Note from the Editorial Team

As we prepare for the 2020 ACPA National Convention in Nashville, we are excited to share this issue of Developments. This issue includes useful information and reflection about graduate students, new professionals, navigating life in relation to the job. We also are excited to share information about pedagogy and building community around identity and scholarship. Additionally, the work of student affairs professionals related to crisis, risk management, and campus tragedy is included here.

This issue shows the holistic work we do as leaders and learners as well as teachers and trainers. The complexity and importance of building and sustaining community, even in difficult times – maybe especially in difficult times is showcased in our author’s contributions. How we build those connections in order to navigate the constant change of higher education and society is important to explore and understand. The work here can help us continue to have those conversations in community even as the community itself is evolving.

I’ve never been in a job interview and been asked, “How do you do with complete stability?” The fact that question hasn’t come up is a reflection of the work we do and the world we live in. The importance of change is also relevant to this publication. As Developments also continues to change to meet the needs of student affairs students, practitioners, administrators, and faculty, we would like to invite you to join us in the work. We hope you will consider submitting a manuscript to share your thoughts about the issues facing college students and student affairs today. Or you might want to join us as a reviewer to get a perspective on what others’ are doing, thinking, and writing about. Let us know if you would like more information on how to contribute in whatever way makes sense for you.

Thank you for the work you do every day. Best of luck throughout the spring term.

Michelle L. Boettcher

Kyle Bishop

From the President – February 2020

Written by Craig Elliott, ACPA President

This is a time of celebration. As I reflect on the past year, I am proud of the work that we have accomplished. I am proud of the leaders we have serving this Association. And I am proud of the foundation we have put in place to support the next 100 years of this Association. We are ready to create, shape, and continue to transform the profession and higher education. While not all of the work has been visible, it has been profound, and I am excited for the coming year.

My grandfather worked as a tradesman for water and power in Los Angeles, CA. He worked there at a time of significant growth for the area, and he contributed to the infrastructure of the county during that growth. Right now, Los Angeles is one of the most populated areas in the country, and I often think of my grandfather’s work, and that of his colleagues, to create a foundation to support families, businesses, and many industries.

One of the things my grandfather taught me when I was growing up is the importance of a foundation, and having a clear vision and a strong plan for the foundation. A foundation is an underlying base of support for a structure (or an organization), but it also needs an understanding of the purpose for the structure and a plan for how it will be used—otherwise it will fail. My grandfather helped me understand that vision and planning are essential to the strength, longevity, and success of the foundation and the structure you are building. The vision and plan are the foundation to the foundation if you will.

When I think about the work we have done in this Association in the last few years, it is clear to me we have been working on the next phase of the vision and the plan, and we are now beginning to shape the tangible foundation to support ACPA at 100 year and beyond. Under the leadership of the most recent ACPA past presidents, Donna Lee, Stephen John Quaye, and Jamie Washington, as well as the work of numerous leaders in the Association, we have established a clear vision for the future of our work in higher education, which is centralizing our work in research and scholarship, practice, and social justice. Those three years have led us to a new mission statement and a new, vibrant sense of purpose. That is our why.

In the last year, we have been considering and shaping what this foundation will be used for. We used the mission statement to guide the creation and development of a new strategic plan. This plan is a key cornerstone for our work ahead. We have also  both deepended and expanded the scholarship from our scholars, and are shaping a profound new framework for practice. In particular, we supported the introduction of an important new cornerstone in the profession: The Bold Vision Forward: A Framework for the Strategic Imperative for Racial Justice and Decolonization. Another significant cornerstone has been our investment in our membership and in the leadership pipeline. ACPA exists because of, and for, its members, and we have worked to provide value for being a member; additionally, we recognize the strength of the Association is its volunteer leadership, and we need to continue to provide pathways and opportunities for our members to serve. We have done some important and meaningful work that has significantly increased the number of members who are running for leadership positions. And we have invested in the onboarding training that we offer those leaders so that they can effectively serve and access the support and resources they need.

These cornerstones of the last year will support the work of the Association for the next 100 years.

And I am excited about what is coming next. We have a fantastic incoming president in Vernon Wall. He is ready to lead this Association forward, to continue the foundation building, to implement the strategic plan, and the continuing investment in our membership and leaders. We have an exceptional and engaged Governing Board, with new members coming on board, who are ready and excited to partner with Vernon on this work. And we have a talented International Office staff to support us. We have the vision and the plan, and we are ready.

I am excited to be with many of you in Nashville at our annual convention, and to join in our continued work and engagement in the next year. It has been a pleasure to serve you and this Association, and to be a part of something important and significant.

In gratitude,

Craig Elliott
2019-2020 ACPA President

From the Executive Director – February 2020

Greetings ACPA Members!

Living and working in Washington, D.C. for the last 15 years, I have adjusted to the fact that politics is a way of life in this city. It can be all consuming, particularly in years of U.S. presidential elections. With the U.S. in increasingly political turmoil since the 2016 election and the country polarized along party lines, I can feel the anticipation and tension as I walk down the street. For those not in D.C., I hope that your lives, conversations, and relationships are filled with more than perpetual election chatter, network and cable news alerts, and the latest social media posts of politicians. 

As ACPA prepares to come together in Nashville, Tennessee, I am reminded of the politics of divisiveness and exclusion that permeates many of the towns, cities, and states governments across the U.S. The erosion of civility, civic engagement, compromise, and communication on the national and international levels is also happening in your local communities and on your campuses. ACPA exists to assist our members in boldly transforming higher education, and it is only through the education of tomorrow’s leaders will we see positive social change in the world. I fully believe that student affairs and higher education professionals are at a critical juncture in shaping inclusive environments and creating communities of care on college campuses. Where else can we expect this central work to happen within the college and university administrative structures if not among those who work most closely with transforming the lives of each individual student?

 2020 is not some date in the future…it is here, it is now! As you plan for your personal and work-related resolutions and goals for the year ahead, there are two civic commitments I ask that you hold centrally and tightly:

First, I ask that you get involved in your campus and community’s efforts to ensure that students on your campus understanding their voting rights and processes. I have worked on several campuses where student voting in local, state, and national elections have been fraught with efforts to block or suppress their votes or where student voting drives have been led only by student government organizations or external/government relations offices. It is our responsibility as college student educators to be informed and to communicate to students about their voting rights and about how to go about ensuring that their vote and voice is counted. From hall directors to senior student affairs officers, each of us can make a difference in how students have access to having their vote counted. I ask that each of you become more educated and informed on how to best support students’ right to vote on your campus and in your local community. Here are a few resources to get started:

Second, there is great potential for the 2020 U.S. presidential election to consume our attention, yet it is not the only significant civic event occurring in this calendar year. The year 2020 is also the time when the U.S. Census data collection will occur. The U.S. Census is taken once every ten years to assess local, county, state, and national populations, the results of which will have meaningful financial, political, legislative and educational ramifications for the next ten years. Whether you realize or not, your campus is also involved in the collection of data for the U.S. Census. When I worked as an Assistant Vice President at American University, one of my departments was responsible for supporting the U.S. Census process for resident students living on campus. I recently read Inside Higher Education’s January 20, 2020 article on Colleges Prepare Students for 2020 Census, and believe it is critical that ACPA and our members amplify the importance of the 2020 Census to professionals and students on our campuses. This article provides a terrific overview of the importance of the 2020 Census, and outlines some of the challenges and reasons for this year’s count as well as some of the ways higher education institutions are responding. I hope you will take a few minutes to review this contribution and then take action to learn and influence what is happening on your campus and in your community. 

I acknowledge the scope of this article has been quite U.S.-centric, but the opportunities and implications ahead this year for members in the United States are too great to not dedicate focused time and attention. It is my promise to include a more global perspective in future articles, so I dedicate this text as a call to action for my U.S. based colleagues. Thank you for your leadership and effort that allow us to together continue to create bold, transformative actions that will change societies.


Chris Moody
ACPA Executive Director

Crisis Communication: Keeping Parents and Family Members of Students in the Loop // written by Anne Newman & Kathy Adams Riester

Anne Newman
Rutgers University-New Brunswick

Kathy Adams Riester
University of Arizona

Student Affairs professionals are called upon to address a myriad of student issues and concerns on a regular basis.  While any number of incidents and concerns can cause stress, a campus crisis disrupts campus operations, impacts the welfare of community members, and impedes our ability to help college students.  Crisis incidents also affect off campus stakeholders, including parents and family members. Therefore, it is important to talk about how we should communicate with parent and family members before, during, and after a campus crisis.

The purpose of this article is to share thoughts and promising practices regarding communicating with parents and family members about crisis incidents on campus.  We draw upon the available literature regarding campus crisis and what we know about family expectations regarding campus communication to provide some thoughts regarding crisis communication with parent and family members.  We provide some examples based on our campus experiences regarding communicating with families during and after a crisis. At the end of the article we provide reflection questions to help start the dialogue on your campus regarding crisis communication planning. 

Defining Crisis, Critical Incident, Emergency, and Disaster

Before discussing crisis communication best practices, it is important to understand what constitutes a campus crisis and what levels of campus crisis exist.  Zdziarski (2006) defines campus crisis as “… an event, which is sudden or unexpected, that disrupts the normal operations of the institution or its educational mission and threatens the well-being of personnel, property, financial resources, and/or reputation of the institution” (p. 5).  In essence, crisis situations seriously impact the campus community because life is significantly disrupted. Campus resources, campus property, personnel, and students are all affected.  

The media often come to campus to provide their interpretation of the incident, broadcasting the news of the emergency far and wide.  An institution’s reputation can certainly be influenced by what happened and whether or not the event was something that could have been prevented (Rollo & Zdziarski, 2007).  Family members are often concerned and invested when crisis incidents happen on campus. The disruption to campus impacts their children who are our students. In addition, family members are concerned with the institution’s ability to keep their children safe.  How we address crisis situations and communicate our response is therefore important to parents and family members.

Zdziarski, Rollo, and Dunkel (2007) classify crisis situations based on the level of impact the crisis has on the institution.  Impact to the campus is determined by looking at the level of crisis, the type of crisis, and the intentionality of the crisis. Zdziarski et al. define three types of campus crisis: a critical incident, a campus emergency, and a disaster.  A critical incident impacts only a small portion of a campus, such as a residence hall complex, fraternity house, or sports team (Zdziarski et al., 2007). While a critical incident impacts community members, it may not involve shutting down an entire campus.  This does not mean that institutions should not take these situations seriously. Even if a critical incident impacts a small portion of the campus, a coordinated response addressing the incident should be implemented. Because students are impacted by critical incidents, colleges should expect to hear from family members during and after these incidents.  

Campus emergencies and disasters are more widespread than critical incidents. A campus emergency is an event that has the potential to impact the entire operation of the college or university. The full campus feels the impact of the incident, and typically the campus closes down for a period of time (Zdziarski et al., 2007).  Examples of emergencies may be a loss of power, a large scale student riot, or a natural disaster such as a flood, blizzard, or tornado. Because these incidents impact the entire campus community it is likely that parents and family members will contact campus for information and institutions need to be prepared to address their issues and concerns.  

A disaster impacts both the campus community and the communities surrounding the campus (Zdziarski et al., 2007).  For example, a blizzard in the area has the capacity to shut down both the college and the surrounding community for a period of time.  This was the case during Superstorm Sandy, which knocked out power to campuses and neighborhoods all along the Mid-Atlantic. When disasters occur family members may be unable to come to campus to bring students home and communication to campus may be limited due to loss of power.  Parents and family members will need to rely on campus and community partners to ensure the safety of their loved ones and will expect campuses to communicate with them regarding what is being done to get the campus up and running again.   

Families Changing Expectations for Communication

The expectations surrounding institutional communication with the parents and families of college students have changed with the cultural shift in the family/student relationship.  Families are talking to their students as often as 1.5 times per day (Junco & Mastrodicasa, 2007 as cited in Wartman & Savage, 2008) and they are using new technologies such as texting and social media (Wartman & Savage, 2008) to communicate with their students.  Parents and families are also much more engaged with colleges and universities, usually at the request of their children, who rely on parental advice for navigating college (Pizzoloto & Hicklen, 2011). Senior student affairs officers report that parent and family involvement has been increasing over the last five to ten years.  Families are more involved in students’ lives and are often the ones who call colleges to raise issues on behalf of their children (Merriman, 2007). One of the top concerns family members mention, following academic success, is the safety of their student (Carney-Hall, 2008; Merriman, 2008). 

According to Merriman (2008), “parents today are not only involved in their students’ lives; they also have a heightened level of concern for their student.” (p. 57).  These worries are amplified when a permanent home is far away from campus; family members who live a great distance from campus are unable to exercise the same type of support and control they may have provided when their children were living at home.  Engagement with campus provides family members with a coping mechanism to feel more secure and the perception that they can protect their children from a distance (Merriman, 2008). This heightened sense of concern translates into a need for communication from institutions around campus safety, especially during a crisis.  This need is amplified every time a family learns about crisis incidents, which occur on campuses around the country; seeing news of a campus crisis causes families to wonder if their student is in a safe environment, especially in the wake of mass shootings, natural disasters and even the heightened awareness of issues such as sexual assault.  Because families and higher education institutions both care about students’ safety, this seems like a natural area of partnership for the well-being of students.

Communication with targeted audiences such as family members of students during a crisis is essential.  In fact, the “communications function can make or break an institution, particularly in a time of crisis . . . if target audiences think there is no response to a particular crisis, then perceptually, there is no response” (Lawson, 2007, p. 97).  It is essential that colleges and universities create crisis communication plans that include ways to communicate with family members of students.  This plan then needs to be shared widely with families so that they know institutions are well prepared to address a variety of crisis situations. Families are also concerned about the ways in which their students will be educated on emergency plans ranging from active shooters to natural disasters.  In the summer of 2016, following several campus shootings in spring 2016, one of the most common safety questions asked during the family orientation sessions at the University of Arizona was, “What is the campus plan for an active shooter, and how will you educate my student on this plan?” Clearly, families expect institutions to be prepared and to educate both families and students.  

The Impact of Technology on Crisis Communication

One of the challenges in managing crisis situations on campus is institutional staff’s ability to control the flow of information and to convey messages which are accurate.  Media sources are increasingly encouraging those involved in, or who observe a crisis situation to share information, videos, and pictures that are then used despite being an unofficial source by mainstream media in reporting on crisis situations.  Information supplied by an unofficial source is referred to as citizen generated content (Wigley & Fontenot, 2010). In today’s world of instant communication, families will use every technological tool available to them in order to gain information about a situation at their student’s institution, regardless of the accuracy of the source of this information (Merriman, 2008).  They will believe what they read, even without that information ever being substantiated. Nelson (2014) summarized the major challenge of crisis communication is that “In times of crisis, information is both the destination and the roadblock” (p. 78). If colleges and universities do not provide timely and accurate information to parents and families, they will look for information elsewhere.  There is a likelihood the information they find will not be accurate and can impact their perceptions of the college or university.  

Students are often equally as guilty of turning to social media sources and sharing information which may or may not be accurate.  This serves to heighten concerns about safety. One such example occurred this past spring when gunshots were heard in a neighborhood near campus at a large public institution where many students were housed in private homes.  The campus police did not issue a warning regarding the situation in the form of an emergency text message because students were not involved in the shooting, and the campus community was not in danger. This situation was not deemed to be a critical incident or a campus emergency.  However, because members of the Greek community could hear the shots from their houses, they turned to social media with speculation of an active shooter on campus. The university police and the dean of student’s office received several calls regarding the reports on social media. Several similar situations have led campus officials to change the policy about sending emergency text messages for emergencies close to campus even if students are not directly involved.   

This situation is an excellent example of how quickly panic regarding campus safety can escalate due to misinformation and the absence of an institutional message.  Thus, “campus administrators need to be aware of incidents or tragedies that happen in their campus neighborhood, regardless of whether the campus is affected or not” (Merriman, 2008, p. 58).  Both traditional sources of media and social media reporting on these incidents may lead families to believe that that the safety of students is in jeopardy if the institution is not assuring them otherwise.  

This form of instant communication and the use of citizen-generated content can cause confusion in the messaging for students, families, and the university community.  It can also contribute to a message quickly spinning out of control, thus increasing pressure on crisis managers to release information before they have verified factual information and details of the crisis.  Access to instant information twenty-four hours a day can also create unrealistic expectations of responses to concerned families from institutions (Merriman, 2008). It is essential that university staff work with families to educate them on how they would receive information from the institution during a campus crisis.  

Building a Culture of Communication with Families

Outreach and communication is an essential practice of parent and family programs offices (Page & Riester, 2015; Wartman & Savage, 2008).  Parent and family programs staff have multiple options in sharing information and resources with families of students. A recent survey of parent and family programs staff illustrated that 99% of programs utilized a website to share information, 95.6% of programs produced a digital newsletter, and 74.3% of programs were utilizing Facebook to communicate with families (Savage & Petree, 2013).  There has also been an increase in families of students using social media technology beyond Facebook. Other sources of social media used by parents and families to gather information on their student’s campus experience include: Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest. The families using these types of social media will often follow multiple social media outlets for various departments within an institution.  Given today’s technology, any forms of digital communication such as emergency texting, emergency messages, websites, and emails should be developed in multiple formats for computers, smartphones, and tablets to ensure various forms of access to information (Page & Riester, 2015).  

Development of the culture of communication should begin as early as new student/family orientation programs.  During this time, families can be encouraged to sign up for any forms of emergency communication being offered by the institution.  They can also be educated on institutional resources for campus emergencies including website locations for emergency plans. It is also important to share this same information with families who are unable to attend orientation programs so that all families are educated on information resources.  The sooner parents have that information, the more prepared they may be if an actual incident happens on campus. Information may help family members feel more in control when an out of control incident happens on campus. More control could lessen the anxiety family members may feel during an actual crisis event (Merriman, 2008). Once these forms of communication have been established as trusted sources, families will be more likely to turn to them for information during times of crisis.  

Setting Expectations with Family Members Regarding Communication

Communicating emergency plans to family members is important; as well as setting expectations with families with regards to what information can be shared and what information will need to remain private.   New student/family orientation is an excellent time for staff members to begin having conversations with family members about the scope of FERPA, which may prohibit certain information from being disclosed to them or the public, and that information pertaining to their student may not be able to be disclosed without a waiver (Page & Riester, 2015).   It is much easier to communicate this information before a crisis occurs than while you are in the middle of a crisis incident and responding to requests for information you cannot provide.  

It is also important to let family members know that during a campus crisis the institution’s main focus will be on responding to the crisis and those directly involved.  Staff members may not be able to connect with them directly in the manner they wish (Merriman, 2008). For example, family members wishing to speak directly with the Vice President for Student Affairs or the President of the University will most likely not be able to reach those individuals due to campus emergency response protocols.  Family members need to expect that emergency plan protocols will be followed and information will be provided in the manner shared with them in the crisis communications plan.  

Communication with Family Members During a Crisis

Good communication from the college during a crisis can effectively lessen the anxiety a family member may feel in being far away from their college student (Klockentager & Klockentager, 2006). It is important for colleges and universities to have a solid communications plan in place long before a crisis occurs on campus.  Any communication plan should include fast and reliable channels for communicating information so all constituents, including family members, can receive all the facts they need during the crisis (Lawson, 2007). As was mentioned previously, family members should have access to emergency communications plan and should have the same options as students to sign up for emergency text alerts.  Parents should also know where information from the institution will be shared and how to access that information.  

Getting accurate, timely information during a crisis is family member’s highest priority (Klockentager & Klockentager, 2006).  If the campus is not providing timely information, family members will find sources of information outside the normal communication channels.  Family members are a specific target group needing information and colleges and universities should work with communications teams to deliver targeted messages to family members that meet their unique needs for information. These messages should resonate with family members and provide them the support they need during the crisis (Lawson, 2007).  Colleges and universities should also take advantage of the digital resources already available for family members to help direct family members to official sources of information available. For example, some institutions have a specific website which replaces the main institutional website to provide information during a campus crisis. The institutional homepage could be used to redirect families to the Parent and Family Facebook page or Twitter account for updates. 

Parent and Family social media accounts can reach the family audience at a quicker pace than other types of communication, and thus should share information posted on official college or university sites.  Colleges and universities should be aware that social media sites must be constantly monitored during crisis situations, as parent and family members may use those sites to ask questions or leave comments that need addressing.  During a recent incident at a Mid-Atlantic University in which power went out on a large part of campus and students needed to be temporarily relocated to recreation centers for safety reasons, family members used Facebook pages and Twitter feeds to ask questions and leave comments about the incident.  Without someone monitoring those sites, campus administrators would be unaware of the questions and concerns their constituents had.  

While digital communication is the quickest way to disseminate information, it does not reach every audience.  Some parents and family members may not use digital technology as a means to communicate. Those family members may call to seek information via telephone so colleges and universities need to be prepared to answer those calls.   Lawson (2007) recommends that a hotline be manned that provides information and support to constituents needing that assistance. Protocols for using analog phones should also be put in place. During crisis situations, cell phone access may be limited or digital phone systems may not be operating; analog phones may be the best way to speak to others during a disaster or other emergency situation.  

When a campus crisis or disaster occurs, it can disrupt the normal operations of the university and may impact the safety of our students.  As a result, family members may come to campus. Klockentager and Klockentager (2006) recommend that colleges and universities have a specific location for family members to gather when a high level crisis or disaster occurs, and that there are point persons available to meet with family members to try to answer questions, provide support, and gather feedback.

Continuing Communication After the Crisis Situation

A crisis does not end just because the situation is less critical.  Colleges and universities often have weeks and months of addressing the aftermath of a crisis situation on campus when a campus emergency or disaster occurs.  Administrators should assume family members will want answers after the incident has deescalated. Families will want to be kept up to speed on what the institution is doing to rebuild or heal from the crisis.  In addition, family members will want answers regarding what the college or university is doing to ensure that the crisis situation does not happen again. If the crisis situation included loss of life or serious injury, family members will want to be a part of memorials or services for loved ones lost.  

While information needs to be provided to family members after the event is over, it is even more important to listen to what family members have to say about the college or university’s response to the incident.  It is just as important to have the trust of family members as it is to have the trust of the students. Listening to feedback and suggestions for how things could have been done differently may lead to some good changes to the communication plan.  In addition, it may help family members feel as if their concerns have been heard and addressed appropriately.  

Reflection Questions

  1. What is your institutions stance/viewpoint on communicating with family members? Does this change during an emergency situation?
  2. How do you communicate proactively rather than reactively with families?
  3. What are the expectations that you want to set regarding communicating with families?  What communications are reasonable?  
  4. What are the messages you want to communicate to families, what platforms should be used to communicate these messages?   

Author Bios

Kathy Adams Riester is the Associate Dean of Students and Director of Parent and Family Programs at the University of Arizona. She is a member of the UA Campus Emergency Response Team, oversees Fraternity and Sorority Programs, and events involving expressive speech.   Kathy was the first chairperson ACPA’s Commission for Campus Safety and Emergency Preparedness (CCSEP).  

Anne Newman is the Assistant Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs and Dean of Students at Rutgers University-New Brunswick.  Anne chairs the Threat Assessment and Safety Committee and is a member of the Division of Student Affairs critical incident response team.  Anne oversees the Office of Student Conduct, Student Affairs Compliance and Title IX, Student Legal Services, and Graduate Student Life and serves as an adjunct faculty member in the College Student Affairs program.  


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Klockentager, D., & Klockentager, C. (2006).  Voice of the parents. In K. S. Harper, B. G. Paterson, & E. L. Zdziarski (Eds.), Crisis management: Responding from the heart (pp. 48-52). Washington, D.C.: National Association of Student Personnel Administrators. 

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Zdziarski II, E. L., Rollo, J. N., & Dunkel, N. W. (2007).  The crisis matrix. In E. L. Zdziarski II, N.W. Dunkel, & J. M. Rollo (Eds), Campus crisis management: A comprehensive guide to planning, prevention, response, and recovery (pp. 35-51). San Francisco, CA: Wiley and Sons.

Managing Risk in Our Work with Student Organizations // written by: John Summerlot & Ben Williams

John Summerlot
Indiana University Bloomington

Ben Williams
University of Colorado Boulder

Emergencies have timelines: there are the events that precede an emergency, the emergency itself, and the events that happen after the emergency. In the military, everything before the emergency is referred to as “Left of Bang.”  Bang is the point where an emergency situation occurs. Everything “Right of Bang” is after the event has happened (Van Horne & Riley, 2014). While risk can be managed in all three of these stages, the steps taken to mitigate risk while left of bang help prepare us to respond when bang occurs. Here is a sample scenario:

It is a Saturday in April and you have a group of students headed on an overnight weekend trip to a big city to visit museums and attend a theater show. They leave via bus and you wave to your student leaders and graduate assistant as they pull away. That afternoon as you enjoy your social media hiatus in the peace and quiet of your back porch with a good book, you get a text message from your graduate assistant “Have you heard anything about an explosion near the theater? Should we be worried?” Bang. 

There may be no worse feeling for most student affairs professionals than that phone call from a student leader that something has gone wrong at an event or on a trip. And nothing reassures you faster than them saying they have enacted their emergency plan and are taking the necessary steps to mitigate the issue. This article will address some of the best practices with training student leaders and student staff to plan, prepare, mitigate and respond to emergencies encountered at student events or while on trips. 

In this article, we focus on emergency preparedness and planning as a method of risk assessment. The focus is on supporting student groups; yet, individual students, such as those on study abroad trips, can likewise benefit from the information shared herein. We have intentionally avoided direct discussion of “risk management” or “risk managers.” Those terms have become shorthand for many additional aspects of student life, such as the sober student at a party tasked with monitoring those that are drinking, and do not capture the wider scope of our focus. While many universities have a long list of prohibited events and activities due to risk management policies, those should be seen as companions to, not substitutes for good emergency preparedness and planning. 

Identifying the Risk within Campus Events

The conversation on risk management and emergency preparedness changes along with shifts in campus activities. One component of mitigating emergency events is to consider how to moderate the risk involved with whichever activities are currently popular among students, the typical events sponsored by student organizations, and any long respected campus traditions. For most higher education institutions, there are a number of student events each year that are overseen and managed to some extent by the institution and its staff. This includes the largest 10-20% of annual events, such as a campus 5K race, dance marathon, bonfire, concert, bike race, or other major event. Preparation for such large events generally include efforts to coordinate with campus public safety and to review any safety plans in place from previous years of experience. This planning cannot prevent emergencies—such as the 1999 Texas A&M bonfire collapse–but it can raise awareness around preparedness and mitigation. The other 80-90% of student events and trips are smaller scale, planned almost entirely by students (and maybe an advisor or two), and may or may not have ever been done before. These are the events on which we likely need to focus most heavily on raising awareness and consciousness around the need to implement emergency preparedness and mitigation policies.

Planned vs. Unplanned Risks

As professionals, we often view an event—for instance, a ski trip—and immediately think of the risks. These are the “planned risks.” But do we see any planned risks with the Chess Club competing in a tournament at a nearby campus?  We often focus most heavily on the activity around which the trip is based rather than the trip itself. That is, we are more likely to be concerned about student participation in high impact activities such as skiing, and less concerned about low impact activities such as playing chess. The important gap this reveals is that risk management is only a focus for activities in which we easily see the risk. As professionals, it is important we also develop processes to assess all risk regardless of the activity. 

This tendency to neglect the risk of student travel has proven insufficient many times, especially with campus athletic teams. For example, when the Niagara University women’s basketball team took to the road in November 2014, the risk management focus was on athletic injuries with minimal concern for travel. However, they ended up getting stuck on the interstate in their team bus for over 24 hours in four feet of snow just 30 minutes from campus. The concerns for the student athletes’ injuries was addressed with appropriate staffing, but there were no plans for what they needed to do when they got stuck on the bus. The planned risk is the injuries and the unplanned risk is the being buried in snow. Luckily, they were also an athletic team with a bus and significant university support. Had they been the chess club, the university might have had considerably less awareness about their situation (and they might not have been breaking news on ESPN). 

Promising Practices for Mitigating Risk in Student Events

In order to plan for, mitigate and prepare for emergencies, cross-campus partnerships need to be in place before an event occurs. Student affairs staff responsible for planning or advising on student trips and events need to know who in public safety, emergency management, and risk management can be a resource. Resources can be both people with knowledge or connections as well as physical things. We have outlined four promising practices for mitigating the risk associated with student events.

Develop Your Network of Campus Contacts 

Trip leaders and advisors need to know who they can call to get real time information and who on campus can support mobilizing additional resources. These same campus contacts need to be involved in training staff and student leaders on how to plan for and mitigate emergencies. A promising practice is to have someone from your university who is familiar with the university’s emergency response plans do a regularly scheduled training session for your student leaders and staff on how to assess the risks and possible emergencies for trips and events. Indiana University Office of Emergency Management and Continuity does such a training multiple times a year for different student and staff groups. Having the emergency management staff members to conduct the training allows those in attendance to develop a connection to those staff and that office. These connections have proved fruitful as student organizations later work on developing their individualized risk management plans for events and responding to emergencies that arise during their events.

Ensure Proper Training of Campus Professionals

Develop training processes and documents for campus employees.  Zdziarski, Rollo, and Dunkel (2007) provide a Crisis Matrix as “a conceptual model developed to provide a basic framework for assessing a crisis, determining the impact on campus community, and identifying considerations in responding to the crisis” (pp. 36-37). As student affairs professionals, applying the matrix to work with students and organizations in travel and event planning gives an initial framework to critically examine risk and assist students and staff to develop competency in the area of risk management and crisis response. 

A second step is to use what emergency management professionals call planned emergencies. Ask event services, public safety, athletics, or whomever is involved with upcoming large events on your campus if you can shadow them in their planning and management of a large event in order to get the professional development experience. A large event, such as a football game, commencement, or a controversial speaker can give you a variety of considerations. Doing so multiple times at different kinds of events will further expand that experience. The better prepared you are to guide your students through the planning process the better off they will be.

Develop Risk Management Training for Student Organizations

Another practice is to have reference materials and trainings accessible through in-person or online delivery for student organizations. For example, the University of Florida provides an event planning manual, which provides a comprehensive process for student organizations to use to plan for and mitigate risk as part of their events. Additionally, the manual discusses the importance of risk management, provides a checklist that should be used by students when planning for travel, and includes a timeline for students preparing for a trip. This resource breaks down the daunting task of risk management into a straightforward process that students can use and staff can replicate easily. 

Risk mitigation, emergency preparedness, and crisis management are generally co-curricular skills that students do not learn in the classroom and even more rarely do they have a laboratory to learn them in. Hence, this is one of the many life skills and career skills that we can offer outside of the classroom. Through our own experience and professional development, we can apply Sanford’s (1962) Theory of Challenge and Support to provide a template for engaging in these conversations with student groups. Walking them through their trip or event and asking “what would you do if…” can not only develop their critical thinking skills, but also give them a framework for risk analysis and crisis response. We can only do that when we ourselves have enough experience to propose reasonable “what if” questions and provide examples of possible responses. However, we do not have to develop these skills in isolation. As suggested above, reaching out to colleagues in campus safety, emergency management, or risk management offices can be a helpful resource in developing training processes for student groups.

Understand the Multiple Aspects of Clear Communication During Crisis

If an emergency occurs during a trip, there are two aspects to managing the emergency. The first is the actual actions of those on the trip. The other is the actions that are occurring back on campus. One of those actions is communications about the crisis to the relevant stakeholders. For instance, if a residence hall director learns that a residential student has been significantly injured on a white water rafting trip, they will need to notify the residence life staff and probably the Dean of Students. These initial communications should activate the institution’s emergency response team.  Somewhere along the way communication will need to also be made to risk management, emergency management, university communications, and others in university administration. Someone may even need to contact the family or friends of the injured student. Meanwhile, the persons on the trip will need to manage the immediate needs of bridging the student to appropriate medical care, while also ensuring the continued safety of all others.

While there may be a set plan for this communication pathway, flexibility is required, lessons from prior incidents are useful, and collegial relationships are helpful in tending to the work of emergency management. If a step in the communication process is missed, relying on flexibility, prior lessons, and solid relationships can help keep the problems from compounding.  It is important to have a clear written communications plan in place from the lowest to the 

highest level that has redundant pathways in case someone is out of town or misses a call. Everyone involved with planning or managing the trip should have access to the communications plan. 

After the initial response to the incident, the other actions that should occur on campus are those aimed at meeting the needs of anyone within the campus community that is impacted by the crisis. For instance, at Miami University, a student died in a fatal crash after a football game. This student death impacted the communities he was a part of, which included commuter students, his wife who was also a student, and the larger university community. The necessary response included the counseling staff providing support to the various populations and coordinating support services for those who were connected to the student. However, if the counseling staff was never notified of the incident, how could they support students? This highlights why communication is so critical to the campus response, even for an off campus crisis.

It is often helpful to have someone not involved with responding to the crisis who can assess the “secondary effects” of the event. Many experienced student affairs professionals can do this almost instinctually, however, newer professionals or graduate students who find themselves thrust into the role, may need assistance with foreseeing the larger scale impact. Developing processes and procedures for how to engage colleagues to address and support staff with less direct experience helps to mitigate additional risks along the way. When put into action, these protocols can disrupt those moments of tranquility on your porch, but they also one to support an effective response during an otherwise relaxing day at home.

Now back to that Saturday in April. You are on your porch and your graduate assistant is asking you about the explosion near the theater. You consult your copy of the trip itinerary and realize that you have three activities that evening at different locations that are a reasonable distance away from the theater. A check of the news and your phone’s map application shows that all the activities are about two miles from the location of the possible explosion. You and your graduate assistant decide to cancel the theater portion of the trip and ask the students to return to the hotel after this current event. The grad puts out a message over the group messaging app that all of your students downloaded before they left specifically for trip communication. You sit at home on your porch and watch as the acknowledgements of the message roll in (because you have it downloaded too). You also add to the chat that students may want to check in with the friends and family as this is making national news. You then, adhering to the communications plan, send a text message to your supervisor and the campus emergency manager letting them know that your folks are two miles from the troubled area and they are safe and aware of it. You note the time so you can check the news again in an hour. Now back to your book. 

Discussion Questions:

  1. After reviewing your existing campus resources and protocols, what additional resources or trainings can you develop to support managing risk with campus activities? 
  2. What steps can you take to begin conversations with colleagues or students about issues of risk management when planning activities or trips?
  3. What insight have you gained that you’ll use in your professional career moving forward?

Author Bios

John Summerlot is Director of Veterans Support Services at Indiana University and serves on the Incident Management Team. He holds an adjunct position teaching emergency management and search and rescue. His sixteen years in higher education include work in residence life and emergency management. His consulting and research include on and off campus emergency procedures, missing students, and emergency preparedness training. John holds an Associate Emergency Manager certification from the International Association of Emergency Managers, a Military Emergency Management Specialist rating in the Indiana Guard Reserve, and a BA and MS from Mississippi State University.

Benjamin Williams is an Associate Program Director of the Student Center at the Georgia Institute of Technology. He is an active volunteer with the Association of College Unions International and ACPA & NASPA.  His work experience in higher education has been primarily in residence life, commuter services, college unions, and student activities. His research interests focus on risk management in student affairs, bisexual, gay, and transgender men’s experience of sexual violence, and staff development.  Benjamin holds a BA in Sociology from Georgia State University and an MS in Student Affairs in Higher Education from Miami University. 


Federal Emergency Management Agency. (2013). Guide for Developing High-Quality Emergency Operations Plans for Institutions of Higher Education. Available at:

Haddow, G., Bullock, J. & Coppola D. (2013) Introduction to Emergency Management, (5th Ed.). Waltham, MA: Butterworth-Heinemann

Harper, K. S., Paterson, B. G., & Zdziarski, E. L., II. (Eds.). (2006). Crisis management: Responding from the heart. Washington, DC: National Association of Student Personnel Administrators.

Sanford, N. (1962). The American college. New York, NY: Wiley.

Van Horne, P. & Riley, J.A. (2014). Left of Bang. New York, NY: Black Irish. 

Zdziarski, E. L., II, Rollo, J. M., & Dunkel, N. W., & Associates (Eds.). (2007). Campus crisis management: A comprehensive guide to planning, prevention, response, and recovery. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Working through Campus Tragedy Alongside the Families of Deceased Community Members // written by: Mahauganee D. Shaw & Amanda Alberti

Mahauganee D. Shaw
Miami University

Amanda Alberti
Miami University

An unfortunate and challenging reality for today’s student affairs practitioners is that campus tragedies are anticipated events within the scope of our work responsibilities. Although deeply troubling, time on the job teaches us that isolated tragedies such as student deaths from life-threatening illness, suicide, substance use or other causes can be normalized incidents in the course of a given academic year. Moreover, especially over the past two decades, we have been shaken with sobering reminders that our campuses are at-risk for widespread loss of life via unthinkable tragedies: an athletic team involved in a fatal crash while traveling, students perishing in a residence hall fire, the dire consequences of an active shooter on campus, the deep impact of unprecedented natural disasters. When such tragedy occurs, we must respond at many different, and often conflicting, levels. At one end of the spectrum, we face pressures of the media whereby our tragedies quickly evolve into local, regional, or national headline news.  On the other hand, we are charged with the delicate responsibilities of working with family members connected to the deceased.

This tension between responding to crisis both broadly and intimately is illustrated by the events surrounding the residence hall fire at Seton Hall University in 2000 upon which then-president Bob Sheeran reflected, “Our saddest day was also our most ‘public’ day” (Brand, Foote, & Sheeran, “Media Relations” section, ¶1). National news crews were on the scene reporting the story while the tragedy unfolded. By the time it was clear that three students perished and several others injured (some quite severely), the public already had access to the story.  Meanwhile, campus emergency responders were still in the process of contacting families of the injured/deceased to officially share the news and to begin the process of meeting their diverse array of needs.

Emergency management manuals and a growing body of scholarship on campus experiences with tragedy (e.g., Jenkins & Goodman, 2015; Shaw, 2016) provide some procedural guidance with respect to handling the opposing forces presented by an emergency scenario such as the Seton Hill fire.  However, our practical experiences with emergency response suggest that student affairs administrators often receive sparse training related to interacting with the relatives of student victims in the wake of a critical incident. This article helps fill the gap by examining literature and promising campus practices related to working with families in the aftermath of tragedy. It is organized to align with the crisis management stages and tasks that most often follow a tragedy: responding to the incident, recovering from the impact of the incident, and remembering and learning from it. In the sections that follow, we discuss the role of campus professionals in working with families through each of these stages, outlining the challenges inherent to each stage and some suggested solutions to those challenges, including examples where appropriate.

Responding to Tragedy: Walking the Line between Head and Heart

In many ways, responding to a campus tragedy requires campus first responders to walk a tightrope between leading with their heads and leading with their hearts. This is particularly true when a response extends beyond the campus community to the families of students. Reflecting on a campus response to the deaths of six students driving back to campus from spring break travels, Whipple (2006) shared the following:

The [institution’s emergency response] team agreed that it was crucial for the university to contact the families. As a vice president, I have had to make my share of tough phone calls to parents, but I dreaded these. The associate vice president for student affairs—always a voice of reason in crisis—said that he wanted to call the families on behalf of the university, and I was happy to let him do it. In retrospect, I was somewhat angry with myself for not making the calls myself, as I realized that this was not about my feelings but about the families and their feelings. In a similar situation (which I hope never occurs), I will make those calls. (p. 73)

This passage highlights the wrestling between head and heart wherein the battle between logical reasoning and emotion is a central dilemma for campus professionals on the frontlines of tragedy. The head aspect of this dilemma is guided by an understanding of professional responsibilities, institutional crisis response protocols, and legal parameters. The heart aspect is guided by human connection to people in pain. 

Over time, common practices have emerged which serve to guide the ways that campus professionals balance the draw between their hearts and heads to effectively communicate and support family members of student victims of tragedy.  One of the most common practices for working with families is for a single campus professional to be assigned to the task of acting as a liaison for the family. The liaison is responsible for maintaining communication between the family and the institution. Communications to the family typically include updates regarding the institution’s progress in the response and recovery processes, as well as providing needed support and assistance to the family during that time. Communications from the liaison back to institutional leaders and campus partners, at minimum, include the family’s wishes as it pertains to how their student is remembered and eulogized, and how their remains and belongings are handled. While communication is the key role of this position, one of the chief benefits of assigning a liaison is granting the family a consistent contact who is familiar with them, their past communications, and their desires.

Oftentimes, the decision of whom to assign as a family liaison is connected to pre-existing relationships. For example, a campus professional with a close relationship to an injured or deceased student may be the best choice for comfortable and amicable communication with the family. When there is no clear relational choice, the decision is often made based on personal commonalities or position titles. When the University of Alabama lost 6 students in a 2011 tornado, for example, a few top administrators were assigned as liaisons to all families (L. Davis, personal communication). While the liaison role was assigned to people based on their positions, other characteristics—such as sharing a hometown or cultural background with a family—factored in. Regardless of who is assigned as a family liaison, the goal is to communicate in a manner that is caring, open, honest, and comprehensive. The relationship that forms between family members and their assigned liaisons usually creates a bond that transcends time and distance. It is not uncommon for this relationship to continue on a personal level, even after the business aspect has been completed. 

The cementing of a relationship between a campus liaison and a family is an indication of how deeply the loss of life impacts campus professionals. Expounding on the concept of compassionate leadership after campus tragedy, Treadwell (2016) writes about student affairs professionals going above and beyond the expectations of their positions to support victims, their families, and each other:

…including travel arrangements, counseling, meals, time away, and other basic needs. One arranged for snow removal from a victim’s sidewalk, allowing for loved ones to safely visit the family. Another arranged translators with the help of a foreign consulate to ensure that the family understood the university’s actions. A third recalled staff members who packed a deceased student’s belongings to protect the family from that unbearable task (p. 19)

While it is important to care for the families of student victims of tragedy, it is equally important to care for caretakers, our on-campus first responders. Existing scholarship suggests avenues for addressing the needs of campus first responders (Griffin, 2007; Paterson, 2006; Zdziarski, 2006). In times of tragedy, it is important to remember not only the needs of those most directly and deeply impacted—victims, their family and friends—but also the needs of those who are expected to care for the impacted members of our communities. 

Knowing the context of the tragedy and the response process should assist in identifying resources that are of best assistance to the staff members on the frontlines of the response process, allowing those of us on the sidelines to support them as needed. One example is the choice of a family liaison who shared a close personal relationship with the student victim. A professional who was close to the student may be quick to volunteer to be the family’s liaison, or may readily accept such an assignment. Yet, this role may cause the professional to experience heightened trauma. As colleagues of people working in the family liaison role, whether we supervise or report to them, student affairs professionals should take the time to check in with these peers. This includes helping them to assess when or if they need to take a step back, and being willing to assist by helping to complete some tasks related either to the family liaison role or to their regular duties.

Recovering from Tragedy: Moving Forward Respectfully

Recovery from a campus tragedy includes the long-term process of moving back toward a state of normalcy after the immediate needs of the response process have been completed. As we envision moving forward following a student death, the impact of the loss is likely to reach several different individuals and groups: campus friends, mentors and acquaintances (i.e. professors, student affairs staff, and roommates), the first-response campus professionals, campus professionals serving as liaisons to the deceased student’s family, and even campus members who did not know the deceased student(s). As we work to tend to the unique needs of those within our campus community, we must not forget that the people most impacted outside of our campus community, grieving family members, still need our care and attention.

Appropriately, following the death of a student, university officials often focus their attention and resources on immediate family members of the student victim as well as roommates and other close friends of the student who attend the institution. Institutions can provide several resources to help community members cope. One way that this support can be provided is through residence hall and campus group counseling opportunities. It can be beneficial to invite counselors and experts to make themselves available to the campus community in the residence halls, student center, or other high-traffic campus locations throughout the week following the student death. Hosting hours in the student center, or any other central campus location, is likely to attract those who do not frequent residential spaces. 

Meilman and Hall (2006) outline a format used at Cornell University to lead community support meetings in the aftermath of an unexpected student death; they describe discussion exercises the group completes and the rationales and outcomes of those exercises for helping people to effectively cope and grieve. These types of support meetings are usually scheduled as an institution moves toward recovering from a tragedy. While it is not part of the Cornell format to do so, inviting families to attend and participate in these meetings can be beneficial for the grieving process of both the family members and the campus community members in attendance. Having an opportunity to remember the deceased together and to complete the outlined exercises alongside others who are feeling the impact of loss can help families to tangibly experience the connection of their deceased student to the campus community. 

Over time, the relationship with the family may naturally begin to fade; a variety of factors contribute to how quickly or slowly this may happen. Families of deceased students may face financial or emotional challenges with accessing the campus space. In the case of financial challenges, it may not be fiscally feasible for the family to visit the campus regularly in the months and years after the tragedy. The decision of whether to coordinate an annual commemoration should take this into account. Alternatively, sometimes family members who are financially able to visit campus are not emotionally able to do so. Understandably, memories of the student could bring more pain than progress for families. In the end, each relationship will form, progress, and possibly end in its own unique way. Campus professionals serving as family liaisons should work delicately to assess the effectiveness of their relationship with the family and determine on a case-by-case basis if communication with the family is still beneficial to both parties. 

Healing from Tragedy: Remembering alongside Family 

As institutional leaders help the campus community to process a student’s death and regain a sense of normalcy thereafter, the task of remembering and learning from the incident takes precedent. In instances of student death, memorialization is a common remembrance practice that can help an entire campus community to walk the line between head and heart. It allows family members to gather alongside campus community members to reflect on lost lives and to give and receive comfort. Memorials provide a space for people to blend their logical reasoning about a tragic chain of events with their heartfelt sentiments about the people involved; in this way, memorials assist with the healing process. Yet, in the planning of any memorial, communication with the families of those to be eulogized is of paramount importance. 

A memorial can exist in an endless array of forms based on the needs of the campus, the family, and the community. To care for the immediate needs of family and campus community, some institutions host remembrance ceremonies or candlelight vigils in close proximity to a tragic event. These events allow participants to see the amount of support that exists within the university community. Appalachian State University has a unique approach to memorialization. In the wake of a student death, the campus community receives an email promoting a memorial book where students and other community members can write messages, leave pictures, or otherwise create a tangible display to be shared with the family of the deceased. The campus policies for working through student death, including guidelines for the creation and delivery of the memorial book, are made available on the institutional website (Appalachian State University, 2015). 

These memorial books allow campus community members to express their condolences in a way that does not intrude on the grieving process of the family members of the deceased student. Unlike with a memorial ceremony, families who receive a memorial book are able to accept condolences in their own time. Families of deceased students have a lot to think about in the time immediately following the loss of their student including funeral arrangements and their emotional survival. To have a plan already in place for acknowledging the loss to the university community is one way to provide stability during a very unpredictable and unexpected time. 

Considering the long-term needs of family and friends to remember a student’s passing, institutions may offer memorialization options that leave a more permanent footprint on campus. For example, families may be offered opportunities to plant a tree or dedicate some other portion of campus landscaping (e.g., a boulder or a bench with a memorial plaque). In situations where the tragedy is experienced deeply and significantly across the community, an institution may also elect to build a memorial structure that commemorates lost life. As one of the key target audiences for a memorial ceremony, or anticipated future visitors for a physical memorial, the family’s wishes should be prioritized but must also be balanced with campus needs and resources. Some families may feel the need to visit physical memorials and participate in commemorations more often than others depending on their personal healing process and needs. Other family members might need to disconnect from the institution in order to properly heal.

One well-known example of campus tragedy that considers the nuances of family needs is the 1970 plane crash involving the Marshall University football team. On November 14, 1970, tragedy struck the Huntington, WV community when the airplane carrying the football team home from an away game crashed while approaching the local airport. The crash took the lives of everyone on board, 75 people, including the majority of the Marshall University football team and coaching staff, along with several Huntington, WV community members and the flight crew. This crash is yet recorded as the largest sports-related air disaster in U. S. history, and was the subject of a 2006 movie entitled “We Are Marshall.” As such a large-scale tragedy, this plane crash was extremely impactful on the lives of several people, near and far from Huntington. While there are reminders of the 1970 football team and plane crash in several places across the city of Huntington and across Marshall’s campus, there are three prominent memorial sites—one on campus, one at the site of the crash, and one in a local cemetery. All three are widely visited throughout the year.

Marshall University continues to host an annual memorial ceremony that allows a space for the families and friends of the deceased to gather alongside current Marshall students and employees, and local Huntington community members. This ceremony happens at the on-campus memorial, located directly outside of the student union. Several symbolic elements help to infuse the families of the deceased into the annual ceremony. First, there is limited seating at the ceremony, and the first few rows are reserved for family members. Second, while there are several University-affiliated speakers (e.g., president, student body representatives, athletics officials), every year there is a special invited speaker who is usually a relative of one of the deceased. This allows family members a platform to share their memories and experiences, but also allows other family members in the audience to hear from someone who shared the agonizing experience of losing a loved one in this plane crash. Third, during the ceremony, the names of the deceased are each called. As each name is called, someone places a rose representing that person on the edge of the fountain. Sometimes the rose is carried by a single person, and sometimes a pair of people. The people carrying the rose are sometimes family members, and sometimes current Marshall students or football players. 

At the close of the ceremony, the family members are invited inside the student center to a special reception in their honor. Given the efforts of University leaders to continue the annual commemoration—a decision that has been questioned in recent years—and the efforts of some families to continually attend the ceremony, many family members have developed relationships with each other over the now 46 years since the crash. This connection helps them to heal and encourages many to return to campus each year to celebrate their deceased loved ones in community.

Closing Thoughts

Each campus tragedy will offer a unique set of circumstances; this, however, should not preclude campus leaders from being prepared for the impact of tragedy on the campus community. It is important to remember when responding to a student death that no two institutions or situations are alike. As student affairs professionals, we all have natural tendencies to be nurturers, to prevent tragedy and alleviate the pain we see in others. Although you may respond in all the “right” ways, there could never truly be a response that eliminates the pain for the family of the deceased, or within the campus community. 

It is not possible to develop standard procedures that encompass exactly how to interact with next of kin after campus tragedy. The relationship established with a grieving family may be short and fleeting, or long and enduring. Whether the campus serves as an emotional anchor for family members or an emotional trigger, navigating this relational process can be a complex undertaking. Campus liaisons to families are often people who are willing and able to be vulnerable enough to engage in the emotional work of grieving and healing alongside family members. While this is commendable, it is our responsibility as professionals to make sure that interactions are not creating further risk or harm to either party as the relationship continues. When relationships between families of deceased individuals and our institutions are prolonged it is important to maintain awareness of the impacts for the family as well as for the institution and its professionals. 

Discussion Questions

  1. What policies and procedures does your institution have for working with families of deceased students, staff, or faculty? 
  2. What is your institution’s process for removing a deceased community members’ belongings from campus? How might this impact family members?
  3. How do your procedures change when there is more than one deceased person? If there is a mass number of deceased persons (campus shooting, tragic natural disaster, etc.)?
  4. How can you determine if/when it is necessary to sever communication with a grieving family? What is the emotional obligation to a family, if any?

Author Bios:

Amanda Alberti and Mahauganee Shaw first connected through the ACPA Commission on Campus Safety and Emergency Preparedness before their professional paths converged as employees of Miami University. Amanda’s entry to student affairs has been in residential life; she has made a mark on the emergency planning process on the campuses where she has worked. Mahauganee teaches courses and conducts research focused on moments of crisis and tragedy that impact campus communities, how institutions respond to such incidents, and the process of recover and healing that follows. 


Appalachian State University. (2015). Student death protocol. Retrieved from:

Brand, M., Foote, E. T., Sheeran, R. (Fall 2000). When the going gets tough… Presidency, 3(3), 14-16. 

Griffin, W. (2007). Psychological first aid in the aftermath of crisis. In E. L. Zdziarski II, J. M. Rollo, & N. W. Dunkel (Eds.). Campus crisis management: A comprehensive guide to planning, prevention, response, and recovery (pp. 145-182). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Jenkins, S., & Goodman, M. (2015). ‘He’s one of ours’: A case study of a campus response to crisis. Journal of Contingencies and Crisis Management, 23(4), 201-209.

Meilman, P. W., & Hall, T. M. (2006). Aftermath of tragic events: The development and use of community support meetings on a university campus. Journal of American College Health, 54(6), 382-384.

Paterson, B. G. (2006). Establishing a crisis response team: Moving from institutional to personal response. In K. S. Harper, B. G. Paterson, & E. L. Zdziarski, II (Eds.). Crisis management: Responding from the heart (pp. 25-40). Washington, DC: National Association of Student Personnel Administrators.

Shaw, M. D. (2016). Pathways to institutional equilibrium after a campus disaster. Journal of Contingencies and Crisis Management. DOI: 10.1111/1468-5973.12128

Treadwell, K. L. (2016). Compassionate complexity: Learning on the frontlines of campus tragedy. About Campus, 20(5), 14-20.

Zdziarski, C. L. (2006). Voice of the responder’s partner. In K. S. Harper, B. G. Paterson, & E. L. Zdziarski, II (Eds.). Crisis management: Responding from the heart (pp. 68-70). Washington, DC: National Association of Student Personnel Administrators.

Examining the relationship between community engagement and graduate student preparation // written by: April Perry, Christopher Ray and Lane Perry

April Perry
Western Carolina University

Christopher Ray
Western Carolina University

Lane Perry
Western Carolina University


This article investigates the correlation between the concepts of community engagement and graduate student populations. In particular, a focus is on analyzing extant literature highlighting the concept of community engagement within higher education and examining the relationship between community engaged professionals and postmodern professionals. Furthermore, this work serves as a call to action for institutions of higher education to invest in and support the creation of graduate community engagement learning initiatives through an intentional, evidence-based approach.

This analysis of literature and research serves as an effort to examine the connection between the concepts of community engagement and graduate student populations. As such, the information presented will assist in determining if community engagement represents an appropriate vehicle to promote graduate student success and enhance the level of professionalism and preparation among such students. In order to examine the relationship between these two topics, this article will address the concept of community engagement within higher education and the benefits associated with such a practice. Additionally, this article will showcase the relationship between community engaged professionals and postmodern professionals. Lastly, this article will connect the two concepts and the benefits that prove to be the result of their pairing.

Literature Review

In order to effectively discuss community engagement within the realm of higher education, it is necessary to define community engagement as it relates to higher education. From a theoretical standpoint, the concept of community engagement, as defined by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, refers to:

“The collaboration between institutions of higher education and their larger communities (local, regional/state, national, and global) for the mutually beneficial exchange of knowledge and resources in the context of partnership and reciprocity. The purpose of community engagement is the partnership of college and university knowledge and resources with those of the public and private sectors to enrich scholarship, research, and creative activity; enhance curriculum, teaching and learning; prepare educated, engaged citizens; strengthen democratic values and civic responsibility; address critical societal issues; and contribute to the public good” (Carnegie Community Engagement Classification Description, n.d.).

Across higher education institutions, community engagement initiatives have been implemented through many different educational outlets. From the creation of first-year learning communities devoted to connecting community service to academic learning (Bringle & Hatcher, 1996) to assisting in the development of reciprocal partnerships between external stakeholders (Bringle & Hatcher, 2009), each of these concepts help illustrate the wide array of possibilities for learners with regard to community engagement. For the purpose of specificity, this article will analyze community engagement through the lens of service-learning. Describing service-learning as it relates to community engagement, Kuh (2008) provided sound reasoning for this practice within his seminal work related to high-impact practices within higher education that promote increased retention and engagement rates among learners. Within his research, Kuh (2008) paired service and community-based learning together to represent one of the foundational pillars of high-impact educational practices. These researchers help describe service-learning within the realm of higher education; however, in order to better connect this practice with graduate students, it is necessary to discuss the associated benefits directly.

As a whole, students who participate in community engagement practices not only contribute in a meaningful manner within their respective communities, but they also gain access to a plethora of benefits. Personal growth (Gallini & Moely, 2003), moral development (Boss, 1994), engagement (Perry, 2011), and enhancement of academic content (Markus, Howard, & King, 1993) represent just some of the benefits related to this practice. In addition to this, Ehrlich (2005) mentions that learners who participate in community engagement initiatives practice skills needed for effective leadership, further develop their sense of civic responsibility, and continue the development of an inquiring and imaginative mind. Community engagement initiatives also allow learners the opportunity to connect service within a respective community to their own specific academic area of interest. It should be noted that the primary populations of most of the past studies investigating the impacts of service-learning have been focused on undergraduate students.

For example, Leung et al. (2012) describe how nursing students were able to increase their content knowledge, as well as improve upon their attitudes and abilities, when working with older adults as a result of their involvement in a 10-week volunteer practicum with aged adults. Similarly, students enrolled in the University of Saskatchewan were able to improve upon their social accountability skills as a result of their involvement within an opportunity entitled “Making the Links” (Meili, Fuller, & Lydiate, 2011). This unique certificate program combined academic courses with service-learning focused on providing members of an underserved, urban community with medical care and treatment. 

Providing context for the topic of community engagement and the beneficial outcomes linked with its practice reveals the skills that graduate students would also be able to gain by participating in such a practice. In addition, an analysis of the literature reveals a significant gap in the area of graduate student community engagement. One notable source (Fehr, Minty, Racey, Bettger, & Newton, 2014) provides context for an initiative specifically tailored for graduate students and helps to provide a transferable approach for other institutions of higher education.  

Within their research, Fehr et al. (2014) specifically address the educational and practical benefits of graduate student community engagement. More specifically, the researchers described an initiative related to the FoodUCation program, which is focused on educating young learners about healthy eating habits and how such habits ultimately lead to a healthy lifestyle. In addition, this program was designed as a for-credit, graduate course and was implemented within a local elementary school that served as one of the community partners for the university.  

Through the use of a mixed-methods approach, the authors were able to identify that the graduate students who participated in this project were able to practice and further develop skills vital for their intended vocations. Furthermore, the positive feedback mentioned by the participants led to the inclusion of this and similar practices within other graduate courses. The research of Fehr et al. (2014) not only serves as an example for graduate student engagement practices, but it also showcases the effectiveness of such practices. More importantly, this work represents one of the few discussions linking the concepts of community engagement and graduate students together, which helps illustrate a significant gap in the research that supports the connection between these two topics. 

Linking Graduate Community Engagement with the Postmodern Profession 

The work of Dostilio (2017) serves as a bridge for connecting graduate community engagement with postmodern professions, while also highlighting how community engagement allows for the development of community engagement professionals (Dostilio, 2017; Dostilio & McReynolds, 2015; Jacoby & Mutascio, 2010; McReynolds & Shields, 2015). The importance of including community engagement initiatives in the educational experience of learners is emphasized within Dostilio and Perry’s (2015) work related to community engagement professionals as leaders. More specifically, this research presents a review of extant community-university engagement practice literature that highlights the competencies and attributes gained by individuals who are identified as being community engaged professionals. It is important to note that this could logically be applied to the benefits gained by graduate students through their involvement with community engagement initiatives. Essentially, the competencies and attributes identified Dostilio and her co-authors (2017), are considered to be the skill-set in which the current and future higher education environments call upon.

Further description of the key benefits for graduate students as a result of their engagement in such activities, Dostilio and Perry (2017) make reference to four distinct attributes gained by community engaged professionals that prove to be of benefit within any occupational path. First is the concept of developing a body of knowledge and practice. One of the primary factors that distinguish graduate level community engagement practices from undergraduate practices relates to the incorporation of extant literature and theory to provide foundational evidence for such students showcasing the need for such a practice. In addition, the incorporation of theory will allow graduate students the opportunity to align with a new body of knowledge that would provide them with a solid basis for including community engagement practices within the theory aligned with their own occupational path. 

A second attribute highlighted within the work of Dostilio and Perry (2017) refers to the creation of a practitioner-scholar community. In describing this concept, the authors refer to a practitioner-scholar community as a group of individuals who are able to blend sophisticated practice and theory. Furthermore, the ability to align practice with theory promotes the development of practitioner scholars, and according to the researchers, this refers to an individual who demonstrates systematic inquiry and reflective practice, which is essential within any post-secondary profession. Providing graduate students with an opportunity to engage in practices that help them develop as effective practitioner-scholars, and share their own unique knowledge and identity will also help in the development of a professional epistemology among such individuals. 

Creating a shared professional identity, the third attribute identified by Dostilio and Perry (2017) and Palonen, Boshuizen, and Lehtinen (2014), refers to this as a shared professional identity that proves to be co-constructed by individuals within a specific profession. This construction of a shared professional identity can easily be linked with graduate community engagement initiatives, as many of these individuals will transition into a desired occupation following the conclusion of their graduate studies. In stating this, it is important to note that Scanlon (2011) describes how postmodern professionals embrace reflexive practices and a deep analysis of self rather than traditional cognitive and normative superiority that proves to be linked with modern professionals. In short, this refers to the desire of postmodern professionals to practice life-long learning that goes beyond simply acquiring a degree and promotes a holistic identity. In further relating this to graduate students, an effective transition into the professional working environment includes this concept of developing a professional identity, and this in turn helps such individuals develop what the authors refer to as “a sense of deepening and nuancing rather than progression from one professional identity stage to the next” (Dostilio & Perry, 2017, p. 8). 

A final attribute emphasized by the Dostilio and Perry (2017) refers to the ability of an individual to develop a set of ethical commitments. Graduate students engaging in community engagement initiatives have an excellent opportunity to a set of values or norms that prove to be essential within a postmodern professional environment. More specifically, Scanlon (2011) refers to the importance of such characteristics in stating that postmodern professionals not only possess epistemological orientations, but also ontological orientations. In short, this balance between the two concepts refers to the essential ability of an individual to utilize both practical knowledge as well as ethical principles as they interact with others in their respective profession. The development of this ability proves to be essential for graduate students planning on becoming effective professionals as they work in such a way that promotes their professional identity.

The work of Dostilio and Perry (2017) expounds upon the benefits of community engagement practices, especially with regard to graduate students. In addition, this research supports and justifies the establishment of a pipeline and expectation for future community engagement professionals to start their professional development locally (within their home institutions) with the greater goal and intention of further developing their competencies as a community engaged professional in the future. In fact, a program facilitated on campuses, locally, could serve as a pipeline to complement a national program that further develops competencies on a more intensive level.

Exemplary Models

To provide further context for local institutional community engagement development opportunities for graduate students, this section will showcase two models that include three essential elements, which greatly assist in their ability to practice exemplary work. Initially, these models intentionally align with graduate student development and education on community engagement in a formalized and academically recognized way. Second, these two models integrate curriculum content on community engagement (e.g. practices, research, and approaches) with experiential learning initiatives. Finally, the two models frame community engagement as a discipline synonymous with an individual learner’s respective academic discipline (e.g. nursing, teaching, business, etc.).

The first exemplary model is the Graduate Certificate in Service-Learning and Community-Based Learning in Postsecondary Education (GCSLCBLPE) at Portland State University (Graduate Certificate in Service-Learning and Community-Based Learning in Postsecondary Education, 2016). Consisting of an 18 credit hour graduate certificate, this program represents the first of its kind and is one of the few that currently exist within the United States. This program is specifically designed for college professionals who possess a desire to be actively involved in coordinating community engagement initiatives, faculty interested in connecting academic content with experiential, community based-learning, and finally community partners keen on establishing connections between their agency and an institution of higher education, and can be completed within one academic year. The primary objectives of the GCSLCBLPE include:

  • Understanding theoretical foundations of civic engagement as a form of learning
  • Utilizing scholarly approaches, such as evidence-based outcomes of community-based learning, as a teaching and learning technique
  • Investigating curricular and co-curricular practices to further develop reciprocal campus-community partnerships
  • Engaging in experiential learning through community service, teaching, and assessing in order to grow as a professional

In addition to learning foundational theory and practice related to service-learning and community-based learning, learners participating in this program also apply their knowledge of community-based practices through a self-directed capstone experience.

Within the University Outreach and Engagement Office at Michigan State University’s Graduate School, there is a Graduate Certification in Community Engagement (GCCE). This certification serves as a preparatory resource for graduate students who are interested in pursuing a career that will include collaboration with various organizations (e.g., government-based, non-government, non-profits, for-profits, and others). Simply stated, the GCCE “is designed to help graduate and professional students develop systemic, respectful, and scholarly approaches to their community engaged work” (Graduate Certification in Community Engagement, n.d.). The program focuses primarily on the scholarly and practical skills for facilitating “engaged research and creative activities, engaged teaching and learning, engaged service, and engaged communication enriching activities” (Graduate Certification in Community Engagement, n.d.). Perhaps most valuable is the individualized approach to each learner and their specialized interest in community engagement.  

The primary goals of the GCCE include:

  • Preparation for a career as an engaged scholar or practitioner
  • Learning about scholarly approaches to community engagement
  • Gaining of skills for collaborating effectively and respectfully with community partners
  • Sharing disciplinary knowledge and experiences with other graduate students, faculty, and staff
  • Network with other engaged scholarship and practitioners – on campus and nationally.

The program model is operationalized by three requirements. The first includes the completion of 17 competency-based seminars (e.g., foundation of community engaged scholarship, evaluation of community partnership, working with diverse communities, etc.). The second requirement is a mentored community engagement experience and includes, “an opportunity to collaborate with a community partner and a faculty mentor on a project in a real-world, community setting” (Graduate Certification in Community Engagement: Community Experience, n.d.). The third requirement is an engagement portfolio which includes both a written and presentation based aspect. This serves as vehicle for discussing, reflecting upon, identifying valuable lessons and goals achieved, and soliciting critical feedback from the community partner about the experience in a holistic capacity.

The programs at both Michigan State and Portland State serve as models for how institutions can begin to include their students in preparation for a world that consistently demands collaborative, mutually beneficial and respectful approaches to not only partnerships, but also community engagement initiatives. Established programs seem to have the following three factors in common:

  • Formalized and academically recognized curriculum (legitimatized)
  • Course content is integrated with experiential learning initiatives (modeled)
  • Recognize community engagement as a complementary discipline (balanced)


This paper has addressed the concept of community engagement within higher education and the benefits associated with such a practice and showcased the relationship between community engaged professionals and postmodern professionals. More specifically, this analysis of literature related to community engagement initiatives and the analysis of the work done by community engaged professionals, suggests that there is a clear opportunity and connection. As such, this connection expresses the need for future exploration and additional investigation of community engagement initiatives involving graduate students. Furthermore, this warrants a call for more graduate student focused learning initiatives with an intentional, evidence-based approach to their development. The greater goal is for this population of learners to reap the benefits associated with such practices as they transition into an ever-evolving professional environment. 

Author Bios:

Christopher Adam Ray is an Assistant Director for Undergraduate Admissions at Western Carolina University. Adam’s most recent positions include serving as a Graduate Assistant in the Higher Education Student Affairs Master’s program within the Center for Service Learning, as well as the Office of the Associate Provost for Undergraduate Studies at Western Carolina University. Adam has also authored several publications. These publications have been included in referred journals such as the Journal of College Student Development. In addition, Adam also serves on the Educational Opportunities Planning Committee for the Carolinas Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers (CACRAO). Adam holds a Bachelor of Arts in History and a Bachelor of Science in Social Science Education as well as a Master of Education in Higher Education Student Affairs from Western Carolina University.

Dr. Lane Perry currently serves as the Director of the Center for Service Learning and is an affiliated faculty member of the Human Services Department at Western Carolina University. Lane has presented and published extensively in the fields of community engagement, service-learning, global citizenship, and pedagogical approaches to disaster response. Most recently, he has been recognized as the 2015 North Carolina Campus Compact Civic Engagement Professional of the Year, the 2015 co-recipient of the John Saltmarsh Award for Emerging Leaders in Civic Engagement, and the 2017 Gulf South Summit Practitioner of the Year.

Dr. April Perry is the Program Director & Assistant Professor in the M.Ed. Higher Education Student Affairs program at Western Carolina University. As a practitioner, April worked in Leadership Programs, Parent & Family Programs, Fundraising & Marketing, and Academic Tutoring Services. She is passionate about student development in the college years and lives by the motto that ‘the only thing better than watching someone grow is helping them grow.’ In 2016, April received the WCU Graduate School’s Award for Excellence in Graduate Student Mentoring, and in 2017, she was named Outstanding Professional in Graduate and Professional Student Services, an award presented by the AGAPSS Knowledge Community of NASPA.


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Latinx Network Writers Group: Demystifying the writing process for scholar-practitioners // written by: Ricardo Montelongo, Stephen Santa-Ramirez, Karla Cruze-Silva & Gary Santos Mendoza

Ricardo Montelongo
Sam Houston State University

Stephen Santa-Ramirez
University at Buffalo

Karla Cruze-Silva
University of Arizona

Gary Santos Mendoza
Florida Atlantic University

In 2014, the Latinx Network (LN) introduced the LN Writers Group to promote writing and publishing as ways to convey our members’ experiences and knowledge. In this article, we share our experiences as founding members of the LN Writers Group. We have seen our group grow into one actively contributing to the student affairs literature. By using the cultural tradition of testimonios – where our personal stories create an empowering collective consciousness (Espino, Vega, Rendon, Ranero, & Muniz, 2012), we depict how our lived experience as student affairs practitioner-scholars have been impacted by struggles, aspirations, and eventual successes with writing and publishing. We have learned the importance of writing as a professional skill and have created a supportive community to navigate the publishing process to share our stories and knowledge.  We start with the conceptual frameworks that guide our group’s purpose. Ricardo provides a brief introduction to the LN Writers Group shared as the first testimonio. We follow with our testimonios describing how writing and publishing is demystified by our involvement with the LN Writers Group. From our collective stories, we offer advice for those looking to initiate a similar initiative for their entity groups.

Frameworks Guiding Our Group

The experiences of Black and Brown higher education and student affairs professionals can be challenging at times, especially when employed at historically white institutions and being one of very few People of Color within a student affairs division, experiencing what Harper (2013) has coined as “onlyness.”  Due to the nature of higher education and student affairs professional staff roles requiring them to be resources of support and encouragement to students, often times our members also need a space(s) that is supportive of their personal identities and professional growth. Existing literature suggests that People of Color (POC) in college environments find themselves struggling to find belongingness (Haywood, 2017; Strayhorn, 2012), forced by whiteness ideologies and practices to “fit in” as actors in a play set in American higher education (Nguyen & Duran, 2018), and oftentimes experience feelings of isolation (García-Louis, 2018). Therefore, to guide our writing group we draw from the workings of scholars whom have conducted research studies with Communities of Color in mind. Yosso’s (2005) social and navigating capital within community cultural wealth (CCW) and Solorzano, Ceja & Yosso’s (2000) counter-spaces provide frameworks that best explore experiences told through testimonios presented by members within the LN Writers Group.

Our Purpose

Yosso’s (2005) CCW conceptual model emerged from the workings of critical scholars who center their work on asset-based framing of historically marginalized communities (i.e., Gloria Anzaldúa, Gloria Ladson-Billings and Paulo Freire), and was first introduced to educational researchers to challenge pre-existing interpretations of cultural capital for Latinx individuals and other POC. The CCW model includes different forms of knowledge capital (i.e., aspirational, navigational, social, linguistic, familial and resistant capital) that POC attain from their communities and homes. CCW aims to recognize the generations of knowledge and resources POC have utilized to survive, adapt, resist, and thrive in racist institutional social structures (Perez Huber, 2009). For the purposes of this article, we focus on the familial and social capital tenets proposed by Yosso (2005). 

Familial capital is the “cultural knowledges nurtured among familia that carry a sense of community, history, memory, and cultural intuition…and models lessons of caring, coping, and providing (educacion)” (Yosso, 2005, p. 79), and social capital refers to the networks and community resources POC use for instrumental and emotional support to gain access to college, navigate through, and persist towards graduation (Yosso, 2005). The members of the LN Writer’s Group often mention they find a sense of familial-type community from sharing cultural intuition, knowledge, and experiences with other LN Writing Group members. Through group writing exercises and activities to explore feelings and ideas together, our members validate each other’s lived experiences and cultural insights with a sense of care. Additionally, our members use their collective social capital to network with the others in the group to speak and write about their own experiences as POC in higher education and work together to navigate the writing process to produce articles for publication.  

Our Space

The second framework we believe is appropriate and analogous with the testimonios of our members is counter-spaces. Arzubiaga, Brinkerhoff, and Seeley (2014) assert that socially produced spaces are those where people act, and that the social production of space takes place in ideologically and politically bound landscapes.” (p. 92). The narratives shared with our testimonios highlight both objective (e.g., virtual meetings and conference presentation spaces) and socially produced forms of comforting and supportive spaces as part of their experiences with the LN Writers Group. We refer to these affirming spaces as counter-spaces. Solorzano, Ceja & Yosso (2000) state that counter-spaces “serve as sites where deficit notions of People of Color can be challenged, and a positive collegiate racial climate can be established and maintained” (p. 70). Counter-spaces also allow POC to foster their own learning and nurture an environment that is supportive wherein experiences are validated and viewed as vital knowledge (Solorzano & Villalpando, 1998).

The group provides guidance and mentorship to move ideas to implementation and has assisted greatly by creating a supportive writing environment while simultaneously creating a (mostly) virtual space for networking. Understanding that some higher education institutions have formal and/or informal staff and faculty groups for People of Color (i.e., Faculty of Color Coalition and LGBT+/Latinx Faculty & Staff Association), not all do. As Nguyen and Duran (2018) noted, affinity spaces for higher education and student affairs staff of Color can be “places of healing, rejuvenation, and kinship to allow us to continue our work and share experiences with others” (p. 118). We believe the LN Writer’s Group has acted as such a space for its members.

Our testimonios highlight how we perceive the LN Writers Group meeting spaces, working groups and other affiliated initiatives, to be brave counter-spaces used to speak about issues of injustice and other problems Latinx students and staff face on college campuses, in addition to being spaces that offer us opportunities to learn and grow with like-minded and culturally affirming individuals. LN Writers Group creates an affirming counter-space outside our respective campuses.

Ricardo’s TestimonioStarting the Latinx Network Writers Group 

Since its establishment in 1987, ACPA’s Latinx Network has provided the association and the field of student affairs valuable insights on the Latinx experience in higher education. I have been a member of ACPA since 1992 and have found my professional home within ACPA’s Latinx Network.  As one of the more “seasoned” members of LN, I have seen LN’s legacy of strong engagement within ACPA’s commissions, chapters, and coalitions. In addition to this engagement, I have seen LN support our members’ interest in proposing and presenting workshops for professional development. For over 30 years, LN has provided topics at the annual convention and other settings to educate and inform colleagues on Latinx concerns in the field.  As Latinx representation and engagement within the profession of student affairs continues to grow, we as a Network believe our knowledge should reach well beyond our convention audiences.  

My idea of creating a group came after the ACPA 2013 Las Vegas Convention, where I and seven LN members provided four interconnected sessions addressing Latinx college student organization involvement. We were interested in finding publishing outlets to share their collective knowledge on the topic immediately after Vegas. I led this effort as LN’s research liaison and with my encouragement, committed my colleagues to find a publishing opportunity. Soon after convention, a call for chapter proposals was announced that was a good match for our conference presentations. Working collaboratively, we eventually published a chapter on “Latina/o Students and Involvement: Outcomes Associated with Latina/o Student Organizations” for the edited book, Student Involvement & Academic Outcomes: Implications for Diverse College Student Populations (Mitchell, Soria, Daniele, & Gipson, 2015). The published chapter planted a seed within the network to cultivate more member interest in writing and publishing in student affairs.  

The LN Writers Group was rolled out at ACPA 2016 Montreal Convention. I volunteered to be the coordinator of the group, which fell under my directorate role as research liaison and my new career switch as a tenure-track faculty member in a graduate preparation program. The first cohort of the LN Writers Group consisted of 10 members. Since 2016, we have tripled our number and continue to actively promote writing as a professional skill and seek new members. 

I see the group as a helping define what it means to be a practitioner-scholar, where writing is viewed as an important part of professional career development in student affairs administration. 

The LN Writers Group is founded on the idea that writing and publishing our collective knowledge provides a powerful tool to promote advocacy and empowerment for our members.  The goal is to create a supportive practitioner-scholar community to help others through the writing process. Through monthly meetings, group idea sharing, and collaborative writing projects, I want the LN to be an active contributor of innovative ideas and vital scholarly research in student affairs. With this goal, members can also start breaking down myths and uncertainty that they cannot publish. In doing so, my aim is to make publishing not an unattainable task, but one that is reachable to strengthen voices of our members. My LN Writers Group colleagues have contributed new knowledge to the student affairs profession. 

Nuestro Desmitificación

Stephen’s Testimonio – Writing in My Voice

After being presented with the opportunity to co-author a book chapter on the academic outcomes associated with college students engaged in Latinx-based campus organizations, I knew that I wanted to develop my writing skills even further. Soon after that piece was published the ACPA Latinx Network directorate announced the new LN Writers Group initiative would commence in 2015, and I was one of the first to eagerly sign-up and participate. Having a scholar-practitioner lead the group, who was also well versed in Latinx issues in higher education, has been a very pleasurable experience for a variety of reasons – he has a vast amount of experience in student affairs as a senior-level administrator working with diverse student populations, in addition to having and sharing with the group his publication experience as a current faculty member. The chair of the group has provided the guidance and mentorship needed to move the team from ideas to implementation and has significantly assisted with creating a supportive writing environment while simultaneously creating a (mostly) virtual space for networking, collaboration and workshopping with other scholar-practitioners from around the nation. 

Initially, I joined the LN Writers Group because I yearned for a supportive space to workshop ideas with colleagues who share similar cultural, research, and educational interests, but I have received much more than that. I have always had insecurities about my academic writing (something I believe many in the academy often struggle with) but after reading a book introduced to the group that highlighted the notion of being okay with the “shitty first draft” (Lamott, 1995), I began feeling more confident in writing in a variety of different styles and not putting so much added pressure on myself. The writer’s group has opened up a part of my mind that I previously did not recognize was creative, and as a result of my active membership and participation in the LN Writers Group I have had the opportunity to present at ACPA-College Student Educators International’s annual conference on my experiences with this initiative, writing, and workshopping ideas with attendees. As a current Ph.D. candidate, this group has provided a gateway to explore publishing opportunities, talk through the publication process via a variety of outlets, and share my writing and conference presentation ideas with other members to receive valuable feedback. 

The LN Writers Group has definitely assisted with demystifying the writing and publication process for me – by making me realize the importance of writing in my voice, recognizing that not every publication avenue values or is deserving of my story and those from historically marginalized groups, and honoring the process of writing in collaboration with others from the “shitty first draft,” revise and resubmits, to the final product, the publication itself. In relationship with my doctoral degree training, I have learned about many critical theories and non-deficit ways of writing about marginalized communities (e.g., critical race, LatCrit and Community Cultural Wealth), which have allowed me to best highlight the experiences and narratives of my co-researchers (commonly known as participants) I have the privilege to work alongside. I will forever be grateful and appreciative of the gained knowledge, community, support, and the diverse frameworks I have been introduced to via this writing group. 

Karla’s Testimonio – Fighting the Imposter Syndrome

As a Latina and first-generation college graduate, I never imagined I would be publishing or presenting at national conferences. When I joined the ACPA Latinx Network, I quickly felt a sense of community and belonging, something I had been looking for in my professional organization engagement. The year I became involved, the Network started the LN Writers Group. I joined thinking I would learn some tips and tricks to writing as I was beginning my doctoral journey and working full time as a professional in the student affairs field. 

When people start saying they wanted to publish, I was in shock. I did not think I could write something good enough to ever be published or to present at a national conference. Most of these feelings come from always feeling like an impostor; like maybe, I am not supposed to be here or I am not good enough to be here. Feeling like an impostor is something I have struggled with throughout most of my educational career. 

I was unsure of how to even begin to publish a piece and had no guidance as to how to  develop ideas to submit for conferences or publishing opportunities. I have realized that in this profession, we just assume that someone will be taught how develop these ideas or that they will learn them on their own. Very rarely have I seen folks learn to write or develop ideas in a more formal setting. Even as a doctoral student, my program has not offered many ways to assist in my development in this area. When they have, it has mainly been a student led effort. Part of the reason I joined the LN Writers Group was because it was the only space I could get support and resources. 

I have learned quite a bit from being in the LN Writers Group. I have been able to learn strategies to write and develop ideas, I co-authored a chapter, and have had 3 national conference proposals accepted. Having a space where I can be my authentic self and have the support of other Latinx in student affairs has helped me feel less like an impostor. I have learned that I am a scholarly-practitioner and that what I have to say matters. 

Gary’s Testimonio – Voicing My Communities

For me today, writing still triggers feelings of uneasiness, with an excitement to tell a story. When I entered graduate school, despite years of being told my writing was not good enough, support and my confidence was needed in order to overcome this fear, hence the finding of the ACPA Latinx Network Writers Group.  Before finding this group, my condition of imposter syndrome strongly followed me through higher education spaces, especially those where writing took center stage. However, as a first-generation, cisgender, queer Latino male, this perspective existed in the realm of higher education, writing became the vehicle towards exhibiting my chronicle.  I joined the writers’ group to have the opportunity to exchange my thoughts and experiences through writing, specifically to showcase the understandings toward my corresponding marginalized communities. Another reason for joining, was the lack of professional development I was receiving as a college administrator.  

At the time when I joined, I was an Assistant Director, unless I became a full Director, my professional development opportunities as a student affairs administrator were non-existent.  Having the additional identity as a Ph.D. student on top of my professional position, I knew in order to be a scholar-practitioner required professional and academic development, the LN Writers Group provided a space for me to expand on writing and learn professional development skills. Lastly, joining this group exposed me to the opportunity to publish my storyline.  I am pursuing my Ph.D. through the Educational Leadership program under the Department of Educational Leadership and Research Methodology program at Florida Atlantic University. My Ph.D. program is credited toward providing academic foundation and avenues to produce writing, but the writers group enhanced the opportunity to prepare me in academic transcribing. The group itself, demystified the approach of the writing process through the leadership of Dr. Montelongo.  He was able to consistently provide us ideas and opportunities towards publication, including an easiness toward approaching writing and confidence to discuss our narratives.  Presentations at national conferences, an upcoming book chapter, and a future publication, all on my own as a scholar-practitioner, was made possible because of my involvement in this group.  The LN Writers Group prepared me to not be afraid to write your shitty first draft (Lamott, 1995), that can later evolve to phenomenal work.  

Recommendations for Practice

From our testimonios – our collective consciousness as founding members of the LN Writers Group – we offer the following recommendations for colleagues interested in promoting writing and publishing as a tool of empowerment for practitioner-scholars.  First, honor the lived experiences of the members first. This can be via writing practices about personal stories/journeys, or even simply asking what brings them joy and pain? We also believe if a group has members from cultures that have been historically marginalized, time is needed to learn about the backgrounds and passions of your members, the populations in which their writing will advocate and support, and appropriate outlets for them to write in ways they feel are most expressive to them.  For example, in addition to academic writing, different formats of expression can include portraits, paintings, comics, and poems.     

Second, we believe a writers group should constantly seek out presentation and publishing opportunities. As our testimonios stated, for some of us there was almost no support to use writing as professional development and we had to look outside our institutions to find places to develop and learn this skill. We also learned a great deal by co-authoring and co-presenting with others who have gone through the process before. By having a support system and dedicated group to demystifying the publishing process, we learned not only about ourselves as writers, but also connected to others who have had similar challenges or who were willing to assist and mentor us. We would also remind others that your voice matters. That to fight against the dominant narrative, we have to use our voices to uplift our familias

Lastly, identify committed members that are as excited and focused to bring contributions towards storytelling. Another thought is the intentional strategy to establish and grow a writers group is to include graduate students, especially those who from diverse and disadvantaged populations.  Literature and research have proven that spaces of academia historically were not made for these populations (Espino et al., 2012; Harper, 2013; Solorzano & Villalpando, 1998; Yosso, 2005), in return, you provide a space of support and a learning opportunity to discover the unique narrative of these scholars.  Lastly, the imposter syndrome is real. However, writing is a blessed privilege. Your story is important to the future of our profession and it is needed, now more than ever through your narratives.


ACPA’s Latinx Network Writers Group is an example of how the association can foster and enhance the professional experience of student affairs professionals of color. Our profession has not avoided the many “-isms” that is apparent in higher education. Our Network has provided a professional familia for our members to seek comfort and support, but most importantly to become empowered to work for change and social justice within our field and in our services provided to college students.  Using writing and publishing as a strategy to create this change, the Latinx Network has enhanced the familia within the group by supporting a skill that is truly valuable for practitioner-scholars. In challenging and inspiring members to set writing and publishing goals once thought to be unachievable, we have found a powerful way to deflate the imposter syndrome affecting scholars of color and other minoritized and oppressed student affairs professionals. Fighting the inner voices that say you are not capable of publishing has been defeated via our LN Writers Group.  Our voices are being heard, seen, and respected. Using the power of the pen, we have built a collaborative community to make this a reality.  

Reflection Questions

  1. What other forms of capital factor into a student affairs professional’s writing or publishing aspirations? How might they use different forms of capital to engage or not engage in the writing process?
  2.  How can spaces for writing be created that allow practitioner-scholars from historically underrepresented or marginalized populations opportunities to reflect on their experiences in the profession?
  3. Testimonios are powerful tools that can be used to dismantle the dominant narrative in higher education. Are there other ways testimonios may help with healing?

Author Bios

Karla Cruze-Silva is currently a doctoral candidate in the Center for the Study of Higher Education and serves as the Senior Manager for Student Success at the University of Arizona. Karla has served as the ACPA Latinx Network Awards Co-Chair since 2017. Ricardo Montelongo is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Educational Leadership at Sam Houston State University. He served as co-chair of the ACPA Latinx Network 2011-2013. Stephen Santa-Ramirez is a Ph.D. candidate at Arizona State University and an incoming Assistant Professor of Higher Education at the University at Buffalo. Stephen has served on the ACPA Latinx Network directorate as the Culture Fest Liaison, Advocacy Co-Chair, and Mentoring Co-Chair. Gary Santos Mendoza is a Ph.D. candidate in the Educational Leadership and Research Methodology program at Florida Atlantic University. He serves as the Director of the Intercultural Resource Center at Rutgers University-Newark. Gary has served on the ACPA Latinx Network directorate as Advocacy Chair, Education Chair, and Regional Representative.


Arzubiaga, A. E., Brinkerhoff, J. A., & Seeley, B. G. (2015). The study of Mexican immigrant families’ space. In Y. M. Caldera and E. Lindsey (Eds.), Mexican American children and families: Multidisciplinary perspectives (pp. 92-104).

Espino, M. M., Vega, I. I., Rendon, L. I., Ranero, J. J., & Muniz, M. M. (2012). The process of 

reflexion in bridging testimonios across lived experience. Equity & Excellence in 

Education, 45(3), 444-459.

García-Louis, C. (2018). Ni Latino, ni Negro: The (in)visibility of AfroLatino males in

higher education research. Journal Committed to Social Change on Race and Ethnicity, 4(1), 97-122.

Harper, S. R. (2013). Am I my brother’s teacher? Black undergraduates, racial socialization, and peer pedagogies in predominantly white postsecondary contexts. Review of Research in Education, 37(1), 183-211.

Haywood, J. M. (2017). ‘Latino spaces have always been the most violent’: Afro-Latino collegians’ perceptions of colorism and Latino intragroup marginalization. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 30(8), 759–782.

Lamott, A. (1995). Bird by bird: Some instructions on writing and life. New York, NY: Anchor 


Mitchell Jr, D., Soria, K. M., Daniele, E. A., Gipson, J. A., De Sousa, D. J., & Reason, R. D. 

(2015). Student Involvement and Academic Outcomes. Lang, Peter New York.

Nguyen, C., & Duran, L. (2018). Performing and deconstructing whiteness in student affairs. The Vermont Connection, 39(17), 112-121. 

Perez Huber, L. (2009). Challenging racist nativist framing: Acknowledging the community cultural wealth of undocumented Chicana college students to reframe the immigration debate. Harvard Educational Review, 79(4), 704-729. 

Solorzano, D., & Villalpando, O. (1998). Critical race theory, marginality, and the experience of minority students in higher education. In C. Torres & T. Mitchell (Eds.), Emerging issues in the sociology of education: Comparative perspectives (pp. 211-224). Albany: State University of New York Press.

Strayhorn, T. L. (2012). College students’ sense of belonging: A key to educational success for all students. New York, NY; London; Routledge.

Yosso, T. J. (2005). Whose culture has capital? A critical race theory discussion of community cultural wealth. Race Ethnicity and Education, 8(1), 69-91, DOI: 10.1080/1361332052000341006

 Invigorating a Scholarship of Practice for the Profession of Student Affairs // written by: Patrick G. Love and John M. Braxton

Patrick G. Love
Springfield College

John M. Braxton
Peabody College of Vanderbilt University

Ever since the emergence of the concept of a scholarship of practice in student affairs, there have been tenuous and incomplete connections between practitioners and scholars in student affairs. The established and stronger path of connection is from the work of scholars to the work of practitioners. However, less clear and distinct is how practitioners communicate the questions and scholarly needs of practice to the scholars best able to investigate them. Enhancing both pathways enable student affairs professionals to engage more fully in the most basic level of a scholarship of practice which entails using of the findings of empirical research to guide professional practice. 

The scholarship of practice in higher education has two primary goals: 1) the improvement of administrative practice; and 2) the development of a knowledge base for administrative work in higher education (Braxton, 2005). The improvement of administrative practice also includes the use of findings of empirical research to enhance institutional policy and protocols in individual colleges and universities (Braxton, 2017; Kramer and Braxton, 2017). 

A scholarship of practice for the profession of student affairs centered on the use of the findings of empirical research to guide professional practice requires two distinct pathways. One pathway emanates from the communities of practice of the student affairs profession to the community of scholars who study the college student experience, where practitioners communicate the problems, challenges, and issues that they need to better understand.  The other pathway originates in the community of scholars who study the college student experience and loops back to the communities of practice of student affairs, sharing findings of empirical research with student affairs professionals in order to enhance their practice. The practitioners-to-scholars pathway needs practitioners to identify the research needed to guide their day-to-day professional practice and policy formulation. Put differently, this pathway benefits from the development of a practitioner-generated research agenda.  

Based on our observations and experience, both pathways (i.e., scholars-to-practitioners and practitioners-to-scholars) already exist.  Some extant connections between practitioners and the community of scholars who study the college student experience include student affairs practitioners who are currently enrolled in doctoral programs who address problems of practice through their dissertation research. Likewise, many faculty members in student affairs preparation programs work with student affairs professionals to conduct research useful to practitioners. Such connections serve both pathways.  

Moreover, existing publications such as Developments and the Journal of College Student Development form part of the pathway from the community of scholars to the communities of practice through their role in disseminating findings of research useful to practitioners. The recommendations for policy and practice sections of feature articles and Research-in-Briefs published by the Journal of College Student Development play an important role in the dissemination of research findings that may be useful to practitioners.  Articles published in Developments also play such a role.  So, although the current two pathways exist to some degree, we assert that they require enhancements to increase their effectiveness. Empirical research findings discourage student affairs professionals from engaging in commonsensical “shooting from the hip” or “trial-and-error” forms of professional action (Braxton & Ream, 2017). 

In this article, we describe approaches to enhance the two pathways essential to a robust scholarship of practice for student affairs professionals centered on the use of research finding to guide professional action and policy formation.  Again, these pathways take the form of a loop from practitioners to scholars and from scholars back to practitioners.   

The Pathway from Practitioners to Scholars

Practitioner-generated research agendas constitute a necessary and critical component of the pathway from the communities of student affairs practice to the community of scholars who study the college student experience. We present two approaches to the development of a practitioner-generated research agenda. Braxton and Hossler (in press) describe two approaches to the development of a practitioner-defined research agenda for enrollment management. The first approach takes the form of periodic studies designed to delineate the topics and issues confronting enrollment management and student affairs professionals in their day-to-day practice.  They recommend the development of a survey instrument that asks enrollment management officers to briefly describe the day-to-day issues and concerns they face in their practice that would benefit from research, such as student recruitment practices, the selection of applicants for admission, the impact of types of financial aid on matriculation decisions and the retention of students, and the effects of developmental education on student success. This would involve the administration of such a survey to a sample of Vice-Presidents for Enrollment Management or Retention Coordinators at a range of colleges and universities (Braxton & Hossler, in press).  This approach can be extended to Senior Student Affairs Officers (SSAO) as well as unit directors, such as in Residence Life, Student Activities, and Diversity and Inclusion.  

The second approach involves enrollment management professional associations developing a practitioner-defined research agenda. ACPA has already embraced this second approach through a collaboration between the Senior Scholars of ACPA and Senior Student Affairs Officers (SSAO) Advisory Group of ACPA to produce such a research agenda.  Before we present the research agenda, we describe the process that was used to develop it.  

The Process of Collaboration

In 2016, the Senior Scholars group of ACPA developed a document outlining their responsibilities as Stewards of Scholarship for the organization. One part of the proposal was to work with the SSAO Advisory Group of ACPA to create a research agenda for the profession. “Such an agenda would identify topics for research and scholarship that address the day-to-day issues and concerns faced by senior student affairs officers in their professional practice” (2016, 2nd paragraph). While the Stewards of Scholarship document specified research designed to contribute to SSAO’s work, the committee that came together to generate the research agenda quickly expanded the focus to any professional in Student Affairs.

A committee (co-chaired by Patrick Love, Senior Scholar, and Laura Bayless, Chair, SSAO Advisory Group) had all members of each group generate topics of research. Love and Bayless merged the lists and returned them to the groups to respond to the merged list, add to it, and elaborate on the items. When the feedback from this round was incorporated, the new list was sorted into categories and was then distributed to the entire roster of Senior Scholars, Emerging Scholars, and the SSAO Advisory Group for their review, critique, additions, and elaborations.  

While the research agenda was being developed, ACPA’s leadership initiated the Strategic Imperative for Racial Justice and Decolonization. The Senior Scholar group reshaped the agenda to integrate the strategic imperative. When this task was completed the agenda was distributed again to the membership of both groups for feedback. Lastly, a final draft of the agenda was submitted to ACPA leadership for review. They accepted the agenda and posted it on the ACPA website. The Senior Scholar Research Grant Program subsequently used the research agenda to help assess the grants that were submitted to the program for possible funding.

The Practitioner-Defined Research Agenda

The practitioner-defined research agenda formulated by the ACPA Senior Scholars and the ACPA SSAO Advisory Group consists of the 10 categories and 86 specific topics in need of inquiry. We present only the 10 categories of the practitioner-defined research agenda. The Appendix to this article exhibits the specific topics subsumed under each of the ten categories. Additionally, ACPA’s Strategic Imperative for Racial Justice and Decolonization (SIRJD) serves as the organizing theme of this research agenda project, in that there are specific topics related to racial justice and decolonization and that the other topics can also be viewed through the SIRJD lens. 

 The 10 categories of the practitioner-defined research agenda are as follows: (1) Race/Racial Justice, (2) Decolonization, (3) Diversity and Social Justice, (4) Student Demographics, (5) Safety and Security, (6) Impact and Value of Student Affairs on Student Success, (7) Changing Nature of Work in Higher Education, (8) Technology, (9) Recruitment/Access/Affordability, and (10) Government and Public Roles and Expectations Relative to Higher Education.  In addition to offering a practitioner-defined research agenda for scholars to pursue, we posit two additional ways these ten categories can contribute to the enhancement of the pathway from practitioners to scholars. As previously suggested, administration of periodic surveys of Senior Student Affairs Officers (SSAO) that request them to briefly describe needed studies that address the day-to-day issues and concerns they face in their practice is one pathway.  We suggest that such a survey ask SSAOs and other director-level staff at a range of colleges and universities to describe specific issues or challenges related to those ten categories that they regard as important to their work. Second, we recommend that scholars conduct reviews of research on these ten categories and their associated specific topics with two purposes in mind: the identification of needed further research useful to practice, and the delineation of implications for policy and practice derived from the review of research literature conducted.  

The Pathway from Scholars to Practitioners.

With the above practitioner-defined research agenda in place, the development of a pathway from scholars back to practitioners requires the selection of one or more research topics from practitioner-defined research agendas, the design and execution of the research needed to examine the selected topic and then the dissemination of findings derived from this research. The design and execution of such research require some elaboration because the pathway from scholars to practitioners depends on the production of user-friendly rapidly disseminated research findings.  Accordingly, we discuss desired characteristics of the research, the format of manuscripts that describe the research and its findings, and modalities for the dissemination of findings from research conducted on the topics of the practitioner-defined research agenda.    

Desired Characteristics of Research 

The desired characteristics of research conducted on the topics of the practitioner-defined research agenda flow from the audience for such research.  Although the scholarly community may constitute one audience, senior student affairs officers and other student affairs professionals comprise the primary audience. 

Some desired characteristics of the research pertain to the design of such studies.  One issue of design centers on the use of theory. Theory may or may not apply to some topics selected for inquiry. Thus, some studies may not by guided by theory if no existing theory pertains to the selected topic.  Of course, if extant theory exists we recommend that it guide the design of the study.  

Reporting Formats  

 Chief student affairs officers and other student affairs professionals are the primary audiences for manuscripts reporting the findings of studies of practitioner-defined research topics. The busy day-to-day world of such practitioners suggest a specific format with four attributes, including the length of the manuscript, the description of the methodologies used, the presentation of findings, and the discussion of the recommendations for practice. 

To be practitioner-friendly, such articles should be as brief as possible without sacrificing information needed to guide practice. For example, research-in-brief articles of the Journal of College Student Development are restricted to a 10-page limit.  Practitioner-friendly should also guide the description of methodologies. For example, an appendix that describes the qualitative and quantitative data analysis procedures and the details of other methodologies could be used.  The description of the institutional setting for the study should recognize that practitioners will likely assess the usefulness of the findings and recommendations of a study if they perceive that the characteristics of their institution bear some similarity to the those in the study.  As a consequence, some details about the characteristics of the institutions selected should be provided that may be more extensive than those provided in traditional research articles. The presentation of findings should highlight the most important findings pertinent to the topic. Recommendations difficult for institutions to be undertaken should be avoided, such as those that require additional institutional resources, or changes in institutional mission or the types of students served.  Moreover, the priority and rationale for the recommendations should also be stated. These two suggestions are based on the reactions of college presidents and chief academic affairs officers of independent colleges to the recommendations offered by higher education scholars on topics relevant to independent institutions (Morphew & Braxton, 2017).

Dissemination of Findings

“Rapid” is what best depicts the dissemination of findings of research conducted on practitioner-defined topics, because the usefulness of the findings and recommendations may depend on their timely dissemination.  Webinars, blogs, magazine articles (in addition to journal articles) and podcasts constitute possible outlets for the rapid dissemination of findings and recommendations. ACPA could sponsor such outlets as an additional benefit to membership.   

The use of rapid dissemination outlets such as webinars, blogs, magazine articles, and podcasts raise a concern about the peer assessment of the research conducted.  New approaches to rapid peer review will need to be developed and promulgated. Webinars, blogs, and podcasts conducted by scholars also raise a question pertinent to the academic reward system.  If scholars are unable to publish their research in a peer reviewed journal how will webinars, blogs, magazine articles, and podcasts receive some weight in faculty personnel decisions such as appointment, reappointment, tenure, promotion and annual salary increases?  In his description of the four domains of scholarship, Boyer (1990) also asserted the need for mediums other than publications to carry some weight in the academic reward system. Schulman and Hutchings (1998) delineate three necessary characteristics for mediums other than publications be labeled scholarship. These indispensable characteristics are: it must be public, amenable to critical appraisal, and be in a form that permits exchange and use by other members of the scholarly community. If the content of a webinar, blog, magazine article, or podcast meet these three criteria then colleges and universities should allocate some weight to them in faculty personnel decisions.

Closing Thoughts  

Pathways from practitioners to scholars and looping back from scholars to practitioners merits serious consideration by the communities of practice of student affairs and its corresponding community of scholars.  Although such pathways currently exist to some degree, we outline ways to enhance them. Enhancement will help practitioners to engage in the most basic level of a scholarship of practice which entails using the findings of empirical research to guide professional practice. Student affairs professionals who engage in this form of scholarship of practice act as more effective stewards for the profession as they safeguard the welfare of both the profession of student affairs and the welfare of students served. 

We close this article by posing the following two reflection questions.

Question One: What are additional ways in which the practitioner-to-scholar pathway can be enhanced to make the research being conducted in and about student affairs more relevant to practitioners?

Question Two:  What are additional ways in which the scholar-to-practitioner pathway can be made more available and accessible to practitioners? 


Boyer, E. L. (1990). Scholarship reconsidered: Priorities of the professoriate. Lawrenceville, NJ: Princeton University Press.  

Braxton, J. M. (2005). Reflections on a scholarship of practice. The Review of Higher Education, 28(2), 285–293.

Braxton, J.M. (2017).  Editor’s notes. In J.M. Braxton (ed). New directions for higher education No. 178, Toward a scholarship of practice (pp.5-8) San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.  

Braxton, J. M., Doyle, W. R., Hartley III, H. V., Hirschy, A. S., Jones, W. A., & McLendon, M. K. (2014). Rethinking college student retention. San Francisco, CA: John Wiley & Sons. 

Braxton, J.M. & Ream, T.C. (2017).  The scholarship of practice and stewardship of higher education.  In J.M. Braxton (ed). New directions for higher education No. 178, Toward a scholarship of practice (pp.95-102) San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.  

Braxton, J.M. & Hossler, D. (in press).  Developing the Two-Way Practitioner-Researcher Loop for Enrollment Management.  Strategic Enrollment Management Quarterly

Kramer, J.W. & Braxton, J.M. (2017).  Contributions of types of professional knowledge by higher education journals.  In J.M. Braxton (ed). New directions for higher education No. 178, Toward a scholarship of practice (pp. 9-20) San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.  

Morphew, C.C. & Braxton, J.M. (2017). Trusses and gaps in the bridge from research to practice. In C.C. Morphew and J.M. Braxton (eds).  The challenge of independent colleges: moving research to practice (pp.231-242). Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press.  

Senior Scholars of ACPA (2016).  Recommendations from the ACPA senior scholars:

Strengthening our role as stewards of scholarship, August 31, 2016. Internal Document.

Shulman, L.S. and Hutchings, P. (1998). About the scholarship of teaching and learning: The Pew national fellowship program. Menlo Park, CA: The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. 


Practitioner Defined Research Agenda

Race/Racial Justice

  • Impact of intersection of race and other identities on students (e.g., first generation, veteran, disability, sexual orientation)
  • Interactions of race and racism with other systems of oppression to affect learning, personal growth, and other student outcomes
  • Creating effective dialogues about race
  • Examining level, types, and impact of racial bias among faculty and staff
  • Impact of diversity education and training on racial bias
  • Lessons to be learned from MSIs and community colleges relating to campus climate for racial and ethnic minority students
  • Racial and ethnic minorities in STEM fields
  • Identifying and dismantling institutional and organizational structures that oppress and marginalize racial minorities
  • Identifying and shaping more productive ways of interacting across difference


  • Interrogating and dismantling the ways that U.S. and Western European colonial assumptions are embedded in the structures and practices of postsecondary education in the U.S.
  • Examining the effects of colonialism and imperialism on globalization movements in higher education and student affairs
  • Examining level, types, and impact of Western European bias among faculty and staff
  • Effects of the use of indigenous imagery (e.g., mascots) by non-Native institutions on perceptions of campus climate for indigenous students
  • Lessons to be learned from Tribal Colleges and Universities (TCUs) specifically with regard to incorporation of indigenous knowledge systems
  • Relationship between race, nation, and colonialism in identity articulation and meaning-making among both indigenous and racially minoritized students

Diversity and Social Justice

  • Exploring the balance of freedom of expression with culture of care/expressed values
  • Identifying structures that oppress/marginalize and determining strategies to dismantle such structures
  • The degree to which student affairs’ role is advocacy or education or both
  • Impact of an increasingly diverse society and workforce on student affairs work
  • The need to teach not only American diversity but also global diversity
  • How to balance support of students with responsibility to institution
  • Assessing the impact of spaces on campus designed to support varying identities
  • Understanding and addressing the achievement gap

Each of the following categories and sub-topics can be considered through the lens of the Racial Justice Imperative. Questions to consider:

  • How do racial disparities on campus impact the research topics listed below?
  • How might student affairs address racial disparities in each of these areas?
  • What are the ways in which racial disparities and/or injustices play out within particular topic areas?

Student Demographics

  • Identifying and serving first generation college students, students with mental health concerns, low income students (e.g., impact of food insecurity, homelessness, housing insecurity), undocumented students, LGBTQ students, international students, part-time students, on-line students, veterans, community college students
  • Understanding the issues faced by students with multiple, minoritized identities
  • Understanding the impact of continuing changes in demographics
  • Exploring graduate student development
  • The role of student affairs at institutions designated as HBCU, HSI, MSI, TCU, and Native American Serving Non-Tribal Institutions, etc.

Safety and security

  • Understanding and eliminating rape culture and sexual assault
  • Best ways to prevent sexual violence and support students who experience trauma
  • Understanding the role of athletics, Greek life, and other institutional contexts on rape culture
  • The effect of increased compliance related to sexual violence on behavior
  • Balance between security procedures and practices, and an open community, such as in the case of controversial speakers
  • Impact of the hostile messages from governmental leaders and how they manifest on college campuses
  • Serving students while meeting expectations of regulations
  • Emergency management and response as a growing area of focus on campuses
  • Concealed/Open Carry (and impact of such legislation on campus)
  • Implications of immigration policy, undocumented students, sanctuary campuses
  • Links between behavioral intervention, bias response, and crisis response teams

Impact and Value of Student Affairs on Student success

  • Exploring and understanding differential rates of success by subpopulations
  • Identifying effective ways of improving retention and completion rates within the realities of today’s higher education context
  • Measuring and assessing student engagement and how the various forms of engagement relate to outcomes
  • Role, impact, and ethical use of predictive analytics
  • Demonstrating impact of student affairs on success
  • How best to track and understand persistence across institutions (not just within an institution)
  • Better understanding and improving transfer student success – time to degree, rate of transfer
  • Designing for equity and justice and investigating the effects of designing for equity and justice on student satisfaction, perceptions of climate, on student satisfaction, and perceptions of climate.
  • Identifying new ways to measure student learning outside the classroom
  • Impact of the personalization of the student experience
  • Identifying students who are not engaged and determining what, if anything, can be done

Changing Nature of Work in Higher Education

  • Impact of students’ increasingly complex lives on the educational process
  • The education or training that is actually needed to do the work in student affairs
  • Competency based education and the implications for the co-curriculum
  • Impact of technology-enabled education
  • Impact of the compliance burden
  • Exploring relative effectiveness of student affairs structures, such as functional areas versus generalization of practice
  • Development and fundraising in student affairs
  • Rise in one-stop shop models of service and impact on meeting student needs
  • How the marketplace and job projections inform the mix of curriculum and co-curricular offerings
  • Use of alternative means of demonstrating what students learned (e.g., badges, certificates, co-curricular transcripts)


  • Impact on engagement
  • Impact on community development
  • Impact on student development (e.g., delaying separation from parents/family; digital identity development)
  • Technological applications to enhance student affairs work


  • Recruiting and serving low income/high ability students
  • Challenges related to affordability
  • Short- and long-term institutional strategies to reach prospective students
  • How to attract and serve students representing evolving demographics (ages, races, documented status, income level, campus or distance, students with some credits but no degree, etc.)
  • Financing higher education for a more economically diverse student body
  • Funding models for public and private higher education
  • The sustainability of having students pay an increasing percentage of their education
  • How to diversify funding streams
  • Impact of student debt on recruitment, enrollment, and alumni engagement

Changing Government and Public Roles and Expectations Relative to Higher Education

  • Impact of decreased state funding
  • Impact of increased compliance burdens
  • Effect of laws on campus (concealed carry, financial literacy, civic education, etc.)
  • Many more external groups are asserting expectations about higher education (legislatures, employers, parents, think tanks, etc.)
  • Exploring the role of postsecondary institutions in broader societal issues related to equity and justice.
  • Impact of seeing education as a commodity
  • Impact of increasingly intrusive media/social media
  • State/Federal policy impact on MSIs
  • Exploring how we can demonstrate both the private good outcomes AND the public good outcomes
  • Understanding and addressing the decline in the public’s confidence in higher education

Married to My Career // written by Chelsea M. Jordan

Chelsea M. Jordan
Tufts University

A variety of studies have examined the experiences of dual-career couples in academe (Greer & Poe, 2005; Kibel, 2013; Rice, Twombly, and Wolf-Wendel, 2000). In each case, authors have found, as Rice, Twombly, and Wolf-Wendel (2000) wrote that “academic couples face an extremely difficult task, namely finding two positions that will permit both partners to live in the same geographic region, to address their professional goals, and to meet the day-to-day needs of running a household,” (p. 291). 

Though the research goes back nearly 20 years, not much has changed for dual-career couples in recent years. My partner and I were met with immense difficulty in our recent job search and in the dual-career arena as well. While the challenges we navigated are individual in some senses, they are shared in many others. Thankfully, along with the challenges have come personal and professional opportunities. Thus, said challenges have made us a stronger couple and the foundation we’ve built has empowered us to share the lessons we’ve learned along the way.

When your personal and professional lives become blended into one, it can become difficult to manage. Perhaps you’re in a relationship with a fellow student affairs professional, or with someone who doesn’t understand a thing about it. Or, maybe you’re not in a relationship at all. No matter your current relationship status, it’s my hope to clear some of the muddied water around partnership in higher education. 

Context: Setting the Stage

I met my now-husband, Tim, at graduate school interview days – he would be a second year in the program when I started the following fall. Tim and I hit it off quickly, but we didn’t start dating right away. It wasn’t until second semester that we began talking seriously. From that moment forward, our student affairs lives would weave together in an unexpected pattern.

I thought dating someone in the program would come easily. We understood the time commitment of academics and assistantships, we shared passions, and we were in the same social circles. More than anything, perhaps, was the gift that we didn’t have to explain what student affairs is to one another. We got it. However, navigating academics, an assistantship, professional goals, and a relationship called for clear and consistent communication early on. The gossip in our program (perhaps in most programs) was loud and heavy, as was the pressure to make life-changing decisions under the gaze and scrutiny of others. No matter where we turned, it felt like we always had an audience.

Transitions, Part 1

Tim did a nationwide job search that spring. He landed a position as a Hall Director at Texas Christian University (TCU), which meant that we’d be long-distance until it was time for my job search the following spring. It was a big commitment for a couple that just started dating, but we knew we wanted to try and make it work.

Visiting my partner halfway across the country on a graduate student budget was not easy. However, we found ways to see each other about once a month. I chose to maximize my time visiting him in Texas and did informational interviews with colleges and universities in the Dallas-Fort Worth (DFW) area in preparation for my own regional job search.

I grappled with the decision of whether to do a search focused in a specific area. There were many folks in my program who didn’t think it was smart for me “to follow a guy.” A mentor of mine was also close to tears when she told me that she didn’t want me to wish away my dreams and compromise what I really wanted or might achieve in my career. 

At the time, I was deep in the process of discovering what it meant to be a feminist. Each time someone – a woman – told me I was making the wrong choice, I felt like I was letting them down. How could I possibly be a good role model to other women if I chose to follow my partner? This question kept me up at night, but the thought of searching elsewhere seemed counterintuitive. Why would I willingly choose a job that would be away from the person I loved? 

Transitions, Part 2

After many conversations and self-reflection, I decided that it was possible to align my relationship and my career goals. One did not have to exist without the other. In many ways, I was doing a life search – something encompassing multiple aspects of who I was – rather than simply doing a job search. Going into the search, I told myself that I’d work in the DFW area but not at the same school as Tim. After all of the contemplation, and after I’d cast away all of the shame, I felt it was important for us to have professional identities of our own. Working at different schools, in different departments would help us accomplish this.

Of course, despite my intense reflection and strategic planning, life had other plans for me. I received several job offers, but the one I most wanted was working at TCU as a Hall Director – the same job, in the same department, at the same school as Tim. I tried to resist the decision and rationalize why it couldn’t possibly be the best fit. When I shared the announcement with others, I felt like I needed to give a qualifier. There was always trepidation in their voices. Out of concern, I’m certain, but their worries became mine and left me questioning how things would turn out.

Navigating Working in the Same Department

Tim and I spent three years working together in the same department at TCU. It took time to adjust but once we found our footing, we were unstoppable. In my first month on the job, I refused to sit beside Tim in meetings. We wouldn’t walk together on campus. We asked to be on different committees. We found our own ways to get involved within the division. If we argued, we learned to put it aside and focus on work when we were at work.

One day, after several months of working together, we sat beside each other in a staff meeting. Instead of being uncomfortable or making us uncomfortable, our colleagues appreciated our playful banter and joked alongside us. This was the family feel they’d sold us on. I felt a more genuine sense of self and sense of us emerging in the workplace.

In time, we eventually found a way to blend our relationship into the role. TCU prides itself on relationships – I couldn’t hide my partner from my colleagues, my staff or my residents. I wanted them to see that part of my life. Tim and I started attending each other’s programs. We spent time at each other’s front desk or office. We presented at trainings together. We even (gasp!) held hands at social gatherings. I was thankful for a department that let us be who we were both individually and together.

During our time at TCU, Tim and I went from boyfriend/girlfriend, to fiancés, to husband/wife. Our department watched us grow not only as new professionals, but also as a couple – literally for better or for worse – and for that, we treasured our experience together at TCU. 

Transitions, 3

When it was time to move on, Tim and I suspected we wouldn’t end up working at the same institution. I was planning to search both inside and outside of student affairs. I also hadn’t planned to stay in housing. Tim, however, wanted to stay in student affairs and housing. Our paths seemed like they were taking us in different directions.

We anticipated that our dual, regionally bound, same-field search would be challenging, but found it unexpectedly tumultuous. We were naïve to believe the timing would work out. Tim ended up finding a position before I did, and moved 1,800 miles away without me to start a job at Tufts University.

Again, though, life has a funny way of working itself out. After many, many rejections, I received an on-campus interview offer from none other than – Tufts University. As luck would have it, my on-campus interview fell on Tim’s first day of work. I ended up getting the job and, one month later, reunited with my husband. 

Lessons Learned, Strategies Shared

Lesson One: Transitions are hard

When I look back on my life, there are seasons that stand out to me as being some of the most trying and each revolves around transition. Change is constant, but that doesn’t make it easy to manage. That adjustment takes time and it’s essential to give yourself and your partner ample patience and grace. 

You also have to hold each other accountable to finding “your own thing.” For Tim, it was a slow-pitch softball team. For me, it was a writing intensive course. When you live together, commute together, work together and, really, do everything together, it’s important to find your outlet. I love spending time with my husband, but he can’t be everything. We feel most exhausted when we are trying to be each other’s source of joy, strength, wisdom, fulfillment, and purpose all at once. When times are tough, you need others to help you with the emotional labor. You can find others when you’re pursuing passions.

All transitions have ups and downs and when the downs happen it is essential to remember that they are not your partner’s fault. When I made the decision to take the job at TCU, I told myself that I was never allowed to forget that it was my choice. If it all blew up in my face, it would never be because of Tim. I told myself the same when I got the job at Tufts. Though it may seem that Tim led our last couple of searches, I know there will be more ahead that will require new sacrifices. In a field that may pull you in many different directions, it’s not about keeping score.

Lesson Two: Forget the critics

Higher education professionals are some of the most loving, accepting individuals I know. However, they were often the ones most willing to express their hesitations about our relationship. When I chose to follow my partner for the job search, I was judged for not putting myself and my own professional goals first. When I chose to work in the same department as my husband, I was told it would be too hard and that I’d hate it. The critiques go on and though they came from a place of care, they caused me to second-guess myself. 

If I’d allowed myself to listen to them, I wouldn’t have landed my first role at an incredible institution. I wouldn’t have discovered that I actually love working alongside my husband. In fact, I may not have even been married to him if I chose to pursue a nationwide job search instead of a regional one that would put an end to our long-distance relationship.

Everyone around you will have an opinion – that is not unique to student affairs. So, it’s important to know yourself, follow your intuition, and do what’s best for your relationship. 

Lesson Three: Set clear expectations

Choosing to work in the same role and in the same department as my husband was not a choice that came without fear. I am very independent and care deeply about the impression I make on others. It was important to me that I was able to be “Chelsea” in my new job – not “Tim’s girlfriend.”

During my on-campus interview with TCU, I asked the hard questions. When I sat down for my interview with the Hall Director team, I asked them what difficulties would present themselves if a couple were to be on staff. I asked how I could help combat their fears. When I met with the Leadership Team, I told them that if I were to be hired, it was important to me that they could see me as my own professional. It was a risk, but I also added that if they wouldn’t be able to see me in that way, that I likely should not be considered for the position.

When I received the offer, I felt confident that they’d considered the implications of hiring a current staff member’s partner. They trusted us to remain professional while maintaining a personal relationship, and that spoke volumes to me.

From there, it was important that Tim and I didn’t let them down. We worked tirelessly at our jobs to prove that we could do it all – be in a relationship with one another, have a presence in our communities, be good campus partners, and not let anything fall through the cracks. We did well at bringing our best selves to work everyday, which then came with another set of challenges: finding time for “us” outside of work.

Lesson Four: Maximize power pockets of time

Working in higher education keeps you quite busy. So, when both partners work in the same field, it’s especially difficult to find time for one another. We got creative, though, and found ways to incorporate quality time into our whirlwind schedules.

The first thing we did was add “Quality Time” to our calendars. It may sound odd to build relationship time into your schedule but for us, it meant seeing each other on days when we normally wouldn’t have. Perhaps it was lunch one day, dinner another. Regardless, it was an hour of time where we put our phones and email away to have conversation unrelated to work. 

On that note, we also established boundaries for work talk. We could process our days with one another, but didn’t allow ourselves to get into the habit of letting it drag on all night. 

We also merged our duty dates. TCU has a multi-zone system so when it came time to picking duty, we tried to get different zones for the same dates. That way, we weren’t losing multiple weekends as a couple to duty. When we were on duty, we took that required on-campus time to cook dinner together, catch up on shows, or make plans for future trips.

Lesson Five: Choose your #SAPro lingo

I am immensely grateful for the soft skills I’ve learned as a student affairs professional. I believe they make me a better communicator and an overall better person. That being said, I can distinctly recall how annoying it was the first time Tim and I had an argument and he said, “What I’m hearing you say is…” followed by, “Okay, let’s unpack that.”

Perhaps this lesson comes down to personal preference, but it unnerves me when Tim and I speak to one another as if we’re speaking to a student in a one-on-one. I appreciate the open dialogue, and the willingness to use I-statements, but we operate better when we ditch the #SAPro lingo at the door when we come home at night.

Lesson Six: Have patience with the field

As I mentioned, our dual, regionally-bound, same-field job search proved to be one of the most trying seasons of our first year of marriage. We had aspirations of moving up north to be closer to family and knew it would take some time, but we were not prepared for the compounding layers of difficulty.

We started searching early in the hopes that we would be able to end our time at TCU just as the spring semester concluded. We had networked at conferences, reached out to our connections, and prepared our materials. We were ready for the next step. Unfortunately, the northeast was not ready for us.

Breaking into a new region proved difficult for many reasons – reasons that could be detailed out in another article. However, what ended up being most difficult was cheering my partner on as I struggled to find success myself. Or having nights filled with sadness because we’d both gotten another no, and weren’t sure how many more we could take. The emotional labor of the search was our greatest challenge as a student affairs couple yet.

This field has tested our patience in many ways – the job search is merely an example. Each dual-career student affairs couple will have to find ways to lean on one another for support, and to advocate for yourselves when you feel unseen, broken, or defeated. Fortunately, we also get to find ways to support, cheer for, and celebrate one another, as well. 

When I first got on the plane to South Carolina in February of 2014, I had no intention of meeting my husband. The events that followed catapulted me into an unexpected journey of discovery, resilience, and love. I wouldn’t trade these challenges as they’ve made my husband and me the strong couple we are today. But, I would go back and tell my younger self that it would all work out. That we’d find a way to be together and be incredible professionals all the same. You don’t have to choose one or the other. In fact, I’ve never been more grateful to have a husband who understands my line of work – and who understands me – more clearly than I understand it all myself.


Greer, R. & Poe, R. (2005). Developmental aspects of dual-career relationships: Reflections and Issues. The College Student Affairs Journal, 24(2), 162-169.

Kibel, L. (2013). Beyond the “two-body” problem: Recruitment with dual-career couples support. Retrieved from

Rice, S., Twombly, S., & Wolf-Wendel, L. E. (2000). Dual-career couples. The Journal of Higher Education, 71(3), 291-321. DOI: 10.1080/00221546.2000.11780824

Less is More: A Journey to Simplify and Focus Through Transforming Pedagogy // written by Paige Haber-Curran, Ph.D.

Paige Haber-Curran, Ph.D.
Associate Professor, Texas State University

I grew up in the mountains, and on hikes, my brother and I panned for gold in the clear and frigid creeks. As we filled the sieve with contents of the creek bed, it was difficult to distinguish the materials. As we shook the sieve back and forth, sifting the contents, the dirt and sediments fell through the mesh leaving behind large sparkling pieces of gold (or fool’s gold). Those were the pieces we put in our pockets and added to our collection. As I reflect on the 15 years in which I have taught in higher education, I see those large sparkling pieces of gold as a powerful metaphor for my journey to simplify and focus. 

A Need to Find My Authentic Teacher Self

Twelve years ago, I completed my first semester of teaching my own courses, the first two courses I taught without a prescribed structure or pre-set curriculum. As the semester came to a close I felt many of the same emotions that I felt after my previous teaching experiences – relief the semester was over, satisfaction about the contents, and uncertainty about if I did my job well. Some students enthusiastically engaged in the class, but there were a handful who I lost in the process, who did not fully engage with the curriculum or with me, and who would soon forget the class. That was normal and to be expected, right? Sure, there will be students who, no matter how hard we try, will never be engaged, right? My teaching evaluations were fine – not alarmingly bad but also not report-card-on-the-fridge worthy. I knew deep down that I could do better and I needed to do better; now that I was in the driver’s seat I owed it to myself and, more importantly, to the students to do better.

The previous courses I had taught were coordinated through student affairs divisions and were structured to mirror the other sections in curriculum, structure, and flow. Although the packaged nature of the courses helped acculturate me into the world of college teaching, the socialization also reinforced many of the mental models I had come to believe about college teaching. I knew there could be more to teaching and more to the teacher-student relationship than had been modeled and reinforced for me through my own undergraduate education. I needed to find my authentic self as a teacher.

I was teaching in a department of leadership studies, and one of the foundational concepts in the field is Burns’ (1978) transforming leadership, an understanding of leadership in which the leader and followers help elevate each other to higher levels of motivation and morale. Burns compares transforming leadership to transactional leadership, characterized by formal authority and the exchange of rewards for the outcomes and loyalty of followers. Transactional leadership is not bad or malicious leadership (although it can be), but it has limitations. As I reflected on my teaching, I realized I was teaching in a way comparable to Burns’ transactional leadership. I was checking the boxes of being a professor: having a clear syllabus, ensuring class sessions were organized and structured, incorporating current content, developing informative and easy-to-read PowerPoint slides, and including classroom activities. Although my teaching was not bad, it was not transforming. 

Less is More

As I was seeking to find my authentic teacher self I was also involved as a facilitator for LeaderShape, a six-day leadership institute for students. A fellow facilitator shared and modeled for me the philosophy of less is more in the context of teaching and facilitating. I observed the facilitator meaningfully connect with students. I saw attentive students engaged with both the curriculum and the facilitator, and I knew the students were learning in a meaningful way. The facilitator was showing up authentically, meeting the students where they were, and helping students digest and understand the material. At times the facilitator did not cover all of the curriculum provided in the curriculum manual, but the students still got out what they were meant to from the lesson. In fact, they seemed to be achieving greater, deeper learning. 

The opportunity to learn from this facilitator began my process of shedding my mental models of teaching and learning and gave me permission and motivation to approach my teaching differently. My course syllabi and PowerPoint presentations shrunk in length. My classes became less structured and planned, and in class I talked less and listened more. I focused on what was most important, and I allowed time and space to focus in depth and foster a sense of inquiry.  I tried new approaches that put more responsibility on the students. I gradually let go of the control that, in many ways, provided me comfort and that I thought was inherent in the role of teacher. Students were more engaged and were learning more (as was I). Additionally, I became less anxious about teaching. Interestingly I seemed to gain more authority by making these changes, not through the formal authority granted to me with the instructor title, but through the informal authority that comes from respect and connection (Heifetz & Linsky, 2002). It is incredible just how much a little loosening-of-the-grip can transform a course. 

The following year I was introduced to Singham’s (2007) Death to the Syllabus! during a conference session on innovative approaches to teaching. Singham (2007) encouraged faculty to challenge the traditional course syllabus and controlling classroom, inviting students to play a role in deciding what constitutes meaningful learning and how learning can be demonstrated and assessed. The article spoke to me and terrified me at the same time. It turned my mental model of teaching, which was already slightly tipped to the side, completely upside down. I decided to take a risk and jump in head first. The next semester I taught the leadership minor capstone course and almost completely abandoned the course syllabus, only including the university mandated components. I invited students into the driver’s seat with me. I went out on a limb and into unknown territory, and the results were incredible. Students overwhelming expressed the value of the course, sharing how it challenged them in new and different ways and resulted in more meaningful learning and engagement than any other college course. They described their experiences as a different and “more real” way of learning that was transforming not only how they thought about the subject, but also how they came to understand themselves, others, and the world in which they were a part (Haber-Curran & Tillapaugh, 2013). See published research on the course for additional information (Haber-Curran & Tillapaugh, 2013, 2015; Tillapaugh & Haber-Curran, 2013). 

Reframing Rigor

I worried that this less is more approach could mean less rigor. Yet, through this process I came to a new understanding of rigor. Rigor is not the amount of information students memorize, the amount of time they study for an exam, the length of a research paper, or the weed out reputation of a course. Instead, it is about grappling with, thinking critically about, integrating, and applying concepts to one’s life or other contexts. It is about developing new ways of thinking and viewing the world. It is about engaging in discourse and problem solving with others. 

As I engage in the process of sifting for gold to identify and focus on what I believe is most significant, I encourage students to do the same. As an example, for each assigned chapter or article in most of my courses, students complete a reading note card. On the note card students write: (a) three key points from the reading; (b) a significant sentence/quote from the reading that they could discuss; and (c) a critical thought or question they had as a result of the reading. This reading note card activity challenges students to critically read and to determine what they believe to be most crucial, which naturally often differs by student. In class the note cards help provide meaningful talking points to guide discussion about the readings and to dig deep in grappling with the content. I find this approach to be a thoughtful alternative to the pop quiz approach, which could be considered by some to demonstrate rigor, that was modeled in many courses in which I was a student. Rather than cramming more or testing more to seek rigor, I facilitate opportunities for students to focus, think, and reflect more.     

The Journey is Ongoing

Last year I served as a Fulbright Scholar in Austria. I was anxious about teaching new courses to new students in a new and foreign environment. I noticed myself seeking comfort by cycling back to excess structure, control, and content. It was as if I was trying to hide behind the excess, assuming it would protect me. I fought those ingrained instincts to add structure and control in order to decrease uncertainty and instead reminded myself to simplify and focus. I pared down my compilation of topics, readings, assignments, and in-class exercises to include what could realistically and comfortably fit into a semester. I am glad I pared down the courses, as the foreign context required me to be even more in tune with the students and adaptable to their learning process. In other words, the experience challenged me more than ever to simplify, focus, and keep sifting through the sediment to surface the gold.

The process to simplify and focus is a lifelong journey for me. It is a journey of unlearning much of what has been imprinted on me on what it means to teach and learn. It is a journey of reconditioning my thought process and my pedagogies. It is a journey of slowing down and identifying what is most important. This fall I began my ninth year teaching in a student affairs graduate preparation program. As I prepare for each semester I focus in on the large, sparkling pieces of gold to guide the course, and I do my best to leave space rather than fill the space between those pieces of gold with pebbles and sediment. I have found in doing so that the space often gets filled with learning even more valuable than the gold. 

Reflection Questions

  1. What mental models do you have about teaching and learning? What has informed these mental models? 
  2. Think about a course you teach, a workshop or session you present, or a training you lead. If you were to sift through all of the potential topics and concepts, what are the large, sparkling pieces of gold?  
  3. How do you feel when you think about loosening up structure and control when you are in the role of teacher or facilitator? Why do you believe you feel this way?  

Paige Haber-Curran is associate professor and program coordinator for the Student Affairs in Higher Education master’s program at Texas State University. Her research focuses on college student leadership, gender and leadership, and effective pedagogy. Paige has 15 years of higher education teaching experience in the areas of student affairs, college student leadership, intercultural competence, emotional intelligence, and organizational leadership.  

Acknowledgements: I acknowledge and thank Dr. Cheryl Getz and Dr. Dan Tillapaugh for their authentic support, guidance, and inspiration in this journey.


Burns, J. M. (1978). Leadership. New York, NY: Harper and Row. 

Haber-Curran, P., & Tillapaugh, D. W. (2015). Student-centered transformative learning in leadership education: An examination of the teaching and learning process. Journal of Transformative Education, 13(1), 65-84. doi:10.1177/1541344614559947  

Haber-Curran, P., & Tillapaugh, D. W. (2013). Leadership learning through student-centered and inquiry-focused approaches to teaching adaptive leadership. Journal of Leadership Education, 12(1), 92-116. doi:10.12806/V12/I1/92

Heifetz, R. A., & Linsky, M. (2002). Leadership on the line: Staying alive through the dangers of leading. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press. 

Singham, M. (2007). Death to the syllabus! Liberal Education, 93(4), 52-56. 

Tillapaugh, D. W., & Haber-Curran, P. (2013). At the intersection of leadership and learning: A self-study of using student-centered pedagogies in the classroom. Educational Action Research, 21(4), 519-531. doi:10.1080/09650792.2013.832345