A Letter from the Editors

Hello, Colleagues.

As we welcome spring and work toward the end of the academic year, we hope each of you who was able to participate in the recent ACPA National Convention is inspired with new ideas and new connections. We welcome articles about sessions you presented, things you have achieved, or issues you are wrestling with in the profession. Please let us know how we can support you in bringing those ideas to others around the country and the world.

Additionally, as we sit in the aftermath of shootings in Atlanta and Boulder, we hope that you are able to find the community you need. Navigating ongoing violence – particularly against BIPoC individuals is work that never ends. We must continue in our work to educate ourselves and others in order to create safe communities for living, learning, and thriving. It is clear there is much to be done as we seek to continue our work on the Strategic Imperative on Racial Justice and Decolonization.

We also want to take a moment to thank Vernon Wall for his leadership through the past year. It has been full of challenges related to justice, safety, equity, educational access, engagement, and our work supporting one another. Vernon, your grace, love, and wisdom are gifts for which we cannot thank you enough.

In closing, we hope that you each will take care as you navigate the coming weeks and beyond. Continue to build connections with those who inspired you at the National Convention, across the profession, and on your own campuses. Thank you so much for all the work you do. We look forward to continuing to share your insights, questions, and the challenges you pose and navigate for student affairs.

With gratitude,

Michelle Boettcher
Clemson University
[email protected]

Reyes Luna
Cal Poly Pomona
[email protected]

Staying in Community, a letter from the Executive Director

Staying in Community
Chris Moody, ACPA Executive Director

As we close another annual convention, we experienced another “first” as a community: Our first virtual annual convention. Although not by any of our choosing, we were not deterred in our coming together by a global health pandemic. Yes, I missed the cross-convention squeals of friends and colleagues greeting each other for the first time. I was sad to not experience the claps, snaps, and cheers as we learned from keynotes and session presenters. And it was even more challenging to meet new people to welcome them into the ACPA community of care. I hope each first-timer will make ACPA your professional home and that you will be with us in St. Louis next March for ACPA22.

In my remarks at Closing Session of this year’s virtual convention, I shared a few thoughts that I would like to once again offer here as a way to summarize this past year and to describe ACPA’s current vibrancy for those who may have missed it:

This past year has made it even more clear to me how important our community is to each other. When we departed Nashville after our convention last March, none of us had prepared for what was ahead. As campuses began closing and course instruction moved online, I was amazed by how quickly higher education and student affairs came together. Our quick response webinars were filled to capacity for ten consecutive days as you sought comfort and resources from each other and from the association. When faced with continued brutality, violence, and murder of Black lives, you responded to the calls to action to speak up, to show up, and to fight for justice. You led the discussions on college campuses that we were not fighting just one pandemic, but many, with all crises disproportionately affecting Black and Brown bodies.

During these times, you craved connection and community as we continued to experience programs filling beyond technological capacity, even when your campuses could not financially support your participation. Knowing that higher education institutions were hit hard, your strength and resilience saved lives this year. It is my hope that this community, your ACPA community, helped give you the courage, the strength, and the compassion to stay in the long fight because your work mattered, and you matter.

I can tell that your desire for community was stronger in this past year than in previous years because our membership numbers were higher at the end of 2020 than they were at the end of 2019. In a year when most associations took a 20-40% drop in membership, our community grew. And I believe we will continue growing because we are an Association that leads from our values. We aim to always center people before policies, people before procedures, and people before profits.

Evidence continues to illuminate your craving for community, as we registered right at 5,000 attendees at this year’s convention – even more people than when we were together in Las Vegas in 2013! Our membership numbers climbed and are maintaining at 6,200 and above, more than 1,000 people above the lowest point during the COVID-19 pandemic. And we are committed to making sure that we remain relevant, member-centered, and affordable as we individually, as our campuses, and as a global collective continue to fight to make our way through and beyond these crises. Your association is thriving because you have chosen to dedicate your time, talent, and heart to the work of changing student lives through our bold efforts to transform higher education into a more socially and racially just, and less colonized, community of care. Thank you for making ACPA your professional home.

A Final Letter from ACPA President, Vernon A. Wall.

Dear ACPA Family:

It has been a pleasure to serve as your president this past year. Near the end of the second act of the Broadway musical “The Color Purple”, Celie looks into the audience and sings about strength through struggle: Emotionally she belts: “I’m still here”. With that I say to you:


I am happy to report that we are financially healthy with membership over 6,000 and attendance at our ACPA21 virtual experience surpassing 5,000.

Since March, all higher education associations have been impacted by the multiple pandemics that have ravished the world and our country. We are not alone. While we have seen much creativity and resilience in our members during this time of constant pivoting and re-imagining campus life, many of us have experienced extreme loss. Family members, colleagues, friends, students and community members.

With all that was going on in our world and our country, we were still able to be about the business of the association. We are actually in Phase 2 of our association’s strategic direction which highlights 5 priorities: Attending to our current and future membership, Generation and Sharing of Transformative Educational Experiences, Maintaining and Increasing Our Strength in Research & Scholarship, Association Leadership & Presence and finally: Celebrating 100 years of ACPA in 2024 in Chicago! A huge shoutout to Dr. Lelani Kupo and Dr. Dean Kennedy who did a phenomenal job in framing our conversations while weaving racial justice and decolonization throughout.

Our entities. I can even begin to share my appreciation for their continued great work. There’s no doubt in my mind that we are who we are as an association because of their commitment. They stepped up to provide resources and support as our campuses and country experienced – yet again – a wave of violence against black, brown and trans people and as native and indigenous communities were constantly erased from all narratives. As I write now, anti- Asian American violence in our country is being talked about as if it is suddenly a new phenomenon. Let’s be clear, this is not new – it’s just being filmed. The stories are sadly centuries old. We also continue to ignore the fact that social economic class is often times not included in conversations on oppression and social justice. The “I’ve been left behind” narrative is one that we cannot afford to ignore any longer. Our work is more important than ever. This brings me to our “Strategic Imperative for Racial Justice and Decolonization”. During conversations about the roll out of this bold document in 2016 and 2017, there was some resistance. Some folks wondered about this direction. Was it too narrow? Well, all I can say is Dr. Stephen John Quaye and the amazing scholars and practitioners who worked to develop this document must have had a crystal ball. Fast forward to today. This document is a visionary roadmap to developing just communities. And we are not done yet! We will continue to provide resources for the higher education community on how to operationalize the strategic imperative on your campuses and in your communities.

I’d also like to recognize my fellow higher education association leaders. What’s great about higher education as an “industry”, is that we know the value of collaboration. My fantastic friends and colleagues at NASPA – Board Chair Dr. Angela Batista and President Dr. Kevin Kruger have connected with me several times over the past year to have conversations on how we can both continue to support our profession and our members. These conversations culminated in a program that we offered at both of our virtual experiences: “Leading an association through multiple pandemics”.

This past year has been a struggle for student affairs professionals. Much has been asked of us. I also believe that we yet again solidified our value. We continue to be the stewards of the college and university experience. Your work has been remarkable and we will enter 2021 and beyond – together.
For our association, this involves continuing to support our members on their campuses though affordable and diverse professional development opportunities; this involves being unapologetically committed to racial justice, social justice, equity and decolonization; this involves providing resources for senior campus leaders on navigating our campus community dynamics and, finally, this involves continuing to partner with other higher education associations to forecast and vision as we navigate higher education in post-pandemic times.

As I close, I want to honor the people who got me here. Not only through this year as president, but throughout my life and career:

  • the ACPA leadership and International Office Staff: we spent a lot of time together and managed to do some great and meaningful work together. I am honored to have served alongside you.
  • the ACPA entities that mentored me over the years: several Convention Planning Teams, the Commissions for Professional Preparation, Housing and Residential Life, Student Involvement and the Coalitions for Multicultural Awareness and Sexuality & Gender Identities.
  • the places where I have called my professional home over the years: UNC Charlotte, UNC Chapel Hill, the University of Georgia, Semester at Sea, Iowa State University and the ACPA International Office. So may wonderful students and dynamic colleagues.
  • my SJTI and LeaderShape family, who continue to provide the spaces for me to continue doing my own self work, show up authentically, and do better in the world. Plus, they are really good people to hang out with.
  • my parents (Ward & Earnestine Wall), my sister Tineta, my brother Ward, Jr., my sister in law Demi (a proud member of the Lumbee nation) and my nephews Ryan, Zachary, Trey and Jayden who are the true essence of family.

If you have heard me speak before you know that I always end with saying that the greatest philosopher that has ever lived was Della Wall Ingram – she was my grandmother. And, even though she’s no longer physically with me I’m sure she’s spiritually here right now. She used to always say to us one simple thing – May the work I’ve done speak for me.

ACPA – continue to do good work.

Vernon A. Wall
ACPA President, 2020 – 2021

Demystifying the IRB: Supporting student success | Dona Molyneaux and Tiffany J. Cresswell-Yeager

Demystifying the IRB: Supporting student success
By Dona Molyneaux and Tiffany J. Cresswell-Yeager


To conduct research involving human participants, graduate students must submit a proposal about their research to the Institutional Review Board (IRB) for approval. Kramer, et al. (2009) asserted the importance of the IRB in protecting human subjects because of historic abuses. The Department of Health and Human Services oversees human subject research regulations, which requires universities to have an IRB (Miser, 2005). These are federal guidelines that every institution must follow. There are three guiding principles for human subjects’ ethical treatment: respect for persons, beneficence, and justice (National Commission for the Protection of Human Subjects of Biomedical and Behavioral Research, 1979). Some efforts to address these principles include ensuring informed consent and voluntary participation free from coercion, protecting privacy, confidentiality, anonymity, protecting vulnerable populations, and assessing benefits and risks (National Commission for the Protection of Human Subjects of Biomedical and Behavioral Research, 1979). Actual or potential physical, mental, and social risks of participation must be assessed (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2005). The researcher must also create a plan to minimize those risks and implement protections for the participants.

To earn the doctoral degree, students complete a research study called the dissertation. As part of conducting research, these students must comply with federal regulations related to the ethical treatment of human participants (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2005). Many researchers report that submitting to an IRB is often charged with fear, confusion, and frustration (Murphy & Verden, 2011; Rickly & Cook, 2017). Because the dissertation is often doctoral students’ first experience conducting research, students often fear the IRB process (Rickly & Cook, 2017). The scholars noted that research must be narrowly focused (Rickly & Cook, 2017). Students may lack the confidence to determine how narrow the focus can and should be. Students must understand their methodology and how that might impact their participants. Murphy and Verden (2011) recommended students be very thorough with their proposals and suggested checking due dates and knowing the schedule for reviews.

To demystify the process and identify areas where additional support was needed, the authors reviewed all submitted research protocols from a three-year period at a private liberal arts university in Southeastern Pennsylvania. The IRB and the doctoral program faculty examined the challenges students face in approaching the IRB process and identified strategies for students and educators to increase the likelihood of successful proposal approvals.

Literature Review

A great deal of research has been conducted about the IRB, including studies about fear, dissatisfaction, communication of policy and process, and such boards’ purpose and responsibilities (Kramer & Dougherty, 2005; Kramer et al., 2009; Rickly & Cook, 2017)). Kramer et al. (2009) found that previous research often focuses on the negative or adversarial role of the IRB. Despite the fear and frustration anecdotally, Kramer, et al. (2009) found that negative and positive experiences become balanced over time when examining across boards and institutions. Kramer et al. (2009) added that faculty with negative feelings toward IRBs may influence their students to have similar negative responses.

Kramer and Dougherty (2005) found that the regulations and bureaucracy of the IRB can cause feelings of powerlessness among the researcher. Kramer et al. (2009) suggested that some of the negative feelings toward IRB may be caused by a lack of timely review, causing frustration for the researcher who is anxious to get started or who may need to meet specific deadlines. Kramer et al. (2009) also found that most researchers felt that the research had little to no risk to participants and therefore did not need the IRB’s permission to move forward.


At this institution, the first-time submission approval rate was 7% for doctoral students during the 2017-2018 academic year (Office of Institutional Research, 2018). Typically, students would take approximately four months with several resubmissions to receive approval. In an accelerated doctoral program, this added a level of dissatisfaction and difficulty in meeting timelines. Table 1 shows the number of protocols submitted by year and the numbers of not approved, decision-pending, and approved at first submission.

Table 1

Results of Protocol on First Submission

Year Not approved on First Submission Decision-Pending after First Submission Approved on First Submission Total Submitted
2018 13 8 3 24
2017 15 13 4 32
2016 12 5 2 19
Total 40 26 9 75

Table 1 shows a large number of not approved proposals. These proposals had multiple errors and were returned to the students to be resubmitted.  More than twenty proposals were decision-pending, meaning several components needed to be addressed before approval could be granted. Corrections needed to be made and sent to the IRB administrator without resubmitting it to the entire IRB. As shown in Table 1, few protocols were approved on the first submission.

The students made many common errors. The students underestimated the time it would take to complete their research study, specifically their data collection. In addition, the students often failed to identify the location of their data collection or to provide letters of support or permission to conduct their study at the stated location. A majority of the students failed to explain their data analysis plans. Finally, more than half did not provide adequate consent procedures or failed to explain their studies’ parameters on their consent documents clearly. After reviewing the submitted protocols for the three years of this study, the authors derived several patterns and themes that frequently occurred. Table 2 shows the items for review and the number of found inadequate protocols during the IRB review.

Table 2 

Common Errors

Procedures for data analysis are not appropriate. 9
Consent procedures are not adequate. 7
Time frame is not adequate. 4
Other institutions are not clearly identified. 3
Other institutions did not provided letters of support. 3
Adequate protection was not ensured to participant and investigator. 3
Data or sample storage is not adequate. 2
Inadequate assessment of risk to participant and investigator. 2
Risk/Benefit ratio is not adequate. 2 

In examining Table 2, four proposals did not have an adequate timeframe. This may because of the accelerated nature of the program. Doctoral students may underestimate the amount of time that it may take to recruit participants and collect data. Also, participant recruitment and the data collection may not begin until IRB approval is granted, potentially delaying students’ doctoral program completion.

The study showed nine proposals did not have an appropriate plan for data analysis. This may happen because students submitted proposals without a careful plan of what to do with the data after it had been collected. To protect participants from unintended risk, the IRB must ensure that researchers – in this case doctoral students – have a clear plan to analyze the data after it is collected.

Finally, seven proposals lacked adequate procedures for consent. This is essential to protect participants in any study. Students often did not provide adequate information about how their participants could withdraw from the study. In other cases students failed to provide participants a clear understanding of the study’s procedures.


 In the IRB submission process, there were several challenges for students. The students were frustrated because they did not understand what needed to be submitted or explained in greater detail in their proposals. These challenges include:

  • Permission
  • Participant Recruitment and Consent
  • Data Analysis
  • Evaluation of Potential Risks to Participants and Investigators


 Research site permission may be required (McDowell, 2019). Researchers may not realize that permission will be needed from the organization, school, or institution where they planned to conduct their research. Researchers may not realize how long it may take to be granted permission Cook & Hoas, 2011). There may be long processes or forms to submit depending on the policies of the organization.

 Participant Recruitment and Consent

Students struggled to identify how they planned to recruit participants. Some students shared an overreliance on social media platforms as potential recruitment tools. Many also overestimated anticipated response rates. For example, students often assumed that more than 50% of those surveyed would respond. When in actuality, response rates without follow-up average from 25-30% (Fincham, 2008). Students often lacked complete and precise language in their consent documents. Despite being provided templates for use, the students struggled to articulate their procedures for obtaining consent clearly. Informed consent is an essential component of the protection of risk (Cook & Hoas, 2011).

 Data Analysis

 Nine proposals had inadequate data analysis included in their proposal. Students rarely provided a clear understanding of their plan for data analysis. Many students provided information about the software tool they planned to use to conduct the analysis but not the statistical analysis techniques. Sometimes this may have occurred because students were anxious to get started collecting data because of tight timeframes in the accelerated program.

Evaluation of Potential Risk to Participants and Investigators

Because the risk is often minimal in education research, students struggle to examine the  potential risks to participants’ and themselves. They often stretched the definitions or said there was no risk involved. Students often considered reputational risk, but rarely looked at emotional risk related to sensitive topics. Educators often underestimated the risk of coercion in educational surveys using their students. In addition, risks of invasion of privacy or confidentiality were often inadequately evaluated in studies. Without a clear evaluation of risk, it was difficult for the students to implement adequate protection from the risks.


 The IRB process is often challenging for academic community members, specifically doctoral students who may not have much experience conducting research. This study showed that many doctoral students were unprepared for submission to the IRB. Previous research found that the IRB process is often difficult to navigate (Kramer et al., 2009; Pritchard, 2011).

We also found many common errors in student proposals. Students did not understand the necessity or the need for permission from the research site as a protection from risk. The students were not aware of the rationale for compliance and the necessary components of research protections—consent, privacy, confidentiality, and autonomy. Consent is an integral component of protecting participants (Kramer et al., 2011). Informed consent confirms the participants understand the purpose of the research, the procedures involved, and the risks associated with the study (Cook & Hoas, 2011; U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2005).

Murphy and Verden (2011) explain IRBs review the methods and procedures to confirm there is no danger or risk to participants. In addition, students did not include strong data analysis plans in the proposals. Students needed to more thoroughly assess the risks associated with their research. Scheppler and Kolar (2008) explain non-biomedical research can challenge researchers to determine risk. They explain some of these risks include physical or psychological harm, social or economic harm, or even inconvenience to participants (Scheppler & Kolar, 2008). In our review, some students failed to accurately consider the potential risk of data breaches, loss of confidentiality, and privacy as participants complete surveys and interviews for their studies.

Implications for Practice

 To improve the IRB process for doctoral students, we recommend three strategies to increase the likelihood of approval to conduct research with human participants. IRBs should improve communication with potential student research investigators. IRBs should continually assess their practices to improve the submission process. In addition, the university community, including faculty and the IRB, should enhance support and training for doctoral students conducting research.

Improve Submission Process

 The submission process is often wrought with confusion, delays, and challenges (Abbott & Grady, 2011; Jenson et al., 2003; Lopus, et al., 2007; Pritchard, 2011; Smith, 2018). Murphy and Verden (2011) suggest IRBs seek to create processes that allow for the generation of knowledge while being manageable and smooth for researchers seeking approval. Some suggestions include creating and maintaining clear deadlines and using a rubric to determine appropriate protections and risk assessment (Cook & Hoas, 2011; Kramer et al., 2009). In addition, IRBs should periodically assess their submission practices and review the forms used. Following the internal review, IRBs can use the feedback to update their forms to improve clarity and reduce confusion. Murphy and Verden (2011) recommend assessing the climate and institutional culture including attitudes and behaviors towards IRBs to improve the process for researchers. Understanding how the institution views the IRB can help understand compliance behaviors and the support needed by student researchers to be successful.

Enhance Support and Training

To improve the submissions’ quality and increase the likelihood of approval, both students and faculty advisors need better education about the research process (Abbott & Grady, 2011). Murphy and Verden (2011) found that most faculty were modeling and teaching their students to be compliant, which created an environment where students are socialized to conduct research ethically. Howard et al. (2010) argue that an effort to train and educate researchers is integral to success in developing future research. To educate students, faculty could integrate IRB case studies and exercises into their coursework. Scheppler and Kolar (2008) pose questions to be answered to increase dialogue around practice and policy. If dissertation preparation is built into coursework, faculty can create assignments to help students consider the clarity of their writing. For example, Table 3 shows an IRB assignments where students are asked to respond to the statements with increased clarity. The assignment also asks students to explain why the statement does not meet the standard for approval. This demonstrates the students can evaluate the statements and critically reflect on what is needed to improve the work.

Table 3 

IRB Assignment

Topic Instructions


Read the following statements and provide a response that will improve the possibility of approval. Explain why the statement does not meet the standards for approval and provide an improved response.


Duration of research project


from Sept. 2021 to Oct. 2021


You must select actual dates to begin after your review and approval. In addition, it is best to select a minimum of 4 months for data collection. You can work more quickly, but you would need to apply if it takes longer than you requested. Be aware that you have one year from approval to complete your research.


Location I will conduct my interviews at a Starbucks near the college. The location is the site where you will conduct research. Where are the participants from? Do you have any relationship with potential participants? How do you have access to the research participants? Why are you using this site? Best practice: Use a location other than your workplace to avoid bias and coercion.


Data and/or Stored Samples


I will store copies of the survey data on my password-protected computer. I am the only person with access to this computer.


What happens if the data is stolen? How will you address a breach in confidentiality? What about the informed consent forms? What about the names and emails of participants? Did anyone provide you with this information?


Methods      I will analyze the data using descriptive statistics.


You need to explain your methodology, the rationale for that methodology and your data collection and data analysis plans. Use the templates to help you. Don’t just say I will analyze the data. Explain that you want to understand the relationship between test scores and teacher professional development, so you are using a correlation study. Do not overpromise. Be aware of word choice that has a statistical implication (like significance). Be very clear about what your data could show and why you are choosing the statistical test.


Subject Recruitment and Selection     


I will conduct a survey of 75 participants from the teachers at the school. I will send them an email asking them to participate. The survey is anonymous, but everyone who participates will receive a gift card.


If you are designing a quantitative research study, then provide the power analysis using the confidence level and confidence interval for a statistically sound sample. Best practice: minimum of 100 participants for survey research; minimum of 20 interviews for qualitative research. If the survey is anonymous, how do you know who they are to get the gift card?



Potential Risks to Subjects and Investigators


There is no risk to the participants.


There is always a risk to participants. The risk may be minimal. Minimal risk means that the risks of harm anticipated in the proposed research are not greater than, with respect to both probability and magnitude, the risks encountered in daily life or during the performance of routine physical or psychological examinations or tests.


Potential Benefits  


The participant will benefit emotionally by participating in the research.


There is little personal benefit for participating in social science research. This is primarily for medical research where a procedure might benefit healing or disease progression, but you still need to provide a response. Do not overestimate the benefits of your study. For social science research, there may be benefits to society. Again, do not overestimate the benefit to society.


Improve Communication

Communication practices emerged consistently across the data collected and analyzed. Because graduate students often are unfamiliar with the IRB process, there is fear and frustration about finding information and getting answers to questions. Miser (2005) recommends students should talk to the IRB chair about how educational research is handled. In addition, Kramer et al. (2009) argue that people react more positively when leaders communicate effectively and are more willing to listen and provide feedback. They assert that IRBs are in positions of power and therefore can demonstrate more participatory leadership practices.

To improve IRB communication between doctoral students and the IRB on a campus, the IRB staff must be clear and prompt in responding to student questions (Kramer et al., 2009). Consultations as students complete their IRB forms may be helpful and ease the workload of students and IRB staff as it will require an additional meeting at the beginning to clearly communicate about the process, but potentially fewer follow-up exchanges as students submit their materials. Kramer et al. (2009) add that open communication builds trust and is associated with increased satisfaction and commitment by researchers to comply with guidelines. These guidelines can be shared with student researchers in handbooks, materials, and other documents. One document, a checklist, can be helpful in demonstrating the exact tasks that need to be completed before submission. Table 4 shows an example of a checklist created by the IRB administrator and chair to be included in the IRB handbook to help students navigate the process.

Table 4

IRB Checklist


Steps to complete:


Review the FAQs and complete the CITI Training.
Prepare the Research Proposal (IRB 001).
Prepare the appropriate Exempt or Expedited/Full Request form IRB 004.

Please follow all directions carefully.

Determine if requesting “Exempt” or “Expedited” or “Full” review. Exempt research occurs when there is no identifying data; expedited is the most common. Full review will occur if your participants are minors.

Include permission for all research sites and locations. If you had access to any information from the research location, plan to use the location’s name in your study, or you are recruiting participants at that location, you must have permission.
Confirm dates for beginning and ending data collection. Provide ample time for data collection.
Explain how you are recruiting your participants and how you determined your sample size. Convenience sampling does not provide the academic rigor necessary for a dissertation.
Review Guidelines for Consent Process. Prepare very clear consent procedures. Do not assume the IRB understands what you meant. You must explicitly explain your consent procedures.
Select the Appropriate Consent Forms from the templates provided. Read the templates. If the information doesn’t apply, you must delete it.
Explain the risk, even if minimal to participants AND researcher. Provide protections for all risk. Specifically, address privacy, confidentiality, and informed consent. Disclose your role and any connection you may have to the location or to the participants. Implement protection to eliminate or mitigate coercion or bias.
Explain the methods of collection and analysis in detail to show your competence with the methodology and tools for analysis. Provide the data collection instrument.
Attach copies of All instruments used as part of the research project, including questionnaires, surveys, tests, and interview questions (if using established instrument, provide permission to use, adapt or amend; provide reliability and validity information.) Include Letters of support or permission from research sight, school, university, or organization from someone with the authority to give permission. This is best on letterhead with signature. Provide Consent forms for all participants (if minors: participant and parent)
Submit proposal to Writing Specialist for approval.
Submit electronic copies of the Research Proposal, supporting forms, and attachments to Administrative Assistant.

(Student & Investigator IRB Handbook, 2019)


To conduct research with human participants, students must obtain IRB approval to ensure protections and appropriate assessment of risk (Jenson et al., 2003; Kramer, et al., 2009; Murphy & Verden, 2011). Cook and Hoas (2011) found that IRB members take their responsibility very seriously. They assert that IRBs must encourage research while protecting participants. Faculty must demystify the process for students and continue to improve communication, awareness, and eliminate the fear of the process by being proactive and educated on the process and the policy. Finally, the institution and the IRB must be willing to review their policies, guidelines, and practices to ensure student and faculty research is of the highest quality and the process is fair and just to those that submit.

 Discussion Questions

  1. What concerns do you have about submitting your research study proposal to the IRB?
  2. How can you communicate concern(s) to your advisor, committee, or chair?
  3. In examining your study, how can you better assess the risk to your participants?
  4. In what ways can you improve your explanation’s clarity to be sure the IRB understands the study you plan to conduct? 


Abbott, L. & Grady, C. (2011). A systematic review of the empirical literature evaluating IRBs: What we know and what we still need to learn. Journal of Empirical Research on Human Research Ethics, 3-19.

Cook, A. & Hoas, H. (March-April, 2011). Protecting research subjects: IRBs in a changing research landscape. IRB: Ethics & Human Research, 14-19.

Fincham, J. (2008). “Response Rates and Responsiveness for Surveys, Standards, and the Journal.” Journal of American Pharmaceutical Education 72(2), 43

Howard, D., Boyd, C., Nelson, D., & Godley, P. (2009). Getting from A to IRB: Developing an institutional review board at a Historically Black University. Journal of Empirical Research on Human Research Ethics, 75-81.

Jenson, J., Mackiewicz, J., & Riley, K. (2003). Human subjects research by business students: Beyond the red tape. Business Communication Quarterly 66(2), 9-22.

Kramer, M., Miller, V. & Commuri, S. (2009). “Faculty and institutional review board communication.” Communication Education 58(4), 497-515.

Lopus, J., Grimes, P., Becker, W., Pearson, R. (2007). Effects of human subjects requirements on classroom research: Multidisciplinary evidence. Journal of Empirical Research on Human Research Ethics, 69-77.

McDowell, A. (2019). “Students in Research”. CITI Program https://www.citiprogram.org.

Miser, W. (2005). “Educational research—To IRB or Not to IRB?” Family Medicine 37(3), 168-173.

Murphy, C. & Verden, C. (2011). “A student’s guide to navigating the IRB: How to successfully navigate a potentially overwhelming process.” Journal of American Academy of Special Education Professionals, 84-95.

National Commission for the Protection of Human Subjects of Biomedical and Behavioral Research. (1979). The Belmont report: Ethical principles and guidelines for the protection of human subjects of research. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Office of Institutional Research. (2018). IRB Submission data.

Pritchard, I. (2011). How do IRB members make decisions? A review and research agenda. Journal of Empirical Research on Human Research Ethics, 31-46.

Rickly, R. & Cook, K. (2017). “Failing forward: Training graduate students for research- an introduction to the special issue.” Journal of Technical Writing and Communication 47(2), 119-129.

Scheppler, J. & Kolar, C. (Spring, 2008). Your IRB: Educating students, monitoring your student research, and safeguarding students as research subjects. National Consortium for Specialized Secondary Schools of Mathematics, Science and Technology Journal, 19-28.

Smith, C. (2018). IRB is not required: A reflection on oral history, disability, and playing by the rules when the rules get in the way. Curriculum and Teaching Dialogue 20(1&2), 137-142.

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2005). Code of Federal Regulations, Title 45, Public Welfare, Part 46, Protection of Human Subjects.

Author Biography

Dona Molyneaux is an Associate Professor of Nursing in the Frances M. Maguire School of Nursing and Health Professions at Gwynedd Mercy University. She earned her BSN, RN, ONC, and MSN from the University of Pennsylvania and her Ph.D. from Widener University.

Tiffany Cresswell-Yeager is an Assistant Professor of Higher Education Leadership at Gwynedd Mercy University. She earned her B.A. in journalism and M.Ed. in training and development at Penn State University and her Ph.D. in sociology at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. Dr. Cresswell-Yeager’s research interests include the scholarship of teaching and learning, doctoral preparation, student engagement, and social class in higher education.

Developing a Virtual Peer Mentor Program | Eli Williams & Jenna Heath

written by: Eli Williams & Jenna Heath

Step 1: Innovative Ideas

Step 2: Program Planning, Discussion with Peers/Colleagues, Professional Development Seminars

Step 3: Leadership (LEAD) Competency & Student Learning & Development


In higher education, formalized peer mentoring programs are increasingly regarded as an effective strategy to improve undergraduate student retention and success (Jacobi, 1991; Collier, 2015). Research suggests that peer mentoring—that is, the developmental relationship between an experienced college student and a peer less familiar with their institution—can positively impact a number of variables associated with the success of mentored students (mentees). Peer mentoring can increase mentee engagement in learning (Jacobi, 1991), increase mentees’ feelings of connection to their campus community (Colvin & Ashman, 2010), and help mentees identify and use campus resources (Beatrice & Shively, 2007; Torres Campos, 2009). Additionally, Collier (2015) suggested that peer mentoring can be “particularly effective at promoting college success for students of color and other underrepresented student groups” (p. 12) by providing students with a role model and peer support in managing the adjustment issues inherent to their transition to the college student role.

Peer mentoring also provides opportunities for undergraduate student mentors to experience developmental gains in their employment. While Peer Mentors may have little to no expectation for their own learning outcomes (Harmon, 2006), formalized peer mentoring can provide a number of perceived benefits including the opportunity to support other students, developing meaningful friendships and connections, and the ability to reapply concepts in their own lives to help them become better students themselves (Colvin & Ashman, 2010).

For a number of reasons, Peer Mentor program development may be an especially effective student support intervention in the wake of the global COVID-19 pandemic. First, amidst budget cuts and hiring freezes across the landscape of higher education, Peer Mentors are a cost-efficient outlet for providing support to new students (Collier, 2015). Additionally, by building personal relationships with their mentees, and serving as an accessible—and potentially less intimidating—connection to campus communities, Peer Mentors help validate mentees’ experiences and feelings, and identify and address adjustment issues and personal concerns. Third, in many cases the pandemic has necessitated a shift in university orientation and transition programming from in-person to virtual delivery. The limited personal contact and individual attention of such programming models may disproportionately affect first-generation students, who sometimes struggle to navigate campus resources and overcome imposter syndrome (Edwards, 2019). Peer mentoring addresses this impact by pairing new students with peers who are trained to provide resource referral, emotional validation, and assistance fulfilling the expectations of the college student role.

Finally, developing Peer Mentor programs entails investing in student employment opportunities and valuable leadership experiences for Peer Mentors. Many students—including those in need of employment to pay for their education—lost jobs due to this global crisis. Compensating Peer Mentors with hourly wages, while limited by a reduced university budget, helps alleviate their financial burden and provides an opportunity to enhance mentors’ career readiness through student employment experience and ongoing professional development training opportunities.

Given the great breadth of developmental gains possible for both Peer Mentors and their new-student mentees, it comes as no surprise that colleges and universities are increasingly investing in the development of formalized peer mentoring programs. Further developing Peer Mentor programs—from recruitment and hiring, to training, to supervision and support—has been immensely challenging during remote instruction and the uncertain work-life environment imposed by a global pandemic.

We, the authors, have employed innovative strategies to handle these challenges in our Peer Mentor program, including rethinking training delivery, employing new supervision techniques, and challenging our perceptions of programmatic best practices. We recognize that institutional support from high-level administrators—support which other programs and practitioners may not have—played a large role in our ability to adapt the Peer Mentor program to virtual delivery. Still, we believe these strategies and experiences hold great exploratory value for other scholar-practitioners looking to enhance student learning, development, and success in our challenging remote environments.

COLA Peer Mentor Program

Before we discuss adaptation strategies, it is important to recognize that our Peer Mentor program was developed not in response to COVID-19, but rather piloted shortly before we understood the impact the pandemic would have on higher education and the world. In fall 2019—in alignment with university goals to enhance student retention and graduation rates—the Provost Office at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV) designated peer mentoring as a campus-wide initiative. The objective of this decision was to create autonomous, college-specific peer mentoring programs supported by centralized hiring, training, and assessment practices. This entailed allocating funding to pay Peer Mentors in each of UNLV’s 12 undergraduate-serving colleges; hiring a Peer Mentoring Coordinator to implement centralized protocols; and identifying an existing staff member in each college to create and operate a program that supports its first-time, first-year cohort.

In one of those colleges, UNLV’s College of Liberal Arts (COLA), the Director of Student and Community Engagement serves as the supervisor of this program. In conceiving the COLA Peer Mentor Program, she leveraged the strength of an existing first-year experience program in the college and fully embedded peer mentoring into the COLA First Year Seminar. This includes graded assignments that constitute either 10% or 25% of a student’s First Year Seminar course grade (decided individually by course instructors). Students enrolled in the First Year Seminar engage in at least three one-on-one meetings and at least one workshop or event with an assigned Peer Mentor throughout the semester. In meetings, Peer Mentors help their mentees construct personally meaningful goals, identify helpful campus resources and involvement opportunities, and provide emotional support and validation. At the end of the semester, mentored students write a reflection paper about their experience with the mentor relationship.

This program model was piloted successfully in the fall 2019 semester: Peer Mentors reported satisfaction with their experiences and leadership development, and first-year mentees self-reported learning that aligned with designated program learning outcomes. Given its short development timeline, the program was considered successful and scalable. However, when UNLV moved abruptly to remote instruction in the middle of the spring semester and during the Peer Mentor recruitment cycle, our young program encountered new challenges that required creative solutions.

Online Training and Empathy

Empathy and listening are core competencies of the Peer Mentor role. Validating and reflecting feelings, active listening, and drawing out stories help mentors build rapport with their new student mentees, validate their experiences, and learn how to empower those mentees to problem-solve. As such, one significant challenge presented by our institutional shift to remote instruction was conducting adequate training for Peer Mentors to understand and practice empathy skills.

After assessing options, I (Eli, the Peer Mentoring Coordinator) decided to conduct Peer Mentor training online using the Canvas platform with which students are familiar from their academic coursework. A delayed hiring cycle and scheduling challenges rendered synchronous training infeasible for UNLV’s roughly 100 Peer Mentors, which meant that all Peer Mentor training needed to happen asynchronously online. This entailed constructing and recording presentations, designing activities, and prompting reflections to help newly-hired Peer Mentors learn key concepts and skills including Peer Mentor role responsibilities, FERPA and confidentiality protocol, campus resources and effective referrals, and—crucially—empathic listening and communication.

To help Peer Mentors achieve learning outcomes related to empathy skill development, I worked to find creative ways to teach microskills online. Microskills, in short, are communication skills that help show caring and build rapport. Based on a larger microskill hierarchy used in counseling and psychotherapy (Ivey & Ivey, 2003), the foundational microskills of attending and listening can help Peer Mentors conduct effective meetings with their mentees.

There is a long history of employing microskills in higher education and student affairs work, including to strengthen rapport in academic advising relationships (Barnett et al., 2006). This is due to their nature as definable, observable, and teachable skills. Infusing microskill development into Peer Mentor training helps students challenge implicit perceptions that empathy is an inherent personality trait. It also fosters a growth mindset regarding Peer Mentors’ own listening and empathy skills.

In previous roles and training cycles, I have effectively employed interactive, peer-focused pedagogies and learning activities to help students learn microskills in-person. Think-pair-shares, role plays, group discussions, and icebreakers are effective and time-tested: when it comes to student training, they work. However, the challenge of adapting this training material to asynchronous, online modules necessitated creativity. To make the material digestible and interactive without a captive in-person audience or the luxury of time, I narrated presentations about the microskills hierarchy, including examples from the peer mentoring relationship. I complemented presentations with training activities that mimicked peer interaction and role play. Peer Mentors transformed prompted questions from closed to open; they practiced paraphrasing a mentee stream-of-consciousness paragraph; and they developed a “Rapport-Building Plan” they would discuss with their supervisors and fellow mentors before putting in action with their mentees during the semester.

These activities helped students get their hands on the material and provided rich reflections for training assessment and supervisor follow-up meetings. Finally, I leveraged existing resources like Kognito’s “At-Risk for Students” student of concern simulation (to which UNLV already had contracted access), and free online videos—including the animated YouTube video “Brené Brown on Empathy” and TED Talks—to help students understand the skills in different contexts. As a result, each of the 112 Peer Mentors who engaged with online training self-reported feeling more confident in their abilities and being prepared to both build mentee rapport and practice empathy skills.

Navigating Challenges to Online Mentoring

While the development of Peer Mentors’ empathy skills is essential, this approach is not without challenges. Fundamental to effective mentoring spaces is the establishment of rapport and a comfortable environment for vulnerability and self-disclosure. We have found that peer mentoring is most effective when mentees can authentically and openly reflect their experiences and their feelings. But program structure and online instruction have complicated Peer Mentors’ ability to create a warm environment with mentees.

Because the COLA program is integrated into the First Year Seminar course, mentees do not elect to participate in the program. As can be expected with any mandatory course component, many students therefore view the mentoring relationship as a “box to be checked.” That is, mentees participate transactionally in the minimum number of mentor meetings needed to earn points, and they often do not perceive or buy into the value of the mentoring relationship at its origin. While survey data from previous mentee cohorts indicates that all students—regardless of initial investment—report positive experiences and developmental gains from their mentor interactions, the challenge becomes shifting student perception away from transaction, and toward growth and personal development.

Additionally, strictly online modes of mentoring have challenged Peer Mentors’ confidence in the efficacy of their mentoring efforts. Distractions, delays, and issues with computer audio make it difficult for Peer Mentors to know if their mentees are engaged and focused on video conferencing meetings. Moreover, observation of mentee non-verbal cues, body language, and vocal qualities during mentor meetings is limited to what is perceivable via webcam.

Although students did discuss and learn empathy skills during online training, improving their ability and self-efficacy to build empathetic mentor relationships required us to utilize additional resources that we never had to access before. For example, we incorporated selected excerpts and activities from Brené Brown’s Dare to Lead (2018) into Peer Mentor staff meeting discussion. In the book, Brown outlines important empathy lessons from her research in social work, including what she calls empathy misses. This section is dedicated to the idea that there are barriers to empathy, or ways we think we are empathetically supporting someone, but we may be missing the mark. During a team meeting with mentors we discussed this section, described the empathetic misses and had mentors share how they have observed empathy misses happen within their own cohort of mentees.  Feedback from mentors included that this type of mid-semester teaching was valuable to them and they felt it would assist them in the immediate future.

Adapting burgeoning programs to new contexts requires the creativity to innovate beyond old ways of doing. In our experience, this has never been more true than meeting the demands of remote student learning and development imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic. To help mentors perceive themselves as partners in the process of innovation, another tool we have utilized is mentors sharing personal stories of mentee engagement during team meetings. Although we have always encouraged Peer Mentors to share from their own experiences, we have now adopted the practice of naming certain Peer Mentors as “experts” of areas in which they excel.

For example one Peer Mentor was doing an outstanding job of meticulously tracking her mentee engagements and staying on top of which students were going through certain experiences. She shared with the team how she used Google Sheets as an online tracking tool and provided a model for others. Another Peer Mentor debriefed their experiences working with mentees who had expressed personal trauma resulting from COVID-19. They discussed with the mentor staff how they managed to work with their supervisor and campus experts to ensure the students were getting the help and resources they needed. Yet another Peer Mentor built strong relationships with male mentees who at first were unwilling to open up. This mentor shared strategies and tips for successfully working with this population of students to create empathetic relationships.

These “expert” sharing moments have been critical in building a cohort-based team environment online. Doing so allows them to build relationships with each other, feel greater confidence in their own expertise and ability, and rely on their peers’ advice to build empathetic relationships with their mentees. And as scholar-practitioners, positioning Peer Mentors as experts has reified to the authors how valuable student voice can be in co-constructing programs and innovative solutions. While we have certainly leaned on our advanced education, transferable professional experience, and community of colleagues in adapting to the challenges of the pandemic, it is also important not to dismiss the expertise of our student leaders and their lived experience.


The global COVID-19 pandemic has challenged our ways of being, working, interacting, but also—importantly—our ways of knowing as educators and leaders. Best practices and traditional pedagogies, while research-guided and helpful in shaping our work, need to be reconsidered and adapted to meet the challenges of the moment. In leading the development of the COLA Peer Mentor program, we leaned into humility and curiosity, and recognized the limitations of our expertise working in higher education during COVID-19. We chose to make use of outside or unconventional resources, such as: literature from counseling and social work (microskills), free online training materials, innovative supervision strategies and activities, and most importantly, the lived experiences and expertise of our students. As educators, this will be one of the central challenges of our work in the pandemic: to think creatively beyond the “best practices” we know, love, and rely on in service of the health of our students, our programs, and our growth.

Discussion Questions:

  1. What common or conventional “best practices” in your work have not translated well to a COVID-19 or remote work environment? What resources exist on your campus (or in your communities) that you could better integrate into your work?
  2. How do you consider and legitimize students’ experiences as best practice? How do you uplift student voices as expert voices?
  3. In the absence of in-person gatherings, how do we reconceive student training and development for online delivery, and as ongoing processes?

Eli Williams Bio:

Eli Williams is the Peer Mentoring Coordinator in the Office of the Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV). A native of California’s Central Coast and an alumnus of Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, he received a B.A. in English (emphasis in Poetry-Writing) in 2014 and an M.A. in Counseling and Guidance in Higher Education and Student Affairs in 2017. Eli has a background in student leadership development; he previously coordinated programs and designed and taught undergraduate leadership development courses at UNLV.

Jenna Heath Bio:

Jenna Heath, M.Ed. is the Director of Student & Community Engagement for the College of Liberal Arts at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV). She received her M.Ed. from UNLV in December 2016 and her Bachelor of Arts in Communication and Political Science from San Diego State University (SDSU) in 2013. After graduating she worked in the Office of the President at SDSU then moved to Las Vegas to pursue her Masters. Jenna has served as an Admission Counselor, Assistant Director of Career & Professional Development and has taught multiple courses across UNLV. Her research interests include professional and career development in curriculum at the university level.

Jenna has served in many volunteer roles for Greek lettered organizations, she has extensive experience in public speaking nationally, and enjoys perfecting the art of networking and connecting with others.


Beatrice, J., & Shively, P. (2007). Peer mentors target unique populations; increase use of campus resources. E-Source for College Transitions, 4(5), 1-4.

Brown, B. (2018). Dare to lead: Brave work. Tough conversations. Whole hearts. Random House.

Collier, P. J. (2015). Developing effective student peer mentoring programs: A practitioner’s guide to program design, delivery, evaluation, and training. Stylus Publishing.

Colvin, J. W., & Ashman, M. (2010). Roles, risks, and benefits of peer mentoring: Relationships in higher education. Mentoring & Tutoring: Partnership in Learning, 18(2), 121-134.

Edwards, C. W. (2019). Overcoming imposter syndrome and stereotype threat: reconceptualizing the definition of a scholar. Taboo: The Journal of Culture and Education, 18(1).

Harmon, B. V. (2006). A qualitative study of the learning processes and outcomes associated with students who serve as peer mentors. Journal of the First-Year Experience & Students in Transition, 18(2), 53-82.

Ivey, A. E., & Ivey, M. B. (2003). Intentional interviewing and counseling: Facilitating client development in a multicultural society (5th Ed.). Brooks/Cole.

Jacobi, M. (1991). Mentoring and undergraduate academic success: A literature review. Review of Educational Research, 61(4), 505–532.

Torres Campos, C. M., Phinney, J.S., Perez-Brena, N., Kim, C., Ornelas, B., Nemanim, L., Padilla Kallemyn, D. M., Mihecoby, A., & Ramirez, C. (2009). A mentor-based targeted intervention for high-risk Latino college freshman. A pilot study. Journal of Hispanic Higher Education 8(2), 158-178.

Additional Online Training Resources

“10 ways to have a better conversation” TED Talk by Celeste Headlee: https://www.ted.com/talks/celeste_headlee_10_ways_to_have_a_better_conversation

“Brené Brown on Empathy” video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1Evwgu369Jw&ab_channel=RSA

“Fixed vs. Growth Mindset” video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xv2ar6AKvGc&feature=emb_imp_woyt&ab_channel=BryanUniversity

Kognito At-Risk for College Students: https://kognito.com/products/at-risk-for-college-students

Health Professions Student Awareness and Use of Mental Health Resources and Barriers to Seeking Care | Sara N. Johnson, Katie Vukelich, Tamnnet Kidanu, Lauren Eldridge, Keith A. Mays, and Michael H. Kim 

Sara N. Johnson1, Katie Vukelich2, Tamnnet Kidanu3, Lauren Eldridge4, Keith A. Mays1, and Michael H. Kim5

1School of Dentistry, University of Minnesota

2 College of Pharmacy, University of Minnesota

3 Center for Health Interprofessional Programs, University of Minnesota

4 School of Public Health, University of Minnesota

5 Medical School, University of Minnesota

Author Note

Sara N. Johnson  https://orcid.org/0000-0002-4284-0492

Katie Vukelich  https://orcid.org/0000-0002-5475-7143

Lauren Eldridge  https://orcid.org/0000-0002-4219-5665

Keith A. Mays  https://orcid.org/0000-0001-7695-3359

Michael H. Kim  https://orcid.org/0000-0001-5339-9631

Tamnnet Kidanu is now employed at the Office of Health Promotion, Carleton College.

We have no known conflict of interest to disclose.

Correspondence regarding this article should be addressed to Sara N. Johnson, School of Dentistry, University of Minnesota, 15-106 Moos Tower, 515 Delaware St SE, Minneapolis, MN 55455, Email: [email protected]


Student mental health is a concern on college and university campuses in the United States (Xiao et al., 2017). 45.1% of college students who participated in a national survey indicated they felt so depressed that it was difficult to function within the last 12 months, 65.7% felt overwhelming anxiety, and 13.3% seriously considered suicide (American College Health Association, 2019). Increasing numbers of students are seeking campus counseling services (Lipson et al., 2019), and the demand for counseling and mental health resources may continue to grow as post-secondary education becomes more accessible for students with mental health diagnoses due to treatment improvements (Novotney, 2014).

Research on post-secondary student mental health exists at the undergraduate and advanced degree levels. Barriers to care (Yorgason et al., 2008; Rafal et al., 2018) and student health within academic disciplines (Harrison et al., 2016; Walter et al., 2013) have been prominent topics in the literature. However, fewer studies exist exploring the mental health needs and barriers to care experienced by students in the academic health sciences, often referred to as academic health centers (AHCs). AHCs include “all the health-related components of universities, including their health professions schools, patient care operations, and research enterprise” (Association of Academic Health Centers, 2020, Academic health centers: Defined, para 1). There are 95 AHCs in North America composed of a medical school and one or more additional health professions programs such as pharmacy, dentistry, nursing, public health, and graduate programs (Association of Academic Health Centers, 2019). Many students in these programs have already completed an undergraduate degree and are seeking advanced education.

Research indicates that health professions students’ mental health can be negatively impacted by academic and financial concerns (Walter et al., 2013), imposter syndrome (Henning et al., 1998), satisfaction with their selected school and program (Payakachat et al., 2014), and struggles adapting to the learning demands of professional programs, clinical responsibilities, and faculty relationships (Murphy et al., 2008). Students in health professions programs experience higher levels of stress than the general adult population (Bidwal et al., 2015), and graduate students, who are often members of AHCs, also experience significant mental health concerns (Evans et al., 2019).

Educators in health professions programs have implemented strategies to support students. One study proposed promoting online programs and apps for relaxation, mindfulness, meditation, web-based cognitive therapy, and suicide prevention (Pospos et al., 2018). Schools have also implemented mindfulness-based stress reduction training (Barbosa et al., 2013) and have counselors based in schools (Adams, 2017) in order to positively impact health professions students’ mental health.

Health professions student awareness and use of mental health resources and barriers to care within health disciplines, particularly in medicine, have also been explored in the literature. First- and second-year medical students at one U.S. institution reported the top five barriers to seeking mental health care were “lack of time, lack of confidentiality, concern that ‘no one will understand my problems,’ stigma of mental health care, and feeling that ‘my problems are not important’” (Givens and Tija, 2002, p. 919). One in five respondents in a survey of 475 Australian medical students felt a need to conceal emotional and mental health concerns because they felt their concerns would be dismissed or invalidated or already had a negative experience related to mental health (Walter et al., 2013). The same study found students had concerns about discrimination, judgement, stigma, privacy, and embarrassment (Walter et al., 2013) related to sharing mental health issues. Perfectionism and stigma were also noted as reasons medical and dental students avoided mental health treatment (Ey et al., 2000). Students are hesitant to use mental health resources and are calling upon schools to organize curricula to keep students engaged, encouraged, and supported (Huot, 2017).

A comprehensive understanding of health professions students’ awareness and use of mental health resources in an AHC is missing from the literature. This information is essential to educators and student affairs professionals working in AHCs as they determine how to invest in, structure, and publicize mental health support for this unique student population. The purpose of this paper is to (1) understand health professions students’ awareness, use of, and barriers to using mental health resources in an AHC and (2) share data with decision-makers to inform the development of support services and programming.


This project was reviewed by an Institutional Review Board (IRB) and determined not to be human research and not under its purview. The population in this study was health professional students enrolled in a large, public research university with an AHC structure. It included approximately 1,500 students from seven schools and programs across two campuses that are part of a state system. Campus #1 is in a large, metropolitan city where all seven programs are present, and Campus #2 is in a smaller city with two of those seven programs.

A team of student affairs and health professionals developed a survey of 11 questions to assess students’ awareness and use of existing mental health resources and interest in potential resources. The survey defined mental health:

as a state of well-being in which every individual realizes his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community. (World Health Organization, 2014, Mental health: A state of well-being, para 1)

There were two versions of the survey with slight variations in questions based on the campus of the students’ program and the different resources available on each campus. Responses to all survey questions were not required. The survey did not gather respondent demographic information other than the student’s college or academic program of study.

The survey asked respondents to indicate familiarity with existing mental health resources. Answers were allowed through a Likert-type scale (extremely familiar, very familiar, moderately familiar, slightly familiar, not familiar at all). This scale is described in Figure 1.

Figure 1

Familiarity Likert Descriptions

Extremely Familiar Know this office/program exists and use or have used their services
Very Familiar Know this office/program exists, have reviewed their services and contact information
Moderately Familiar Know this office/program exists, could independently find information about its services and contact information
Slightly Familiar Know this office/program exists, but do not know where to find information about its services or contact information
Not Familiar at All No knowledge of this office or program


Respondents were then asked to indicate the likelihood that they would consult with those resources if they needed assistance with a mental health concern. Answers to this question were allowed using a second Likert-type scale with answers of extremely likely, somewhat likely, neither likely or unlikely, somewhat unlikely, and extremely unlikely.

The survey then asked respondents to select from a list what barriers, if any, prevented them from accessing existing resources. Listed barriers were not being aware of resources, in person appointments do not fit in my schedule, mental health is not a concern of mine, resources locations are inconvenient, I cannot pay for care, and I do not face any barriers. This question included a free-text box, marked “Other” for respondents to describe barriers not listed. Respondents were then presented with an open-response question asking them to describe other resources they had used for support and an additional question asking them to indicate their likelihood of using proposed new resources if they were available using the extremely likely to extremely unlikely Likert-type scale mentioned previously.

The survey closed with two open-ended questions: one asking what services or support respondents would like to see available and a second that provided respondents with an opportunity to share other information regarding student mental health. The survey included an optional item where respondents could enter their name and email to be entered in a drawing for $50 Visa gift cards for completing the survey.

The survey was created in Qualtrics, an online survey software. Student affairs leaders in each school and program emailed their students an invitation and link to complete the survey online. Most students received the invitation in fall 2017, while students in the medical school on Campus #1 received the invitation in spring 2018. These different timelines were based on staff availability to coordinate the survey’s deployment. Responses to the survey were reviewed for each campus and descriptively analyzed.


A total of 1,513 students responded to the survey: 1,346 from Campus #1, 167 from Campus #2. Each of the seven schools and programs were represented in responses. Campus #1 respondents were extremely familiar or very familiar with campus mental health medical offices, college or school-based student services offices, and student counseling services as resources for mental health support. Students from this campus were also likely to consult with these resources for assistance with mental health concerns. Table 1 details the percent of respondents who indicated they were extremely or very familiar with campus resources as well as if they were extremely or somewhat likely to use a resource.

Table 1

Campus #1 Familiarity with Mental Health Resources and Likelihood of Use



Extremely Familiar (%) Very Familiar (%)  


Extremely Likely (%) Somewhat Likely (%)
Campus Mental Health Medical Offices 1200 18 24 1149 22 42
College/School Student Services Offices 1200 17 19 1149 11 33
Campus Student Counseling Services 1200 8 13 1149 12 36
University Disability Resource Center 1200 8 10 1149 7 17
Informal Peer-to-Peer Support 1200 8 12 1149 11 23
Community Based Resources 1200 8 11 1149 14 24
Peer-led Wellbeing Initiatives 1200 6 8 1149 5 16
University Spirituality Center 1200 4 8 1149 4 18
Campus Alcohol and Chemical Dependency Services 1200 1 4 1149 2 10

Note.  n numbers from the table do not match the number of survey respondents referenced in the previous paragraph as respondents were not required to answer every question.

an numbers in the second and fifth columns of the table are different as they represent the number of respondents to two separate questions.  One question was regarding familiarity of resources (n = 1200) the other regarding likelihood of using resources (n = 1149).  Respondents were not required to answer to every question.

Respondents from Campus #2 were most familiar with college student services offices, informal peer-to-peer support, and campus counseling services as resources for mental health support. These students were likely to consult with college or school-based student services offices, campus counseling services, and community-based resources for mental health assistance. Table 2 details the percent of respondents who indicated they were extremely or very familiar with a campus resource as well as the percent of respondents who were extremely or somewhat likely to use that resource.

Table 2

Campus #2 Familiarity with Mental Health Resources and Likelihood of Use

Resource n Extremely Familiar (%) Very Familiar (%) n Extremely Likely (%) Somewhat Likely (%)
College/School Student Services Staff 164 17 30 164 19 37
Campus Student Counseling Services 165 9 11 163 18 36
Informal Peer-to-Peer Support 165 5 18 164 14 21
University Disability Resource Center 165 7 10 164 6 19
Community Based Resources 165 5 9 164 10 27
Peer-led Wellbeing Initiatives 165 1 8 163 5 19
Resources within a Profession 165 2 7 164 5 24
Drop-in Counseling 165 1 7 164 6 24

Note.  n numbers from the table do not match the number of survey respondents referenced in the previous paragraph as respondents were not required to answer every question.

an numbers in the second and fifth columns of the table are different as they represent the number of respondents to two separate questions.  One question was regarding familiarity of resources (n = 165) the other regarding likelihood of using resources (n = 164).  Respondents were not required to answer to every question.

Respondents from both campuses had similar responses when asked about the likelihood of using proposed new resources for mental health support. Suggested resources students (n=1113 for Campus #1, n = 165 for Campus #2) were most likely to use were evening or early morning appointment times with a mental health counselor, counselors based in buildings with student programs, and online wellbeing options. Students also expressed the desire for these resources in their open text responses. Respondents also noted in open text comments that social support from peers and family is important and beneficial to their mental health.

When responding to questions regarding barriers to care, respondents from both campuses most frequently noted not being aware of resources and appointment times not fitting  schedules as dominant barriers. Students on both campuses also indicated the stigma associated with seeking care and not having enough time to seek or schedule care as being significant barriers. For some students there were no barriers (13% at Campus #1 and 7% at Campus #2).


This study identifies in gap in existing student affairs literature. Study respondents were aware of college or program-based student services offices and likely to use them in support of their mental health which indicates that student affairs plays a role in the experiences of AHC students. There are limited studies reporting on health professions students on any topics (Bresciani, 2003) or about their mental health in student affairs literature and journals such as The Journal of Student Affairs Research and Practice or the Journal of College Student Development. Studies that do exist exploring the mental health needs of health professions students are from the lens of each health program (e.g., dentistry, medicine, pharmacy) (Pospos et al., 2018; Barbosa et al., 2013; Adams, 2017). Student affairs research on health professions students and those learning in AHC environments would be beneficial in understanding how student affairs professionals can effectively support these populations. AHC health professions students are looking to student affairs professionals for guidance and support, and student affairs faculty and staff working in these areas must be prepared to provide it.

Implications for Student Affairs Practice

The results of this survey provide an understanding of health professions students’ awareness, use of, and barriers to using mental health resources in an AHC. The findings may inform the development of services and programming for this unique student population.  Operationally, when structuring mental health services for AHC students, appointments should be available at times that complement academic schedules (health professions students are often in class and clinic from 8:00 AM to 5:00 PM with only a break over the lunch hour). Early morning or evening appointment times with providers in buildings where students’ academic programs are based and online wellbeing programming may be of interest to students.

Institutions working with AHC students may also want to consider investing in mental health communication campaigns. These campaigns should focus on increasing student awareness of resources and communicating institutional support of students seeking assistance, including what school resources are available, to help students remove barriers to seeking care.  Given the important role peers and families play in supporting AHC students, the campaign should also include information to be shared with peers and families about students’ programs and institutional resources. Each of these strategies must be intentionally constructed to remove the stigma associated with seeking assistance noted by many students.

AHCs are acknowledging the need to restructure education based on the changing needs of society (Wartman, 2015). Although this statement may have been written with patients in mind, the increasing mental health needs of students is clear. The structure of AHCs lends itself to creating efficient, effective partnerships to serve these learners. AHC health professions students often have shared buildings or facilities close to one another. Mental health services that are embedded in these buildings or in easily accessible locations would remove barriers to students seeking care. Sharing the costs associated with new programs and resources could also potentially result in savings, or at least minimal investment, for schools and programs at a time when AHCs are looking for ways to optimize resources due to funding constraints (Wartman, 2015). Shared resources could be used to not only hire staff and pay for space, but to implement programming (e.g., support groups, online tools, wellness activities, resources for family members, etc.) that could lead to students creating mental health habits and self-care strategies that would serve them well as they pursue careers in stressful professions.

A model of shared services for the mental health support of health professions students in an AHC learning environment is also consistent with a national call for interprofessional practice and education. An important component of health education is teaching students to collaborate in practice (e.g., teaching medical, nursing, dental, and pharmacy students to provide care as a team) in order to improve patient health outcomes (National Center for Interprofessional Practice and Education, 2020). New definitions of interprofessional education and health care include the “fourth aim” (Bodenheimer & Sinsky, 2014, p. 575) and acknowledge that the care of providers themselves is a critical part of health systems. These definitions call for practice that, “intentionally supports people – including health professionals, health workers, students, residents, patients, families and communities – to learn together every day to enhance collaboration and improve health outcomes while reducing costs” (National Center for Interprofessional Practice and Education, 2020, About IPE, para 6).

Creating new models of care that address the mental health needs of AHC students may present opportunities for students to learn and support one another in interprofessional ways.  Students may realize that as they pursue their careers, the mental health challenges associated with working in healthcare are shared by others working in health professions, and interprofessional colleagues may be able to provide guidance and support. Making mental health services more accessible to health professions students may lead to better long-term health for these providers, allowing them to provide the best possible care and outcomes for their patients.

Campuses and student affairs professionals across the nation have recently had to adjust their approaches to working with students in all functional areas, including mental health support, due to COVID-19. This disruption of services has been exceptionally challenging. In the context of this paper, the innovative work that has been done to continue meeting student needs during this global pandemic provides an opportunity for student affairs professionals to think about how these new strategies can improve access to student mental health care. How can new virtual models for student engagement, advising, academic support, health care, and other areas remove barriers to students seeking assistance and ultimately improve their mental health? The current disruption provides a unique opportunity for student affairs professionals to test new strategies that can benefit students now and in the future.

Implications for Future Research

The findings of this study suggest multiple areas for additional student affairs research.  As mentioned previously, health professions students in AHCs are not present in current student affairs literature. Additional research regarding the unique needs of AHC students based in student affairs research and practice would better prepare student affairs professionals to work with this unique student group and better inform institutional leaders of the needs of this population. In addition, research related to access to mental health care for health professions students of color and/or based on other aspects of identity (e.g., gender, socioeconomic status, disability) would also better inform institutions on how to remove barriers and support all students seeking mental health care.


There are a few limitations to this survey. Additional questions to determine if respondents had experienced mental health concerns may have been helpful in understanding variation in student responses. Questions to better understand students at the individual, interpersonal, and institutional levels (Byrd & McKinney, 2012) may have also provided a deeper understanding of challenges faced by students related to their mental health concerns.  Requesting student demographic data may have also increased understanding of responses in different student populations. Finally, a survey question should have been included in each survey for respondents to identify their campus. Some programs had a very small student presence on more than the two campuses identified in the survey (i.e., on a third campus in the state system), and a small group of students from the small campus completed the large city campus survey. All students received the survey through their student services offices, and the survey should have allowed them to identify their campus.


This paper adds to the literature an understanding of health professions students’ awareness, use of, and barriers to using mental health resources and provides decision-makers with data to inform investment in support services and programming for this unique student population. AHCs are uniquely positioned to develop mental health support programs and resources for students, and student affairs professionals must be a part of this strategic investment. Student affairs professionals working in health professions programs must advocate for health professions students’ needs and be prepared to do so in an environment where fellow student affairs professionals may not understand health professions programs given the absence of this population in student affairs literature. Campus student affairs leaders must seek to understand and consider the unique needs of health professions students and include these students when making decisions about strategic student affairs initiatives to support student mental health as well as when making operational decisions (e.g., hours of counseling available on campus) in order to remove barriers to care. Unique circumstances exist in programs and a “one size fits all” approach to mental health services may limit the ability for some student populations, such as health professions students, to seek support. Evaluation of student mental health needs must go beyond the institutional level and consider program specific information in order to best serve all students, including those in health professions programs, on campus.


Adams, D. F. (2017). The embedded counseling model: An application to dental students. Journal of Dental Education, 81(1), 29-35.

American College Health Association. (2019). American College Health Association-National college health assessment II: Reference group executive summary Spring 2019. Retrieved from https://www.acha.org/documents/ncha/NCHA-II_SPRING_2019_US_REFERENCE_GROUP_EXECUTIVE_SUMMARY.pdf

Association of Academic Health Centers. (2019). Association of Academic Health Centers 2019 annual report. Retrieved from http://www.aahcdc.org/Portals/41/AAHC-Files/Reports/AAHC-2019_Annual-Report.pdf

Association of Academic Health Centers. (2020). Academic health centers: Defined. Association of Academic Health Centers. https://www.aahcdc.org/About/Academic-Health-Centers

Barbosa, P., Raymond, G. R., Zlotnick, C., Wilk, J., Toomey III, R., & Mitchell III, J. (2013). Mindfulness-based stress reduction training is associated with greater empathy and reduced anxiety for graduate healthcare students. Education for Health: Change in Learning & Practice, 26(1), 9-14. https://doi.org/10.4103/1357-6283.112794

Bidwal, M. K., Ip, E. J., Shah, B. M., & Serino, M. J. (2015). Stress, drugs, and alcohol use among health care professional students: A focus on prescription stimulants. Journal of Pharmacy Practice, 28(6), 535-542. https://doi.org/10.1177/0897190014544824

Bodenheimer, T., & Sinsky, C. (2014). From triple to quadruple aim: Care of the patient requires care of the provider. Annals of Family Medicine, 12(6), 573-576. https://doi.org/10.1370/afm.1713

Bresciani, M. J. (2003). An understanding of students’ perspectives toward diversity at a midwestern health professional school: A phenomenological study. NASPA Journal, 41(1), 85-115. https://doi.org/10.2202/1949-6605.1307

Byrd, D. R., & McKinney, K. J. (2012). Individual, interpersonal, and institutional level factors associated with the mental health of college students. Journal of American College Health, 60(3), 185-193. https://doi.org/10.1080/07448481.2011.584334

Evans, T. M., Bira, L. & Vanderford, N. L. (2019). Reply to ‘A lack of evidence for six times more anxiety and depression in US graduate students than in the general population’. Nature Biotechnology, 37, 712-713. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41587-019-0181-4

Ey, S. E., Henning, K. R., & Shaw, D. L. (2000). Attitudes and factors related to seeking mental health treatment among medical and dental students. Journal of College Student Psychotherapy, 14(3), 23-29. https://doi.org/10.1300/J035v14n03_05

Givens, J. L., & Tija, J. (2002). Depressed medical students’ use of mental health services and barriers to use. Academic Medicine, 77(9), 918-921.

Harrison, P. L., Shaddox, L. M., Garvan, C. W., & Behar-Horenstein, L. S. (2016). Wellness among dental students: An institutional study. Journal of Dental Education, 80(9), 1119-1125.

Henning, K., Ey, S., & Shaw, D. (1998). Perfectionism, the imposter phenomenon and psychological adjustment in medical, dental, nursing and pharmacy students. Medical Education, 32, 456-464. https://doi.org/10.1046/j.1365-2923.1998.00234.x

Huot, R. (2017, July 5). Why you should use your school’s mental health resources. ASDA Blog. https://www.asdablog.com/mental-health-and-stress/

Lipson, S. K., Lattie, E. G., & Eisenberg, D. (2019). Increased rates of mental health services utilization by U.S. college students: 10-year population level trends (2007-2017). Psychiatric Services, 70(1), 60-63.  https://doi.org/10.1176/appi.ps.201800332

Murphy, R. J., Gray, S. A., Sterling, G., Reeves, K. and DuCette, J. (2009). A comparative study of professional student stress. Journal of Dental Education, 73(3): 328-337.

National Center for Interprofessional Practice and Education. (2020). Informing about IPE. National Center for Interprofessional Practice and Education. https://nexusipe.org/informing/about-ipe

Novotney, A. (2014). Students under pressure: College and university counseling centers are examining how best to serve the growing number of students seeking their services. Monitor on Psychology, 45(8), https://www.apa.org/monitor/2014/09/cover-pressure

Payakachat, N., Gubbins, P. O., Ragland, D., Flowers, S. K., & Stowe, C. D. (2014). Factors associated with health-related quality of life of student pharmacists. American Journal of Pharmaceutical Education, 78(1), 1-7. https://doi.org/10.5688/ajpe7817

Pospos, S., Young, I. T., Downs, N., Iglewicz, A., Depp, C., Chen, J. Y., Newton, I., Lee, K., Light, G. A., & Zisook, S. (2018). Web-based tools and mobile applications to mitigate burnout, depression, and suicidality among healthcare students and professionals: A systematic review. Academic Psychiatry, 42, 109-120. https://doi.org/10.1007/s40596-017-0868-0

Rafal, G., Gatto, A., & DeBate, R. (2018). Mental health literacy, stigma, and help-seeking behaviors among male college students. Journal of American College Health, 66(4), 284-291. https://doi.org/10.1080/07448481.2018.1434780

Walter, G., Soh, N. L., Jaconelli, S. N., Lampe, L., Malhi, G., Hunt, G. (2013). Medical students’ subjective ratings of stress levels and awareness of student support services about mental health. Postgraduate medical journal, 89, 311-315. http://doi.org/10.1136/postgradmedj-2012-131343

Wartman, S. A. (2015). The transformation of academic health centers: Meeting the challenges of healthcare’s changing landscape [Association of Academic Health Centers online presentation]. https://www.aahcdc.org/Portals/41/Publications-Resources/Presentations/AAHC%20Presentations/new/The%20Transformation%20of%20Academic%20Health%20Centers%20-%20UCDavis%20-2015.pdf

World Health Organization. (2014). Mental health: A state of well-being. World Health Organization. http://origin.who.int/features/factfiles/mental_health/en/

Xiao, H., Carney, D. M., Youn, S. J., Janis, R. A., Castonguay, L. G., Hayes, J. A., & Locke, B. D. (2017). Are we in crisis? National mental health and treatment trends in college counseling centers. Psychological Services, 14(4), 407-415. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/ser0000130

Yorgason, J. B., Linville, D., & Zitzman, B. (2008). Mental health among college students: Do those who need services know about and use them?. Journal of American College Health, 57(2), 173-182. https://doi.org/10.3200/JACH.57.2.173-182




Re-Traumatization of Black Students: The Over Utilization of Racial Trauma as an Educational Tool | Deshayla M. Mitchem

Deshayla M. Mitchem
B.A. Xavier University,
M.Ed. Candidate University of Louisville


This reflective development explores the topic of the “trauma porn” concept specifically relating to its usage as an educational tool with little to no regard of how these tools effect the Black students who must endure the constant reminder (auditorily and / or visually) of the trauma and pain endured by them and their families. Using a personal story and some background of showcasing pain, this article will explain how examples of such instances have lasting and lingering effects on Black students. The goal here is to acknowledge the common disregard that the education system has of the mental health of Black students and how the educational system prioritizes the needs of non-Black students at the expense of Black learners. Is the possibility of invoking empathy with non-Black learners worth the additional trauma Black learners must endure in the process?

Keywords:  Student Affairs, Black students, Racial Trauma, BIPOC students, Diversity and Equity, Perspective, Personal Reflection, Trauma porn, Empathy vs Sympathy

There is an overlooked form of trauma that is forced on Black students. This trauma takes place when non-Black learners are educated on the history of Black people in America. Although this article will focus entirely on the experience of Black students (Operational Definition of “Black”: Currently in society “Black” is considered the race of those who have ancestry native to African countries, this term will be used to identify a more specific sect of people within this currently defined race. I will be using the term “Black” to describe the ethnicity of those who are direct decedents and/or have predominate ancestry of peoples who were enslaved during the American chattel slave trade.) this is an issue that has not solely affected them. Many BIPOC (Black/Indigenous/People of Color) students are expected to listen to, watch, and even engage in discussion of the trauma their communities have suffered due to white supremacy. This is done in service to and with a focus solely on the learning of white students and to provide proof of historical trauma. As a result, the goal is to invoke empathy for the experiences of BIPOC from their white peers in the name of education.

This is an issue because these instances – discussions, readings, showing videos – are moments that members of BIPOC communities never forget. Meanwhile their non-BIPOC counterparts simply view these atrocities as today’s lesson and the white students walk away often able to simply move on to the next class, meeting, or meal without further consideration of the incidents shared in class. This problem sticks out most to me due to the lack of trigger/trauma warning students receive and the lack of options students of color are given to avoid being further traumatized and victimized.

This is not an abstraction, but in fact is highly personal for me. Especially while attending a predominantly white institution (PWI) I felt vulnerable and triggered to see the images, hear the stories, and be exposed to the information. That was not all, however, to see my peers in class to be people visibly disinterested and/or only attending a movie or lecture for extra credit increased the harm that was done. Coming to an event to see the brutality and violence perpetuated against people simply because they looked like me and to them the event is simply a “thing they attended once” was further dehumanizing and painful. For me and other Black students the movie or lecture could have been years ago, but we have never forgotten it.


The history of the exploitation of Black trauma, pain, and suffering is as old as this nations’ formal declaration of independence. The history of showcasing/broadcasting racial trauma in order to educate the racially privileged in America began hundreds of years ago. Some of the earliest appearances of exploitation of Black suffering to educate white people began during the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Many enslaved peoples were accompanied by non-enslaved abolitionists. These white onlookers would describe or show examples of the horrors of American chattel slavery to induce sympathy and remorse from those who continued to own or benefit from the ownership of enslaved African diasporic persons. Olaudah Equiano (a formerly enslaved Nigerian) wrote in his auto-biography, “I have seen a slave beaten till some of his bones were broken, for only letting a pot boil over. I have seen slaves put into scales and weighed, and then sold from three pence to nine pence a pound.” (Equiano, 1789).

The use of Black suffering as “educational tools” continued and became more popularized during the Civil Rights Era. Images and videos of large groups of Black people being hanged, harassed, hosed, mauled, beaten, spit on, slurs being chanted at them, etc. One of the most famous examples of these are the publishing the images of Emmet Tills’ body at his funeral (Jackson, 1955). These were once again used to demonstrate the severity of just how dangerous it was to simply be Black in America.

Now today, social media videos of public murders of Black people become viral. As Black people are being killed, today’s onlookers record their deaths on phone and then make the videos accessible for everyone to see. The videos serve to remind those of us who live despite the legacy of lynchings and violence that we continue to be targeted, vulnerable, and less than. And still today for the white viewers, the images remind those who have the option of forgetting or the ignorant bliss of never knowing the terror of these experiences in the first place.

With the increasing numbers of images, videos, and speeches on the topic of Black pain so easily accessible now, this issue is as important as ever. The hope seems to be that the tangible proof of trauma provided by these images make undeniable arguments for and proof of the existence of pain and harassment against Black people. The idea seems to be that the images provide physical proof to invoke empathy from outside communities to spark solidarity to fight toward gaining equity for the Black community.

However, is that really the outcome in a culture with such a persistent history of displaying images showcasing the terrors that Black people endure? Without intentional discussion and detailed analysis of our history, does simply exhibiting images increase empathy or could it just be creating and condoning passive sympathy? Worse yet, could this bombardment of images and videos and other evidence of violence be desensitizing white viewers all together? Over utilizing of such educational tools can easily become exploitive turning into trauma porn. Ross (2016) defined one form of trauma porn as being “hyper-consumption of Black death and pain” (para. 1). For some educators this results in using the trauma of Black people to engage and spark interest on the part of white students. However, not only can this approach fail to educate white viewers, but it can also cause further harm to Black individuals and groups who hold the same identities as those showcased in these violent images.

Existing scholarship highlights the role of “trauma porn” in educational settings. Some scholars call into question its utility, and nearly all offer warning about the possible damage that can ensue by using this as an educational strategy. As Kovacevic (2020) wrote,

Not only is trauma porn ineffective in encouraging people to act, it is also immensely dehumanizing. Often, many of these videos depict marginalized communities’ pain and suffering, stripping them of their dignity, as sharing a window into the injustice they face becomes a token of performative allyship. Meanwhile, this content is a harrowing, triggering reminder to these communities of trauma and psychological damage… Sharing videos of Black deaths on social media won’t save Black lives. Instead, it normalizes police brutality and leaves the system responsible intact. We should not have to witness people in their most vulnerable and frightened states to believe their pain is real and exists (para. 4).

Instructors and program coordinators must be careful to utilize triggering and traumatic information as educational tools. These “tools” can easily be over saturating to the audience that relates to the issues. Trauma porn is nearly unavoidable in today’s media, but excessively using such information for education may be insensitive and unconstructive.

Personal Experience

As a current student affairs graduate student, I like many of my colleagues, utilized undergraduate campus programming to the fullest. After being encouraged to attend a diversity event from a university staff member, a friend and I jumped at the chance to go. We even left a recurring event early in order to attend the recommended presentation. After arriving we quickly realized that we were not prepared for the topic of discussion.

The event was a presentation about a project called “The National Memorial for Peace and Justice” provided by the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), an initiative that is committed to ending mass incarceration and excessive punishment in the United States. This presentation was held at my university during a promotional tour for the museum about the memorial which opened publicly in Montgomery, Alabama 2018.

The memorial structure on the center of the site is constructed of over 800 Corten steel monuments, one for each county in the United States where a racial terror lynching took place. The names of the lynching victims are engraved on the columns. The memorial is more than a static monument. It is EJI’s hope that the National Memorial inspires communities across the nation to enter an era of truth-telling about racial injustice and their own local histories, (The National Memorial for Peace and Justice, n.d.).  

During the presentation the host showed interviews, images, and spoke graphically about the US’s history with lynching (lynching: Murder by mob, especially in the form of hanging for an alleged offense with or without legal trial.).

As unsuspecting Black women, we left the event triggered, retraumatized, and speechless – not even having the ability to talk about what we had just been put through. Seeing images of people who favor individuals in your family hang gruesomely from trees soaked in blood or on fire affects you much longer than the ninety-minute presentation. The presentation was three years ago, and it haunts me to this day – enough so that I am compelled to write about it now.

This memorial is important in acknowledging the innocent Black people who lost their lives to brutality and violence inspired by hatred and racial injustice. The work symbolizes and brings awareness to the extrajudicial murders that have historically targeted the Black community. Especially now after the raised awareness related to the Black Lives Matter movement and the protest and ongoing violence against Black people in the summer of 2020.

However, in the days following this event my friend and I had several discussions. We talked about how we felt about the event. We talked about our personal experiences in the aftermath of the event. Discussing how unsuspecting we were for the event to be such heavy topic, mentioning the disinterest we noticed from the body language on some of our non-Black peers, and how casually life seemed to remain for others though we couldn’t stop thinking about it. Little did we realize that we were not alone. How we felt not only happened to the two of us simultaneously, but other students had similar experiences. This lecture was one of many situations in other educational settings where BIPOC were put through trauma in order to privilege the learning of the white students in our classes on our campus.

As I discussed above, Black students carry these experiences throughout their lives. The trauma and torture of our ancestors affects us on a much deeper level than those with different identities and lived experiences within the United States. As a people, the Black community are already experts on Black pain for a number of reasons. Whether those reasons are to best circumvent enduring more trauma, sharing familial stories via oral tradition, listening to historically Black music from the past (i.e., The Blues: Strange Fruit- Billie Holiday), and now social media. However, well-versed in the knowledge of Black pain we may be, our suffering is also used over and over again to the point of over-saturation to educate our white peers.


While all of this information is powerful, it is useless without making changes based on what I have discussed here. I have outlined below implications for students, student affairs professionals, and faculty. My hope is not to solely surface information here, but to provide some starting strategies for making learning environments safer for Black and other students of color.

For undergraduate students who are experiencing re-traumatizing events, the focus should be on safety. It is important that they have human resources to turn to for help when their mental health is at risk. This is particularly essential for Black and other students of color whose mental health should not be sacrificed by resurfacing past cultural and community trauma for the benefit of others’ education. Taking advantage of campus resources related to healing practices to healthy coping is important amidst constant triggers on college campuses. Additionally, learning the educational jargon to describe how these incidents make students feel can help them access what they need.

For graduate students studying student affairs it is essential that they educate themselves on how to acknowledge issues without causing triggers. Ensure that programs provide listening, helping, and counseling skills to aide in the prevention of harm as well as strategies to address it. Graduate students – particularly white graduate students must speak to Black and other IPOC students about these issues of traumatization on campus. Asking BIPOC what they need or how to help them should be a foundational aspect of both the learning and work in graduate programs. 

Student affairs professionals should be more aware of the lasting effects imagery of violence against Black and other people of color can have on students. Acknowledging re-traumatization and how this is a part of the Black student experience on campus is a first step. As a result, providing clear and honest announcements thorough trigger warnings must be included in programs where students are at risk. Additionally, providing detailed resources for mental health following the discussions is a part of ethical practice around programming on topics like the history of slavery, white supremacy, and racism in our country. Offering time after the discussions for decompression venting after events is also a way to cultivate support for students.

Recommending/promoting more self-education and resources to non-Black students on these topics is also important. As has been mentioned, many BIPOC students have pre-existing expertise. White students need to do more work to begin to understand the legacy of white supremacy.

Faculty who teach courses that touch on or are explicitly about Black people and culture should be more cautious about how and how much of this information they present. I recommend that faculty provide alternative class participation for Black students on the days when potentially re-traumatizing content is being covered. While that information may be considered necessary for white students to understand context and history for a given lesson, it is likely that many Black students have already learned about these issues from their family and lived experiences. Faculty should also provide mental health professionals for support in class during these lessons or at the very least a list of campus resources to the students in their classes. Creating discussion-based opportunities where the effected students in their classes have the ability to speak candidly about the experience without penalization.


Utilizing graphic images capturing violence against Black people as an educational tool can be cruel and is considered trauma porn (the perverse fascination with other people’s misfortune ). The over saturation of images and videos that showcase Black murders, lynches, brutality, etc. has the ability to leave lasting psychological racial wounding for the Black students who are expected to endure and participate. This may also backfire as an empathy invoking strategy by desensitizing non-Black people of witnessing Black people in such distress and turmoil. There may be advantages to using these kinds of materials to prevent the whitewashing and diminishing of history, however; there are many layers of harm that over utilizing such violent imagery can have on the community members, being cognizant of such usage is vital in an equitable educational environment.

It is important to acknowledge and understand that the constant visual and or auditory aides of trauma can cause lasting psychological effects on Black students. The continuous reminder of the horrors that the Black community has experienced remain with Black students after the lecture/event and may not remain in the minds of those it was used to emotionally evoke. Do these tools truly spark an empathetic connection between non-Black and Black learners or do the create more sympathy? More consideration of those who are more often than not effected is necessary regardless of the possible positive outcomes it may have on non-Black students.

  1. What are some ways you can help circumvent or address the traumatization of Black students in education?
  2. How often would you say this happens? How many times have you noticed?
  3. Is the desensitization that some Black people have to the violent viral deaths that have happened in the recent years is due to the exploitation of Black pain in media over time? How can you surface that in your conversations with students?
  4. How would you reformat a lesson discussing this racially traumatic information that would include the entire class without retraumatizing Black students while still providing a powerful and potentially transformative learning experience?
  5. How have other communities been exploited by having their communal / cultural trauma utilized for the purpose of educating white students?


 Deshayla Mitchem is a Cincinnati, Ohio native and is currently attending the University of Louisville’s College Student Personnel M.Ed. program. Deshayla chooses to focus her studies and career on the betterment of the minority higher ed. student experience, with a concentration on Black students. She utilizes her passion for social justice and intentionality to help frame how she shows up in her work as a student-affairs professional.


Equiano, O. (1789). The life of Olaudah Equiano, or, Gustavus Vassa the African, 1789..

Jackson, D. (August, 1955). Death of Emmett Till [photograph]. The Chicago Defender.

Kovacevic, S. (2020, November 18). The unhealthy obsession with trauma porn. Retrieved January 05, 2021, from https://missionmag.org/trauma-porn-unhealthy-obsession

The National Memorial for Peace and Justice. (n.d.). Retrieved January 05, 2021, from https://museumandmemorial.eji.org/memorial

Ross, I. (2016, July). Trauma Porn: Hyper-Consumption of Black Death and Pain. In The Odyssey (Vol. 12).

A Better Future is Possible: On Policy Advocacy for Student Affairs Professionals | Rebecca S. Natow

A Better Future is Possible: On Policy Advocacy for Student Affairs Professionals

By: Rebecca S. Natow

In November 2020, I had the honor of giving the closing keynote address at the historic 40th annual conference of the Long Island Council of Student Personnel Administrators (LICSPA). This was a historic conference not only because it was the organization’s first virtual conference, but also because of the moment in history in which we found ourselves. As we convened for the conference during the first week of November 2020, the world was in the midst of a global pandemic due to the international spread of a highly contagious novel coronavirus. This was also a period of great economic stress, including a time of drastic resource constraints for higher education. The theme of the conference, From Hurting to Healing, was an apt characterization of higher education at that critical time; the sector was hurting and searching for ways to heal. With the stakes for students and institutions so high, the message of my keynote address was for student affairs professionals to consider how they could advocate for policy change that would benefit college students, institutions, and the important work of student affairs.

Current Context

During the 2010s, higher education in the United States faced significant challenges. According to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center (2012, 2019), college enrollments nationwide dropped by over 2 million students between 2011 and 2019. Moreover, as Grawe (2018) wrote in Demographics and the Demand for Higher Education, the United States expects to experience a decline in the number of 18- to 24-year-olds in the population beginning in the year 2026. Thus, the population of those who have historically been the traditional college-going age will begin to decline. Enrollment drops are problematic for colleges and universities, which have become increasingly reliant on tuition as a key source of revenue.

Higher education has also experienced declines in state funding as a share of institutional revenues. According to Pew Charitable Trusts (2019), state government funding for higher education declined by more than $2 billion between 2007 and 2017. As state funding for higher education became scarcer and the cost of doing business for colleges and universities continued to climb, tuition prices increased. The College Board’s (2019) Trends in College Pricing report indicated that tuition increased almost threefold at public four-year colleges between 1989 and 2019, and has more than doubled in that same time period for community colleges and private four-year colleges. Against this backdrop, recent Gallup surveys found a decline in public trust for higher education and that approximately three quarters of respondents believed that higher education is simply unaffordable (Gallup, n.d.).

All of that was happening before the pandemic struck.

In Spring 2020, the spread of COVID-19 around the world led to a mass transition of higher education classes and programs online. Campus events, activities, and programs, including once-in-a-lifetime events such as graduation, were canceled or held virtually. Students were told to vacate their residence halls, and some had no contingency plans for where they could live (Kamentz, 2020). The pandemic was particularly hard on students from underserved communities, many of whom were also experiencing the effects of racialized trauma (Harper, 2020).

On college campuses, institutional personnel who were not either deemed essential or furloughed from their jobs were mostly asked to work from home. Since then, colleges and their employees have been faced with numerous losses. The Chronicle of Higher Education reported that colleges and universities across the U.S. slashed over 480,000 jobs between February and September 2020 (Bauman, 2020). Also, because of COVID-19, many colleges and universities have experienced a major drop-off in student enrollments (Sedmak, 2020).

It Does Not Have to Be This Way

All of the above paints a bleak picture of the current state of higher education; but the message of my LICSPA keynote address was: It does not have to be this way. What those of us who work in higher education have been experiencing – enrollment declines, inequities in college access and success, vanishing resources – much of this is the result of policy choices. In fact, a lot of what higher education has been experiencing in recent years has largely been the result of policy decisions.

Policy choices can deter access to higher education. For example, recent changes to federal immigration policy have deterred the enrollment of international students at U.S. institutions. Rampell (2020) observed that the U.S. government issued fewer international student visas – an approximately 70% decline – from fiscal year 2019 to fiscal year 2020, according to U.S. State Department data. As Rampell (2020) pointed out, this is certainly due in part to pandemic-related travel bans and closures of consulates and embassies where students apply for visas.

That said, other policy choices played into this as well, such as an announcement by the Department of Homeland Security in Summer 2020 that international students would not be permitted to stay in the U.S. if their classes were entirely online. The federal government later reversed much of this policy, but as Rampell (2020) also pointed out, international student enrollments had been on the decline even before the pandemic, and institutions have indicated that problems with obtaining student visas was a key cause of this decline. Because international student tuition is often a key source of revenue for U.S. colleges (Redden, 2017), declining enrollment of international students has added further stress to higher education institutions’ bottom line.

Indeed, much what troubles higher education today is the result of policy choices; and because these challenges are the result of policy choices, things can change. Changes in public policy at the state and federal levels can broaden access, equity, and diversity in higher education, incentivize enrollment in higher education institutions, and provide additional resources for colleges and universities. For example, studies have shown that student financial aid policies, such as the federal Pell Grant, have been associated with increases in college enrollment and persistence (Perna & Kurban, 2013; Protopsaltis & Parrott, 2017).

As individuals who understand the value of higher education, and as advocates for students and institutions, how can student affairs professionals go about influencing public policy for the better? For many years, I have conducted research on higher education policy at the state and federal levels. My research has given me the opportunity to interview a wide variety of policy actors – from policymakers and their staff, to advocates and lobbyists, to civil servants and college administrators. I have learned about how policy processes work and how advocates can promote policy change. Based on my recent research, what follows is advice to higher education professionals on how to advocate for policies that will bring more resources to institutions and make higher education more accessible and equitable.

Collective Action in Policy Advocacy

Collective action in policy advocacy is important. At a time when higher education is experiencing great resource scarcity and seeking much-needed tuition revenue, it is tempting to view colleagues at other institutions as competitors rather than collaborators. But higher education policy actors have stressed that collaboration is vital. As the old adage says, there is strength in numbers. As one of my interviewees, a policy representative at a higher education association, said:

When I think about the policy lens without trusted relationships across institutions, I don’t think we get very far … that’s what our leaders of the next decade are going to need to navigate … that balance of competition and collaboration, in order to sustain the enterprise and not just the individual units.

In other words, institutions’ policy advocacy will be strengthened by working with other institutions to argue in favor of policies that will benefit all of higher education.

Policy actors have stressed the importance of joining and supporting professional associations. These associations provide valuable networking opportunities for student affairs professionals and are vital to collaborating across institutions for policy advocacy. As another one of my interviewees said, institutions and their employees should act collectively and “use their numbers to help influence policy moving forward.”

Cultivate Relationships Within Policy Communities

Additionally, student affairs professionals can cultivate relationships with people in policy communities. That includes people who work in D.C.-based higher education associations who are focused on lobbying for higher education and often have decent relationships with policymakers and staff on Capitol Hill. As one of the policy experts I interviewed observed, “the university groups are so many and so prominent, and have had relationships with [Capitol] Hill forever.” Proximity to and relationships with policymakers contribute to D.C.-based associations’ knowledge about how policy processes work and how advocacy can be most effective (Natow, 2015).

Individual higher education professionals can also cultivate relationships directly with policymakers such as elected representatives or their staff in state capitols and Washington, D.C. Several of my interviewees stressed the importance of getting to know legislative staffers, as they are the ones doing the day-to-day work in the legislatures and are often more easily accessible than elected officials. One former congressional staffer I interviewed was disappointed when constituents thought congressional staff would not want to meet with them. This former staffer said, “Our door was open, and that always made me sad that people thought we weren’t accessible, and I was always like, ‘But we are.’” Knowing that policymakers are not only accessible but invested and interested in the knowledge that practitioners carry is important for building valuable policy partnerships.

Interviewees also asserted that people who work in student affairs can provide valuable information to policymakers based on their own experiences. One former congressional staffer explained that informing policymakers and their staff about programs and interventions that are working – or not working – on individual campuses is informative. This interviewee went on to say:

You don’t need to be policy experts, but [you] can say, “This is the outcome,” or, “This is the thing where you can help.”… [It] is really just something a lot of people feel like they’re not equipped to do, but you really are.

As professionals dedicated to students and campus communities, student affairs administrators’ expertise may be shared with key policymakers to provide them with relevant information to make important policy decisions.

Policymaking Processes

It is also important to learn about how policymaking processes work. The way policy is made in Congress is different from how it is made in the U.S. Department of Education, and federal policymaking processes are different from those at the state or local level. There are also differences in policy processes and contexts across different states. It is important to understand who the key policy actors are and at what points in the policymaking process the information you seek to provide is likely to be heard or to make a difference.

Higher education professionals can learn about policymaking processes through professional associations, whether via conferences, webinars, or policy-relevant information appearing on associations’ websites. Moreover, graduate schools of education often offer courses on public policy and higher education. One of my interviewees from a D.C.-based association shared:

In order to get more higher ed-friendly policy, we have to build those skills and flex that muscle when we need to. And so I just hope that there’s going to be more higher ed people that are interested in policy and that … carve the time out to devote to it, because it’s so important to the future of higher ed.

By gaining a deeper understanding of policymaking processes, student affairs professionals can determine how and when to approach policymakers and to advocate for policy change in a way that is likely to be effective.

Use Data to Advocate for Successful Programs

Another interviewee from a different D.C.-based association stressed the importance of learning about how to conduct research and assessments of one’s own programs, to know what’s working and what needs to be improved, and to use that data to make an argument for the program’s continued support. An example of this played out in the Summer of 2020 regarding a highly successful program in New York City. The Accelerated Study in Associate Programs, known as the ASAP program, was initiated at the City University of New York (CUNY) in 2007. Student participation in the program involves full-time enrollment, developmental coursework if needed, intensive advising, required tutoring and career counseling, tuition waivers, funding for textbooks and public transportation, a cohort model for certain classes, a student success seminar, and dedicated ASAP program staff (Scrivener et al., 2015).

This program is widely regarded as successful. Rigorous analyses of outcomes of the CUNY ASAP program found that participation in the program was significantly associated with credit attainment, degree completion, and enrollment at a four-year university in the near future (Scrivener et al., 2015). Research has also found that participating in the ASAP program led to increased three-year graduation rates from associate degree programs. Although the ASAP program requires a relatively large financial investment due to the intensive student services and tuition waivers, research has found that the program is cost-effective over time: because ASAP students tend to graduate more quickly, the average cost per degree earned has been less for ASAP students than for community college students who have not participated in the program (Scrivener et al., 2015). In light of this evidence, it is no wonder that the research organization MDRC has called ASAP “unparalleled” in its effectiveness at improving associate-degree completion rates (Sommo & Ratledge, 2016, p. 2).

But in the Summer of 2020, amid finalizing a citywide budget strained by the COVID-19 pandemic, the mayor of New York City proposed dramatic cuts to the ASAP program. St. Amour (2020) reported in Inside Higher Education that the mayor’s budget called for cutting $20 million from the ASAP program by not enrolling new students for Fall 2020.

Almost immediately, ASAP program supporters – including student advocates, city council members, and researchers – spoke out and made statements on social media in opposition to the proposed cuts. Some cited research showing the program’s academic and cost effectiveness as important reasons to maintain funding (St. Amour, 2020). Following the swift, vocal, and critical reaction to the proposal to cut ASAP support, funding for the program was restored (Johnson et al., 2020). Although it cannot be said conclusively that the data showing the effectiveness of ASAP was what prompted continued funding, advocates pointed to ample evidence of the program’s effectiveness in making successful arguments to maintain ASAP’s funding.

What Public Policies Benefit Higher Education?

Above I described some actions student affairs professionals can take to influence policymaking, but what about the policies themselves? What sorts of policies should student affairs professionals seek? What public policies are likely to increase higher education enrollments, equity, student success, and resources?

First, a large influx of federal funding is necessary to help pull higher education out of the economic crater created by COVID-19 and years of resource reduction. The pandemic has brought massive financial hardship to higher education and experts agree that without a large influx of federal funds, the economic fallout could last a long time (Vock, 2020).

Additionally, higher education would benefit from policies that make obtaining a college degree more affordable and equitable. Such policies include more need-based grants, as well as improvements to the efficiency of international student visa application processes. Policymakers should also sustain and even increase funding for programs such as CUNY ASAP that have proven successful at enrolling, retaining, and graduating students. Indeed, policymakers should award grants for institutions to replicate successful student-focused programs such as ASAP on other college campuses. As studies have shown, these programs require a large investment at the outset, but due to their success at graduating students, they more than cover their own costs over time (Scrivener et al., 2015).

Accomplishing this will not be easy. It will take time, energy, and resources. And we cannot rest easy after winning small victories. But it can be done. We can move “from hurting to healing” (LICSPA, 2020). With effective policy advocacy, a better future is possible for higher education and student affairs.

Author Biography

Rebecca S. Natow is Assistant Professor of Educational Leadership and Policy in the Department of Specialized Programs in Education at Hofstra University. Her research and teaching focus on higher education policy, higher education leadership, and qualitative research methods.


I thank Sofia Pertuz and Vikash Reddy for their feedback on an earlier version of this essay.





Bauman, D. (2020, November 10). Colleges have shed a tenth of their employees since the pandemic began. The Chronicle of Higher Education. https://www.chronicle.com/article/colleges-have-shed-a-tenth-of-their-employees-since-the-pandemic-began

College Board. (2019). Trends in college pricing 2019. The College Board. https://research.collegeboard.org/pdf/trends-college-pricing-2019-full-report.pdf

Gallup. (n.d.). Education. https://news.gallup.com/poll/1612/education.aspx

Grawe, N. D. (2018). Demographics and the demand for higher education. Johns Hopkins University Press.

Harper, S. R. (2020). COVID-19 and the racial equity implications of reopening college and university campuses. American Journal of Education127(1).

Johnson, C., Dromm, D. & Gibson, V. (2020, June 30). Speaker Corey Johnson, Finance Committee Chair Daniel Dromm, and Capital Budget Subcommittee Chair Vanessa Gibson Announce Agreement on FY 2021Budget. https://council.nyc.gov/press/2020/06/30/1999/

Kamentz, A. (2020, March 17). When colleges shut down, some students have nowhere to go.

National Public Radio. https://www.npr.org/2020/03/17/816579130/when-colleges-shut-down-some-students-have-nowhere-to-go Long Island Council of Student Personnel Administrators. (2020). 2020 annual conference.https://www.licspa.org/conference/2020

National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. (2012, Fall). Current term enrollment estimates. https://nscresearchcenter.org/wp-content/uploads/CurrentTermEnrollment-Fall2012.pdf

National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. (2019, Fall). Current term enrollment estimates. https://nscresearchcenter.org/wp-content/uploads/CTEE_Report_Fall_2019.pdf

Natow, R. S. (2015). From Capitol Hill to Dupont Circle and beyond: The influence of policy actors in the federal higher education rulemaking process. The Journal of Higher Education86(3), 360-386.

Perna, L. W., & Kurban, E. R. (2013). Improving college access and choice. In L. W. Perna & A. Jones (eds.), The state of college access and completion: Improving college success for students from underrepresented groups (pp. 10-33). Routledge.

Pew Charitable Trusts. (2019, October 15). Issue brief: Two decades of change in federal and state higher education funding. https://www.pewtrusts.org/en/research-and-analysis/issue-briefs/2019/10/two-decades-of-change-in-federal-and-state-higher-education-funding

Protopsaltis, S., & Parrott, S. (2017). Pell Grants—A key tool for expanding college access and economic opportunity—Need strengthening, not cuts. Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. https://www.cbpp.org/sites/default/files/atoms/files/7-27-17bud.pdf

Rampell, C. (2020, October 29). Trump didn’t build his border wall with steel. He built it out of paper. The Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2020/10/29/trump-immigration-daca-family-separation/?arc404=true

Redden, E. (2017, November 13). New international enrollments decline. Inside Higher Education. https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2017/11/13/us-universities-report-declines-enrollments-new-international-students-study-abroad

Scrivener, S., Weiss, M. J., Ratledge, A., Rudd, T., Sommo, C., & Fresques, H. (2015). Doubling graduation rates: Three-year effects of CUNY’s Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP) for developmental education students. MDRC. https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED558511.pdf

Sedmak, T. (2020, October 15). Fall 2020 undergraduate enrollment down 4% compared to same time last year. National Student Clearinghouse Blog. https://www.studentclearinghouse.org/blog/fall-2020-undergraduate-enrollment-down-4-compared-to-same-time-last-year/

Sommo, C., & Ratledge, A. (2016). Bringing CUNY Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP) to Ohio: Early findings from a demonstration in three community colleges. MDRC. https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED569162.pdf

St. Amour, M. (2020, June 30). Looming budget cuts threaten proven program. Inside Higher Education. https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2020/06/30/experts-worry-proposed-cuts-cuny-asap-foreshadow-trend-higher-ed

Vock, D. C. (2020, November 6). Will federal relief for colleges come before more budget cuts do? Education Dive. https://www.educationdive.com/news/will-federal-relief-for-colleges-come-before-more-budget-cuts-do/588531/

Motivations and Factors of Student Affairs Professionals Who Transition into Academic Affairs | Quincy Martin III, Ed.D.

written by: Quincy Martin III, Ed.D.


Approximately 50-60% of student affairs professionals exit the field within the first five years (Marshall et al., 2016). Existing research suggests that the job attrition results from dissatisfaction with the student affairs career, which may reduce effectiveness and job productivity.  While it is unclear what percentage of the student affairs professionals proceed to become faculty members, many former student affairs employees view academic affairs as an opportunity for work fulfillment and meaningfulness. Frank (2013) noted that academic affairs affords autonomy and provides an opportunity to work regular working hours, unlike the nontraditional work schedule of student affairs. However, the literature has scarcely explored student affairs practitioners’ motivations of and experiences with the transition into academic affairs. This paper will focus on the motivations of student affairs professionals to transition to academic affairs and factors to consider in the transition decision-making process.

Motivations to Transition from Student Affairs to Academic Affairs

Scholars have not reached a consensus on factors that motivate student affairs professionals to proceed to faculty jobs. However, LaRocco and Bruns (2006), using their personal experiences, suggested the goal to prepare and inspire the next generation of professors often motivate student affairs professionals to take up faculty jobs. Thus, a desire for educating and guiding student affairs professionals is motivation for some to make the transition. However, there are other personal motivations for the career change by student affairs practitioners to seek academic posts. Austin (2010) reported enhancing knowledge, conducting research, and obtaining a new meaning in work as intrinsic reasons for making the transition. The study concluded that student affairs professionals desired to engage in work that positively and directly impacted the students with whom they had formed relationships or come into contact during their work in student affairs.

Beyond personal reasons, workplace politics and culture have been major motivations for student affairs professionals to shift to faculty. Hernandez (2018) noted that the higher education environment harnesses a culture where student affairs “do not have the same rights and privileges as their teaching colleagues” (p. 42). This culture often leaves student affairs professionals feeling they are inferior, and their work is not acknowledged compared to that of academic affairs. Some studies have asserted that academic affairs work is given higher priority and placed on a higher pedestal, making student affairs professionals feel like ‘second-class citizens’ (Hernandez, 2018; Rivers, 2017).  Such a culture in higher education directly impacts the driving force on why student affairs practitioners function and behave as they do, which may lead to hurting their intrinsic motivation for work.

Self-determination theory suggests that lack of acknowledgment and recognition have detrimental impacts on personal motivation. The literature suggests that workers who feel valued and engaged by their employers have a stronger sense of connection to their work than those who do not (Deci et al., 2001). Accordingly, student affairs professionals are more likely to move into academic affairs where they feel valued and recognized for their work.

Student affairs professionals may also move to academic affairs to have more work flexibility and achieve work-life balance. While literature does not directly link academic affairs with work flexibility, studies have found student affairs employees are more likely to work overtime and on weekends (Frank, 2013; Rivers, 2017). Thus, it is not surprising that student affairs practitioners transition to the faculty in the hopes of working less on nights, holidays, and weekends.

In addition to achieving an ideal work-life balance, the search for autonomy and work independence is a core motivator for student affairs professionals to move to academic affairs. The graduate students in student affairs programs learn to be part of a larger community of professionals inside and outside the classroom. As such, the decisions and activities involving student affairs are collectively made, thus lacking autonomy and independence. Contrarily, faculty communities are characterized by collegiality-focused cultures of autonomy, which allows them innovation and career growth (Boettcher et al., 2019). Thus, student affairs practitioners are likely to be attracted to the advantage of autonomy in academic affairs as a means of advancing their careers.

Factors to Consider for Student Affairs Professionals During the Transition

While the academic affairs profession has numerous benefits, including recognition, work flexibility, work-life balance, and autonomy, student affairs practitioners have to consider numerous factors in the transition decision-making process. This is because factors such as differences in professional culture and psychological preparedness can detrimentally affect their new roles and job performance as faculty. Anderson et al., (2012) described individual, social support, situation, and strategies factors that student affairs practitioners need to assess prior to their transition into academic affairs.

Individual Factors

The individual factors refer to demographic characteristics and psychological resources a student affairs professional needs to transition to academic affairs. Kniess (2019) noted demographic aspects of an individual such as age, socioeconomic status, health, and culture significantly affect individuals who want to transition to the academic profession. For instance, many institutions of higher education require at least a doctorate and published work to join academia. Student affairs professionals must consider their socioeconomic power to return to school and engage in intensive research projects. This psychological aspect is one’s ability to respond to a new working environment and perspectives.

In particular, one has to ensure they are psychologically prepared to adapt to the new working conditions in academic affairs. Boettcher, et al., (2019) found that student affairs professionals transitioning to academic affairs experienced a loss of community culture, isolation, loss of leadership and guidance, and collective goals. Therefore, the cultural shift can be mentally detrimental for the student affairs profession and, hence, is a core factor to consider during the decision-making process.

Social Support

Due to the psychological effects of a career change and the demanding role of faculty, it is important to consider a team of academic professionals, colleagues, friends, and relatives to support through the transition period. Mentors and current faculty provide information about academic work and work culture, while family and relatives provide reinforcement (Anderson et al., 2012). Moreover, some student affairs professionals may not have started nor completed their doctoral studies. Therefore, partnering with current faculty allows student affairs professionals to develop research skills and research agendas and increase publishing opportunities. Scholars suggest a network of professionals before the transition to academic affairs (Hernandez, 2018; Kniess, 2019; Martin, 2020).

Additionally, Haviland et al. (2017) recommended conducting due diligence on available institutional support networks in the target institution. Colleges and universities often offer various career support for faculty, including workshops for teaching philosophies, syllabus development, assessment management, and grants. Therefore, it is critical for student affairs professionals to consider mentorship and general social support as a core factor during their transition into academic affairs.

Situation Factors

LaRocco and Bruns (2006) identified eight situation factors that student affairs professionals need to consider during the transition, including the role change, timing, duration, previous experience, associated stress, and trigger. Role change for student affairs professionals is the shift from administrators to scholars. Boettcher et al., (2019) differentiated the roles and expectations of student affairs and academic affairs professionals (Table 1) and found that these differences can be unclear and challenges for the new hires as they shift to their new roles and cultures at the same time.

Table 1: Academic Affairs and Student Affairs Role and Cultural Factors

  Academic affairs Student affairs
Main role Scholar Administrator
Mindsets Self-Focused & Autonomy Oriented Learner-Centered & Community-Oriented
  Work Relationships Collegial Collaborative
Work Style Individuals working toward individual goals Individuals working toward collective goals
Measures of Success / Achievement Tenure & Promotion, Teaching Evaluation by Supervisor


Due to the change of role and career, student affairs professionals should consider the duration of transition to academic affairs. Depending on the nature of one’s faculty position, some transitions may take months, while others may take years. For instance, Kniess (2019) noted that clinical faculty often take longer to transition than adjunct and tenure track faculty. Other associated stress that comes with the transition can also affect the smooth transition to the new faculty role and job performance. For instance, student affairs professionals may need to complete a doctoral degree before assuming the new role or discover a new home for institution accessibility. Other concurrent stressors may include arranging and managing home-life responsibilities. Therefore, it is critical to find support during the decision-making process to ensure the right decision is enacted and the aforementioned situations do not affect the successful transition.


Strategies to manage the transition include seeking information before, during, and after the transition. Kniess (2019) described two types of strategies that student affairs professionals can use for effective transition, including preparation and seeking information on various types of faculty roles. Preparation is the most important factor to consider during the transition as it entails seeking understanding into faculty life before pursuing a career in academic affairs. Kniess et al. (2017) and Martin (2020) recommended seeking information such as faculty culture, development of teaching philosophy, and research topics for publications.

As much as general faculty culture is important, different faculty roles have specific cultures and requirements. Student affairs practitioners need to factor in which faculty position best suits their long-term interest – adjunct faculty, visiting faculty, tenure-track faculty, or clinical faculty. Kniess (2019) suggested that aspiring faculty should seek information about retention, promotion requirements, milestones, and expectations of each faculty type before deciding to transition from student affairs into academia.

Implications for Practice and Future Research

Making a change from student affairs into academic affairs requires careful consideration of holistic factors that may affect one’s ability to transition into the new role successfully and overall job performance. Student affairs professionals are motivated to pursue a career in academic affairs for a variety of reasons, and how well they transition into academia is essential to their long-term success. Whether an individual decides to pursue a career as adjunct, visiting, tenure-track, or clinical faculty member, factors such as individual socioeconomic power and psychological preparedness, the existence of a strong support system, and available institutional support networks come into play. Simultaneously, situations such as role and cultural changes, transition duration, and other concurrent stressors can affect individuals and should be taken into careful consideration before making a final transition decision.

Implications for Practice

Extant research urges student affairs leadership to invest in their employees’ satisfaction and motivation. These efforts may lead to maximization of employee tenure which, in turn, result in stronger support for departmental missions, goals, and objectives of student affairs units. Consequently, the high attrition rate of student affairs professionals indicates a disconnect between what it means to work in student affairs and the experiences encountered in the field. Although this paper touches on some of the causes of dissatisfaction for some student affairs professionals (e.g. lack of opportunities to guide and create the next generation of practitioners, lack of work-life balance, lack of recognition, absence of work autonomy, and work inflexibility), it also suggests there is a need for mentorship relationships between student affairs and academic affairs to ensure student affairs professionals transition with practical information about academia.

The findings from this paper may assist academic affairs professionals to understand their roles in facilitating successful onboarding experiences for student affairs professionals, as faculty are important in the transition as mentors and career guides. Moreover, student affairs administrators and graduate students may gain helpful guidance to decide whether to or not to shift into academic roles. In addition, this paper may assist institutions of higher education in creating support systems for student affairs practitioners who transition to academic affairs through career development workshops, guidance on psychological preparedness and training, and various other opportunities that provide support to new faculty.

Implications for Future Research

Given the findings on student affairs practitioners who have made the transition to academic affairs, it remains unclear if the work environment of academic affairs meets the work-related goals and needs of student affairs professionals who have made the transition. It is also unclear why some student affairs professionals may choose to return after transitioning and what factors would motivate such a decision. The current research opens opportunities to further explore the reverse transition process and whether student affairs professionals find new rejuvenation and work excitement they desire in academic affairs. The findings will help both graduate students and student affairs professionals to make informed decisions before transitioning.


In summary, the job attrition among student affairs professionals is largely motivated by dissatisfaction with their work environment. Most of the practitioners transition to academic affairs in search for acknowledgement and recognition, work flexibility, work-life balance, autonomy and work independence. Although, the motivations typically go beyond an unsatisfactory working environment. For instance, some student affairs professionals have intrinsic motivations to prepare and mentor the next generation of practitioners, enhance individual knowledge, conduct research, or to obtain new meaning in work in an academic context. Accordingly, existing research reveals that a decision to transition from student affairs to academic affairs requires serious consideration. Since issues related to job satisfaction and work environment extend to academic affairs, it is imperative to take inventory of factors that will facilitate a smooth transition. Support systems and mentorship programs within and outside of academia, including existing faculty, are vital during the transition. Equally, individual and situational factors such as mental readiness, socioeconomic status, timing, and fit are essential elements to further consider.

Reflective Prompts

The motivations and factors for student affairs professionals who transition into academic affairs presented in this paper unveil challenges and opportunities about the work environment that should be addressed. It requires supervisors, graduate students, and new professionals in student affairs to ask themselves the following questions:

  • Supervisors: What can I do to ensure work satisfaction among student affairs employees? What practices in the institution can eliminate inequality between academic affairs and student affairs? What are the qualities of a good work environment that can help avoid considerable job attrition in student affairs? What can I do to support the professional growth and development of student affairs professionals who desire to transition into academic affairs?
  • Graduate students and new professionals: What are my long term professional and personal goals regarding student affairs or academic affairs? Does or will my current position meet those goals? Are the reasons for transition into academic affairs valid or can I influence the current student affairs culture to meet my needs? What essential skills or competencies do I need in order to have a smooth transition into academic affairs? Do I need mentoring, and how do I access mentorship opportunities as a new professional in academic affairs? How do I continue to develop professionally after joining academic affairs? What institutional resources are available to support academic professionals?


Anderson, M. L., Goodman, J., & Schlossberg, N. K. (2012). Counseling adults in transition: Linking Schlossberg’s theory with practice in a diverse world. New York: Springer Publishing.

Austin, A. E. (2010). Supporting faculty members across their careers. In K. J. Gillespie & D. L. Robertson (Eds.) A guide to faculty development (pp. 363-378). San Francisco, CA:  John Wiley & Sons.

Boettcher, M. L., Kniess, D., & Benjamin, M. (2019). From Collaborative to Collegial Communities: Transitioning from Student Affairs Practitioner to Faculty. Georgia Journal of College Student Affairs, 35(1), 5-22.

Deci, E. L., Ryan, R. M., Gagné, M., Leone, D. R., Usunov, J., & Kornazheva, B. P. (2001). Need satisfaction, motivation, and well-being in the work organizations of a former Eastern Bloc country. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, in press.

Frank, T. E. (2013). Why do they leave? Departure from the student affairs profession (Doctoral dissertation, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University).

Haviland, D., Ortiz, A. M., & Henriques, L. (2017). Shaping your career: A guide for early-career faculty. Sterling, VA: Stylus.

Hernandez, A. J. (2018). Determining job satisfaction and motivation of student affairs professionals who transition into academic affairs (Doctoral dissertation, Rowan University).

Kniess, D. R. (2019). Moving into a Faculty Role from Student Affairs Administration. New Directions for Student Services, 2019(166), 51-61.

Kniess, D. R., Benjamin, M., & Boettcher, M. (2017). Negotiating faculty identity in the transition from student affairs practitioner to tenure-track faculty. College Student Affairs Journal, 35(1), 13–24.

LaRocco, D. J., & Bruns, D. A. (2006). Practitioner to Professor:  An Examination of Second Career Academics ‘entry into academia. Education, 126(4).

Marshall, S. M., Gardner, M. M., Hughes, C., & Lowery, U. (2016). Attrition from Student Affairs: Perspectives from Those Who Exited the Profession. Journal of Student Affairs Research and Practice, 53(2), 146–159.

Martin, Q. (2020). Look before you leap: Making the transition from administration to faculty. International Journal for Academic Development. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1080/1360144X.2020.1795665

Rivers, L. O. (2017). Student affairs, academic affairs and the institutional mission: administrator perceptions at a research university (Doctoral dissertation, University of Alabama Libraries).

Returning to the Classroom: Being a Graduate Student After Years in the Workforce | Drew Nicklas, Brandon E. Rodriguez, Jamel Mallory, Jr., Ashley Jacobs, Abigail Leppert, Mallory Powers, Ali McGrath

Drew Nicklas
Clemson University, [email protected]

Brandon E. Rodriguez
Clemson University, [email protected]

Jamel Mallory, Jr.
Clemson University, [email protected]

Ashley Jacobs
Clemson University, [email protected]

Abigail Leppert
Clemson University, [email protected]

Mallory Powers
Clemson University, [email protected]

Ali McGrath
Clemson University, [email protected]

There  are a number of myths about student affairs as a career. One of those is that Student Affairs professionals follow a similar path.  This path is one where undergraduate students who were hyper-involved during undergraduate studies are encouraged by a mentor or friend to pursue a career in what they already show interest and competency in – college student experiences. The aforementioned undergraduate students enter a Student Affairs Master’s program after graduation and graduate in two years having maintained many of the connections they had at their undergraduate institutions. Since everyone has gotten into student affairs the same way, student affairs supervisors and faculty cater searches to fill full-time and graduate assistantship for the same developmental needs and skills as those who come directly from undergrad. Yet in reality, this pattern is a myth, and not one that is followed by everyone.

There is a significant number of “nontraditional” students entering the student affairs profession who are forgotten in this process.  Many individuals who worked professionally, both in Student Affairs and other careers, are entering Master’s programs and assistantships that are not cognizant of their prior work experience and are not designed for their needs or expertise.  Ignoring students with full-time professional experience both neglects their unique needs and discounts the value of their pre-existing skills for the program and profession. This article shares with you individual stories of some non-traditional Student Affairs graduate students. These stories are meant to provide better understanding of the challenges these students – we the authors – face and to provide recommendations to best support similar students in their journey in Student Affairs. It is important to stress that just as student affairs Master’s program students are not a single, monolithic group, neither are those of us who come to student affairs by alternate paths. Our stories are meant to provide examples and reflection on our experiences, but each of us in student affairs has their own story.

Overview of the Series

This article is the first in a two-part series on student journeys into higher education and student affairs without coming directly from an undergraduate college experience. This series was created by seven full-time graduate students in the Student Affairs program at Clemson University. We took between one to six years off before pursuing our Master’s. We are students in both our first and second years of the program. Our relationships with one another range from close friends and general acquaintances, but we were brought together by program faculty and encouraged to speak on our experiences.

The second article in this series will begin with an analysis of common themes we found regarding our transition to our Master’s program and implications for practice from faculty, staff, and students. The themes include academics, assistantship supervision, finances, social connections, relationships, and the assumptions our peers, faculty, and supervisors hold.   We share recommendations on how to better support students who work before beginning a graduate program. We and others who have non-traditional journeys into graduate education have important lessons to share and we hope this series provides the groundwork for centering Student Affairs work on all students’ unique strengths and backgrounds rather than developing plans and opportunities based on mistaken assumptions.

Our Stories

Ahead of the second article, we want to introduce each member of our team and share some insight into their time in higher education and the workforce.  Each of the following stories is written by the individual it is about and includes the pieces of their story that they feel are most relevant to the development of their Student Affairs career.  The stories are ordered by shortest to longest time off between undergrad and grad school.

Drew Nicklas (she/her) – 1 year

I am a second-year graduate student in the Counselor Education: Student Affairs program at Clemson University, and will graduate in May.  I grew up in Northern California, in a nuclear, white, middle class family, with both of my parents working full-time for the majority of my childhood. Growing up, I had focused on learning, growing, and pursuing education with few additional worries because of privileges my family have.

Pursing and earning an undergraduate degree was always an assumption for me.  My parents both earned Bachelor’s degrees, from Cal Poly, and most of my grandparents also had college degrees.  When I applied to schools, I was unsure of what I wanted to study because I liked health sciences, was not set on pursuing medical school, but did not know what other career paths existed.

I ultimately chose Cal Poly, not for my major specifically, but because I was most impressed with the idea of the college experience I was shown during their admitted students weekend. Of the schools I visited, I felt best when at Cal Poly and chose it based on that gut feeling.  In 2018 I received a B.S. in Kinesiology from Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo. Cal Poly shaped my path to Student Affairs, but also how I chose to go about pursuing a graduate degree.

During my time as an undergraduate student at Cal Poly I was highly involved with the school’s orientation programs.  I served in multiple leadership roles within orientation each year and was always looking to be more involved.  I loved the work because of the excitement it brought to campus, and the community is built for each individual.  In my senior year, my advisor talked to me about pursuing Student Affairs as a career because I loved the work so much.  I was not ready to commit to a graduate degree but was interested in the idea of a Student Affairs career.  After graduating, I worked at Cal Poly’s Career Services office as a career fair coordinator and administrative aide.  This role allowed me to explore a different functional area of Student Affairs and find that I still was passionate about the work even in an area separate from orientation.  With this confidence in pursuing a career in Student Affairs, I decided to pursue a graduate degree to aid in developing my career in Student Affairs.

Jamel Mallory Jr. (he/him) – 2 years

I moved around a lot when I was younger, but I was born in New York and graduated from high school in Fairfield, OH. I grew up in a single parent household and my mother was disabled. I did not have any intention of attending a university when I graduated from high school, but my mother was the one that encouraged it.

As a first-generation college student, I came from a low-income socioeconomic background and felt like I did not belong at college throughout my first two years. My last year at Bowling Green State University (BGSU) I learned about Student Affairs and I felt the need to learn more about the field before returning to graduate school. I graduated from BGSU in 2018 with a B.A in Media Production Studies with a concentration in Social & Interactive Media.

I worked two years at University of Michigan with their First Year Experience team, and it was an amazing experience. Student Affairs shaped my experiences at my undergraduate institution, and I wanted to do the same for students like myself. I am now a first-year graduate student in Counselor Education: Student Affairs program. I am currently the Graduate Assistant for Off-Campus Internships & Marketing with the Center for Career and Professional Development at Clemson.

Mallory Powers (she/her) – 2 years

I am a first-year student in Clemson’s Counselor Education: Student Affairs M.Ed. program, and I work as a Graduate Assistant in the First-Year Academic Programs office. Raised in Richmond, Virginia by two parents each with a professional degree, I grew up assuming I would one day earn a bachelor’s degree. This privileged perspective gave me the time and space to consider multiple options for college, and I ultimately decided to pursue an in-state, public education at William & Mary.

Throughout college, my active participation in various organizations as both a member and leader taught me the importance of empathy, the value of community, and practical life skills. This personal and professional development inspired me to provide students with the same level of attention and care given to me in college, driving me to seek employment as a Collegiate Development Consultant for Delta Gamma Fraternity upon graduating with a degree in Public Policy. I worked as a traveling consultant for two years, interviewing, training, and motivating collegiate leadership teams weekly across a variety of higher education institutions ranging in region and size.

Working closely with college students across the country for two years reinforced my desire to continue this developmental work at graduate school, combining my academic interest in policy with my love of college student development. Higher education and access to college, specifically, has positively altered my personal, educational, and professional trajectories and motivates me to positively influence the lives of students during and beyond graduate school.

Abigail Leppert (she/her) – 3 years

Before beginning Clemson University’s Counselor Education: Student Affairs program in Fall 2020, I worked for almost three years in Chicago as an Inside Sales Account Manager for Softchoice, a Canadian IT reseller. I joined the company after graduating from Ohio University (OU) in 2017 with a B.B.A. in Marketing and a B.S.V.C. in Photojournalism. I was raised in a White, middle-class blended family in Columbus, Ohio. It was always an expectation for me to earn a four-year degree, as well as expected that I would need to offset financial constraints by earning scholarships and attending an in-state, public school. While at OU, I worked various jobs, from bowling alley attendant to bartender to Learning Community Leader and Resident Assistant, which began my exposure to the field of Student Affairs although I did not realize it at the time. I also served in leadership positions for different student organizations, often leaning towards a mentorship role in whatever I did.

It was not until years into my sales career, when I realized I was driven and fulfilled more by my peer mentor volunteer role orienting new hires more than my direct job duties, that I began to seriously consider Student Affairs as a career. I now work with Clemson Home’s Residential Living department as a Graduate Assistant for Fraternity Sorority Housing while studying in Clemson’s M.Ed. program. While it has been a leap out of my comfort zone to change from business to higher education, it has been an incredible experience actualizing my passion for supporting others’ development during the transitional periods of their lives. I have a particular passion for working with support services for students from foster care and non-traditional family backgrounds, and I strive to use my non-linear path into the field of higher education to better empathize with and empower young adults and non-traditional students.

Ashley Jacobs (she/her) – 5 years

I was raised by a single mother in a low-socioeconomic background and moved around a lot as a child, living in Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia, North Carolina, before finally settling in Illinois with my dad in middle school. Neither of my parents had a college degree but pushed me to receive one, so while I knew I would go to college, as a first-generation college student I did not necessarily know what that would look like.

Because of the lack of stability growing up, I decided early on that I wanted to go to a small institution because I feared that I would be “just a number” in a larger school and would not be able to make deep connections with faculty and staff. I chose teaching because my relationships with my teachers kept me grounded as I moved around often. However, I realized once in the field that I felt limited in what I could do as an English teacher and wanted to focus more on students’ holistic growth, especially beyond high school.

Before attending Clemson, I graduated from St. Norbert College in 2015 with my undergraduate degree in English and secondary education and was a high school English teacher for five years in Northeast Wisconsin and the suburbs of Chicago. I decided to gain my Master’s degree in student affairs because it aligned with how I wanted to help students grow beyond just academics, especially for first-generation students like myself who may have not had a stable background in early education. It took me five years to discover that this was the path in education that most met my passions for students, but I know I needed my professional experiences in the classroom to lead me here.

Ali McGrath (she/her) – 5 years

I grew up in a small suburb of Boston, Massachusetts. My town was affluent even if my family was not and I grew to internalize the messages about college that my peers and classmates were taught. I assumed that I would go to college. Both my brothers did before me and it was not even a question to me when I was approaching high school graduation on what the next step would be. Knowing that I would be paying for my education, I selected a small, public university as my undergraduate institution.

When I graduated from Framingham State University in 2015, I knew that I wanted to make a positive impact on the world. I believe that it is everyone’s responsibility to make the world a little better than how we found it. This core belief is what led me to working for four years at Habitat for Humanity. I had gotten involved with Habitat during my undergraduate experience as a volunteer and intern. When provided the opportunity to continue on after I graduated as an AmeriCorps Vista, I could not have been more excited. One AmeriCorps term behind a desk led to another on the construction site. I later served as a construction apprentice and worked with their volunteers in their retail operation. Wearing these many hats and building my community made me reflect on how I had gotten to where I was.

My passion for serving others was not intrinsic and I was able to connect that motivation directly to my experiences during my college career. Working with local organizations, being educated on social justice issues, and experiencing Alternative Spring Break trips helped shape me  into the person who became compassionate, considerate, and motivated to help others. I was proud of that person and could directly thank the Student Affairs professionals that helped me become her. I am giving back by working alongside them and helping students become the best possible versions of themselves. I pursued Student Affairs and joined this Master’s program because I thought the most positive impact I could make was working with students and helping instill the value of serving others and doing good in the world.

Brandon E. Rodriguez (he/him) – 6 years

I grew up in a sleepy suburb north of Orlando, FL called Longwood where I attended Seminole County Public Schools through my entire K-12 education. I grew up with a single mom for most of my life as she worked two or more jobs in order to support and provide for our family of three. Neither of my parents graduated from college, and my father didn’t get his GED until he was almost 40 years old. As a teenager my father was forced to leave high school early when his parents moved to Brooklyn from the island of Puerto Rico.

In addition to being a first-generation college student, I also come from a low-income socioeconomic background where college was never talked about or ever expected of me. As a result, I had to take out student loans and work part-time jobs to support myself and make ends meet while trying to get that promised ticket to the middle class. I attended community college at Seminole State College of Florida where I received my A.A. degree in General Studies before transferring off to Florida State University in Tallahassee. I ended up graduating from FSU with a Bachelor of Science in Political Science and International Affairs degree that really only lent itself to looking good on a law school application.  My own experience as a transfer student from a non-traditional background has consistently fueled my passion for student affairs work, specifically in transfer student success and advocacy.

After graduating from FSU, I unintentionally took six years off to work full-time as I started my professional career working for the Walt Disney Company. Through my various internships with Disney I was able to find that student affairs spark working for the Disney College Program. I took those six years off between my undergraduate and graduate studies because I truly didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life. I was told my entire life to do something that made me money and made my family proud, so being a doctor or lawyer were the only two options I thought I had. My professional experience post undergrad led me to unearthing my true passion for a field that wasn’t designed for non-traditional, first-generation students like myself. My path to student affairs has been shaped by my personal and professional experiences as I strive to create more paths for non-traditional students like myself to enter the profession of student affairs and higher education.

Six years into professional work from Orlando to Chicago, and I finally landed in Chattanooga, Tennessee where I worked as a Logistics Specialist for a transportation company before deciding to go to graduate school. I made the decision to go to graduate school while also having many adult responsibilities like a spouse and a mortgage, as I then moved across the Appalachian Mountains to Clemson, South Carolina. I currently work at Clemson University as the Graduate Assistant for Multicultural Community Development, specifically doing LGBTQ+ programming, education and advocacy work within the Gantt Multicultural Center. My work has evolved and changed over the years, and today I can say that I am able to do something I love every day.

Conclusion and Reflection

This introduction to us and our experiences is intended not only to give context to our experiences in preparation for the next article in the series. Rather, it is intentionally designed to provide points of consideration for those working with student affairs graduate students – faculty and staff – about the importance of story. While the next article delves into how to work intentionally with graduate students with full-time work experience, we want to offer the following prompts for your consideration based on this article.

Prompts for Practitioners

  1. How do you get to know the stories of the students you supervise?
  2. How can you build understanding more about your students’ lived experiences into your supervision meetings and the culture of your office?
  3. How do you learn more while respecting appropriate boundaries?
  4. What information do you share about your own experiences with those you supervise?

Prompts for Students

  1. How do you set expectations with your supervisor and share what you need and how your past experiences inform your developmental and professional learning?
  2. Consider writing a short “higher education biography” as exemplified in this article. What stories, experiences, parts of your identity inform who you are as a graduate student?
  3. If you worked before graduate school, what can you learn from students in your program who came directly from undergraduate education? If you came directly from undergrad, what can you learn from cohort mates who have full-time work experience?
  4. What efforts have you made to get to know the stories of others in your cohort?

About the Authors:

Drew Nicklas is a second-year, full-time graduate student at Clemson University.  She is a graduate assistant for the Tigertown Summer Bound program and will graduate May 2021.

Jamel Mallory, Jr. is a first-year, full-time graduate student at Clemson University.  He is a graduate assistant for Off-Campus Internships & Marketing in the Center for Career & Professional Development and will graduate May 2022.

Mallory Powers is a second-year, full-time graduate student at Clemson University.  She is a graduate assistant for the Tigertown Summer Bound program and will graduate May 2022.

Abigail Leppert is a first-year, full-time graduate student at Clemson University.  She is a graduate assistant for Fraternity Sorority Housing in ClemsonHome and will graduate May 2022.

Ashley Jacobs first-year, full-time graduate student at Clemson University.  She is a graduate assistant for Student Services in the Department of Language and will graduate May 2022.

Ali McGrath is a second-year, full-time graduate student at Clemson University.  She is a Graduate Community Director for ClemsonHome and will graduate May 2021.

Brandon E. Rodriguez is a second-year, full-time graduate student at Clemson University.   He is the graduate assistant for Multicultural Community Development in the Harvey & Lucinda Gantt Multicultural Center and will graduate May 2021.