Collaborating with Neighborhoods


Collaborating with Neighborhoods

Tracey Walterbusch
Ezra Baker

Ohio State University


In this article, we highlight why collaboration was integral to the improvement of Ohio State’s annual Community Commitment event and how it aided two departments to meet their goals. First, we provide overviews of the Community Commitment event, the two key collaborators, and the theoretical framework that guided this work. Then we reflect on the effectiveness of the event including assessment, provide key information about the collaboration, and discuss implications for the future.


Pay it Forward is a student cohort comprised of approximately 20 students. The goal of the program is to expose students to avenues of civic engagement through co-curricular service experiences (Pay it Forward, 2016). One of Pay It Forward’s flagship programs is Community Commitment, a single-day of service during the first week of classes in which over 1,000 students serve at more than 50 nonprofit organizations in the greater Columbus, Ohio area. Community Commitment is one of the largest single day service events on a college campus (Community Commitment, 2016).

Community Ambassadors are students who work in the off-campus area at Ohio State. The program was originally developed in January 2003 (OCSS Community Ambassadors, 2016). The goal of the program is to foster community in the off-campus neighborhoods at Ohio State. The university defines “off-campus” as the housing areas immediately adjacent to the university, where many students live within walking distance to campus. This off-campus area is 2.83 square miles, with 43,996 residents, 1,227 businesses, human service agencies, and institutions, and is comprised of apartments and houses where students, renters, and permanent residents live (The City of Columbus, 2016; University District Organization, 2016). Ohio State is home to a large, diverse population of students who represent many different backgrounds and perspectives. In order to effectively serve the needs of the community, the Community Ambassador program utilizes the Social Change Model of Leadership Development (Astin & Astin, 1996) because of the model’s emphasis on working as a group toward a societal common good.

Theoretical Background

The Community Ambassador program relies upon the Social Change Model of Leadership Development in all collaboration and program development. The goal of the Social Change Model is to integrate previously established leadership models to create a framework for social change in individuals or the community (Astin & Astin, 1996). The model outlines student’s self-knowledge and leadership competence and examines leadership from three different perspectives: individual, group, and community (Astin & Astin, 1996). Individual development is defined as self-awareness and establishment of personal values; group development is defined with an emphasis on collaboration; and societal development focuses on the common good (Astin & Astin, 1996). Individual values include consciousness of self, congruence and commitment; group values include collaboration, common purpose and controversy with civility; and societal values focus on citizenship. The group values of collaboration and common purpose were of particular importance for the Community Commitment event. These values are also collectively referred to as the “7 C’s.”

On- and Off-campus Partners

In order to increase the reach of the Community Ambassador program, the Program Manager of Student Life’s Off-Campus and Commuter Student Engagement (OCCSE) department sought to work with colleagues across campus. One of these partners was the Program Coordinator of Service and Outreach within Ohio State’s Student Activities Department. During the summer of 2014, the OCCSE Program Manager and the Program Coordinator of Service and Outreach met to discuss avenues for potential collaboration. Since the goal of the Community Ambassadors is to reach students living off-campus and the goal of Community Commitment is to create service opportunities, each department saw an opportunity to work together.

The Program Coordinator for Service and Outreach shared that one of the most difficult parts of Community Commitment is accommodating a large number of Ohio State volunteers while not overwhelming community partners. Providing a one-day service event can be difficult because organizations may not have enough service opportunities to complete in just one day. Additionally, it can be difficult to provide a meaningful opportunity for reflection with each service opportunity.

Since community service within the off-campus area is in line with the Community Ambassadors’ mission, the two departments discussed adding an off-campus clean-up to Community Commitment. The goals of the clean-up included the following: to provide a service opportunity to all students who attend community commitment; to clean up the off-campus area; and to educate future student residents about the importance of maintaining a clean neighborhood. Additionally, the event allowed an opportunity for the Community Ambassadors to develop as a group and reflect on the problems of the off-campus area. The collaboration was most effective because it was mutually beneficial to both the Community Ambassador and Pay it Forward programs.

The two departments also invited community partners, campus partners, and students to discuss the prospective addition to Community Commitment. This one meeting provided an opportunity for all members of the community and neighborhood to provide feedback, insight, and offer services for the event. Many collaborators attended the meeting, including: Keep Columbus Beautiful, a community improvement plan and national affiliate of Keep America Beautiful; the University District Organization, a non-profit organization sponsored by Ohio State and the city to bring organizations together; Neighborhood Services and Collaboration, an Ohio State Student Life Department that worked with landlords in the off-campus community; and the Community Ambassadors themselves.

In this meeting, the Program Manager and Program Coordinator asked the partnering organizations and departments to share concerns about this day of service. One of these concerns was that the students were only serving their community for one day. During this meeting, the Program Manager and Program Coordinator emphasized the importance of empowering students to continue serving their communities after the Community Commitment event. A key part of the Social Change Model is citizenship, which demands that students are actively engaged in their community.

Making the Event Happen

In addition to the normal preparation for Community Commitment, the Program Coordinator of Service and Outreach worked with community partners, Community Ambassadors, and Pay it Forward Cohort members to develop the logistical framework for the event. Community Ambassadors worked to map out routes in the off-campus area and collaborated with partners such as Keep Columbus Beautiful to get materials for the off-campus clean-up including trash bags, gloves, and litter grabbers. During the Community Ambassador training, the Program Coordinator and members of the Pay It Forward Cohort provided training for the Community Ambassadors on the logistics of the event, key outcomes, and directions for running a guided reflection.  

On the day of the event, student volunteers attended pre-service training on the importance of keeping the off-campus community clean. The session provided student volunteers with logistical information and risk management information about the event. In addition, in this training students were provided space for pre-service reflection and learned about opportunities to continue their service involvement in the future. One of the Community Ambassadors spoke about his own experience as a resident in the off-campus community and the importance of taking care of one’s neighborhood. The Community Ambassadors each went to assigned streets with a group of three to five student volunteers.

The Community Ambassadors were encouraged to share their stories and their passion for the off-campus neighborhoods with their group during the clean-up. In this way, the event allowed each Community Ambassador to implement every domain of the Social Change Model: they used their own individual leadership, came together as a group, and provided service to the greater society.

Assessment and Reflection

After the clean-up, the Community Ambassadors led the students back to the Ohio Union. Over lunch, the students and Community Ambassadors reflected on their experiences in the off-campus neighborhoods. This allowed the students to discuss the common purpose by encouraging them to collectively evaluate the service project they completed and discuss working as a group to make change in society (Astin & Astin, 1996). As mentioned earlier, common purpose is one of the seven C’s defined within the Social Change Model (Astin & Astin, 1996). When the volunteers left, the Community Ambassadors met for the end of their training, which included a reflection for the Community Ambassadors. One volunteer commented, “it wasn’t until I was walking to campus this morning did I realize how much trash there was on the street.” The Community Ambassadors shared that they were more likely to pick up their own trash and recycling.

Generally, the volunteers for Community Commitment are first-year undergraduate students. Most of these students have not even walked to the off-campus area. At Ohio State, students generally move off campus after their second year living in the residence halls. Therefore, one of the outcomes of the events was increased awareness of the community in the off-campus area and the importance of caring for the neighborhood. Of the 21 students who attended the off- campus clean-up, 15 said they were more likely to pick up after themselves when they lived in the off-campus area.

Recommendations for Collaborations

The University District Organization and Keep Columbus Beautiful were specifically interested in this project and encouraged future collaboration on other off-campus clean-ups. This collaboration between university and city departments was integral to the success of this event. Collaboration can be tricky to navigate, and so the authors would like to provide some insight for future partnerships.

The Program Manager met with leaders across campus and created a collaborative framework that asked departments to reflect on the missions of both their own departments and their potential partnering office. After common goals of each office were identified, they then evaluated which programs in each department needed improvement. Many times departments felt that they must create a new event in order to collaborate with a different department. However, sometimes the best collaborations are adaptations and improvements to preexisting programs.

Second, it was important to invite all of the community partners to the table. Although it sometimes seemed overwhelming to have all members of the community join the meeting, it was important that they all had opportunities to give input and provide feedback. For example, one community partner recommended inviting permanent residents from the neighborhood to attend the Community Commitment event. Since it was the first year of the event, we chose to delay the invitation of neighborhood residents. However, we would recommend that it is always important to invite potential short-term and long-term partners to the planning stages of events and programs to get everyone on the same page.

Finally, a key part of this collaboration was the integration of student leaders. The Community Ambassadors and Pay it Forward student cohort members were given a chance to train one another and lead the development of this event. By integrating not just the professional staff but also the student leaders, the event ran more smoothly, provided professional development for the students, and led to future collaborations. Therefore, it was a benefit for all members involved; the event was more efficient and effective and the students received valuable leadership experience.

The event provided student leaders with an opportunity to engage with the Social Change Model of Leadership Development (Astin & Astin, 1996) at every stage. Student leaders reflected on their personal connection to the off-campus neighborhoods, rallied their small groups around a common purpose and helped society by cleaning up the neighborhoods inhabited by many of their peers. The Community Commitment collaboration has now continued for two years and the current staff in each department expect to continue the collaboration, which has grown to include a similar project on the Martin Luther King Day of Service which delivers winter wellness packages to residents of the off-campus area.

Discussion Questions

  1. With what office or neighborhood partners could your office create a partnership?  
  2. How do you start a conversation with an off campus partner?
  3. How could increased student involvement in programing aid in your success?

Astin, H. S., & Astin. A. (1996). Social change model of leadership development. College Park, MD: The National Clearinghouse of Leadership Programs.

Community Commitment (2016). The Ohio State University. Retrieved from Programs/community_commitment

OCCSS Community Ambassadors (2016). The Ohio State University. Retrieved from

Pay it Forward (2016). The Ohio State University. Retrieved from

The City of Columbus. (2016). Keep Columbus Beautiful. Retrieved September 7, 2016, from

University District Organization. (2016). Discover: University District. Retrieved September 7, 2016, from

About the Authors

Tracey Walterbusch is currently a Ph.D. student in the College of Education and Human Ecology with a concentration in Higher Education and Student Affairs at Ohio State University. She earned her bachelor’s degree in Economics from Ohio State University and her master’s degree in Counseling and Personnel Services from the University of Louisville. She has experience working at four higher education institutions within a variety of departments such as student activities, residence life, off campus and commuter services, and career counseling. During the time of this event, Tracey oversaw Off-Campus and Commuter Student Engagement, a department serving 80% of the student population including both commuters and off campus students.

Ezra Baker earned his bachelor’s degree in Economics and French from The Ohio State University in 2016. As an undergraduate student, Ezra also worked for three years for Off-Campus and Commuter Student Services (OCCSS, formerly Off-Campus and Commuter Student Engagement). He served in multiple roles in OCCSS including as a Community Ambassador and a Student Supervisor of the Community Ambassadors. As a Student Supervisor, Ezra played a critical role in planning and overseeing Community Commitment and other related service events. 

Please e-mail inquiries to Tracey Walterbusch or Ezra Baker.


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.

How Social Identities Affect Students with Autism for Transition to College


How Social Identities Affect Students with Autism for Transition to College

Edlyn Vallejo Peña
Jodie Kocur
California Lutheran University

In 2009, the United States Government Accountability Office reported that students with disabilities now comprise one in 10 college students. A more recent survey of four-year colleges and universities reported that nearly 15% of enrolled first-year students reported a disability (HERI, 2011). The enrollment of college students with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) in particular is projected to increase with growing diagnostic rates and more robust educational supports in the K-12 system. ASD is a developmental disability that can cause college students to experience challenges in communication, socialization, sensory processing, and restrictive and repetitive behaviors (Peña & Kocur, 2013). Today, 30% of students with ASD who complete high school attend college (Roux, Shattuck, Rast, Rava, & Anderson, 2015), rightfully making their way into postsecondary institutions. In 2008-2009, approximately 78% of four-year public institutions enrolled students with ASD (Raue & Lewis, 2011), though that percentage is presumed to be higher today. Additionally, because many students do not disclose their disability once in college, these findings likely under-report the presence of students with ASD (Newman, Wagner, Cameto, & Knokey, 2009).

While access to college is improving for students with ASD, they are less likely to transition to college, compared to students without disabilities and even students with other kinds of disabilities (Roux et al., 2015). Further, the data disaggregated by other demographic factors suggest inequitable educational opportunities among students with ASD across different social identities, such as race/ethnicity and educational background. White students with ASD enter college at greater rates than their racial and ethnic minority peers; 41% of White students with ASD attend college compared to 23% of Black and 29% of Latino students with ASD. Furthermore, over 75% of students with ASD who enrolled in college had at least one parent with a college education. Students with ASD whose parents went to college were three times more likely to transition to college. This is likely because students with ASD must rely more heavily on parent knowledge, support and guidance to prepare for, transition into, and succeed in college than their peers without disabilities (Peña & Kocur, 2013).

Scholars are just beginning to understand the ways in which demographics and social identities shape the experiences of college and college-bound students with disabilities that produce cumulative disadvantages (Peña, Stapleton, & Schaffer, 2016). In one of the few research studies that reports first-hand experiences of college students with ASD, MacLeod, Lewis, and Robertson (2013) report in their findings that, “it is likely that some or all [participants] came from relatively privileged backgrounds. In gaining entry to higher education, they are a minority within the autistic community” (p. 46). What is not yet understood is how the identities of families of students with ASD enable the students to prepare for and transition into college. Because students with ASD typically require greater parental support during these life events (Peña & Kocur, 2013), we qualitatively examined the experiences of 29 parents and caregivers of students with ASD who prepared for and/or transitioned into college life. The research question that guided this particular analysis is: What role do family social identities play in supporting students with ASD to prepare for and transition into college?  


We engaged in a secondary analysis of interview transcripts from a larger study exploring the experiences of parents of college-bound and college students with ASD. The methodological approach of the larger study involved a case study to concentrate on an in-depth analysis of an entity or bounded system (Patton, 2014). Case studies are useful in studying temporal processes to trace experiences, events, and changes over time. This approach allowed us to capture and analyze rich stories and experiences of an unknown phenomenon—the ways in which families as critical support systems play a role in supporting students with ASD to prepare for and transition into college. We employed purposeful sampling (Merriam & Tisdell, 2014) by identifying 29 parents in California whose students with ASD were either engaged in transition planning (while a high school junior or senior) or attending a 2- or 4-year post-secondary institution. To recruit participants, we emailed college disability support offices, clinicians who work with ASD clients, autism support group listservs, and posted on social networking sites.

Parent participants completed a demographic questionnaire and interview, lasting approximately one hour. The semi-structured nature of the interviews allowed us both the structure and flexibility to follow the parents’ lead when their recollections were rich and relevant. All 29 interviews were audio-recorded and transcribed. In our data analysis of the interview transcripts, we first conducted a within-case content analysis of individual participant transcripts in which we engaged in coding of text. We identified significant statements and core meanings about the role social identities played in supporting the postsecondary transition and development of each student with ASD. We then engaged in a cross-case analysis, enabling us to review and revise the codes across participants, grouping them into over-arching themes that answered the research question.


This section begins with a description of demographic information and privileged identities of the families who participated in the study. We then present themes that represent the experiences which contributed to supporting the transition of students with ASD to attend college.

Privileged Identities

Important demographic trends emerged in terms of race, parental education, and household income of participants. Of the 29 participants, 24 participants identified as White. Three participants identified as Latina/o and two as multiracial. As far as parental education, only one student with ASD, of the 29 represented in the study, lived in a household in which neither parent had ever enrolled in postsecondary education. Two participants indicated that at least one parent in the household had experienced some college or postsecondary education. The overwhelming majority of parents had either graduated from a four-year college (n=11) or earned a graduate degree (n=15).

The majority of the parents in this study came from middle to high-income households. Of the 28 participants who answered the question about household income, 23 indicated that the household income was over $90,000 per year. This is at least $30,000 more than the median income for families in the state of California (where the study was conducted), and about $26,000 more than the median income for families in the United States at the time of the study (U.S. Census Bureau, 2013). Noting the household income of the participants is important because it signals access to critical therapies and supports that insurance companies and school districts may not cover or offer. At least 22 of the 29 parents reported spending hundreds to thousands of dollars annually on one or more of the following: speech therapy, social skills sessions, an attorney or advocate, tutoring, occupational therapy, an educational aide or tutor, college preparation program, and a psychiatrist or psychologist. One parent noted, “he went through the Fast Forward [reading] program, which totally is the best $3000 worth I spent.” This level of collective wealth, educational status, and racial privilege among participants likely provided advantageous opportunities for transition into college; this is supported by the existing literature on cultural capital, social capital, and student success (Bourdieu, 1986), as explored in the sections that follow.

High Parental Aspirations

Given that nearly all of the students with ASD lived in a household that had at least one parent with some college education, the majority of students grew up with parents who communicated high aspirations for their children to attend college. When asked about the time in which parents began thinking about college as a possibility for their child’s future, 18 of the 29 parents responded with “always,” “it was never a question,” or “it was never not considered.” In contrast, only five participants considered college a possibility when their child was in high school and the rest thought about it somewhere in between “always” and high school. Even when low expectations were communicated by high schools during the transition process, parents presumed competence in their students and developed high levels of aspirations for their educational futures. One parent said that transition planning “was discussed in IEP meetings, but [the school] really didn’t have or provide direction,” echoing the experiences of other students with ASD who experienced low expectations from teachers and administrators. In spite of such structural barriers to transitioning into postsecondary education, parents advocate and coach their students through the transition (Peña & Kocur, 2013), as confirmed in this study.

Exercising Cultural Capital

Parents exercised cultural capital to assist their students with ASD to navigate transitioning into higher education. Cultural capital is known as accumulated cultural knowledge that brings about social mobility, status, and power (Bourdieu, 1986). Individuals who come from privileged identities and experiences tend to accumulate cultural capital to navigate complicated processes, structures, and systems like the transition into and persistence in higher education. The overwhelming majority of the parents in the study employed cultural knowledge and tools to guide students with ASD in three ways. They used their cultural capital to research postsecondary options, navigate policies for transition and admission, and advocate for access to resources to support their college success and retention. One proactive parent explained:

You’ve got to get online. You’ve got to look at books. I think you have to connect with a
professional who has the clinical experience to be able to evaluate if your kid can make it
academically. And then I think it’s a matter of going [to the campus] and researching.

Another parent explained that she “had always talked about [college] because I went to college.” She demanded transition planning from her son’s high school and took her son to her college campus to familiarize him with college life. Other parents guided students in selecting academic majors and degrees—from a “math major and a screenwriting minor” to an associate degree in veterinary technology—in order to maximize their future career opportunities and mobility.

Employing Social Capital

Social capital involves the development of networks and relationships to others in order to gain access to important resources for social mobility (Bourdieu, 1986). Social networks tend to benefit people in privileged positions by enabling them to maintain their power through acquiring critical resources and opportunities. Parents in the study generated and tapped into extensive social networks within and outside of the schools and colleges in which the students attended. Parents generated social capital through relationships with educational advocates, psychologists, and educators to access opportunities, information, and resources to prepare students with ASD for access and transition into postsecondary education. Parents then advocated fiercely to make sure students received appropriate supports as they transitioned into college. This involved generating relationships with key institutional agents at the students’ colleges—from disability coordinators to academic advisors. While parents encouraged the students to develop these relationships, the parents themselves often stepped in. One parent told her son to “just go to [the disability services] office,” but she worried that her son was not yet equipped to exercise his self-advocacy skills. The next day, the parent took it upon herself to email the disability services coordinator to request assistance for her son. By tapping into this institutional agent, the student gained access to accommodations through the disability services office that were critical to college persistence.


The findings of this study document the ways in which parents of privileged social identities—mostly White, college educated, and upper-middle class—mobilized to navigate and support their children with ASD through the transition process. By cultivating and employing high aspirations, cultural capital, and social capital, parents were advantageously equipped with knowledge, social networks, and the ability to tap into resources necessary for preparing students with ASD for college.

The results of the study suggest a number of implications for preparing, recruiting, and enrolling college students with ASD. The activities and practices in which families of privileged backgrounds engaged to mobilize their children’s access and transition into college can be instructive to other families who desire similar outcomes for their children. First, parents should develop high aspirations for their children to achieve a higher education. While students with disabilities typically experience additional educational challenges compared to students without disabilities, they have great potential to access postsecondary settings when high expectations and appropriate supports are in place (Cawthon, Garberoglio, Caemmerer, Bond, & Wendel, 2015). Second, families can make efforts to develop cultural and social capital to access resources important to transitioning to college. Toward this end, families can cultivate relationships with individuals who have college knowledge, visit and read about institutions of higher education, and participate in programs or services that provide access to transition resources.

Prior research has identified inequitable access to postsecondary education across race/ethnicity and parental education backgrounds for students with ASD (Roux et al., 2015). High schools and colleges must reconsider the ways in which they reach out to students with ASD and their parents, especially from disadvantaged backgrounds, to prepare them for the transition to college. Educators must involve parents and their students with ASD from marginalized backgrounds to develop college aspirations, advocacy skills, and social networks that will enable students to access and succeed in postsecondary environments. Federally-funded TRiO programs, for example, support first-generation, low-income students, and, in certain programs, students with disabilities specifically. High schools and postsecondary institutions can work with structured programs like these to reach historically underrepresented students with ASD earlier in the education pipeline. The findings of this study add another layer to our understanding of working with the broad backgrounds of students with ASD and provide contextual information about the experiences that lead to increased access and transition for these students.


Two obvious limitations to our findings center on the study’s sample of participants. First, the participants lacked diversity in terms of race/ethnicity, educational background, and family income status. Thus, the participants are not necessarily representative of families in the United States who successfully support their children with ASD to transition to college, though these kinds of national statistics are not yet available. Second, we did not interview college students with ASD themselves. Without their voices, an incomplete body of knowledge about college opportunity, access, and choice is constructed. Adding the voices of students with ASD to future research will enrich our conceptions about transition experiences to college. In addition, future studies should consider studying experiences of students with ASD from an intersectionality framework. Intersectionality provides an appropriate lens from which to examine the ways multiple social identities—race/ethnicity, first-generation status, socioeconomic status—intersect along a continuum of (dis)advantage and (dis)empowerment for people with disabilities of all backgrounds (Peña, Stapleton, & Shaffer, 2016). Lastly, future studies should also include an exploration of institutional practices and cultures in supporting students with ASD to transition to college. Identifying patterns of systemic behaviors and policies will uncover enabling and disabling structures for the growing number of students with ASD entering our colleges and universities.

Discussion Questions

  1. Describe ways in which postsecondary institutions, particularly programs focused on outreach and recruitment of students, can reach out to historically underserved students with ASD and other disabilities.
  2. In what ways can institutions of higher education work with the K-12 system to develop college aspirations, advocacy skills, and social networks among students with ASD to enable them to access and succeed in postsecondary environments?


Bourdieu, P. (1986). The forms of capital. In J. G. Richardson (Ed.), Handbook of theory research for the sociology of education (pp. 241-258). New York, NY: Greenwood Press.

Cawthon, S. W., Garberoglio, C. L., Caemmerer, J. M., Bond, M., & Wendel, E. (2015). Effect of parent involvement and parent expectations on postsecondary outcomes for individuals who are d/Deaf or hard of hearing. Exceptionality, 23(2), 73-99.

Higher Education Research Institute (HERI) (2011). College students with “hidden” disabilities: The freshman survey fall 2010. Retrieved from

MacLeod, A., Lewis, A. & Robertson, C. (2013). “Why should I be like bloody Rain Man?!” Navigating the autistic identity. British Journal of Special Education, 40(1), 41-49.

Merriam, S. B., & Tisdell, E. J. (2014). Qualitative research: A guide to design and implementation (4th ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Newman, L., Wagner, M., Cameto, R., & Knokey, A. M. (2009). The post-high school outcomes of youth with disabilities up to 4 years after high school. A report from the National Longitudinal Transition Study 2 (NLTS-2), Prepared for the U.S. Department of Education (NCSER2009-3017). Retrieved from

Patton, M. Q. (2014). Qualitative research & evaluation methods integrating theory and practice (4th ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Peña, E. V., &  Kocur, J. (2013). Parenting experiences in supporting the transition of students with autism spectrum disorders into community college. Journal of Applied Research in Community Colleges, 20(2), 5-12.

Peña, E. V., Stapleton, L. D., Schaffer, L. M. (2016). Diverse and critical perspectives on disability identity. In E. S. Abes (Ed.), Critical Perspectives on Student Development Theory (pp. 85-96). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Raue, K., & Lewis, L. (2011). Students with disabilities at degree-granting postsecondary institutions.(NCES 2011-018). U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office.

Roux, A. M., Shattuck, P. T., Rast, J. E., Rava, J. A., and Anderson, K. A. (2015). National autism Indicators report: Transition into young adulthood. Philadelphia, PA: Drexel University.

U.S. Census Bureau (2013). Median income in the past 12 months (in 2013 inflation-adjusted dollars) by veteran status by sex for the civilian population 18 years and over with income. Retrieved from

About the Authors

Edlyn Peña is an associate professor and director of Doctoral Studies in Higher Education Leadership at California Lutheran University.  She is an award-winning researcher who studies social justice issues for students with disabilities, particularly autism, in the preschool through higher education pipeline. As the Co-Director of the Autism and Communication Center and member of the federal Intergency Autism Coordinating Committee, Peña is best known for her service to the autism community at the state and national level.

Jodie Kocur is an associate professor in the psychology department at California Lutheran University.  Dr. Kocur’s research interests include the transition to postsecondary education for students with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) and the developmental origins of the experience and expression of anger in intimate relationships.  

Please e-mail inquiries to Edlyn Peña.


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.

Mattering, Healing, and Sharing in the Process:  Working through the Trauma of Losing Black Lives (Part II)


Mattering, Healing, and Sharing in the Process:  Working through the Trauma of Losing Black Lives (Part II)

Mahauganee D. Shaw
Shamika N.  Karikari
Miami University of Ohio

In the last edition of Developments, the first part of this two-part article appeared, sharing our personal experiences working through visceral reactions to news of Black lives lost at the hands of police officers.  We focused in on the deaths of Michael Brown, Jr. in Ferguson, MO and Samuel DuBose in Cincinnati, OH. These particular deaths are connected to our respective hometowns and thus provoked deep emotional responses from us. Oddly, it was the experience of feeling the impacts of these deaths on a deeper level that connected us to one another on the journey toward healing. In this second installment, we focus in on the lessons learned from our experiences of journeying from feelings of hurt, sadness, unease, and anger toward engaging in connection, processing, and healing. We encourage readers to read the first part of this article, but also believe that you can gain useful insight from beginning here, with part two.

The Importance of Reflection and Processing

Both of our stories shared in part one highlight the need to reflect on current events and process the impact of those events on one’s life. The importance of taking time to individually and collectively reflect cannot be overlooked. Reflection should not be only seen as an exercise that sounds helpful but one that also provides an opportunity to be honest with yourself, sort out your thoughts and feelings, process with others, and allow some of the “stuff” to be put down (even if only briefly). Taking time to pause and sit with one’s feelings can be difficult. It is much easier to stay busy and active. However, if we do not take the proper time to stop and deal with our feelings in a productive and healing way, those emotions will eventually come tumbling out in a less healthy and more unproductive manner. Acknowledging emotions does not have to be a drawn out process taking several hours. Below are some strategies to consider as productive approaches to personal reflection and processing with peers:

  • Google document: Mika keeps a google document that is an ongoing journal of her thoughts and feelings. Some entries are just a few sentences, while others are pages long. This allows her to jot down thoughts when she has them but not feel the pressure to spend lots of time writing and expressing feelings if she is physically, mentally or emotionally exhausted.  

  • Take 5: Whether you close your office door or leave your office, take five minutes to yourself. Mika may shut her office door for five minutes to breathe and sit in silence, while Mahauganee will shut her office door to either listen to inspirational music or have a small dance party. We both will sometimes leave to walk outside to get fresh air, reflect, and refresh. Those 5 minutes allow us to come back and give in the ways needed.

  • Find your people: Each of us has a few people we trust and can always go to. Reach out to them.  Allow folks to walk with you and process together. It can be helpful for both parties. Additionally, consider reaching out to new folks who might be feeling similarly and could be helpful. It could feel risky initially, but we have found strength and community results from vulnerability.  

For each person, what will work best and what is needed will be different; however, finding out what that is and then acting on it is imperative for well-being. Taking an active role in personal healing may inspire others to do the same.  

Interactions with Colleagues

Time does not have to be a barrier to processing what is happening around us. Rather than creating new spaces, use existing environments to process and promote healing. Meetings are an easy place for that to occur. Instead of adding extra meetings to your schedule, professionals can utilize recurring meetings to promote healing. Below are some examples of what this could look like:

  • Beginning meetings by asking “How are you really doing?”: This might be the only time someone has asked a colleague or student that question and really took the time to listen. You could have people first write their thoughts down and then open it up for anyone who want to share. You could follow it up by asking “How do you need or want support?” or “How are you taking care of yourself?”

  • Weekly Student and/or Staff Meetings: Spend the first 15-30 minutes discussing what is happening on campus and in the world. We might not always know what events are impacting the people around us, but providing a space where people can speak up and share is helpful. Sharing can be freeing, and it allows us to validate the experiences and emotions of our colleagues, thus demonstrating care and concern.

  • 1:1 meetings: Consider using some of your 1:1 meeting time to check in on one another. For this technique to be fully productive, trust must be built; however, if the supervisor continues to ask and show care, trust can be cultivated. As well, the supervisee should feel empowered to request time during those 1:1 meetings to be used to process.  

  • Lunch: Whether one eats lunch with colleagues or alone, this time can be used to be in community.  Consider inviting a colleague to walk around campus together or eat together rather than alone.  

  • Sharing your feelings authentically: Our colleagues and students are always taking cues from us.  Although this is not without risk, when we are vulnerable, we invite those around us to do the same.  That might look like being the first to share how you are doing or reaching out to a colleague to let them know you are struggling (like Mika’s original email reaching out to Mahauganee). When we share authentically, we are healing ourselves and perhaps inviting those around us to do the same.  

Whatever the case, using a time you have already to take care of yourself is important for your healing.  Connecting with colleagues is easier than sometimes imagined, and we have found that most people are willing to connect if we just ask. Mika discovered this when she was struggling with her feelings regarding DuBose being killed:

It was so close to home that I could not shake my feelings.  I reached out to one of my colleagues who did just what I needed; listened. She listened to what I had to say, validated my feelings, and affirmed me for reaching out. It was just what I needed. I did not need to be told how to feel or what to do; instead, I needed to be heard. Reaching out to a colleague can be helpful.  

Working with Graduate Students

Within Student Affairs, many of our colleagues are graduate students. As campus professionals we may be assigned as supervisors, instructors, or advisors to graduate students who are enrolled in higher education/student affairs professional preparation programs. Working with these students is arguably the most important part of our positions, as we help students to prepare for full-time employment in the field. One of the largest mistakes we can make is to not provide space and opportunity for graduate students to process events happening in the world outside of our campus.  Although this article is focused specifically on incidents surrounding the loss of Black lives and the criminal justice system, there are other incidents that also warrant processing. Some examples from the recent past include: White supremacist rallies in Charlottesville and other cities, student activism at the University of Missouri and other campuses, the ongoing Flint water crisis, active shooter incidents at multiple institutions and the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, the flurry of targeted executive orders in the Trump administration’s first 100 days, terrorist attacks in various countries, and the Boston Marathon bombing.  

There does not need to be a constant focus on current events in one’s interactions with graduate students, but there should be acknowledgement of impactful events in our relationships with students.  The suggestions in the previous section can be adapted to supervisory relationships with graduate students. In the same way that space can be provided at the beginning of a class meeting or a 1:1 supervisory meeting, similar space can be provided in advising sessions with students. Whether one meets individually with advisees or hold group advising sessions, there should always be time to check on students’ well-being. This check-in may lead to processing current events. If one is uncomfortable with processing, an alternative is to direct the conversation toward understanding how an event may impact a student’s ability to focus on their work. This understanding is helpful in better directing the student toward other people or resources that may be more helpful than discussing their feelings with their advisor.  

While advising and supervisory meetings may provide one-on-one space to discuss current events, the classroom provides a group processing space. Given that courses usually begin with a plan for how time will be spent throughout the semester, it is easy to approach course structures as rigid and unchanging.  However, minor adjustments to weekly course meetings can provide the space needed to process impactful events. Because graduate-level courses usually have longer meeting times, there are more options in terms of how to adjust in-class time to incorporate current events:

  • Intersperse current events into discussion of pre-planned course topics: For example, the incidents surrounding the deaths of Michael Brown, Jr. and Sam DuBose can be used as pedagogical material in course meetings that focus on several different topics: counseling, institutional governance, leadership, diversity, race, equity, emergency management, campus environments, or ethics. Many courses in student affairs professional preparation programs incorporate such topics. Using a current event to digest a pre-planned topic can advance students toward learning outcomes by helping to make deeper connections to the material.  

  • Include time at the beginning of a course meeting to acknowledge current events: Depending on how much time can be set aside for the conversation, this time may also be used as space for processing people’s thoughts and experiences around those events.

  • Devote a complete class session to the topic: Sometimes, there are events that are so impactful that there may be a need or desire to redirect an entire course session to focus on the event.

An event on our campus in 2015 provides an example of how to incorporate current events. There was a tragic student death that occurred in the local community (Aughagen, 2015); the available details around the death left many with questions regarding campus safety, domestic violence, and emergency counseling services. Upon learning of the student’s death, on a Sunday afternoon, Mahauganee decided to act on that information:

I immediately reached out via email to my graduate student advisees who I was able to identify as living in the area of town where the deceased student also lived. My message noted that I was aware of the incident, wanted to check on their safety, and wanted to know if they were in need of additional support. In my class that week, at the request of students, I provided time at the beginning of class to process the incident and the resulting details that had emerged since the initial reports. I began with a general processing question and allowed the conversation to develop from there. We left that conversation with action items and plans to check-in with various campus offices and administrators to compile a list of the resources in place to assist people within the campus community. Finally, I alerted the other faculty in my program to the conversation in my course. Some chose to provide similar space in their courses, but notifying the students ahead of time that the conversation would occur at the beginning of class. I did have an advisee who excused themself from the conversation in a course; instead, this student spent time in my office processing their thoughts and rejoined their class for the remainder of the course meeting.

What you decide to do in providing space for students to process will likely vary based on your own comfort level with the topics at hand. However, acknowledging that students may be impacted by recent events is essential.

Why Does this Matter?

We are living and working in a time where tragic incidents are commonplace. Self-reflection, care, and healing are important and necessary actions for those of us in helping professions. We cannot fulfill our responsibilities as student affairs educators if we are not working to be healthy and whole. This article is a result of our shared journey toward mattering and healing. This journey has led us to embrace and apply three familiar lessons: trauma is real, healing is necessary, and individual stories matter.

Trauma is Real

News events carry the power to traumatize. We see this time and again. When residents of New Orleans, Louisiana were forced to evacuate their homes and city for Hurricane Katrina in 2005, several recalled the 1965 evacuation from Hurricane Betsy and the resultant destruction. When nine Black parishioners lost their lives inside of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in June 2015, people who regularly gather in houses of worship were alarmed for their own safety, and many who were following the media trail of Black lives unnecessarily lost in 2014, 2015, and 2016 were left weary and burdened with sadness. In this same manner, the July 2015 events surrounding the death of Sam DuBose awakened memories for Cincinnati residents, like Mika, of the disarray and trauma that followed a similar incident in 2001.  

The reactions described in the preceding paragraph, as well as our personal narratives described in part one, are reflective of people who have experienced trauma. In particular, Mahauganee’s experience of drawing inward may trigger mental health concerns for some readers and Mika’s style of recalling (e.g., “I remember…I remember…I remember….”) her reactions to small incidents following Sam DuBose’s death is reminiscent of how people often retell traumatic experiences. Even the exercise of writing this article together had the risk of resulting in a re-traumatization based on racialized experiences (Lowe, Okubo, & Reilly, 2012). While Mahauganee was able to recognize her emotional downward spiral in retelling her experience, she did not recognize it when it originally began. On the other hand, Mika recognized her ability to spiral and reached out for support. It is important for each of us to have the ability to recognize when we are in a traumatic experience, and to identify methods or strategies to heal from that experience. The first step is acknowledging that trauma is real. The information we consume on a consistent basis, whether through the news, social media, or our acquaintances, has the power to traumatize us. Being aware of the power that information consumption holds empowers us to more diligently monitor where, when, and how we consume.

Healing is Necessary

Healing is a process; we hope this is evident in our stories. We cannot ignore the importance of taking the time to heal. Healing is important to do individually and collectively. As individuals, we have found healing to be a necessary and hard process. It does not happen overnight and requires intentionality. For us, individual healing has looked like journaling, meditation, prayer, taking moments to go outside, and being alone, to name a few. Each of these actions has provided us the space and means to go through the healing process.

Healing can also occur collectively. In attempting to heal, we have sought others to come alongside us and relied on community. One of the most powerful ways this has occurred for us was through the Mobilizing Anger Collective (MAC), a group whose members strive to create space and community in which to process instances of injustice, organize actions that make literal and symbolic statements about their shared commitment to social justice, and to galvanize their collective power. Three faculty members (Mahauganee being one of them) organized this group. The first time MAC came together was in December 2014. The faculty members provided a space where the campus community (staff, students and faculty) could come together and start to heal (Quaye, Shaw, & Hill, in press). The two-hour event was filled with honest dialogue, authentic feelings, and vulnerable reflections on how people were really doing. The space was powerful; the energy and sense of community left people wanting more opportunities to connect. MAC continued to meet after this first event and continues to provide a space for people to heal collectively.  

Your Story Matters

We began this journey of writing as a way to help ourselves process our experiences working through racialized incidents that triggered in each of us a flurry of emotions. The journey only began, however, because Mika sent an email when she was at the height of emotional turmoil, seeking someone with whom her experience would resonate. We have shared our stories as authentically and vulnerably as possible, hoping that they will help someone else to gain the courage to share their own.  

Whether one plans to heal individually or collectively, taking the time and space to heal is essential and powerful. When others see us engaging topics that are happening around us, they can feel empowered to do the same. We are all human. In this series of articles, we have allowed our humanity to show, and we invite you to reciprocate.  

Discussion Questions

We want this manuscript to be the impetus for conversation.  Below, are reflection questions that may assist readers in moving forward with beginning conversations with others.

  1. How can you recognize when the information you are consuming is likely to lead to trauma, and what strategies do/could you employ to assist in your healing?
  2. What ways has your institution assisted you or others in the healing process, and what are some ways your institution or your colleagues can do better?
  3. How can you advocate, within your current sphere of influence, for space and time for healing?

As you reflect on these questions, and other topics raised in this article, we invite you to engage in conversation with us in the twitter-sphere. If you are willing, please share your thoughts, responses, and comments with us using the hashtag #BLMhealing. Our personal healing processes were aided by sharing it with one another. We hope the opportunity for a larger conversation can help you to reflect, share, heal, connect, and ultimately claim that your experience matters.


Lowe, S. M., Okubo, Y., & Reilly, M. F. (2012). A qualitative inquiry into racism, trauma, and coping: Implications for supporting victims of racism. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 43(3), 190-198.

Quaye, S. J., Shaw, M. D., & Hill, D. C. (in press). Blending scholar and activist identities: Establishing the need for scholar activism. Journal of Diversity in Higher Education. Advance online publication:

About the Authors

Mahauganee D. Shaw is an independent scholar whose research focuses on moments of crisis and tragedy that impact campus communities, how institutions respond to such incidents, and the process of recovery and healing that follows.

Shamika N. Karikari is a doctoral student in the Student Affairs in Higher Education program at Miami University of Ohio. Shamika’s developing research agenda is focused on the experiences of Black women in student affairs leadership roles.

Please e-mail inquiries to Mahauganee D. Shaw or Shamika N. Karikari.


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.

Inclusive Excellence: What’s Missing


Inclusive Excellence: What’s Missing

Matt Cabrera
California State University, Long Beach


Since my undergraduate years, I have seen and believed that the ideas of diversity and inclusion have been the foci of colleges and universities. More recently, as a student affairs professional, I have been pleased to see these ideas packaged into what is now called “Inclusive Excellence”, a concept that has come to be woven into the work of our many professional associations. It is refreshing to also see many campuses begin to re-envision their mission, purpose, and core values with more intentional efforts towards inclusive excellence.

The Association of American Colleges and Universities (AACU) (Williams, Berger, & McClendon, 2005) defines inclusive excellence as a compilation of four primary foci: student intellectual and social development; development and implementation of resources to enhance student learning; attention to cultural differences students bring to campuses and that enhance the academic experience; development of a welcoming community engaging all diversity in the service of students and learning (p. vi). Williams et al. (2005) also state that inclusive excellence is “where educational excellence cannot be envisioned, discussed, or enacted without close attention paid to inclusion” (p. 29).

However, I see a hole in our work around inclusive excellence, a hole that has continued to be overlooked. This hole is the absence of discussions about the role of spirituality and religion into the rhetoric of inclusive excellence. In the discourse of inclusive excellence, the terms diversity, culture, and inclusion do not seem to include spirituality and religion. Mutakabbir and Nuriddin (2016) have noted that the term “diversity” is a higher education buzzword but “primarily conjures dialogue on race, gender, or LGBTQ issues” (p. xii). Additionally, the four primary elements in the definition of inclusive excellence, according to AACU (Williams et al., 2005), include a list of what to include in the broad category of cultural difference. More specifically, the term “cultural differences” includes “race/ethnicity (e.g. Latino, Caucasian, Asian/Pacific Islander, African American, American Indian), class, gender, sexual orientation, national origin, first language, physical and learning ability, and learning styles” (Williams et al., 2005, vi). However, the list does not include spirituality and religion. AACU (Williams et al., 2005) has stated that there will be a reworking of inclusive excellence “as campus leaders juxtapose the definition against institutional mission, policies, and practices” (p. vi). It seems that this juxtaposing and reworking of inclusive excellence is beginning to take place as AACU (2017) and other institutions are starting to include religion as part of their lists regarding inclusive excellence work. Still, when multicultural or diversity issues are discussed on campus, the focus is usually on race, gender, or sexual orientation. (Mutakabbir & Nuriddin, 2016).

The ethical considerations of our profession call us to serve all students and to address all student needs. Not addressing spirituality and religion in higher education flows against our roles as ethical practitioners/leaders and as educators focused on developing students for successful personal and professional lives, which includes developing their ability to be ethical leaders themselves. How are we being ethical practitioners if we neglect to address and meet the needs of students coming from various religious/spiritual lenses and expose students to the worldviews of religion and spirituality? Also, as educators, we strive to prepare and develop students to become successful in their personal and professional lives. Our students are and will face ethical dilemmas in their lives. It is our hope as educators to prepare and develop our students to become ethical leaders. Providing opportunities for students to explore spirituality and religion will assist in their self-understanding (Astin, Astin, & Lindholm, 2011). Astin, Astin, and Lindolm (2011) pose a relevant question: “If students lack self-understanding – the capacity to see themselves clearly and honestly and to understand why they feel and act as they do – then how can we expect them to become responsible parents, professionals, and citizens?” (p. 2). Exploration of religion and spirituality can facilitate such self-understanding.

In the following sections, I will provide some ideas on the importance of including spirituality and religion in the discourse of inclusive excellence and suggestions on how to address spirituality and religion on your institutions.

Terms and Definitions  

I would like to take a moment to provide some definitions on relevant terms that have historically been used interchangeably and sometimes difficult to define. I focus this article on the ideas of religion and spirituality. But what do these terms mean and how are they different from one another?

Religion is probably the easiest to explain and is simply the beliefs and practices of an organized established denominational institution (Frame, 2003; Stamm, 2006). Spirituality, on the other hand, can be difficult to find agreement among various authors and researchers. However, for the purposes of this article, we will use the definition used in Astin, Astin, and Lindholm’s (2011) seven-year longitudinal study on spirituality in higher education. Spirituality, as they define it, is a multifaceted concept that encompasses and involves our inner lives, affective experiences, the values that we hold important to our lives, our sense of who we are, where we come from, our beliefs of why we exist, our life meaning, our life purpose, our sense of connectedness to others and to the world. Astin et al. (2011) also note that spiritual persons manifest personal qualities such as love, compassion, and equanimity.

The Importance of Spirituality and Religion

Why should we even include spirituality and religion into the discourse of inclusive excellence? According to Williams (2006), real inclusive excellence needs to be measured by how well the campus as a whole meets the “needs of all students, regardless of socioeconomic, racial, gender, or other characteristics” (p. 17). Religion and spirituality are identities or characteristics that are part of the student body that institutions serve. The Interfaith Diversity Experiences and Attitudes Longitudinal Survey (IDEALS) indicates that of the 20,436 first-term students in a 2015 cohort from 122 participating institutions (a mixture of public and private institutions), 41% identify as “both religious and spiritual,” 26% identify as “spiritual, but not religious,” 22% identify as “neither religious nor spiritual,” and 11% identify as “religious but not spiritual” (Mayhew, Rockenbach, Correia, Crandall, & Lo, 2016). Thus, there are a sizeable percentage of students on our campuses for whom religion and/or spirituality play an important role in their identity and their college experience.

Student development, intercultural competencies, and global citizenship have also been desired outcomes of inclusive excellence (Whitehead, 2015; Williams et al., 2005). Various researchers have indicated the attainment of many of the same desired outcomes when spirituality is addressed during a student’s collegiate years. More specifically, improved self-esteem, civic responsibility, empathy, cultural awareness, life satisfaction, commitment, community service, and self-knowledge are positively affected when spirituality is addressed (Astin et al., 2011; Geroy, 2005; Sikula & Sikula, 2005; Hoppe, 2005; Capeheart-Meningall, 2005).

Additionally, there is a link between spirituality and mental health. Astin et al. (2011) reveal the negative correlation between a student’s psychological well-being and the increased demands of college/academic work paired with the stress of finding life balance. Also, the American College Health Association (2017) cited depression and anxiety as among the top obstacles to academic performance. Astin et al. (2011), however, indicate that psychological well-being is positively affected through a student’s spiritual growth. I hope that through this short discussion, we can start to see the importance of including spirituality and religion into the conversion of inclusive excellence. How then might institutions and higher education professionals include spirituality and religion into their focus of inclusive excellence?

Approaches on How to Address and Support Spirituality and Religion

Step 1: Know Your Students

In 2015, AACU published a document entitled “Committing to Equity and Inclusive Excellence: A Campus Guide for Self-Study and Planning.” Part One of this document provides a list of guiding questions for higher education leaders to ask as part of their foundational work towards inclusive excellence at their campuses. The first question in Part One of this document is to know who your students are and will be. This is a critical step in also addressing spirituality and religion into a campus’ commitment towards Inclusive Excellence. Aside from the age, ethnicity, gender, and other typical data points that are collected about students through departments of institutional research, what other data points are missing to truly know who students are at our institutions? As already stated, a majority of students nationally are already identifying with specific religious and/or spiritual traditions. Are questions asked about their religious/spirituality background and/or viewpoints? Are questions asked about their dietary needs, which may be part of their religious/spirituality adherence?

In addition to the students who affiliate with traditional forms of religion and spirituality (i.e. Muslim, Jewish, Christian, Buddhist, etc.), it is also important to acknowledge that there may be another group of students on your campus that are part of an unaffiliated group known as the “nones” or the “unaffiliated millennials.” The “nones” or “unaffiliated millenials” refer to persons who identify as atheist, agnostic, those who state that their “religion is nothing in particular” (Lipka, 2015, p.1), or those who “are less able to articulate their sense of spirituality” (Thurston & ter Kuile, 2016, p. 4). It is important to be aware of this other group of students to avoid marginalizing them when addressing spirituality and religion for the common groupings of students who specifically affiliate with a religious and/or spiritual tradition. Knowing and understanding your campus community is an important first step.

Step 2: Do Additional Research and Develop a Framework

The next step is to develop a framework based on the theory and research to better serve your students and the campus community. In my own research focused on addressing spirituality in public higher education, I used the five measures of spirituality developed by Astin et al. (2011) as my theoretical framework. Through their seven-year longitudinal study, Astin et al. (2011) identified the following five measures of spirituality as five aspects of students’ spirituality – Spiritual Quest, Equanimity, Ethic of Care, Charitable Involvement, and Ecumenical Worldview. For the purposes of this conversation on inclusive excellence, I focus on the measures of Ecumenical Worldview and Spiritual Quest.

Ecumenical Worldview focuses on understanding other countries, cultures, and different religions, developing a strong connection to others, belief in the goodness of others, acceptance of others for who they are, and an understanding that life is interconnected (Astin et al., 2011). Spiritual Quest focuses on the processes of searching for meaning and purpose, attaining inner harmony, and developing a meaningful philosophy of life (Astin et al., 2011).

Through my research, I found at least three viable options that addressed these aspects of spirituality and could be utilized in both public and private institutions – a reflection room, an interfaith center, and student organizations. The reflection room that I studied was a room within the university’s student union, which was open to all persons for the purposes of reflection, meditation, prayer, and/or silence. The interfaith center was a non-proselytizing space that was managed by volunteers from local religious institutions, including Hillel (Jewish community), African Methodist Episcopalian, and the Cooperative Protestant Campus Ministry (CPCM), which represents Presbyterian Church USA, United Church of Christ, Disciples of Christ, and Church of the Brethren. The interfaith center was open to all students from different faith, religious, and spiritual traditions. With regard to student organizations, the university I studied had over 200 student organizations. Of the 200, approximate 30 student organizations had a focus on a specific religion, faith, or spiritual tradition.

Step 3: Figure Out Options

The next step is to identify options to address spirituality at your campus. The following sections provide detail from my research as to how a reflection room, interfaith center, and student organizations can be vehicles for campuses to address spirituality and religion.

Reflection Room.

The reflection room examined in my study was a resource advocated for by students from various backgrounds and supported by the board of trustees of the student union that it occupied. As stated on the sign outside the reflection room, the room was designed as a space for individuals looking for a quiet space for their individual purposes. My interviewees all benefited in many ways from their use of this reflection room. With regard to developing an Ecumenical Worldview, one participant (a Muslim) stated that she had met a number of other students through the reflection room: “I’ve met a lot of people in [the reflection room]. It’s interesting. Not just Muslims, too, non-Muslims. Christians and others come to pray.”

As a vehicle for Spiritual Quest, the reflection room became a place for this student and others to develop a connection with other Muslim students and the desire to become a better person. Specifically she stated: “[Praying] helps me. Just reminding me, you know, being with [other Muslims]. It makes me want to become better and the reflection room helps me go and pray.” Another student summarized the importance of the reflection room as “a place to reflect. It’s a place to grow, it’s a space to, you know, practice whatever it is, you know, you’re practicing. So yeah it’s important.”

Interfaith Center.

Interfaith Centers vary from institution to institution. For some, the Interfaith Center or interfaith programs are integrated and funded through the institution; such an approach is more likely at private institutions. Other institutions house Interfaith Centers through off-campus entities that pay rent for the use of university space. The Interfaith Center in my study reflected the latter approach, housed clergy from various traditions, and was a space for various religious student organizations to utilize. Agreements of Interfaith Center users and signage at the Interfaith Center clearly stated that the space was a non-proselytizing space for the purposes of spiritual exploration.

One student explained that her participation in the Interfaith Center helped to open the bubble that she was in. Reflecting on her experiences before using the Interfaith Center, she stated, “I was…in this bubble of being Catholic, and I wasn’t experiencing or encountering people who were of different faiths.” An Interfaith Center staff member explained the variety of students served through the center: “Some are strong in faith, some are searching, some are non-believers, some are seeking a family atmosphere.” This staff member hoped that the Interfaith Center would help each student “grow spiritually, grow in understanding of those who are different from themselves, encounter and build trust in those who offer caring interests.”

Student Organizations.

Student organizations can be seen as one of the most impactful ways students can find community and support from their peers in addition to self-development. All campuses house a long list of student organizations with eclectic varieties, including political, academic, career, social, and cultural. In my research, participants benefited greatly from the religious student organizations of which they were a part. One student explained that through his religious student organization he learned: “how to talk to people. Knowing how to be sensitive to their situation. Understanding, knowing how to take care of a person, and …. just even practical human skills like you know.”

Talking about her Muslim student organization, another participant stated:  “You don’t have to be a Muslim. We don’t just like preach the religion. We do fun things.” One specific activity that this Muslim student organization organized is the annual Islam Awareness Week, which is a week of events that was focused on increasing the visibility and understanding of the Muslim community. From this activity, the Muslim student organization members worked together to provide the campus community opportunities to learn more about the Muslim faith. This came about through students tabling on campus and answering questions about Islam and also hosting special presentations, such as a lecture on the history of Muslims in the U.S.

I hope that the three examples provided new ideas for addressing spirituality and religion at your campuses. There are many innovative options that other campuses are beginning to implement. Also, your campus might already be offering opportunities that just need to be expanded and/or institutionalized.


Addressing spirituality and religion with students during their collegiate years provides many positive benefits to the development of a student’s life, including community building, intercultural competencies, ethics, care for others, and mental health (American College Health Association, 2017; Astin et al., 2011; Capeheart-Meningall, 2005; Hoppe, 2005; Geroy, 2005; Sikula & Sikula, 2005). With regard to ethical considerations, addressing spirituality and religion helps to fulfill our roles as educators who serve all students and all their needs. Additionally, addressing and exposing students to spirituality and religion affects their personal and professional development that influences their own ethical viewpoints. Take for example three of the spiritual measures proposed by Astin et al. (2011): Ethic of Care, Ecumenical Worldview, and Charitable Involvement which are not only positively correlated with each other but also stress a sense of caring about and for others and discovering a sense of connectedness with others. Addressing spirituality and religion in our campuses (public or private) need not be complicated. This work might already be happening on your campuses – subtly or explicitly. Focusing on options that address spirituality and religion adds to the engaging and developing movement of inclusive excellence. How well is your campus meeting the holistic needs of all your students, which includes all the intersections of identities that they bring with and that which they are seeking to develop?

Reflection Questions

  1. As educators, what are our ethical obligations to support and engage students coming from all backgrounds (including religious, spiritual, secular, atheist, agnostic, etc.) and to expose students to all worldviews (including religious, spiritual, secular, atheist, agnostic, etc.)?
  2. How well do those on your campus know students’ spiritual and religious characteristics and needs?
  3. What already exists at your institutions related to spirituality and religion for students, and how could you make it more transparent and connected to inclusive excellence?
  4. What does not exist at your institutions related to spirituality and religion for students?
  5. Who on campus do you need to connect with to make spirituality and religion a part of your institution’s focus on inclusive excellence?
  6. Are there students, faculty, staff, and/or other colleagues already engaging in the research of spirituality and religion? What advice or help can they provide?


American College Health Association (2017). American College Health Association-National college health assessment II: Reference group executive summary Fall 2016. Hanover, MD: American College Health Association.

Association of American Colleges & Universities (2015). Committing to equity and inclusive excellence: A campus guide for self-study and planning. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Association of American Colleges & Universities (2017). Making excellence inclusive. Retrieved from:

Astin, A.W., Astin, H.S., & Lindholm, J.A. (2011). Cultivating the spirit: How college can enhance students’ inner lives. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

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Frame, M. W. (2003). Integrating religion and spirituality into counseling: A comprehensive approach. Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole – Thomson Learning.

Geroy, G. D. (2005). Preparing students for spirituality in the workplace. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 104, 67-74.

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Mutakabbir, Y. T., & Nuriddin, T. A. (2016). Religious minority students in higher education. New York, NY: Routledge.

Sikula, A. & Sikula, A. (2005). Spirituality and service learning. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 104, 31 – 36.

Stamm, L. (2006). The dynamics of spirituality and the religious experience. In A. W. Chickering, J. C. Dalton, & L. Stamm (Eds.), Encouraging authenticity and spirituality in higher education (pp. 37 – 65). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, Inc.

Thurston, A. & ter Kuile, C. (2016). How we gather. Retrieved from:

Whitehead, D. M. (2015). Global learning: Key to making excellence inclusive. Liberal Education101(3), n3.

Williams, D. A. (2006). Inclusive excellence: UConn builds capacity for diversity and  change. Connection: The Journal of the New England Board of Higher Education21(1), 17-19.

Williams, D. A., Berger, J. B., & McLendon, S. A. (2005). Toward a model of inclusive excellence and change in postsecondary institutions. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.

About the Author

Dr. Matt Cabrera is an assistant director for the Office of Student Life and Development and coordinates the Leadership Academy program at California State University, Long Beach (CSULB). Dr. Cabrera is also serving as a post-doc fellow for the Educational Leadership Department at CSULB. He has co-taught Organizational Management for the M.S. Student Development in Higher Education program and has taught Ethnic Studies for the CSULB/LBUSD joint program for high school students.

Please e-mail inquiries to Matt Cabrera.


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


Stephen John Quaye
ACPA President

In late September 2017, the ACPA Governing Board and Assembly Leadership introduced our six Operational Truths regarding the Strategic Imperative for Racial Justice and Decolonization (SIRJD). As an Association, ACPA – College Student Educators International believes:

  1.  All forms of oppression are linked.
  2.  Racism and colonization are real, present, enduring, intersectional, and systemic forms of oppression.
  3.  Racism and colonization have informed the experience of all of us in higher education.
  4.  Advocacy and social change require us to work to dismantle racism and colonization in higher education.
  5.  Our collective education, research and scholarship, advocacy, and capacity will create positive change in higher education.
  6. We believe in and have hope for our individual capacity, desire, and drive to grow, learn, and change.

These operational truths guide our work as student affairs/services professionals. We enter this work believing that racism and colonization are everyday realities and that people, ultimately, can grow, change, and learn.

Since we launched this Strategic Imperative, many of you have wondered: what does this look like in practice? Let me share three ways that it looks like for me, as ACPA president.

First, it means unlearning internalized oppression. As a black cisgender man, I have internalized so many negative messages about what it means to live in my black body. I am a thug. I am a gangster. I come from a single-parent household. I am unintelligent. So much of my life has been spent trying to counter these messages and unlearn the dire impact on my life. SIRJD means unlearning internalized dominance and how that plays out in my life.

Second, it means learning. When the ACPA Governing Board introduced the Strategic Imperative, we centered racial justice. In the process, we received feedback from the Native, Aboriginal, and Indigenous Network that the Imperative was not inclusive of their politicized experiences with colonization. Learning this was painful, as it meant admitting that I did not know this reality and working to address it. Learning is not always joyous. Sometimes it comes through pain, frustration, and embarrassment. And yet, we still must learn.

Finally, it means embracing the messiness and moving forward even when we do not know exactly how. Although the International Office will be sharing more resources in the coming months about how to concretize SIRJD, I encourage you to not treat these resources as the sole answer for moving forward. Think of the connection between SIRJD and your work. Where do racism and colonization show up? What structures are in place that reinforce hierarchical decision-making? Whose voices and experiences do you privilege the most in your organization? How do you make decisions about who is important based on what they are wearing? Does your office reinforce “professional” dress? “Professional” for whom? Who decides that?

Reflecting on these questions enables you to think of what racial justice and decolonization look like in your practice without needing to get it “right” before acting. I look forward to engaging with you about the Strategic Imperative, as we work to make our world more just.


The Strength of Us


The Strength of Us

Cynthia H. Love
Executive Director

Separately we are as fragile as reeds and as easily broken.  But together we are as strong as reeds tied in a bundle.
Inspired by the Talmud

I want to talk about the strength of us—as individuals, as a community of people dedicated to student learning and development and as ACPA—College Student Educators International, a long-tenured member of the Higher Education Secretariat in Washington D.C. I also want to talk about our fragility.  

For some of our members, our tenure as an Association (95th Anniversary 2019), our legacy as scholar practitioners (Journal of College Student Development since 1954) and our place at the Secretariat table denote strength, continuity, and strategic influence. For some of our members, these same attributes denote selling out to a capitalist system, complicity with white supremacy and alignment with institutions where racism and colonization seem intractable. As hard as it is to admit, both are true.

The facts are that ACPA – College Student Educators International is a not-for-profit corporation (part of a larger dominant capitalist order) (Incite, 2017), almost 100 years old (within the life cycle of Jim Crow) and, as part of higher education writ large, complicit in the influence of Whiteness on relationships, campus climate, culture, ecology, policy and scholarship (Cabrera, Franklin, & Watson, 2017). We have internalized the idea that power—the ability to create change—equals money. We have been and remain part of the structural mechanism facilitating the marginalization of people of color, colonized people, and others.

John Dugan (2011) describes our balancing act as an Association chartered as a non-profit and social justice educators and activists:

Historically, we have held an activist orientation because that compass is a powerful guide and catalyst for transformation of structures, organizational and administration practices. An organization can provide structural evidence that it values learning centered and inclusive practices, but individual actors must also embrace these practices for them to manifest in meaningful ways. Until organizations begin uniquely targeting both structures and behaviors, it will be difficult to fully integrate learning-centered and inclusive practices. (p. 399)

I am excited about the progress we have made over the past three years to work on both structures and behaviors within ACPA. Yet, as Astin and Astin (2015) suggest, “equity is our unfinished agenda” in higher education. There is so much yet to do. I believe much of the major organizational shift towards the realization of justice within our own organization began in the 2011-2012 time frame. This was a soul-searching moment when ACPA had to dig deep into its own identity during the attempted NASPA/ACPA consolidation.

In 2011, Peter and Marcia Baxter Magdola described ACPA in this way:

We are applying post conventional organizational theories within our “own house” at ACPA to support continuing reduction of functional silos and to disrupt traditional structural features that reinforce unequal power dynamics.

To persist and succeed in the Magdola’s vision, I have identified five needs that I believe we must meet. I spoke about the first need in my opening remarks to ACPA as the new Executive Director more than three years ago. I said that we need more crown fires, also known as agents of change, to catalyze organizational shifts. We need to let them do what they do best, get rid of old wood and make room for new growth.  

Second, we need iterative, organization wide assessment of every operation and every aspect of what we offer to members for valid evidence of diversity, equity and inclusion plans and progress. We started this process in 2014 with an organizational audit using the Global Diversity and Inclusion Benchmarks (GDIB). In three areas: Vision, Strategy, and Business Case; Leadership and Accountability; and Structure and Implementation, we scored lower than any of us could have thought possible.  This was a wake up call.  

Since that time, we assembled a working group that published Developmental Pathways to Trans Inclusion on College Campuses, completed the Leadership Pathways process and still have many of the recommendations of that team to implement. We then repeated the GDIB one year later.  Our scores improved slightly.  Frustrating, but true.

Past-President Donna Lee convened a Governing Board and Assembly retreat in November 2016 and at its conclusion, the Strategic Imperative for Racial Justice was adopted and updated to include Decolonization in July 2017. Launching this Imperative has not been a seamless process for any of us and there is a creative tension in our midst that can serve us well if we bring our whole and willing selves to the work.

Third, we need leadership throughout every part of our Association—Governing Board, Assembly, Commissions, Coalitions, Communities of Practice, States, Networks to buy in to changing the paradigm from where we are to one where diversity, equity and inclusion are hard-wired into the business case of our Association.  

Last year, ACPA was invited to provide input to the AGB Board of Directors’ Statement on Campus Climate, Inclusion, and Civility, and I am proud of several of the key questions we were able to bring forward. Most important, “Are diversity and inclusion initiatives directly tied to the mission and strategic goals of the institution?”  I am also proud of the fact that ACPA has asked itself this question and responded affirmatively.  Now we have to “put meat on the bones.”

Fourth, we need the ability to talk openly and directly (not via social media) with one another about high stakes, emotional, controversial topics as a means to increase our resiliency and strength.  

Fifth, and finally, we need the central organizing principle of everything we do to be the realization of human dignity.  This will take mutual respect, civility, mercy and grace.

I know of very few organizations as willing as ACPA – College Student Educators International to call out what is not working within our own organization as well as higher education, to do the rigorous research required to identify ways to improve, to translate that scholarship into practice, to share and mentor students. These are our strengths.  

Our fragility emerges when we do all of these things and fail to extend civility, mercy and grace to one another. We are not alone in this failure, perhaps comforting to some and a complete frustration to others. This difference in perception can become another way in which we silo ourselves and I believe this is what we must avoid if we really want to bring our vision to fruition.


Astin, A. W., & Astin, H. S. (2015). Achieving equity in higher education: The unfinished agenda. Journal of College and Character, 16(2), 65-74.

Cabrera, N. L., Franklin, J. D., & Watson, J. S. (2017). Whiteness in higher education: The invisible missing link in diversity and racial analyses. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

Dugan, J. P. (2011). Advancing inclusive and learning-centered practice: Redesigning student affairs work. In P. Magolda, & M. B. Baxter Magolda (Eds.), Contested issues in student affairs: Diverse perspectives and respectful dialogue (pp. 394-406). Sterling, VA: Stylus

Incite. (Eds.). (2017). The revolution will not be funded: Beyond the nonprofit industrial complex. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Magolda, P. M., & Baxter Magolda, M. B. (2011). Contested issues in student affairs: Diverse perspectives and respectful dialogue. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing.