), women find work life balance much more difficult than their male graduate student counterparts.


Both theory and practical strategies can be instrumental in helping women doctoral students persevere through the doctoral process and increase their successful completion. In this article, the authors use feminist theory and attribution theory to frame their personal reflections and lessons learned from different doctoral program experiences and provide practical strategies that may assist others in their doctoral matriculation and success.

Conceptual Frameworks: Feminist Theory & Attribution Theory

The authors’ doctoral experiences exemplify themes from two conceptual frameworks: feminist theory and attribution theory. This section begins with an overview of these frameworks and then addresses how the authors’ stories exemplify each one.

First, feminist theory seemed an obvious choice, as the two authors are women and cognizant—on some level—of the impact of their gender in their doctoral program experiences. Because the stereotypes of extreme feminism (e.g., angry, whining, bra-burning women) may continue to dissuade conversations about feminism, the authors hope that the use of the feminist theory framework can help current women graduate students become more unified and successful. The strength that can emerge from this unity is particularly important because, although women have made significant gains in their numeric representation in all levels of study at colleges and universities, they are still underrepresented in positions of power and still face discrimination from peers, faculty, and administrators in many ways (Ropers-Huilman, 2002). Among the various strands of feminist theory, a set of consistent theoretical themes exists including: (a) acknowledging that women are valuable contributors, (b) recognizing that women as a group have been unable to reach their full potential in society, and (c) understanding that feminist research should not only critique but also lead to social change (Ropers-Huilman, 2002).

The second conceptual framework, attribution theory, “examines what information is gathered and how it is combined to form a casual judgment” (Fiske & Taylor, 1991, p. 23). This theory deals with how the social perceiver uses information to arrive at casual explanations for events, such as attributing consequences or outcomes to others instead of oneself. The theory attempts to answer the common question: is there a relationship between a student’s personal attributes (e.g., locus of control) or relational attributes—either personal (e.g., locus of control) or relational (e.g., student/advisor relationship)—and persistence to graduation at the doctoral level (Gardner, 2009)?

Gardner (2009) identifies seven main attributes to doctoral student attrition: funding, advisor relationship, gender, race, subject matter, test scores/GPA, and socialization. By identifying students’ attributes, faculty and students can enhance their understanding of what might cause attrition and predict future success or failure (Fiske & Taylor, 1991; Gardner, 2009). Interestingly, faculty and students differ on their explanations and perceptions of the cause of attrition (Gardner, 2009). To explain attrition, faculty indicate students’ lack of preparation (53%), making the wrong decision to attend their school or program 21%, and personal problems (15%). On the other hand, students cite personal problems (34%), departmental issues (30%), and wrong fit (21%) as reasons for attrition (Gardner, 2009). Lovitts (2001) found higher levels of attrition among social sciences students, women, students of color, those with a lack of funding resources, and those not connecting with peers.

In the authors’ reflections on their own doctoral experiences, several themes emerge from the feminist and attribution theories including funding concerns, locus of control, and relationships. The following reflections contain different voices and perspectives so other women can connect to the authors’ stories and all readers can develop a better understanding of the doctoral student experience for women. Sonja’s reflection will focus internally on her intersecting identities as a young(er) woman from a low-income background who is a first-generation college student pursuing a doctoral degree. Lindsey’s reflection will emphasize her dual roles as a full-time student and a full-time university administrator and her external relationships with others during the doctoral process.

Reflection #1: Sonja Ardoin

Attribution theory points out how we use information to explain our life situations (Gardner, 2009); there are attributes of life that we can influence and attributes that we inherit by birthright. Feminist theory supports the importance of women being aware of these two types of attributes; specifically, it speaks to the awareness that we, as women, have of our sex and how we need to simultaneously know our value and expect more equity (Ropers-Huilman, 2002). Consequently, I agree with Fiske and Taylor’s (1991) suggestion that women doctoral students and their faculty should reflect on women doctoral student attributes in an effort to predict success or failure. It is reflections like these, in my opinion and experience, which help us decipher if our efforts are those of an imposter or of a pioneer. As evidenced below, I hope to be a pioneer, although believing I am one will be a continual process.

“People like me” do not typically pursue a doctorate. People like me are women. They are from low-income, rural backgrounds. They are the first person in their families to attend college. They are under the age of 30 (or I was at the time). None of those identities are extremely prevalent in doctoral programs and many are shown to lead to attrition (Lovitts, 2001). People like me are single and do not have any dependents. People like me are also White, heterosexual, Christian (Catholic specifically), and temporarily able-bodied. This second set of identities are linked to persistence and matriculation for doctoral students (Maher, Ford, & Thompson, 2004). Thus, my identity is somewhat of a mixed bag of privileged and underrepresented in the pursuit of a doctorate (Fiske & Taylor, 1991; Gardner, 2009). I reflect frequently on my identity as I experience the doctoral process.

During my first month as a PhD student, I had a less than ideal encounter with a male faculty member from a different program that led to further reflection on my intersecting identities. This man and I met in the common kitchen space. I knew who he was from my e-mail exchanges with him; he had wanted me to do some work for him but refused to meet with me in person. What proceeded was a conversation in which he mocked my doctoral student status due to my identities as a young(er) person and a woman, although he used the term “girl.” I was stunned by the man’s comments and body language, especially his blatant belittling of my identities as a young(er) woman doctoral student, and his misuse of privilege as a tenured, White male faculty member. For a moment, it brought me back to the idea that “people like me” do not get doctorates and this was why.

Apparently, it was not the first time, or even second time, that this man had insulted a woman student or faculty member. As I shared my story with my peers and program faculty—both men and women—I found solace and support in a communal bewilderment as to why this man was still allowed to teach and advise if he ostracizes women students. I found resolution in reflecting that the opinion of one man did not represent the opinions of all others nor did it signify any portion of my worth or ability as a woman student. I also recognized that the situation could have been heightened had I held any additional underrepresented identities.

In my pursuit of the PhD, I am also highly aware of my background as both a first-generation college student and a student from a low-income, rural family. Although my family has continuously supported me and told me to “go to college and get a good job,” I have always known that it would be my responsibility to make it happen logistically and financially, which stands today. I came into the doctoral process knowing I was already in debt from my first two degrees and that I did not want to add a substantial amount to that existing debt. Gardner (2009) and Lovitts (2001) both cite funding concerns as barriers for women students and reasons for their attrition. So, I sought ways to finance my PhD. I applied for any scholarship or fellowship offered from any organization with which I had an affiliation or that funded research topics similar to mine. I filled out quite a number of applications. It paid off, literally! I was awarded a few of the fellowships, which helped lessen the financial burden of the doctoral degree and allowed me to continue my professional development interests.

Looking back, these two small stories in my larger doctoral process remind me that there are things that are within women students’ locus of control during the doctoral process and things that are not (Gardner, 2009). It is important to determine this distinction in order to make effective choices and shape the aspects that can be influenced. Consequently, it is vital for women as students to continuously reflect on who they are and what experiences and skills they possess to remind themselves that, even if they are the first “person like me” to get a doctorate, they can become the trailblazers.

Reflection #2: Lindsey Katherine Dippold

Gardner (2009) identifies seven main attributes of doctoral students that influence attrition: funding, advisor relationship, gender, race, subject matter, test scores/GPA, and socialization. Reflecting on my doctoral experience, the attributes of advisor relationship, funding, gender, and socialization resonate strongly within my story. Gardner (2009) finds the advisor-student relationship influences successful degree completion; I would echo this relationship as essential in two areas: support and guidance. The majority of people I met who are struggling to complete their degree often blame a disconnect between themselves and their major professor. This is an important relationship, although I interpret “advisor” to apply to many people who were instrumental in guiding my path to successful completion, such as professors on my committee and my supervisors (and mentors) at work.

My experience was essentially a balancing act, as I set out to complete my degree in five years while continuing to work full-time on campus as a student affairs administrator. The decision to take on both of those relates back to the attribute of funding (Gardner, 2009). I wanted to minimize loan debt but I also did not want to lose out of valuable work experience. Taking four classes per semester and continuing to put in 40-hour work weeks would not have been an option without the confidence of and support from my supervisors who allowed me to rearrange my schedule at times to accommodate courses and meetings. In order to gain support, I believe you need a clear vision of how this goal fits with your future, and need to share this with your advisors and supervisors. Once they understand what this venture means to you and your future, it will be easier for them to support you.

Advisors also provide guidance; listen to them! The best guidance I received was to let go of my inherent need to overachieve and strive for perfection. It was a reality check that most doctoral students have a hard time grasping. No one (other than you) will care if you have a 4.0 in doctoral coursework, or (gasp) a 3.85. As for your dissertation, it is your first study—it’s not going to change the world and it isn’t supposed to; it simply proves you can conduct a study from start to finish. This is just the beginning. Keep it simple, keep it short, and your life will be much easier. Collect more data than you need but only focus on a small piece for the dissertation. This allowed me to keep my study manageable and now I have additional data I can analyze as a plan for future articles and presentations. Another great tip from an advisor: write every day. At first, I thought that was impossible, but once I actually started writing most days, the chapters came together quickly. I found that when I didn’t even want to look at it, if I just opened it up with some simple task in mind (planning where to put charts or tables, or looking simply for typos) that soon I was making even more progress.

The attributes found to influence attrition by Gardner (2009) overlap for me in a key area: the student-advisor relationship and gender. When I found myself surrounded by faculty and advisors who were men, I leaned on my administrative mentors who are women for advice and support. I found it important to seek out relationships with women who had similar goals and interests but with much more experience than myself.

Socialization is another key element in attrition and is especially important for part-time students (or full-time employees), parents, caregivers, or anyone serving multiple major roles (Gardner, 2009; Lovitts, 2001). Your classmates are the only ones who will truly understand your frustrations over time-consuming assignments, the stress of studying for comps, and the joy that comes after each mini-accomplishment. As a full-time student and administrator, I lacked the free time that some full-time students with part-time work had and wasn’t able to attend all of the social (or program-related) events that my classmates held. But, I did make some time and really focused on connecting with my peers and being present when I could.

Your classmates also are helpful to efficiently approach major educational projects. My peers and I held group study sessions and each was assigned a subject area and compiled class notes, relevant articles and study guides to share with the group in preparation for comps. This was much better than tackling it all alone! This also allows your group to share in the celebration of the milestones along the way. However, make time for friends/family who exist outside of school and try not to spend all of your time talking about school with them. I actually had a friend fall asleep while I was explaining my dissertation study. Point taken!

Both of my “lessons learned” focus on the importance of utilizing people as resources and support agents throughout the journey. It still amazes me that I could finish the program in just over four years while maintaining a high quality of work in my career, but I know I could not have been successful without the support and relationships with my faculty, supervisors, classmates, coworkers, and friends.

Passing Down Practical Strategies

The stories of women as students are important to share, as Gardner (2009) points out: “the perspective of current students and their beliefs about student departure within their specific departments may lead to a better understanding of why doctoral student attrition occurs” (p. 100). Perspective and reflection are important attributes to possess as women graduate students. Not only do these attributes help students through their own processes, but perspective and reflection can also provide stories, lessons, and strategies to assist future women as students in the planning and execution of their academic pursuits.

The authors’ reflections and lessons learned can be shaped into practical strategies that may benefit future women as students. These strategies include:

  • Do not let “the man” [proverbial and literal] get you down. Find female (and male) mentors and peers to support you along the doctoral path. They do not necessarily have to be in your specific program or at your institution.
  • There is a first time for everything! Any of your underrepresented, or intersecting, identities may result in feeling alone in academia or your own family/communities. Try to find other students who share your identities with whom you can relate and from whom you can obtain support.
  • Finagle your finances. Do the math when it comes to loans, work wages, grants, fellowships, etc. Apply for anything that aligns with you or your study. Make the pro/con list when making financial decisions for academic (or social) purposes. Sometimes it is worth the extra money (for professional development, balance, etc.).
  • Age is just a number! Do not let anyone tell you that you are too young or too old to pursue a PhD; you apply when it is right for you!
  • Focus on fit. Do your best to determine if a program, institution, location, and all the corresponding people are suitable for you—for your identities, your work style, your finances, the opportunities, the connections, etc. Feeling welcome and “at home” in your program/department/college/institution can be highly important to retention and satisfaction; do your research beforehand, ask tough questions, seek current student opinions, etc. Rankings and faculty names will not matter if the overall fit is not there and lack of fit leads to attrition and no doctoral student or program wants that.
  • Think about the future. Identify your long-term goal and how your program/degree fits. Make time to seek out additional experiences that will help enrich your experience and market yourself post-graduation.
  • Figure out what you love and do it. Incorporate subject areas and topics in which you are passionate about into your studies. Identify what activities you love to do outside of work and school and make time for these. All work and no play leads to burnout.

Discussion Questions

  • Which of your identities provide you with privilege and which may be underrepresented in the doctoral process? How do you feel about that? How do you think that affects you as an individual and the academic system as a whole?
  • Attribution theory highlights themes that may lead to attrition such as funding, gender, race, subject matter, advisor relationship, academic preparation, and socialization (Gardner, 2009). Which ones do you find to be most relevant to your situation? What steps are you taking to improve these potential threats to your success?
  • Reflect on your own personal situation and experiences thus far. How can you share your stories and experiences with others to assist them in their learning and decision-making without leading them in a specific direction?


Council of Graduate Schools (2008). Ph.D. completion and attrition: Analysis of baseline  
demographic data from the Ph.D. completion project.Executive Summary. Washington, DC: Retrieved July 10, 2012 from http://www.phdcompletion.org/information/Executive_Summary_Demographics_…

Fiske, S.T., & Taylor, S.E. (1991). Social cognition (2nd ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill.

Gardner, S. K. (2009). Student and faculty attributions of attrition in high and low-completing
doctoral programs in the United States. Higher Education: The International Journal of
Higher Education and Planning, 58(1), 97-112.

Hoffer, T., Dugoni, B., Sanderson, A., Sederstrom, S., Ghadialy, R., & Rocque, P. (2001). Doctorate recipients from United States universities: Summary report 2000. Chicago: National Opinion Research Center.

Lovitts, B. E. (2001). Leaving the ivory tower: The causes and consequences of departure from   
doctoral study. Landham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

Maher, M.A., Ford, M.E., & Thompson, C.M. (2004). Degree progress of women doctoral
students: Factors that constrain, facilitate, and differentiate. The Review of Higher Education, 27(3), pp. 385–408.

Ropers-Huilman, B. (Ed.). (2003). Gendered futures in higher education: Critical perspectives for change. Albany, NY: SUNY.

Additional Recommended Resources

American Council on Education. (2008). Minorities in higher education 2008 twenty-third status report. Washington, DC: Author.

Cao, W. (2001). How male and female doctoral students experience their doctoral programs similarly or differently? Seattle, WA: American Educational Research Association. (ERIC Documentation Reproduction Service No. ED 453725).

Fordan, A. E. (1999). Advocates, barriers, and responses: The personal narratives of nine female doctoral students. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 438743).

Gentry, D. S. (2004).  My sisters’ voices: Women’s stories, academic life, and the journey to the doctorate degree. Dissertation Abstracts International. (Publication No.  AAT 3162233).

Ireland, P. (2003). Progress versus equality: Are we there yet?  In in D. Rhode (Ed.). The difference difference makes: Women and leadership (pp. 193-202). Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

National Opinion Research Center. Survey of Earned Doctorates Report 2010. Chicago: National Opinion Research Center. Retrieved August 24, 2012, from http://www.nsf.gov/statistics/sed/digest/2010/

Knox, S., Burkard, A.W., Janecek, J., Pruitt, N.T., Fuller, S.L., & Hill, C.E. (2011). Positive and problematic dissertation experiences: The faculty perspective. Counseling Psychology Quarterly, 24(1), p. 55-69.

Stimpson, R.L. & Filer, K.L. (2011). Female graduate students’ work-life balance and the
student affairs professional. In P. A., Pasque, & S. E. Nicholson (Eds.), Empowering
women in higher education and student affairs (pp. 69- 83). Sterling, VA, Stylus Publishing.

About the Authors

Sonja Ardoin has always been drawn to a career in education and found her path to higher education during her student leadership experiences at Louisiana State University. She continued her education with a master’s degree from Florida State University’s Higher Education program before working for four years in student activities at Florida State and Texas A&M. Sonja is currently completing her PhD at North Carolina State University in Educational Research and Policy Studies. Her research focuses on rural students’ understanding of college knowledge and university jargon.

Please e-mail inquiries to Sonja Ardoin.

Lindsey Katherine Dippold became passionate about college student services while still an undergraduate, but her career blossomed at Florida State University, serving as a career services administrator and career development course instructor for six years. After completing her doctorate at FSU, she served as a Visiting Assistant Professor at the University of Southern Mississippi before relocating to Phoenix, AZ.

Please e-mail inquiries to Lindsey Katherine Dippold.


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.

Un-problematizing International Students

Un-problematizing International Students

Jason E. Lane
State University of New York, Albany

Last fall at the annual meeting of the Association for the Study of Higher Education, I was a discussant for a set of papers that sought to “problematize” international students. The authors explored various theoretical perspectives to demonstrate the ways in which higher education professionals think international students could directly affect how an institution chooses to engage with those students. My engagement with the panel caused me to reflect that international students are increasingly being labeled as a single monolithic group and that such an approach can cover up the rich diversity of associated experiences and backgrounds. As the presence of international students on our campuses increases, it is important for student affairs leaders and practitioners to understand, appreciate, and engage with this diversity.

The one theme that stuck in my head from the paper was the concern that we often frame international students as a form of revenue generation or economic development. This idea of viewing international students as a form of economic development is not new and I would be surprised if readers have not heard or considered international students from this perspective. Discussions about international students as revenue generators often feel like a dirty little secret that everyone knows about, but no one openly acknowledges; however, the topic has been receiving more public attention. Last October, Karin Fischer at the Chronicle of Higher Education actually tried to bring this issue into the forefront by asking: What if colleges acknowledge that “foreign students are cash cows?” This of course is not the first time that such issues have been discussed publicly. For years, NAFSA: Association of International Educators has examined the economic benefits of international education in the United States. In announcing the most recent Open Doors report on study abroad trends in the United States, the Institute for International Education (IIE) framed international students as having an economic and social impact. To be fair, I have also been one of those who have written about the economic contributions of internationalization of higher education to both the institution and the local economy.

While I firmly believe that we need to be forthright about the economic contributions of international students, this should not overshadow the fact that these individuals are attending our institutions in the pursuit of higher education. Many families are spending their life savings to provide their child(ren) with the opportunity at a new life—one that benefits from the experiences of an advanced education. If we choose to admit international students, then we have an obligation to provide them with the highest quality educational experience—the same principles we hold for our domestic students. However, there are examples, such as with Dickinson State University, wherein the “cash cow” mentality can lead to questionable academic and social experiences for international students. An audit of the university suggested that the need for sustaining enrollments may have led to degrees being awarded to hundreds of international students who did not fully meet the requirements, raising questions about the legitimacy of their educational experience and their credential. That is simply not fair to international students or to the other students for whom we take responsibility to educate.

Rather than trying to problematize international students, I want to use the release of the recent Open Doors data to try to expand our understanding of our international student population. The Open Doors report is released annually and tracks the number of United States students who study abroad and the number of international students who come to the United States to study.

In the 2011-2012 academic year, there were 764,495 international students studying in the United States. This was a 6% increase over last year and 31% increase over the past decade. The largest concentration of international students are in the highly populated states of California, New York, Texas, Massachusetts, and Illinois, though the largest increases in the number of international students occurred in Pennsylvania, Florida, and Indiana, each with more than 10% growth. New York City remained the most popular metropolitan destination.

One of the themes from this year’s report is that international students have increasingly come to recognize the great diversity of colleges and universities in the United States. The top receiving institutions remain well-established institutions, with well-regarded reputations—University of Southern California, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, New York University, Purdue University, and Columbia University. Yet, there has also been an increase in students attending other institutional types such as liberal arts colleges, community colleges, and regional comprehensive institutions. Such trends further underscore the need for student affairs practitioners across the academy to understand the changing trends in international students.

International students are highly diverse with regards to their origin. The primary origination country remains China, which saw nearly 200,000 students depart to the United States in 2011-2012, almost double the number of students sent by India, which originates the second highest number of students. Chinese students accounted for a quarter of all international students in the 2010-2011 academic year. The remaining top three countries of origin are South Korea, Saudi Arabia, and Canada, though students come from a wide range of countries from all over the world, including Nepal, Brazil, Indonesia, Iran, Venezuela, and Russia.

There tends to be an assumption that many of our international students are financed by a foreign government or financial scheme; however, the data from IIE indicates that a vast majority of international students (63.6%) self-finance their education using personal or family resources. This demonstrates a substantive commitment on behalf of students and their family in pursuing an “American” higher education. Only about 5.8% of international students receive funding from a foreign government or university, a significantly lower number than the percentage that receives some form of financing from a United States college or university (21.5%). Other forms of financing include private sponsors (foreign and domestic), the United States Government, and international organizations among others. In other words, the financial background of students adds another level of diversity that should be accounted for when dealing with international students. We should not consider them all to be either affluent or disadvantaged – they can run the gamut, much like our domestic students.

One of the most interesting themes from this year’s Open Doors report was that the number of international undergraduate students outnumbered the number of international graduate students for the first time since 2000-2001. The population of undergraduate students from foreign countries fell precipitously following September 11, 2001—at a much greater rate than at the graduate levels. Furthermore, it took an entire decade for those numbers to rebound and, once again, overtake the corresponding graduate student numbers. These increases also mean that there are more international students engaging in the undergraduate experience and will likely need assistance and engagement from student affairs practitioners in many areas of student success, such as academic support, health and counseling, student activities and leadership, and so forth.

With the number of international students expanding on our college campuses, it is increasingly important for student affairs practitioners to respond to the changing demographics on their campuses. International students tend to require additional assistance with the college transition than their domestic peers, as they are learning to not just navigate a new educational experience, but also a new culture and country and, in many cases, a new language. Moreover, as I discussed in my last column, there is growing evidence of international students being isolated on campuses. Helping students overcome this isolation will likely require more targeted advising that helps students become engaged and develop social networks. But, such isolation could also lead to more mental health issues becoming manifested on college campuses.

Taken collectively, the evidence suggests a growing need for institutions, and their student affairs leaders and practitioners, to engage more meaningfully with the growing population of international students across the United States.

Discussion Questions

  • What are the backgrounds of the international students on your campus?
  • What types of resources does you campus make available for international students? Do you believe these resources are adequate to meet the needs of the students on your campus?
  • How might your student affairs division better serve international students?


Fischer, K. (October 16, 2012). ‘Fess up: Foreign students are cash cows. The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from http://chronicle.com/article/What-If-Colleges-Acknowledged/135080/

About the Author

Jason E. Lane is Director of Education Studies at the Rockefeller Institute of Government, associate professor of educational administration and policy studies, and a senior researcher with the Institute for Global Education Policy Studies at the State University of New York, Albany. He is member of the governing boards of the Comparative and International Education Society and the Council for International Higher Education and is an Associate of the International Association of Universities. His most recent books include Academic Leadership and Governance of Higher Education (Stylus Press), Colleges and Universities as Economic Drivers (SUNY Press), and Multi-National Colleges and Universities: Leading, Governing, and Managing International Branch (Jossey-Bass). More about the author and his research on cross-border education can be found here.

Please e-mail inquiries to Jason E. Lane.


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.

Developing an Ethical Framework for Student Affairs

Developing an Ethical Framework for Student Affairs

Danielle Klein
Louisiana State University
Maylen Aldana
Louisiana State University
William Mattera
Louisiana State University

New Student Affairs professionals enter the field with excitement about serving students, making an impact, and experiencing new opportunities. The thought of ethical decision-making may not be at the forefront of their day-to-day agendas. However, new Student Affairs professionals are often faced with personal and challenging decisions. It is not uncommon for new professionals to be given tasks and assignments that may cause dissonance with their core beliefs and thoughts, and we often label those challenges as ethical quandaries. In reality, many ethical dilemmas new professionals encounter emerge from a gap in learning how to work through issues that challenge them on a personal level. When working to develop a framework for critical decision-making, it is helpful to start by examining how individuals in Student Affairs craft their own set of personal values. One’s values are shaped through influences and experiences that come from a variety of places.

Through their professional preparation, new professionals are taught elements of ethical frameworks by mentors, preparation program faculty, undergraduate and graduate involvement experiences, previous supervisors, and peers. Often times professionals will consider personal values as a guide in the ethical decision making process. In reality personal values are simply new professionals’ own views on what is important and meaningful, which often causes conflict when it comes to decision-making. This article will explore five necessary components for supervisors of new professionals to consider as a new professional begins to develop an ethical framework. Components include: (a) understanding clear definitions; (b) moral development theory; (c) professional standards; (d) mentorship; and (e) individual personal philosophy. These all serve as a foundation for supervisors to help new professionals negotiate the construction of their ethical decision making framework.

Ethics has been called the study of moral reasoning (Noddings, 1992), and in Student Affairs, theories of both ethical and moral development and decision-making have been of primary importance when designing interventions to assist students in navigating their collegiate worlds. How does our understanding of ethics and morals assist new professionals in navigating the challenging and complex world of supervision and professional development? Because “determining the appropriate course to take when faced with a difficult ethical dilemma can be a challenge” (Miller and Davis, 1996, p. 1), understanding where individual values originate is helpful in determining moral responses and thus creating ethical frameworks. To study this concept, we will explore the definitions and origins of values and morals in order to distinguish the overlap each have in creating an ethical framework.

A value is a broad idea or understanding, and it is from values that both morals and ethics spring. A value, from the Latin valere, means worth and refers to the underlying dimensions of importance we assign to our measurement of thoughts, behaviors, and actions. Moral, from the Latin moralis, is the idea behind what is good or bad, right or wrong. Morality assists individuals in distinguishing between actions and behaviors that fall into good-equals-right and bad-equals-wrong dualities. Ethics, on the other hand, is a framework that guides individuals in acting moral. Ethics, from the Greek ethos, means character and ethics define for an individual specifically what actions or thoughts can be categorized as right or wrong.

Morals and ethics are often used interchangeably by the general public; however it is important to differentiate between the two terms because actions for ethical behavior emerge from philosophies about morality. Morality itself emerges from personal or professional values, and it is these values that ultimately direct a new professional towards constructing the ethical approach they apply to their practice and decision-making. As new professionals work to determine a set of ethics they choose to use in their practice, it is useful to determine what ethics are not. Ethics are not feelings, and while it is often easy to confuse the two, it is important for new professionals to understand that personal feelings can often cloud decision making in a way that guides them away from the context in which they are making decisions. Ethics is also not religion, law, or science. While these governing principles are often looked to during the decision making process, these principles are not always the appropriate code of reference at any given time and do not constitute a code of ethics.

A number of theories are useful to new professionals when constructing their framework in ethical decisions. Kitchener’s (1984) critical evaluation model encourages individuals to reflect upon their decision-making processes. The four moral principles that Kitchener (1984) bases her theory on are: autonomy, beneficence, nonmalificence, and justice/fairness. When making decisions, Kitchener (1984) encourages individuals to identify problems and potential issues, to review ethical guidelines and obtain consultation, then to consider possible consequences of decisions. Supervisors of new professionals could use Kitchener’s (1984) decision-making process as a reflection tool for their new supervisees when they are confronted with difficult issues in a new environment.

Kitchener also works with King (1981, 1990) to offer a model of reflective judgment. Kitchener & King (1981, 1990) proposed that reflective judgment is different than critical thinking because it is needed to deal with issues that do not have a right or wrong solution. In fact, this model is best used in situations where there are multiple solutions. Kitchener and King’s model of reflective judgment has seven stages, and each stage is based on an assumption of knowledge and how individuals acquire that knowledge. Stages 1 through 3 (Prereflective Thinking) is when “the link between evidence and beliefs is unclear” (King & Kitchener, 1994, p. 14), or when learners become aware that all problems do not have solutions. Individuals move into stages 4 to 5 (Quasi Reflective Thinking) when individuals begin to recognize and quote that knowledge is sometimes uncertain and the increasing need to justify beliefs, reflect a growing ability to differentiate categories of thought “and move towards more complex thinking (Pascarella and Terenzini, 2005). Stages 6 and 7 (Reflective Thinking) is when the learner comes to understand that knowledge is relational, contextual, and constructed. Knowing where knowledge comes from and the value placed on that knowledge allows new professionals to become critically reflective about the choices they are making in their day-to-day practice.

A third reflective model that would be useful for new professionals is Baxter Magolda’s (1992) epistemological reflection model. Epistemology is our way of knowing or how we come to know, and Baxter Magolda identifies four stages in this process. These include absolute knowing, transitional knowing, independent knowing and contextual knowing. As a new professional comes to learn that knowledge can take on many meanings, he or she can begin to make decisions based on multiple contexts and perspectives.

The many places where new professionals have formed their values and morals all play a part in building a new professional’s ethical framework. New professionals are supported by professional principles and standards. When working with new professionals, it is important to guide them to documents such as the NASPA Standards of Professional Practice (1990) and ACPA Statement of Ethical Principles and Standards (2006). Helping them understand that professional principles are constant may help them not feel pressured to reinvent the wheel. So the question then becomes, how do we assist new professionals in understanding these principles are more than words on a document? How do we help new professionals internalize these principles? It is important in our everyday work for new professionals to recognize where these principles appear in their everyday practice.

Because “student affairs [professionals], particularly entry-level professionals, expect to be involved with and provide services to individual and groups of students on a daily basis” (Burkard, Cole, Ott, and Stoflet, 2004, p. 306), some of the best support supervisors can provide is to assist new professionals in the construction of an ethical framework to guide them in everyday decision making and growth. This will, in turn, enable new professionals to develop within their own moral capacity while at the same time understand the ways in which competing frameworks work to guide and assist them in their professional development. When assisting a new professional in developing his or her personal philosophy, we recommend having them identify their values and how those values manifest in their daily decision-making. It is not uncommon when making tough decisions to have multiple competing values and perspectives. However, having a defined ethical framework is the first step is to determine which values are most important in the situation at hand and therefore need to be most reflected in the outcome.

Discussion Questions

  • How do we help new professionals move the locus of control for decision-making internal while at the same time working within a set professional structure?
  • What models are best practices for training new professionals to navigate crisis situations that call for moral and ethical responses?
  • How do new professionals reconcile the two frameworks that they encounter when making decisions: their own and that of their institution?


American College Personnel Association. (2006). Statement of ethical principles and standards. Retrieved from http://www2.myacpa.org/ethics/statement.php,

Baxter Magolda, M. (1992). Knowing and reasoning in college: Gender-related patterns in students’ intellectual development. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Burkard, A. W., Cole, D. C., Ott, M., & Stoflet, T. (2005). Entry-level competencies of new student affairs professionals: A Delphi study. Journal of Student Affairs Research and Practice, 42(3), 545-571.

Forester-Miller, H., & Davis, T. E. (1996). A practitioner’s guide to ethical decision making. Alexandria, VA: American Counseling Association.

Kitchener, K. S. (1984). Intuition, critical evaluation and ethical principles: The foundation for ethical decisions in counseling psychology. Counseling Psychologist, 12(3), 43-55.

Kitchener, K. S., & King, P. M. (1981). Reflective judgment: Concepts of justification and their relationship to age and education. Journal of applied developmental psychology, 2(2), 89-116.

Kitchener, K. S., & King, P. M. (1990). The reflective judgment model: Transforming assumptions about knowing. In J. Mezirow & Associates (Eds.), Fostering critical reflection in adulthood: A guide to transformative and emancipatory learning (pp. 159-176). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

King, P. M., & Kitchener, K. S. (1994). Developing reflective judgment: Understanding and promoting intellectual growth and critical thinking in adolescents and adults. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

National Association of Student Personnel Administrators. (1990). Standards of professional practice. Retrieved from http://www.naspa.org/about/standards.cfm.

Noddings, N. (1992). The challenge to care in schools: An alternative approach to education. Advances in Contemporary Educational Thought, Volume 8. New York, NY: Teachers College Press

Pascarella, E.T., & Terenzini, P.T. (2005). How college affects students: A third decade of research. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

About the Authors

Danielle J. Klein is a doctoral student in the College of Education at Louisiana State University. She currently holds a Graduate Assistantship in LSU’s Department of Residential Life, where she works on the department’s student success and assessment initiatives. A former high school English teacher and student affairs professional, Ms. Klein has reentered the classroom as a student to pursue her interests in understanding the knowledge gaps that students possess when entering into post-secondary education. Her research focuses on curriculum theory, curriculum design, and curriculum development within non-traditional educative structures. Ms. Klein currently serves as the Vice President for Professional Development of LSU’s Curriculum Theory Graduate Collaborative.

Please e-mail inquiries to Danielle Klein.

Maylen L. Aldana currently serves as the Assistant Director for Student Success and Assessment in the Department of Residential Life at Louisiana State University. Prior to this position, she gained experience at Tulane University, Mississippi State University, Appalachian State University, Auburn University, and Eastern Washington University. She is currently serves as the state representative for the Latino Knowledge Community for National Association of Student Personnel Administrators (NASPA) and served as the Human Relations chair for Southeastern Association for Housing Officers (SEAHO) during 2011-2012 and was Co-Chair for the Latino/a Network for the American College Personnel Association(ACPA) during 2005-2007.

Please e-mail inquiries to Maylen L. Aldana.

William Mattera serves as the Assistant Director for Staffing and Organizational Development in the Department of Residential Life at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge.

Please e-mail inquiries to William Mattera.


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.

From the Editor: Impacting the Well-being of our Communities

From the Editor: Impacting the Well-being of our Communities

Paul Eaton

One of the pleasures of working on the publication of Developments is garnering a more full and complete sense of the people we work with daily, the many issues we tackle, and our continued commitment as a profession to ensuring our communities are strong, vibrant, and welcoming. Next week our profession will join with NIRSA in Las Vegas to examine how we “Inspire Communities of Wellbeing.” Conference season is our opportunity to renew our commitments to the profession, our students, our universities, and each other. Joining with our colleagues from NIRSA will only strengthen the many possibilities available to each of us, so I look forward to seeing you all there.

Well-being is defined as “a state characterized by health, happiness, and prosperity.” In her piece exploring the ACPA Strategic Plan, Jan Davis Barham explores the state of our Association’s well-being, examining feedback from last year’s membership survey. I encourage our membership to read this piece for a complete understanding of how our Association is setting an agenda focused on our needs as student affairs professionals. Most striking to me about this report is the desire of our membership to continue learning through quality scholarship, examination of difficult issues, and continued dialogue. The breadth and depth of articles in this month’s edition of Developments will surely challenge all of us to think more deeply about incredibly complex topics and challenges facing our profession, students, and field.

As we celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Standing Committee for Women, we begin a new series entitled “Women As.” This series will explore the voices of women in our field, sharing their perspectives and questions about navigating the terrain(s) of multiple intersecting identities. These voices are poignant, powerful, and purposeful in their message. Sharon Chia Claros, Laila Al-Chaar, Conway, Rise Nelson Burrow, and Elsie Gonzalez examine the question of women as caregivers – in the profession and their personal lives – and how gender, religious identity, sexual orientation, and gendered norms impact their experiences as women in student affairs. Sonja Ardoin and Lindsey Katherine-Dippold dissect the realities of pursuing doctoral studies as a woman. Not only does their piece offer practical advice to women pursuing or thinking of pursuing an advanced degree, but also challenges our profession and faculty to continue thinking about making the path toward a Ph.D. more accessible for women.

Our Featured Columns (Ethical Issues, Global Affairs, & Legal Issues) explore potentially contentious issues. Neal Hutchens examines the lack of first-amendment rights that many student affairs professionals have on campus and invites a rethinking of the legal issues that can arise in “speaking up” as a professional. Jason Lane discusses the problem of seeing international students as “cash cows,” a problem that I believe is not limited solely to international students. In economically strapped times, out-of-state students are increasingly viewed as revenue generating bodies. This piece reminds us that we must challenge our institutions to see students not as dollar signs but as human beings worthy of a quality, engaged, holistic education. Our ethical issues column ties the Legal Issues and Global Affairs column together nicely, asking us all to re-examine the development of an ethical framework in our work.

Matthew Fuller examines research on the role of student affairs staff in advancing an assessment agenda, focused not on accreditation, but on enhancing student learning. Finally, Rory O’Neill Schmitt and Dale-Ellen O’Neill discuss their pedagogical approaches to enhancing first-year student self-efficacy in first-year seminars. These pieces provide practical advice and important insights into enhancing our role as student affairs practitioners on campus, both inside and outside the classroom.

Each of these pieces provides opportunities for rich, vibrant discussion. Examine the questions provided; engage your colleagues, students, or family members. Or simply reflect on these broad topics. I believe this issue of Developments demonstrates the well-being of our profession and epitomizes our values. I look forward to seeing everyone next week in Las Vegas.

About the Editor

Paul Eaton is a doctoral student in Higher Education Administration at Louisiana State University and serves as Director of Institutional Assessment at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.

Please e-mail inquiries to Paul Eaton.

Student Affairs Staff Support, Resistance, or Indifference to Assessment

Student Affairs Staff Support, Resistance, or Indifference to Assessment

Matthew B. Fuller
Sam Houston State University

Student Affairs Staff Support, Resistance, or Indifference to Assessment

Much has been said about the importance of a culture of assessment in institutional communities and while less has been researched and written, an emerging scholarship does make it possible for student affairs practitioners to discuss their role in developing, maintaining, or augmenting a culture of assessment on their campus. Assessment culture is often assumed to be a positive force because purported benefits to student learning are highly desirable. However, a strong culture of assessment might also precipitate positive benefits to accreditation, financing institutional efforts, and the overall effectiveness of programs and the institution (Maki, 2010). Assessment that serves only the aims of improving student learning is often not tapped for its importance to institutional processes such as program review, accreditation, or planning. Conversely, assessment crafted only to respond to accreditation, accountability, or financial concerns often neglects or is completely disconnected from student learning. Instead, a healthy balance of assessment cultures, a tool capable of exploring and measuring this balance, and opportunities for cross-institutional dialogue about perceptions of assessment are needed.

Often, higher education professionals do not recognize or seek out the expertise of other professionals on their campus, preferring instead to adhere to tradition or other forms of collective, professional wisdom (Kezar, 2005; Ward, 2000). In the case of assessment, professional or disciplinary boundaries may prevent collaborations that would otherwise prove beneficial for autonomous units, the institution, and students. Traditional narratives falsely maintain a place for student affairs practitioners as merely the coordinators of non-classroom activities and purveyors of occasional, co-curricular learning (Kezar & Elrod, 2012). Recent research led by Kezar (2005), Kuh, Kinzie, Schuh, & Whitt (2005), Schuh & Gansemer-Topf (2010), and many others has firmly established the role of a student affairs professionals in contributing to deep, long-lasting, meaningful learning spanning disciplines and social boundaries.

The time has come to also recognize and solidify the vital role student affairs practitioners play in developing, maintaining, or changing an institution’s culture of assessment. In the fall 2011 semester, the new Survey of Assessment Culture© was administered to a nation-wide, stratified, and random sample of America’s directors of institutional research and assessment. The focus of this research effort was to explore factors influencing the manner in which higher education institutions develop, maintain, or augment their institutional culture of assessment. Developed around Maki’s (2010) Principles of an Inclusive Commitment to Assessment, the Survey of Assessment Culture contributes to initial empirical explorations of assessment cultures. This article introduces brief methodological aspects of the Survey of Assessment Culture before offering findings from one section of the Survey: assessment directors’ rankings of campus leaders’ support, resistance, or indifference to assessment, in particular, the support or resistance of student affairs staff. This article addresses the research question: “What are institutional research and assessment directors’ perceptions of student affairs practitioners’ support, resistance or indifference to assessment?” After providing brief methodological overviews and articulating findings, this article outlines new potentials for cross-institutional practice and directions for future research.

Brief Methodological Overview

Prior research has either relied on samples of convenience (Ndoye & Parker, 2010) or has not studied institutional research or assessment directors (Kuh & Ikenberry, 2009) to explore assessment practices. The present study uses publically-available resources to construct a random, stratified sample of the U.S. directors of institutional research and assessment. A listing of undergraduate, degree-granting, regionally-accredited institutions was downloaded from the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education website and was stratified according to institutional full-time enrollment size, accreditation region, and Carnegie Basic Classification. This stratified listing of institutions was placed in a sampling matrix according to the type of degrees awarded (primarily associates vs. primarily bachelors), regional accreditation region, and size of full-time enrollment. This resulted in a listing of 2,617 institutions, a population similar to those surveyed by Kuh and Ikenberry (2009). Institutions were sampled at the most refined level of stratification and were over-sampled by a factor of three to ensure the best possible dispersion of a representative number of respondents at and across each level of stratification. A total of 1,026 institutions were randomly sampled for invitation to participate in the survey.

After institutions were randomly selected, the Higher Education Directory © ® was utilized to identify the contact information for directors of institutional research and assessment at sampled institutions. Although the Higher Education Directory is a voluntary listing of contact information, 77.2% or 792 email addresses for contacts were obtained using this resource. The remaining institutional contacts underwent status checks using institutional websites and public search engines1 to identify Chief Assessment Officers, identified as the individuals for whom assessment is their primary responsibility. 170 Chief Assessment Officers were identified using this method. The remaining 64 participants did not have an entry in the Higher Education Directory and web searches did not yield contact information. In these cases, the Provost of the institution was invited to participate in the survey and his/her contact information was gathered using the Higher Education Directory.2

Of the 917 invited participants, 316 responded to the electronic survey and completed at least three-quarters of the survey, providing a 34.5% response rate. The least-responded-to question still obtained 224 responses with the average number of responses being 302. This response suggests the potential for cautious generalizing to the national level and could be strengthened with greater response in future administrations.


The current study is limited in that little is known about respondents’ mental scheme when ranking various colleagues as supportive, resistant, or indifferent to assessment. Stated differently, additional analyses are needed to ascertain why an institutional research or assessment director indicated a particular group of colleagues was viewed as supportive or resistant to assessment. The constructs under examination in this study—support, resistance, and indifference—will be vastly different from participant to participant. For this reason, the current study focuses its findings on a clear depiction of institutional research and assessment directors’ perceptions rather than a “hard and fast” ranking of colleagues’ support of assessment. A more comprehensive discussion of sampling method, conceptual frameworks, and limitations can be found at the Sam Houston State University website . Findings from one section of the survey focusing on institutional research and assessment directors’ ranking of campus leaders’ support, resistance, or indifference to assessment are offered in the following section.


Participating institutional research and assessment directors were asked to rank ten different campus leaders or leadership groups regarding their supportiveness, resistance, or indifference/unawareness to assessment. Campus leaders or leadership groups included (a) Board of Trustee members; (b) President; (c) Provost; (d) Faculty; (e) Student Affairs staff; (f) Faculty Senate members; (g) Development/ Fundraising officers; (h) Alumni services; (i) Academic Advisors; (j) Student Government Leaders. A seven-point Likert-type scale was developed ranging from “Indifferent/Unaware of assessment” (1); “Highly Resistant” (2); “Moderately Resistant” (3); “Only Slightly Resistant” (4); “Only Slightly Supportive” (5); “Moderately Supportive” (6); to “Highly Supportive” (7).

Regarding student affairs staff, institutional research and assessment directors ranked only 5.8% of student affairs staff as “Indifferent/Unaware of assessment.” Highly resistant student affairs staff accounted for 1.3%, moderately resistant student affairs staff accounted for 2.7%, and student affairs staff who were ranked as “Only Slightly Resistant” accounted for 1.8% of the rankings provided. Participants ranked student affairs staff as “Only Slightly Supportive” in 12.4% of their rankings, while both the “Moderately Supportive” and “Highly Supportive” categories accounted for 38.1% of the rankings each. In aggregate, institutional research and assessment directors ranked 88.5% of student affairs staff as “Supportive” in any extent, 5.8% as “Resistant” in any extent, and 5.8% of “Indifferent/Unsupportive.”

In comparison, student affairs practitioners were ranked as just slightly less supportive of assessment as Presidents (91.6%) and Provosts (90.6%), though they were ranked as the third most supportive group. Faculty Senate (78.9%) and Faculty (75.8%) were viewed as the next most supportive leaders, followed by Academic Advisors (73.2%), Board of Trustee members (69.5%), Development/ Fundraising Officers (53.4%), Student Government leaders (49.3%), and Alumni groups (29.1%). An equal portion of Student Government leaders (49.3%) were ranked as indifferent to assessment and notable percentages of indifference are see in the Alumni groups (69.5% indifferent), Development and fundraising officers (42.9% indifferent), and Board of Trustee members (30.5% indifferent). For a more detailed comparison and treatment of scale items as interval/ratio data, see Fuller (2011).

Discussion and Call for Future Research

The large percentage of supportive responses indicates U.S. student affairs practitioners are perceived as being supportive of assessment and their colleagues in institutional research and assessment have taken note of this support. Coupled with presidents and provosts, student affairs practitioners are perceived as among the most supportive members of an institutional community. Empowering student affairs staff to demonstrate their support for assessment may prove beneficial to advancing assessment practices across campus. Student affairs staff may be supportive allies in advancing the benefits of assessment to faculty, administrators, or students. In particular, student affairs practitioners can be critical in reaching out to students or student organizations and instilling fundamental commitments to self-exploration and inquiry inherent in assessment.

Findings from the current study reveal a positive depiction of assessment administrators’ belief in student affairs practitioners. However, the fact that 5.8% of student affairs staff were ranked as Indifferent/Unaware and 5.8% were perceived as resistant to some extent offers an opportunity for student affairs practitioner, and all groups in the present study, to consider how they can be perceived as more supportive of assessment. Campus leaders in these groups may be astonished to learn that they are perceived more or less supportive of assessment than they view themselves. Student affairs staff have daily contact with students and are vital collaborators in an effective culture of assessment focused on improving student learning (Maki, 2010; Upcraft & Schuh, 1997). Further debunking myths that student affairs staff are resistant to assessment could precipitate advantageous conditions for the improvement of student learning as an institutional way of life.

Similarly, student affairs practitioners may see unique opportunities to translate their support for assessment into generative, meaningful action. Student affairs staff may see avenues for collaboration with institutional research staff or other colleagues perceived as more resistant to assessment. Student affairs staff must connect with colleagues inside and outside of student affairs and the institution. They are masters of seeking innovative partnerships, respectfully spanning boundaries, and leveraging colleagues for synergy (Kezar, 2005). Determining avenues for mutual benefit between student affairs staff and other campus colleagues concerned about advancing the benefits of assessment may initiate and sustain long-term cultural change in institutions. These findings may have been drastically different in years or decades prior (Astin & Antonio, 2012; Ewell, 2002; Upcraft & Schuh, 1997), and are points worth celebrating on individual campuses and in assessment scholarship. Data on the support, resistance, or indifference to assessment may be most meaningful as a model for additional, institution-level dialogue. Assessment practitioners may not have considered which campus constituents are most supportive, resistant, or indifferent to assessment on their campus. This finding may offer individual practitioners an avenue to initiate conversations about assessment within their units and on their campus. Moreover, student affairs or assessment practitioners may not fully recognize their role and the power they possess in formulating a campus culture supportive of assessment for the purpose of learning. Individual reflections on assessment cultures and supportive partnerships for assessment across campus communities may be the most useful and meaningful reflections in which educators can engage. This finding suggests student affairs colleagues support assessment to an exemplary degree and should be exemplified for their commitment to this reform agenda.

Further research and advocacy are necessary to organize student affairs practitioners’ highly supportive approach to assessment as a force for change in higher education. Doing so will allow institution research and assessment directors to connect supportive practitioners with more resistant or indifferent colleagues. Through these connections, a scholarship of collegiality (e.g., the study of how colleagues come together and are changed despite differing perspectives on a subject) will emerge and can be leveraged to support change in cultures of assessment. This will be an evolving process in which scholars and practitioners must engage to fully understand how traditionally disparate units learn from each other. Nonetheless, these initial descriptive results offer promising perspectives on the role student affairs practitioners can play as role models to transform or maintain an institution’s culture of assessment. For now, the overwhelming support student affairs practitioners have shown toward assessment is a point worth celebrating. These data support the notion that the majority of student affairs practitioners on the campuses studied are supportive of assessment. Positioning student affairs practitioners as exemplars of support for assessment may advance institutional improvements in cultures of assessment.

Discussion Questions

  • What forms of power and authority do student affairs staff members and leaders possess to change their institution’s culture of assessment?
  • How do different campus leaders and leadership groups define a culture of assessment or assessment in general?
  • What partnerships between student affairs staff and other campus leaders or leadership groups may be beneficial in advancing a culture of assessment?
  • What are the necessary components of an effective relationship between student affairs staff and campus leaders and leadership groups?


  1. Search terms: assessment; institutional research, evaluation, institutional effectiveness.
  2. Once the 1,026 survey respondents were invited to participate in the Survey, a total of 109 emails were returned as either inaccurate or no longer active. It can be assumed a total of 917 participants were adequately invited to participate in the survey.


Astin, A. W., & Antonio, A. L. (2012). Assessment for excellence: The philosophy and practice of assessment and evaluation in higher education (2nd ed.). Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group, Inc.

Ewell, P. T. (2002). An emerging scholarship: A brief history of assessment. In T. Banta & Associates (Eds.). Building a scholarship of assessment (pp. 3–25). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Fuller, M. B. (2011). Preliminary results of the Survey of Assessment Culture. Retrieved from http://www.shsu.edu/research/survey-of-assessment-culture/documents/2011… AssessmentCultureResults.pdf

Kezar, A. (2005). Moving from I to we: Reorganizing for collaboration in higher education. Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning, 37(6),50-56

Kezar, A., & Elrod, S. (2012). Facilitating interdisciplinary learning: Lessons from project kaleidoscope. Change: The Magazine Of Higher Learning, 44(1), 16-25.

Kuh, G., & Ikenberry, S. (2009). More than you think, Less than we need: Learning outcomes assessment in American Higher Education. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois and Indiana University, National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment.

Kuh, G. D., Kinzie, J., Schuh, J., & Whitt, E. (2005). Student success in college: Creating conditions that matter. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Maki, P. (2010). Assessing for learning: Building a sustainable commitment across the institution (2nd ed.). Sterling, VA: Stylus.

Ndoye, A., & Parker, M. A. (2010). Creating and sustaining a culture of assessment. Planning For Higher Education, 38(2), 28-39.

Schuh, J.H., & Gansemer-Topf, A.M. (2010, December). The role of student affairs in student learning assessment. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois and Indiana University, National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment.

Upcraft, M. L., & Schuh, J. H. (1996). Assessment in student affairs: A guide for practitioners. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Ward, D. (2000, January/February). Catching the wave of change in American higher education. Educause Review, 35(1), 22-30.

About the Author

Matthew Fuller, Ph.D., is Assistant Professor and Coordinator of Higher Education Administration at Sam Houston State University. Dr. Fuller serves as the Principal Investigator for the Survey of Assessment Culture, a nation-wide annual survey of factors influencing institutional assessment approaches. He has held administrative positions in assessment at Texas A&M University and Illinois State University as well as positions in Residence Life at Texas A&M University and the University of Alaska – Southeast. Dr. Fuller earned a Bachelor of Arts in Biology, a Master of Science in Educational Administration and Human Resource Development (Emphasis in Student Affairs Administration in Higher Education), and a certificate in College Teaching from Texas A&M University and a Ph.D. in Educational Administration and Foundations from Illinois State University. He is a 2008 recipient of the Association of Institutional Research’s Julia Duckwall Fellowship and a 2012 fellowship with the National Center for Educational Statistics’ National Data Institute. Dr. Fuller’s research agenda focuses on the foundations of assessment, assessment cultures in higher education, and the history of higher education.

Please e-mail inquiries to Matthew B. Fuller.


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 Staff Office.

Women As Leaders & Caregivers: Queering Color. Racializing Gender. Disrupting Heteropatriarchy.

Women As Leaders & Caregivers: Queering Color. Racializing Gender. Disrupting Heteropatriarchy.

Risë Nelson Burrow
Cornell University
Columbia College
Elsie Gonzalez
University of Connecticut
Laila Al-Chaar
University of California – Los Angeles
Sharon Chia Claros
University of Southern California

In celebration of our 40th Anniversary, members of the Standing Committee for Women are pleased to sponsor a Series in Developments. Our Series, “Women As,” explores how women’s intersecting identities (race, class, gender expression and performance, sexuality, religion, etc.) impact women’s experiences in different roles. Thus, authors share their ideas as women who are leaders, faculty, caregivers, and/or students. In support of a feminist approach to research and learning, articles will reflect an array of insights including practical strategies, research findings, lessons learned, arts-based research, visual inquiry, narrative inquiry, and reflections. We encourage you to utilize the discussion questions included in each article to stimulate your thinking and enhance your work in the classroom and/or workplace.

The foundation of this article lies in our narrative stories as women of color serving as leaders and caregivers in academia, in our homes, and in our communities. This article serves as a platform to express our often silenced voices and to discuss the connections and the development of our intersecting identities. The very essence and counter-cultural presentation of our collection of narratives challenge historically oppressive paradigms that are rooted in sexism, racism, and heterosexism.

Using the framework of Scholarly Personal Narrative (Nash, 2004), we give testimony to our personal experiences in the academy with the goal of highlighting how we make meaning of how we live our lives in our own authentic ways, outside of what society expects of us. Nash (2004) writes, “…sharing of our personal stories, particularly in the willingness of professionals to listen to the stories of others, that we make the deepest connections with those we are serving” (p. 2). Through giving voice to our experiences as women of color with diverse identities, we hope our narratives will be used to discuss implications for developing culturally inclusive communities in student affairs and to explore the politics of solidarity that speak to the heart of social justice ally development.

Conway Speaks…

So, I’m newly “Gay for Pay,” meaning I get the pleasure and responsibility of working for LGTBQ equality while being paid at the same time. I’m the brand new, first ever, full time Coordinator for LGBTQ Culture and Community at Columbia College Chicago. The first ever person of color. The first ever non-Columbian.


I mean Columbia hired me because I am qualified for the job. I am sure of it, but am I really though? I mean they hired me to be QUEER. An all-knowing, walking resource for all things L.G.B.T.Q.A.I.TS. And I know what it means to be gay. I am gay so I understand what it’s like to love someone that the grander society deems queer in nature. I get the familiar struggles: the struggle to be your full self wherever you are, the constant negotiations on safety… physical, psychological, familial, spiritual… and I know also what it means to make space for myself; to create a chosen family; to know the utter bliss of romantic closeness on my terms.

But I also know that LGBTQ folks just ain’t LGBTQ folks. We are the intersection. We are Queer And…

And well. I only know what it means to be Queer And…


Queer and Womyn

Queer and Middle Class

Queer and Able Bodied

Queer and a Spiritual Seeker

Queer and From Chicago

And this last identity is important because segregation is real here. Really real. So because I grew up on the south side with only black folks and other lower-middle class and po’ folks…well that’s really all I KNOW. But Columbia wants me to be EVERYBODY’S GAY, and the hard fact is I got some major work to do. But we all feel this pressure right?

Hire the magician

Go to that “committee” meeting

Order the popcorn

Write your monthly report, don’t forget the needs assessment

Meet with a student

Be self-actualized so you can be a good model for the students you collaborate with

Prove to your super that it really is a good investment to send you to that national conference AGAIN

Save the world

Learn what it’s like to be Queer and Jewish

Queer and Latina

Queer and Catholic

Queer and Deaf

Queer and A TEEN

Queer and Upper Class

And queer and…

And there are not enough hours in the day, and they damn sho ain’t paying me enough, and honestly I’m tired of fighting for folks to acknowledge how beautiful I am, but c’est la vie, right? I’m out here in this water. That’s a fact, and when I wipe the tears away from my eyes I see that you’re out here too, and I’m starting to breathe again because that horrible weight of feeling all alone in a world full of sorrows is melting away. And I’m starting to think that this whole thing could actually be some fun. Sharing our Queer And… Stories. I start thinking on the swimming unicorns and singing mermen in drag. Let’s dive in.

Not only does Conway’s telling of her story lead to a greater awareness of how she has been oppressed, she can continue her/our struggle to end these acts of oppression and find liberation through this non-traditional approach to self-authorship (Baxter Magolda, 2010) and work (Delgado, 1990). As her narrative suggests, the issues of place, role and support must be explored in the hiring of pioneer administrators who are also of marginalized identities. One might also consider the ways in which Conway’s approach to reflection and narrative can model to students and colleagues an incorporation of self-authorship (Baxter Magolda, 2010), queer theory (Hennessey, 1994) and critical race theory (Dunbar, 2006) in social justice and student development strategies.

Reflection and Discussion Notes

  • What is the climate like at your institution for LGBTQIA individuals? Do you feel you can safely be open about your identity as a person who identifies as LGBTQIA or about advocating for the LGBTQIA community on your campus? How does this make you feel, and how does this impact your campus? How can you find courage and community to create change for yourself and/or others to be safely open about their sexual and intersecting identities?
  • As scholar-practitioners, many of us have clear lines between our professional and personal lives, and at times we may struggle to be fully ourselves on the job. How can you model different ways of authentically embracing all of yourself for the students and colleagues with whom you engage? For this question, it might be helpful to complete the sentence, “I am…” with as many descriptive words as are true for you. Then think about which identities are shown/known at work, which of them you’ve hidden, and how you may live all of these out more fully in the workplace.
  • In a perfect world, we are more than qualified to perform with perfection every aspect of our jobs. Most times you will find that there is a significant learning curve, especially when taking on a new position. In what ways can you/do you manage feelings of inadequacy when undertaking a new position or project? What reminders can you give yourself about the truth of your own goodness?
  • The usual workforce pressures of time, funding, space and productivity may seem even more complicated in student affairs, where the boundary between personal and work life may be especially blurred, given the amount of sacrifice of time and self we give up to student success. Conway shared that when she wrote her narrative, she was in tears at her desk because she understood that if she didn’t take the time to release what she was feeling, she wouldn’t be productive at all as a leader and caregiver in her new position. To demonstrate that we acknowledge the sacredness of caregiving, scholar-practitioners must share our stories and take time to care for ourselves. We must also call upon other caregivers (parents and others) working in student affairs to do the same. Doing so, we allow the sacredness of caregiving to radiate through our work through the care that we show to ourselves, our students, to our campus and community partners towards the development of whole learners and communities. What are some of your most helpful tools for self-care? How can you incorporate them into your daily/weekly routine throughout the day? How can you model such self-authorship and radical self-care for students and colleagues as an approach to student affairs and social justice education?

Elsie Speaks…

Okay. Girls in bed. 8:31pm. Here we go…

As I approached labor, I had the feeling I couldn’t stay in the field…How could I take care of 24 staff members, a graduate student, 1,200 residents and my – I need to mention my 2 year old just came down the stairs…

“mami, a book?”

“Estoy trabajando, Eden…”

…“por favorrrrr?” (con esa cara)

Off I go to read a bedtime story!…

It’s 9:03pm. I’m back… It all was too overwhelming, and I was feeling left behind. That past year, all I read were baby books and articles on parenting. I felt clueless as to what was going on in the field. My supervisors offered a compromise: I could flex my working schedule to a later shift to allow me time at home with the baby, and once my partner got home from work, I could go to the office and work with my staff and students. It sounded great and doable… until I was in it! I was a first-time, nursing mom and a Hall Director with very little time for my partner, and forget friends and family…

I felt out of balance, stretched and without community… if there were other working mothers in Student Affairs in my area, I certainly didn’t know them. Are others feeling this? How do they do it? After reaching out through different professional networks and exploring work-life balance groups, I realized—bittersweetly—I wasn’t alone! But reflecting on all our shared experiences, I also questioned whether it was even possible to be a successful working mother in this field.

How can I make this all work?

For fifteen months I concentrated on taking care of my daughter. By day, I read baby books, labeled everything (all in Spanish!—my baby was going to know all about her culture, starting with our language), and baby proofed our campus apartment. By night, I attended programs, did rounds with my RAs, and tried to keep up with professionals in the field. That year and a half stumbled on as I tried to balance my loves—family and student affairs. I was promoted to an Assistant Director position at UConn in Res Life, but WAIT…I was expecting again…

How do I make this all work?

A day in the life of E…

6:00am Wake up, get dressed

6:45am Wake up the girls for breakfast, prep them for school

7:40am Get girls’ belongings and pile them into the car

7:50am Drop off at school

8:15am Commute to work (catch up with family via phone)

9:15am-5:00pm Work

5:00pm-6:00pm Commute home (return calls I was unable to answer at work)

6:00pm-6:45pm- Gym (on a good day!)

7:00pm Home! Prep/eat dinner

7:30pm Girls’ bath, books, bedtime

8:00pm Clean up

9:00pm Time with my partner

10:00pm-11pm Work? Bedtime?

…did you analyze data for that report?… did you see what I posted five minutes ago?… clean the house?… go out with your partner?… are you going to the staff meeting Sunday night?… worship service?….

Just staying afloat …I am

God Seeking












Making it all work.

In creating inclusive campus environments, student affairs practitioners would want to consider the role and identity of mothers in their event planning and office scheduling as well as the prevalent assumptions and behaviors that support or undermine working mothers in student affairs (Nobbe & Manning, 1997). We must rethink the messages that we send to all scholar-practitioners about the life-work balance, evaluation standards and merit structures. In having these difficult conversations and in implementing an equitable (and frankly, responsible) policy change, we show strength in resistance of antiquated, patriarchal norms of caregiving and work commitment. Considering the full unique personhood of the working mother in student affairs, we honor the heritages and identities of our own caregivers, and we create more inclusive environments that are reflective of our value of healthy children and whole communities.

Reflection and Discussion Notes

  • The complexity of balancing family obligations and work responsibilities can significantly impact retention rates and the professional trajectory, particularly for working mothers. When performance evaluation and promotion in student affairs often seem to correlate with hours worked, caregivers may feel that they have to fit twice as much work as the next (non-parenting) person into a shorter work day. This can inform the sense of equity in the office, which can be compounded by factors of age, gender, race, class, faith, and other aspects of identity. Take a moment to reflect on your organizational dynamics and implicit attitudes, evaluation/promotion practices and unspoken expectations, family needs and cultural values.
  • How does your office, division or university currently demonstrate its commitment to supporting the life-work balance as you work to support healthy family and student life? How do you feel you might advocate for yourself or others at your institution or in the field who identify as caregivers so that one does not feel disconnected or fragmented from their family identity or professionally “left behind,” as suggested in Elsie’s narrative?
  • How do/would you honor your identity as a caregiver for your family as your primary priority while successfully carrying out the many meaningful and pressing duties that your supervisor, students or environment—and performance evaluation—may argue are your only priorities?

Laila Speaks…

There are days when our minds won’t turn off, when processing is a necessity, and the feelings take over our day. This piece represents the struggles and ENDLESS thoughts that we as students, caregivers, leaders, and educators can’t escape or stop because life keeps moving. As a proud Muslim, Bi-racial, Queer, Woman of Color I have recognized that my journey to my authentic self will always be a continuous process. The need to gain recognition and understanding by loved ones will always linger, but the struggle to exist freely and authentically will always be present in my life.

As a professional in the field of higher education there is an essence of vulnerability in the work we do. We bring forth the narratives of those that have been silenced in order to facilitate a platform for students to make meaning of who they are and what that might mean to the world. It is within my own personal narrative that I as a woman have found the strength to challenge historically oppressive heteronormative and patriarchal norms. I can only hope that my story will find its way to another woman like myself, who at some point believed that she might be the only Muslim, Bi-racial, Queer, Woman of color, only to find out that she isn’t alone anymore and neither am I.

[Video: Access code: acpaobp]

Beginning her video narrative with the question of “Who Am I?,” Laila navigates through a reflection on self-authorship, eventually exploring how she has come to know what she knows of herself and her reality, and then how she wants to construct relationships with others (Baxter Magolda, 2010). Scholar-practitioners might consider here the steps of sharing their personal stories in order to know not just themselves but their students and their communities in a more connected, meaningful way in the journey towards self-authorship. Knowing who we are, who they are, sustaining these difficult conversations and supporting each other all the way—these journeys towards self-authorship and living authentically are all just stories away, and can humanize the academy and reaffirm our increasingly diverse campus communities.

  • As our personal identities evolve through our personal and professional lives, how do/would you choose which identities to present in the work place? How do/would you navigate “coming out” when your identity shifts (i.e. divorce, having a baby, losing a baby, coming out as LGBTQIA, or differently abled, etc.)? What supports do you need in this process? To whom/what departments can you turn for this advocacy and institutionalized support?
  • The vulnerability with which Laila approaches her narrative and the openness to which she bravely welcomes her students to discuss and share in her story are critical to her effectiveness and reach as a campus leader. Through visual inquiry, Laila also shows herself to be the life-long learner, the researcher of her own history and realities, the scholar of her own experience, synthesizing and making meaning of all of these varied experiences, in the face of discrimination and isolation, even from her family. Even as she speaks to her family’s difficulty to accept her queer identity and the transition of her partner, she proudly exclaims “Hell yeah, I’m still queer!” testifying to the fact that not only does she know who she is, she loves who she is. How do you navigate spaces that challenge your identity, whether that is a student, professional, family, or community space?
  • What tools and support do/would you seek out in order to process your experiences and to continue learning and speaking your truth (through any medium) so that you may also testify to knowing and loving who you are? How can you help create a safe space for students to learn about themselves and proudly speak about their whole, authentic selves?

Implications for Higher Education

These narratives seek to break the homogeneity of the ascribed predominant culture to extend the limits of what counts as valid, as right, as beneficial to the academy and to our learning and home communities. “Good teaching, good helping, and good leadership are, in one sense, all about the storytelling and story-evoking… Our stories are symbols for what constitutes personal and professional meaning for all of us” (Nash, 2004, p.2). We challenge readers to use such non-traditional approaches to scholarship to model how this can be done, how women can serve simultaneously as leaders and caregivers, educators and learners, and to engage increasingly diverse constituents. We hope these stories evoke our readers’ own practices of reflection and truth sharing, so that you may also interrupt silent assumptions of who you are or who you “ought” to be. In this way, we extend the limits of what counts—as scholarship, caregiving, leadership, access, and equity. We define for ourselves what counts, and most importantly, who counts.

Co-Authors’ Notes

The call for submissions from ACPA-College Student Educators International’s Standing Committee for Women (SCW) that welcomed approaches beyond the traditional paper format and supportive of a feminist approach immediately resonated with each of this manuscript’s collaborators. The co-authors are all united as friends, colleagues and women of color in higher education who are all equally committed to the success of the students with whom we work, to the inclusion of women’s voices and pertinent theories in Higher Education, and to the promotion of the experiences and ideas of Womyn of the Global Majority. However, there are diversities between us, and this text represents our varied voices and experiences in student affairs:

Conway, Elsie Gonzalez and Laila Alchaar bravely and proudly share their reflections on their diverse identities from within the field told in a number of creative ways, and their narratives span a wide array of intersections. The voice of Risë Nelson Burrow is woven throughout the text in its development and editing. Sharon Chia Claros originally submitted the accepted ACPA convention presentation proposal that the SCW invited us to turn into a publication for its upcoming “Women As” series in ACPA’s Developments. Sharon’s original presentation proposal provided the theoretical foundations and frameworks for our co-created manuscript here.

Readers may find varying names used in describing cultural identities, such as LGBTQIA, caregivers and women. This is not meant to confuse the readers, but rather to reflect the specific contributor’s self-identification and to respect the diversity of (self-)naming within different communities, particularly those that have been marginalized.

The discussion notes at the end of each narrative are meant to provide our readers with a pause to consider their own experiences in student affairs and to prompt them to share their own stories. We hope some, if not all, of these questions will be used in personal reflection, graduate coursework, and in professional development in and out of the workplace.


Baxter-Magolda, M. (2010). The interweaving of epistemological, intrapersonal, and interpersonal development in the evolution of self-authorship. In M.B. Magolda, E.F. Creamer and P.S. Meszaros (Eds.), Development and Assessment of Self-Authorship (pp. 25-43).Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing.

Bell, D.A. (1987). And we are not saved: The elusive quest for racial justice. New York: Basic Books.

Delgado, R. (1988). Critical legal studies and the realities of race – Does the fundamental contradiction have a corollary? Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review, 23, 401 – 413.

Delgado, R. (1990). When a story is just a story: Does voice really matter? Virginia Law Review, 76, 95 – 111.

Dunbar, A. W. (2006). Introducing critical race theory to archival discourse: Getting the conversation started. Archival Science, 6 (1), 109-129.

Hennessey, R. (1994). Queer theory, left politics. Rethinking Marxism 7 (3), 85 – 111.

Nash, R. (2004). Liberating scholarly writing: The power of personal narrative. New York, NY: Teacher’s College Press.

Nobbe, J. and Manning, S. (1997). Issues for women in student affairs with children. Journal of Student Affairs Research and Practice, 34 (2), 124-134.

About the Authors

Rise Nelson Burrow currently serves as the Assistant Director for the Office of Academic Diversity Initiatives and Director of Student Success Programs at Cornell University.

Please e-mail inquiries to Rise Nelson Burrow.

Elsie Gonzalez is currently a Residence Hall Complex Coordinator in the Department of Residential Life at the University of Connecticut.

Please e-mail inquiries to Elsie Gonzalez.

Laila Al-Chaar is currently an Assistant Resident Director at the University of California Los Angeles.

Please e-mail inquiries to Laila Al-Chaar.

Sharon Chia Claros is a Resident Director in the Office of Residential Life at the University of California Los Angeles, and an Educational Doctoral Student at the University of Southern California.

Please e-mail inquires to Sharon Chia Claros.

Conway is the Coordinator for LGBTQ Culture and Community at Columbia College.

Please e-mail inquires to Conway.


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.

From the President

From the President

Keith Humphrey
ACPA President
Cal Poly

At this time of year, one of the most common questions I get asked is, “Has your year as ACPA President been what you expected?”

The short answer is no. I am not sure it ever is what you expect when you lead a dynamic association of creative professionals. It is not about one person, that is for sure. However, I have realized that the longer answer is both yes and no – it was a year of both expectations I could bring with me into the role and surprises that made my term a uniquely special experience.

Like all Presidents who came before me, I entered my year with goals and objectives that I wanted to see occur under my leadership. I am proud to say that many of those were achieved including ACPA’s first Think Tank focusing on our role in creating a civil society and our inaugural Institute for Aspiring SSAO’s that explored how issues of identity impact the most senior level positions. I look forward to seeing these grow in the coming years.

But there were also lots of surprises along the way. I had the honor of experiencing higher education in three other countries and exploring ways that ACPA can assist international colleagues in helping their students and develop partnerships that help U.S. professionals help their students.

We also began the process of leadership transition as Gregory Roberts, one of ACPA’s proudest and most loyal members, announced his resignation in June of 2014. Rest assured, we are working to identify the next Executive Director who will build on all of Greg’s accomplishments.

And the biggest surprise of all has been in the planning for the annual convention. Led by Karen Warren Coleman, the convention team has received over 1,100 program proposals, record numbers of registrants and C3 candidates, and the highest level of networking socials in recent years. They have exceeded expectations.

In less than a week, thousands of student affairs and higher education professionals will convene on Las Vegas as ACPA advances professional development and enjoys the convention team’s hard work at our 89th Annual Convention. We will honor our association’s value of collaboration with others as we co-locate our convention with NIRSA’s Annual Convention. I encourage ACPA members to take advantage of both conventions’ educational curriculum, networking, and exhibits for the fullest possible Las Vegas experience.

We will also transition leadership as I hand over the ACPA Presidency to Dr. Kathleen Kerr of the University of Delaware. Kathleen loves this association as much as those who have preceded her as President, and I am confident that she will be an excellent leader as we enter our 90th year. I am also confident that a year from now her answer to my opening question will also be both yes and no.

Thank you for the opportunity to be your ACPA President. It is a professional honor that I will always cherish.

Please e-mail inquiries to Keith Humphrey.

Follow Keith on Twitter @keithbhumphrey and @acpaprez

The (Lack of) Speech Rights of Student Affairs Professionals

The (Lack of) Speech Rights of Student Affairs Professionals

Neal H. Hutchens
University of Kentucky

Issues involving speech and academic freedom in higher education regularly receive attention in scholarly literature and the media, but typically in regards to student or faculty speech. These conversations rarely involve issues related to the speech of student affairs professionals. As a small step in helping to fill this gap in the literature, I will consider legal standards relevant to the speech rights of student affairs professionals when carrying out their employment duties. A review of pertinent legal standards reveals that, in many instances, student affairs professionals often have limited legal protection for their work-related speech.

To provide some useful context, I first review the shaky legal status of constitutional protection for academic freedom, even for faculty speech directly related to teaching and scholarship. Next, I consider First Amendment standards affecting the speech rights of student affairs professionals at public colleges and universities. In particular, I discuss the implications arising from a 2006 U.S. Supreme Court case, Garcetti v. Ceballos. The column also considers legal standards influencing the speech rights of student affairs professionals at private colleges and universities in addition to those in public higher education.

Academic Freedom and the First Amendment: An Ambiguous Legal Relationship

The concept of academic freedom deals with some of the fundamental purposes of the higher education enterprise, particularly in relation to issues involving teaching and scholarship. Despite the fact that the U.S. Supreme Court has described academic freedom as a “special concern” of the First Amendment, the Court’s decisions have failed to provide clear legal standards that define the academic freedom rights of individuals, whether students, faculty, or staff (Jorgensen & Helms, 2008; Tepper & White, 2009).

Academic freedom first received attention from the Supreme Court in a dissenting opinion in 1952 (Adler v. Board of Education). The issue of academic freedom arose as part of the judiciary’s efforts to curb governmental abuses in the McCarthy era related to attempts to root out perceived Communist plots to infiltrate American society during the Cold War (Tepper & White, 2009). A well-known concurring opinion in 1957 by Justice Felix Frankfurter argued for the need to safeguard intellectual independence at the nation’s colleges and universities (Sweezy v. New Hampshire). Looking to a statement from South African scholars, he discussed the importance of ensuring that higher education institutions should possess the authority to decide, “‘who may teach, what may be taught, how it shall be taught, and who may be admitted to study’” (Sweezy, 1957, p. 263). In 1967, discussion of academic freedom made its way into a majority opinion in Keyishian v. Board of Regents. The Supreme Court discussed the significance of protecting free speech and inquiry in the nation’s educational institutions, describing academic freedom as a “special concern of the First Amendment” (Keyishian, 1967, p. 603)

Despite the strong language in Keyishian and professed support for academic freedom in subsequent decisions (e.g., Grutter v. Bollinger, 2003), the Supreme Court has not provided clear constitutional standards regarding First Amendment protection for individual academic freedom. In fact, legal debate has arisen whether First Amendment protection for academic freedom, if deserving legal recognition at all, should only extend to institutions and not to individuals (Byrne, 1989; Finkin, 1983; Horwitz, 2007; Rabban, 1990).

The ambiguity of the academic freedom cases resulted in courts looking to legal standards dealing with the First Amendment speech rights of public employees in general when considering claims that implicated academic freedom concerns (Areen, 2009; Jorgensen & Helms, 2008; Tepper & White, 2009). However, reliance on this line of cases has proven problematic, creating legal uncertainty and controversy. A 2006 Supreme Court case involving public employee speech, Garcetti v. Ceballos, again raised questions regarding the extent to which individual academic freedom is subject to First Amendment protection. At the same time, the decision resulted in significant limits on when public employees, including student affairs professionals in public higher education, could look to the First Amendment to protect their work-related speech.

Garcetti v. Ceballos Imposes Rigid Test for Public Employee Speech Rights

Garcetti v. Ceballos (2006) involved a deputy district attorney, Richard Ceballos, who recommended the dismissal of a criminal case based on his belief that law enforcement officials had made certain misrepresentations in order to obtain a search warrant. Ceballos discussed his concerns with supervisors and wrote a memorandum recommending the case’s dismissal. His superiors refused to accept his recommendation, and Ceballos eventually revealed his views at a hearing during questioning by the defense. Ceballos claimed in an ensuing lawsuit that he suffered retaliation from his superiors in violation of his First Amendment rights. Specifically, he argued that the memorandum he wrote qualified for First Amendment protection. A U.S. District Court ruled against Ceballos, but the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit determined that Ceballos had engaged in protected First Amendment expression in writing the memorandum.

The Supreme Court, overturning the Ninth Circuit, held that Ceballos could not rely on the First Amendment for his work-related speech. Creating a bright-line legal test, the Supreme Court decided that speech or expression made by a public employee as part of carrying out official job duties was ineligible for First Amendment protection. While the Court reserved the possibility for some type of exception to this test for faculty speech involving academic freedom concerns, the Garcetti standards mean student affairs professionals are unable to receive First Amendment protection for speech determined to be made as part of carrying out official job duties. Speech not made as part of carrying out one’s official employment responsibilities (i.e., speech in a private capacity) is eligible to receive First Amendment protection if: (1) the speech deals with an issue determined by a court to address a matter of public concern; and (2) the governmental employer is unable to offer a legitimate justification to restrict the speech.

Several court cases involving higher education show how the Garcetti standards limit the First Amendment rights available to student affairs professionals for work-related speech. In Vila v. Padrón (2007), for instance, a former community college vice president alleged that her employment contract was not renewed because she had opposed unethical or illegal behavior on the part of the college’s president. Among her claims, the former vice president asserted that she had objected to representations made to the institution’s governing board that an advertising contract had been competitively awarded, when, if fact, it had not. She also alleged that she had warned against improper actions taken in the purchase of a building by the college and had objected to using college funds to pay for illustrating a poetry book written by the daughter of one of the college’s trustees.

The Garcetti standards meant the court’s analysis did not include whether the former vice president was dismissed for the reasons that she claimed. Instead, the federal appeals court focused on whether the speech at issue took place as part of the vice president fulfilling her official employment duties. Determining that all the speech under consideration occurred as part of carrying out these duties, the court held that, under Garcetti, the former vice president could not look to the First Amendment as a legal basis to challenge the non-renewal of her contract, even if her allegations were true.

In another illustrative case, Savage v. Gee (2012), a university librarian, Savage, argued that his employer university violated his First Amendment rights. Savage’s claim stemmed from a dispute that arose as part of his membership on a university committee charged with selecting a common reading book for all incoming first year students. The librarian became embroiled in a controversy when he suggested several books that other individuals on the committee and members of the campus community felt were homophobic.

The controversy over Savage’s actions and his book attracted widespread attention on campus and included consideration by the faculty assembly. Several campus members indicated that Savage’s communications had made them fearful and filed complaints with the institution against him. Savage responded by filing his own harassment complaints against several individuals. Savage resigned from his position and eventually initiated a lawsuit against the university. In his suit, he alleged he was left unable to function in his job due to a lack of institutional support and continuing harassment stemming from his stances involving the book selection.

A federal appeals court held that Savage’s First Amendment claims were negated by the Garcetti standards. Savage had argued that his speech related to his participation on the book selection committee dealt with matters involving academic freedom. As such, he argued, his speech should not be subject to the Garcetti standards, even if involving Savage’s official employment duties. While noting that the Supreme Court left open the possibility of some type of academic freedom exception in Garcetti, the court held that Savage’s speech had too little of a connection with teaching or scholarship to qualify for any such type of exemption. Regardless of whether one approves of Savage’s speech or views, the decision highlights how student affairs professionals possess no First Amendment protection under the Garcetti standards for speech made while carrying out their official job duties. This was the outcome in Savage even though the speech at issue had a close relation to curricular or pedagogical matters that seemingly implicated academic freedom concerns.

These cases reviewed in this section demonstrate the strict legal standards created by the Garcetti decision. These legal rules mean that student affairs professionals at public colleges and universities are unable to claim First Amendment protection for speech undertaken to carry out their official employment duties. Additionally, employment arrangements that provide limited legal protection to student affairs professionals often accompany this lack of First Amendment protection for work-related speech, both at public and private institutions.

Employment Arrangements and Student Affairs Professionals

Some institutions employ student affairs professionals on a contract basis. This means that, absent a sufficient reason, one cannot end an individual’s employment during the contract period. However, institutions employ many student affairs professionals at both public and private institutions on an at-will employment basis. When someone is employed at-will, it means his or her college or university employer is not required to establish cause in dismissing the person and may do so at any time.

Some constraints exist on the at-will doctrine. Colleges and universities, for instance, must comply with civil rights laws protecting individuals from discrimination (Swift, 2010). Many states have also adopted public policy exceptions to the dismissal of at-will employees, such as not permitting the termination of at-will employees who refuse a request to violate the law (Muhl, 2001). Despite certain limitations a student affairs professional employed in an at-will capacity can generally be dismissed at any time and for any reason, including for issues involving work-related speech.

Student affairs professionals may also receive employment protections relevant to their work-related speech through collective bargaining agreements. These agreements may require sufficient cause before dismissing an employee. In some states, civil service protections may also apply to individuals employed at public colleges and universities. Such protections require some type of appropriate cause to terminate an individual’s employment.

As this brief overview shows, student affairs professionals may possess employment protections that provide, even if indirectly, a degree of legal protection for their work-related speech. Nevertheless, many student affairs professionals do not have the benefit of such legal safeguards for their work-related speech. This state of affairs contrasts sharply with faculty members in higher education employed in tenure-line positions. The absence of speech protections through employment arrangements for many student affairs professionals stands out even more when considered alongside the lack of First Amendment protection for work-related speech for those in public higher education.

Concluding Thoughts

Should student affairs professionals be the beneficiaries of policies and standards that help to provide some degree of legal protection for their employment-related speech? An answer to this question is beyond the scope and space of this column, but it seems an issue well worth raising. Just as some institutions are considering ways to give more voice and employment protections to non-tenure-track faculty (e.g., adjunct, clinical, and lecture faculty), perhaps the issue of employment-related speech rights for student affairs professionals also deserves attention. Colleges and universities benefit from student affairs professionals having a sense of empowerment to provide their honest views on policies and issues affecting the campus and students. As such, institutions should weigh the consequences of not having policies or standards that safeguard the work-related speech of their student affairs professionals.

Discussion Questions

  • Do student affairs professionals on your campus feel secure in being able to offer their views and opinions in carrying out their employment responsibilities? What are the reasons that they feel empowered or not in relation to their work-related speech? Why might they feel the way they do?
  • What kinds of employment standards (e.g., collective bargaining agreements or at-will employment) influence, directly or indirectly, the work-related speech rights of student affairs professionals at your institution?
  • What is your stance regarding the need or not for student affairs professionals to have some type of legal protection for their work-related speech?


Adler v. Board of Education, 342 U.S. 485 (1952).

Areen, J. (2009). Government as educator: A new understanding of First Amendment protection of academic freedom and governance. Georgetown Law Journal, 97(4), 945-1000.

Byrne, J.  P. (1989). Academic freedom: A “special concern of the First Amendment.” Yale Law Journal, 99(2), 251-340.

Finkin, M. W. (1983). On “institutional” academic freedom.  Texas Law Review, 61(5), 817-857.

Garcetti v. Ceballos, 547 U.S. 410 (2006).

Grutter v. Bollinger, 539 U.S. 306 (2003).

Horwitz, P. (2007). Universities as First Amendment institutions: Some easy answers and hard questions. University of California at Los Angeles Law Review, 54(6), 1497-1558.

Jorgensen, J. D., & Helms, L. B. (2008). Academic freedom, the First Amendment and competing stakeholders: The dynamics of a changing balance. The Review of Higher Education, 32(1), 1-24. doi:10.1353/rhe.0.0036

Keyishian v. Board of Regents, 385 U.S. 599 (1967).

Muhl, C. J.  (2001, January).  The employment-at-will-doctrine:  Three major exceptions.  Monthly Labor Review, 124(1), 3-10.

Rabban, D. M. (1990). Functional analysis of “individual” and “institutional” academic freedom under the First Amendment. Law and Contemporary Problems, 53(3), 227-301.

Savage v. Gee, 665 F.3d 732 (6th Cir. 2012).

Sweezey v. New Hampshire, 354 U.S. 234 (1957).

Swift, K. R.  (2010).  The public policy exception to employment at-will:  Time to retire a noble warrior?  Mercer Law Review, 61, 551-584.

Tepper, R. J., & White, C. G. (2009). Speak no evil. Academic freedom and the application of Garcetti v. Ceballos to public university faculty. Catholic University Law Review, 59(1), 125-181.

Vila v. Padrón, 484 F.3d 1334 (11th Cir. 2007).

About the Author

Neal H. Hutchens is an assistant professor in the Department of Educational Policy Studies and Evaluation at the University of Kentucky. His research focuses on law and policy issues arising in higher education.

Please e-mail inquiries to Neal H. Hutchens.


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 Staff Office.

From One Dupont Circle: Quarterly Update

From One Dupont Circle: Quarterly Update

Gregory Roberts
ACPA Executive Director

Greetings to the New Year and to the many activities of the spring semester. It is difficult to believe that we are wrapping up the preparations for the 89th Annual Convention of ACPA. Just imagine what it was like 89 years ago when nine professionals came together to create what is now know as ACPA. What a difference a “few years make.”

2013 is unique in that we are hosting the largest professional development program of the year, the annual convention, with NIRSA – Leaders in Collegiate Recreation, who will be celebrating the 100th anniversary of intramural sports in American higher education. Our focus for this convention is on health and well-being. There is no better way to recognize this agenda than with our colleagues from NIRSA, who challenge our campus communities to become active in some way on a daily basis. Our profession can truly use a little stimulation as it relates to balance, well-being and healthy living.

The substance of our efforts the past two years is reflective of the vision of the future for our profession and how ACPA will rally to the cause to ensure that our profession is as vibrant and visionary as it has been in its first 89 years of existence.

There will be continuous work on the recently approved strategic plan (2013-2016) and we are excited about the vision for the future and the course it outlines for ACPA:

  • Career Development
  • Professional Development
  • Leadership in Higher Education
  • Social Justice
  • Research and Scholarship
  • Association Performance and Excellence

There will be ample time devoted to receiving your additional thoughts and feedback as we move the Association forward. These six strategic priorities are the results of many months of “meetups,” retreats, meetings and conversations with all segments of the Association membership and past leadership. Our “road map” is clear and we are working to create the infrastructure that will support these priorities for years to come.

For those of you who will not join us in Las Vegas, please be alert to tweets, blogs, summaries and other communication that will share the tenor of the discussions from the convention.

Also, at the Las Vegas convention there will be a special memorial for Phyllis Mable, former ACPA President and Executive Director of the Council for the Advancement of Standards in Higher Education (CAS). Phyllis passed away late last spring. The New Professionals Institute (NPI) was named in her honor a year prior to her death and we continue to ask members and friends to consider a contribution to the Phyllis L. Mable New Professionals Institute Scholarship fund. Your contributions may be mailed to ACPA: Mable Institute, One Dupont Circle NW, Suite 300, Washington, D.C. 20036.

Safe journey for those traveling to convention.

Until next time,


Member Needs Guide Strategic Direction of Association

Member Needs Guide Strategic Direction of Association

Jan Davis Barham, Chair, 2012 ACPA Membership Survey Analysis Team
Associate Dean of Students & Director of Tate Student Center
University of Georgia

ACPA-College Student Educators International has always placed strong value on member needs and involvement. Indeed, member feedback was the basis for the Association’s new strategic plan. The following article represents a synopsis of what our members said during the recent member survey, and how the Association plans to use that feedback within the context of building a vibrant, member driven Association.

In spring 2012, the ACPA Membership Development Committee surveyed members to better understand (1) Future Membership Intent; (2) Benefits of Membership; (3) Member Satisfaction; (4) Perceptions of the Association; (5) Member Needs; and (6) Association Involvement. The web-based CampusLabs (formerly StudentVoice) survey was sent to the ACPA membership; of those, 32% responded. The majority of respondents self-identified as female, Caucasian, and from four-year institutions (public and private).

We learned some important things from our members. Below are key findings followed by an alignment between those findings and ACPA’s new strategic plan.

Key Findings

Future Membership Intent

Respondents overwhelmingly intend to renew their membership. Members were very pleased with the Association; 96% of participants were likely or very likely to renew their membership. Two of the biggest factors impacting membership renewal were home institution’s commitment to membership and engagement in a Standing Committee or Commission.

Benefits of Membership

Respondents indicated that there were multiple benefits to being a member of ACPA-College Student Educators International. Participants gave high praise to ACPA publications such as the Journal of College Student Development, Developments, and About Campus. The discount offered for the Annual Convention was also deemed as favorable. Areas of highest satisfaction included the services and activities ACPA provides, publications, research and scholarship, and the Annual Convention.

Perceptions of the Association

In general, survey participants had positive perceptions of the Association. Participants indicated that ACPA fulfills, supports, and lives its espoused values. The highly positive perceptions were consistently reflected among new professionals, mid-level professionals, Senior Student Affairs Officers, and faculty respondents. There were no striking differences among the various demographic groups. Further, both members who attended ACPA Convention in the past three years as well as those who did not attend convention were very positive in their perceptions of the Association. In particular, the largest percent of survey respondents believed that ACPA lives its value of promoting and upholding diversity, social justice, multicultural competence, and human dignity.

Member Needs

From a list of 15 priorities, participants identified areas of highest importance individually. Identified needs varied from professional development to career/job placement. Respondents indicated that some of their needs included increased exposure to scholarship and learning new concepts. It is important to note that the areas of greatest need were consistent among the demographic groups examined (entry-level professionals, mid-level professionals, Senior Student Affairs Officers, and faculty).

Association Involvement

ACPA has always encouraged and valued member involvement. Of the many opportunities for involvement, respondents indicated that Commission and Standing Committee leadership roles were of high value. Participants involved in the Association indicated the greatest level of overall satisfaction with the Association. Overall, respondents indicated their involvement either exceeded or fully exceeded their expectations.

Framing ACPA’s New Strategic Plan Around Member Needs

Member needs were used to finalize the Association’s new strategic plan and to establish goals within each of the strategic directions. The following section aligns the Association’s strategic commitment with data from the 2012 Membership Survey.

Strategic Direction: Career Development

ACPA will enhance opportunities for its members to be intentional in their career progression and make informed career transitions to best lead their constituents and the profession.

Context: ACPA believes that we have a responsibility to society to prepare leaders that enhance the quality of life in the communities in which they work. Our association values the diverse pathways and experiences that individuals follow to their desired leadership role. We support the continuous self-evaluation and personal improvement that fosters the skill development ACPA members need to be successful in their current and future roles. We are committed to promoting career advancement as something that is not limited to just looking for the next job, but also developing programs and services that support and mentor the leaders that follow us in our work.

Examples of Key Findings

  • Career/Placement Services was identified within the data as an area of growth. Suggestions for improvement were provided and ranked in order of importance. One such request was for ACPA to provide more functionally diverse support in placement services.
  • Mid-level and senior professionals expressed an interest in assistance in the area of career advancement

Professional Development

Offer exemplary, innovative, comprehensive professional development, based on the professional competencies as well as emerging issues and trends in higher education, to provide enhanced student service and foster student learning and development.

Context: ACPA is committed to the holistic growth of its members. Toward that end, we capitalize on the knowledge and skills of our members to create a variety of professional development opportunities maximizing diverse delivery methods helping our members develop professionally to better serve students and foster learning and development.

Examples of Key Findings

  • Members rated the importance of 15 priorities based on their professional needs in the next three years. Areas such as learning new practices, exposure to literature, research/scholarship, and contemporary thought in student affairs are examples of higher ranked priorities. Additionally, areas such as assessment, leadership and student learning were highlighted as areas for potential professional development.
  • Networking was an area specifically mentioned as a benefit of the association. The desire to develop professionally came in various forms but the concept was discussed primarily in regard to staying current on trends, practices, and research.

Leadership in Higher Education

ACPA will lead discourse and action in higher education related to the learning and development of college students, our members, and their institutions.

Context: As a comprehensive professional association advancing student learning and development, ACPA is positioned to offer powerful and influential leadership to those whose goals involve promoting student success, both within and beyond student affairs, and higher education. We have a broad membership base, which includes recognized thought leaders, renowned researchers and scholars, and nationally-recognized (and increasingly internationally-recognized) administrative leaders. Additionally, the foundation of this leadership—research and scholarship—is a well-established strength of our organization.

Examples of Key Findings

  • Survey participants indicated a need for the Association to engage in dialogue regarding advocacy, legal issues and internationalization in higher education. This was emphasized at various points throughout the data.
  • The research and scholarship produced by ACPA are viewed as strengths for the Association. The publications produced are viewed as an excellent source of information and an excellent tool for practitioners.

Social Justice

ACPA will lead in advancing social justice, equity, and inclusion across higher education.

Context: Issues of equity and inclusion in our field continue to be a dominant part of the discourse, both within and outside the United States. ACPA has a strong history of advancing social justice in student affairs and higher education. We will build on our foundation as the leading voice in promoting knowledge and practice around issues of individual and group identities and promoting social justice on college and university campuses, recognizing that national, regional, and cultural contexts inform the understandings of this issue. ACPA will help professionals and campuses expand on practices that promote inclusion and ease of opportunity for access to higher education.

Examples of Key Findings

  • Members believe that ACPA lives its value of diversity, social justice, multicultural competence, and human dignity – over 98% of respondents said ACPA “significantly” or “moderately” supported this area.
  • Participants indicated that being a member of ACPA allows access to a vast network of student affairs and higher education professional(s) and scholars. One respondent said “being a member affords individuals the opportunity to connect with others around the world who share either passion for student development, social justice, and developing campus communities that seek to provide an engaged student experience.”
  • Respondents were asked 15 questions related to ACPA’s role in advocacy. Respondents gave especially high marks to the extent to which ACPA fulfills/supports/lives the Association values identified by diversity, social justice, multicultural competence, and human dignity. High ratings were given by all demographic groups.

Research & Scholarship

ACPA will lead in the generation and timely provision of cutting edge research and practice-related professional development resources.

Context: Building on a foundation of research excellence in student learning and development, ACPA is uniquely positioned to lead the field in the scholarship of theory and practice. We seek further to increase the quality and reputation of flagship publications (Journal of College Student Developments, About Campus) while supporting a broad-based array of traditional and innovative formats to make scholarship and practitioner-scholarship accessible to the profession. ACPA will lead the field in emerging forms of scholarship and dissemination using synchronous and asynchronous modes, digital and social media for training and education.

Examples of Key Findings

  • Participants appear to be highly invested in learning and continued growth. Respondents were particularly interested in professional growth in scholarship, learning, and application of learning.
  • Research and scholarship were rated highly among respondents in both importance for the next three years as well as current satisfaction with services and activities.

Association Performance & Excellence

Invest in the Association’s resources, business processes, and workforce to ensure growth and performance improvement.

Context: Organizational excellence is based on key business and people development processes and regular performance measurement. To deliver the best possible results and value to ACPA members and stakeholders, and at the same time ensure organizational strength and sustainability, we will continuously focus on the improvement of overall organizational effectiveness and capabilities.

Examples of Key Findings

  • Participants provided feedback regarding the Association’s leadership and staff attention to customer service and representing member interests and needs. Areas for suggested enhancement included communication and customer service.
  • Participants also indicated a wish for more financially feasible professional development opportunities to include the Annual Convention.


This article is intended to provide a brief overview of findings from the recent 2012 Membership Survey and how data were utilized to direct the organization’s new strategic plan. ACPA is an organization that values member feedback. Findings presented in this article, as well as the full data report, have been instrumental in operationalizing the new strategic plan and serve as a pathway to continued membership involvement yielding an association grounded in the values and belief of its constituents.

Please e-mail inquiries to Jan Davis Barham.

Believing and Achieving: Enhancing Self-Efficacy in First-Year Seminars

Believing and Achieving: Enhancing Self-Efficacy in First-Year Seminars

Rory O’Neill Schmitt
Arizona State University
Dale-Ellen O’Neill
University of New Orleans

“My University Success class helped me realize just how important these first few years in college are. I feel like a lot of freshmen do not realize this until it is too late and they cannot change the situations they’ve got themselves in.” Jennifer 1, Age 18

In the twenty-first century, attending college has become more accessible than ever before. However, current students face challenges in progressing through college to attain degrees. As professionals in higher education, we have a responsibility to not only provide access to college, but also to create an environment that provides students with the tools they need to succeed.

How can we teach college students to create goals, work to achieve them, and persist during challenging times? While there is not a single answer, integrating self-efficacy theory into first-year seminars can promote student achievement. In this article, we will share tips that first year seminar instructors can use to enhance student success.

Enhancing Self-Efficacy in First-Year Success Courses

First-year seminars have become the norm at a majority of four-year American colleges and universities. These classes have been shown to have a positive effect on students’ integration into campus, both academically and socially (Tinto, 1993). Many first year seminars focus on academic skills, identity development, career exploration, campus resources, diversity, and the mission of the college or university.

At Arizona State University and the University of New Orleans, teams of instructors within both universities collaborated to create curricula for first-year seminar courses. They concentrated on self-efficacy as a tool to meet the needs of students. Program directors at these universities provided support and guidance to these instructors in order to assist them in meeting course objectives.

Albert Bandura (1997) described academic self-efficacy as a student’s confidence in his or her ability to complete a course of action that leads to a desired outcome. Students with heightened self-efficacy set their own attainable goals, rather than comparing themselves to others. They view stressors as challenges, rather than threats, and persist in order to accomplish their goals.

Instructors can capitalize on the full potential of first-year seminars by fostering the self-efficacy of their students. They can do this by incorporating Bandura’s (1997) four sources of self-efficacy into the curriculum:

  • Mastery experiences: When students reflect on past accomplishments, they become motivated to achieve.
  • Vicarious experiences: When students observe peers completing a task, they may be more likely to believe in their own abilities.
  • Verbal persuasion: When instructors provide students with encouragement and feedback, students recognize the value of their continual efforts.
  • Emotional state: When students learn in a supportive environment, they gain a positive outlook.

Mastery Experiences: Remember when you achieved your goal?

We incorporated mastery experiences into our first-year seminars by encouraging students to reflect on past academic accomplishments. Students used these reflections as motivation to tackle new challenges, thus nurturing their self-efficacy.

Instructors can incorporate mastery experiences into their classes in a variety of ways. For example, they can direct students to write one-page reflections describing a time that they studied and did well on a test in a difficult subject area. Through this exercise, students are able to identify the specific approaches that they used to help them achieve their academic goals. They can also verbalize how they will use these tactics again. Awareness of their optimal learning strategies can enable them to benefit in the future.

Later, in a large group setting, instructors can lead students in discussing their reflections. This open conversation allows students to share what has been successful for them, while also providing advice to their peers on different ways to achieve. This dialogue builds a sense of camaraderie in the classroom. Thus, instructors can support students’ self-efficacy by leading students in reflecting on past successful experiences, creating an action plan for future success and verbalizing their plan to their peers.

Vicarious Experiences: Now, let’s hear about how your friends achieved their goals.

Vicarious experience refers to students’ observation of others successfully completing tasks. These experiences build students’ self-efficacy by fostering motivation and self-confidence. We implemented vicarious experiences into our curricula by including peer mentoring. Peer mentors in our first-year seminar courses included upperclass students. We invited these students, who had experienced challenges and successes in college, to be guest speakers in our first-year seminars. They shared with students their advice in choosing a major and becoming active in campus life. Instructors can involve peer mentors by selecting upperclass students to co-lead group discussions, activities and presentations. By sharing tips for college survival, peer mentors help to build a community where students motivate each other and empathize with each other’s challenges.

Several students eagerly asked questions when one junior student shared his experience of exploring different majors of study and when a senior student shared her experiences of studying abroad in Chile. The students’ inquiries centered on gathering information that they would need to make changes in their lives, such as switching majors or researching the process for studying abroad. In response to these activities, a student, Shannon, shared with us, “The class helps students decide which careers they are interested in and which majors can prepare them.”

In addition, peer mentoring occurred when students within first-year seminars shared their experiences and guided each other. Peer mentoring can strengthen the classroom community within a traditional setting, as well as within the cyber world. In the course’s Blackboard™ website, instructors can assign students to research co-curricular activities and then post this information to a discussion thread. This forum permits students to share their interests, educate their classmates about campus opportunities, and establish connections. In response to activities like this, a student, Kendra shared that:

The University Success class has had a tremendous effect on me as a first-year student. Not only has the class informed me of the great opportunities on campus, but it has challenged me to become actively involved in the many different activities.

Verbal Persuasion :You can do it!

Verbal persuasion refers to instructors providing students with feedback and support. This builds self-efficacy by aiding students in becoming more aware of the importance of their constant efforts. We incorporated verbal persuasion into our courses through one-on-one meetings and class discussions, which supported students in creating action plans based on realistic self-appraisals. In one assignment, students created three short-term goals and three long-term goals in their action plans, which were specific, measurable, attainable, and time sensitive. Students then deconstructed their goals into daily, weekly, and monthly tasks. This goal setting activity supported students’ self-efficacy, as instructors provided students with positive support and acknowledged students’ strengths and past accomplishments.

Instructors can include verbal persuasion strategies in their courses by meeting with students individually to create specific short-term goals. Throughout the course, they can refer back to each student’s goals, discuss their progress, and recommend resources that are available. During an individual student meeting, Justin, a first-generation college student, expressed feeling overwhelmed by his academic struggles and was given information about the tutoring center. Following the completion of the course, he stayed in contact with his teacher and shared:

My class showed me all the resources on campus for me as a student. I would have never known about the tutoring centers or the career services on campus. It made the transition from high school to college much smoother for me.

Emotional State: We’re all in this together.

By creating an inclusive and caring learning environment, instructors can support students’ positive emotional states in order to cultivate self-efficacy. In our experience as instructors, we realized that it was essential to create a space where students were supported in expressing their hopes and managing their fears. A student, Chandra, stated, “My teacher was able to provide a learning environment that has positively altered my college experience.”

When reviewing the syllabus, first-year seminar instructors can emphasize a supportive learning environment that should be the core of the course. Instructors can include students’ interests and hobbies in the class to create such an environment. In addition, they can also share successes and challenges of their own college experiences, such as how they successfully transitioned into college life.


Integrating self-efficacy theory into first-year seminars involves strategies that include sources of mastery and vicarious experiences, verbal persuasion, and emotional state. These recommended approaches provide instructors tools to create a goal-oriented environment where students are supported and encouraged to persist amidst challenges. Such a classroom culture motivates students and aids them in creating action plans and strategies for college success. Utilizing practices that enhance self-efficacy can enable instructors to support students in achieving their goals in college and beyond. Through promoting self-efficacy in first-year seminars, instructors can support students in believing in and achieving their dreams.

Discussion Questions:

  • What challenges do first-year college students typically encounter today?
  • What do you think hinders first-year students from asking for help?
  • What sorts of collaborative learning experiences do you think can foster community in the classroom?
  • Self-efficacy theory is based on mastery and vicarious experiences, verbal persuasion, and positive emotional states. What other actions do you think could support students in identifying and achieving their goals?
  • How can you promote self-efficacy in your college courses?
  • How can you promote self-efficacy in your co-curricular programs?


Bandura, A. (1994). Self-efficacy. In V. S. Ramachaudran (Ed.), Encyclopedia of Human Behavior. New York: Academic Press, 71-81.

Bandura, A. (1997). Self-efficacy: The exercise of control. New York: W. H. Freeman.

Tinto, V. (1993). Leaving college: Rethinking the causes and cures of student attrition (2nd Ed.) Chicago: University of Chicago Press.


1. In order to exclude any information that may make students identifiable, we have used pseudonyms.

About the Authors

Rory O’Neill Schmitt is a doctoral student in Curriculum and Instruction Studies at Arizona State University. She serves as the Executive Editor of ASU’s journal, Current Issues in Education. She wishes to thank her mentors, Dr. Mary Erickson and Dr. Mary Dawes.

Please e-mail inquiries to Rory O’Neill.

Dale-Ellen O’Neill is a doctoral student in Educational Leadership at the University of New Orleans, where she is also the Coordinator of Leadership and Community Service Programs. She wishes to thank Susan Danielson and Brian McDonald for their leadership and support.

Please e-mail inquiries to Dale-Ellen O’Neill.


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 Staff Office.