Letter from the Executive Director

A Letter to College and University Presidents/Chancellors,

As a former campus-based student affairs professional now working in the association field supporting higher education practice, research, and scholarship, I am in the unique position to offer observations and recommendations as you begin what some have predicted to be the most challenging year yet. In addition to unaddressed trauma and anxiety from the first 16 months of the COVID-19 pandemic, the slow rate of vaccinations and the alarming rise of variants will now be moving into your campus boundaries. We cannot pretend that the crisis has ended and revert to “business as usual.” Business should be anything but usual right now. While still dealing with the virus and its medical, mental, and emotional effects on our lives, individually and collectively, we do know more than we did a year ago.

We must use what we have learned and what we now know to lead our campuses in ways that advocate for students, faculty, and staff physical safety and mental health. A campus that is not physically or emotionally safe is not an effective learning environment. Getting back to “normal,” should not be your goal. Your campus community needs your leadership and vision for defining new ideas and new ways to address the lingering trauma of the pandemic and other historical injustices. This new academic year is an opportunity to demonstrate and put into practice what we have learned the last 16 months. Recovery must resemble actions more like reconciliation and authentic reflection than business continuity.

If you had an easy road ahead of you, anyone could be a college president or chancellor if they wanted to be. Perfection of your game plan for the new year should not be an aspiration but centering the physical and emotional health of your community should be. This means putting people before profits. It means putting people before policies. It means leading from an ethic of compassion, not precedent or positionality. Think with me for a moment: What would still be happening in the world if we held firmly to precedent and the way we did it before? Progress requires precedent to be challenged and changed when we center humanity if we are to lead from a place of love instead of numeric results.

In support of your leadership, I want to offer a few insights I have gained from hundreds, if not thousands, of higher education professionals over the last 16 months. Although I typically avoid generalizing to such a wide audience, it is my belief that the following recommendations will serve you well in this new academic year no matter your community’s population, size, location, specialty, or other distinguishing features.

The core of my request of you is this:

Acknowledge, respect, and address the labor, exhaustion, and potential trauma of your staff.

The administrative staff of a college or university are accustomed to feeling like the third (or fourth) priority for an institution behind faculty, students, and possibly parents and/or alumni. Even within staff, there are divisional and departmental hierarchies that often disrespect and diminish the work of student affairs professionals. These attributes of a campus have only been amplified during the COVID-19 pandemic, and the relationship between staff and the institution are at a breaking point.

Campus staff were the first to be furloughed or to have their positions eliminated. Those who were fortunate enough to maintain their jobs shouldered the responsibility of student retention in a virtual setting. Much of this labor was left to staff of color to support and advocate for students who were already feeling marginalized by their institutions, but now in a time where they were dealing with threats not just on their medical health but feared for their lives because of the color of their skin. The campus staff who kept their roles were asked to risk their lives to conduct COVID tests, coordinate quarantine housing, deliver meals to isolated students, conduct routine check-ins, and many other tasks. And they performed this labor and risked their health and safety because they deeply cared for students.

Now, it is time for the institution to demonstrate your appreciation and respect publicly and authentically for the staff of an institution who carried out the many alterations of your campus COVID-19 plans. It is important that the staff of an institution be celebrated for the tremendous amount of labor required over the last 16 months. Yes, the pandemic required everyone in the institution (and quite frankly, the whole world) to stretch into new ways of doing things, but the labor assigned to student affairs and other student-interacting staff at your institution was extensive. These specific recommendations are symbolic and practical:

  • Compensate your staff for their COVID-19 labor: This could include monetary compensation in terms of bonus pay, additional paid time off in the coming year, and/or the repayment of furlough days. This recommendation does not need additional explanation: When people work more and harder, you compensate them.
  • Advocate for and provide counseling for staff: We likely do not yet know the ongoing mental health effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Even today, the campus staff who have expended significant emotional labor over the last 16 months are busying themselves with carrying out pandemic protocols while also managing orientation programs, residence hall move-in, academic and student organization advising, registration, financial aid, and so on. Campus leadership must demonstrate a compassion for the emotional and mental health needs of our absolutely depleted and sometimes defeated or deflated staff.
  • Listen and attend to the specific needs of staff of color: The last 16 months have exponentially impacted the lives of people of color. Not only were Black and Brown bodies more susceptible to COVID-19, the killings of numerous Black people in the United States during this same time was an additional pandemic against their lives. Staff of color on campuses were taxed with the labor of managing their own physical and mental health, while also being asked to deliver diversity education on campus and supporting and advocating for the needs and challenges of students of color mostly in virtual exchanges. If you do not believe the last 16 months have disproportionately affected Black people at your institution, you are not in tune with your community. In addition to the compensation and counseling you provide for all staff, I advise going even further for staff of color by providing additional compensation, by hiring counselors of color to focus just on the support of staff of color, and by creating spaces where staff of color can share their experiences and needs not just related to the pandemic, but all the time.
  • Conduct reflection sessions with staff: As mentioned before, we cannot go back to routine campus operations and pretend the last 16 months did not happen. When I talk with campus professionals, however, I am hearing the recurring theme that this is how institutional leaders are proceeding for the new academic year. Yes, we are still in a global pandemic, but we have learned so much over the past year that we are now able to implement our new knowledge in ways that keep our people physically safe, while also continuing their learning and engagement. It is critical that college presidents and chancellors reflect with student affairs and other college staff on their experiences, successes and challenges, and lessons learned so that we can collectively support the community together.
  • Find opportunities to center joy and celebration: Finally, nearly every conversation I have with a higher education professional includes their need for joy and celebration right now. Fear has run our individual and institutional lives for the last 16 months, and we now need to balance fear and anxiety with joy and celebration. This is where role modeling as the college’s president or chancellor is so important. When you offer speeches this year, share what brings you joy in your life and in your work. When you talk with students and staff, give them opportunities to tell you about what brings them joy or a reason they must celebrate something good that recently happened to them. Begin your cabinet meeting with sharing a positive experience from the past week and end your meeting with celebration and appreciation for another person in the group. Amidst the challenge and sickness that will still be a part of campuses this academic year, the culture can also contain joy and gratitude. Authentic leaders can hold and role model multiple truths at the same time.

Higher education will not be the same following the multiple pandemics we have endured over the last 16 months. It should not be the same. I encourage you, as a college president/chancellor, to not just assume my words are true, but to engage your campus’ staff, especially your student affairs professionals, to either validate or challenge these recommendations. The critical ask is that you actively engage your staff community following a prolonged period of trauma and labor. With some predicting another challenging academic year ahead of us, many of your staff find themselves physically and emotionally at the lowest point of their careers, and the option of doing nothing is simply not there. Institutional leaders who fail to acknowledge and address the challenge of staff fatigue, trauma, and burnout will face mass position vacancies, lackluster student engagement, and potentially student retention problems. Leading from love, decision-making with compassion, and healing deep wounds must be the primary competencies exercised by executive institutional leaders in the coming year(s).


Chris Moody, Ed.D.

Executive Director, ACPA-College Student Educators International

A Letter from the Editors

Dear ACPA Membership,

So, we woke up the other day and realized it is August. A new academic year is upon us and with it new challenges. We have learned that as a profession we can navigate challenges. In many ways that is the exact purpose of the roles many of us play on campus. Wake up, see what happened the night before, and that’s your job for the day (or several days).

As we move into whatever the next year brings, we encourage each of you to celebrate, support, and listen to one another. We each have things to celebrate each day. Let’s not wait until the end of the semester or the end of the year to do that. You have a new team member? Celebrate! You met a great student today? Celebrate! You got a good parking spot? Celebrate? Your phone battery lasted all day? Celebrate!

Support is also essential. Maybe this year ask people in advance what support looks like to them? We aren’t all the same and we don’t all seek support in the same ways. What does each member of your work team need right now? Don’t make assumptions based on what people wanted in the past. We are all changed as a result of the past year. Find out what people need and then offer what you can accordingly.

Finally, listening is perhaps the most important thing we can ever offer those with whom we are in relationship–work or otherwise. This requires time and attention and a focus on someone besides ourselves. Giving someone your full attention is a gift that too often we allow to be interrupted by our own ideas, words, the screens of our computers, phones, etc. When we turn to face another human being and seek to take in what they are offering, asking, or processing, they notice. Others notice when we don’t do that as well. Don’t multi-task people. Make time and if you can’t give time in that moment, explain that what they have to say deserves your full attention and can you find a time when you are able to offer that?

We have all done difficult work in the past months. The work we have chosen to do is difficult much of the time. When we do it in community with others–communities built on celebration, support, and listening–the load is significantly lighter.

We are excited to share resources with you in this issue of Developments that speak to these issues. We have articles about undergraduate and graduate students, student athletes, the role of gratitude in students’ lives, and pieces to consider if you are considering a career change or pursuing a terminal degree. You will find things to celebrate, resources to support you in your work and lives, and excellent insight to which we should each listen / pay attention.

Best of luck this fall, everyone. Thank you for all you do.

Michelle L. Boettcher & Reyes J. Luna, Developments Editorial Team

We’ve Seen This Movie Before: The Disingenuity of Routine Institutional Responses to Address Anti-Black Racism | Parker III, Tevis, Beatty, Blockett

written by:

Eugene T. Parker III
University of Kansas

Tenisha L. Tevis
Oregon State University

Cameron C. Beatty
Florida State University

Reginald Blockett
Grand Valley State University

To surmount the situation of oppression, people must first critically recognize its causes, so that through transforming action they can create a new situation, on which makes possible the pursuit of a fuller humanity.

~Paulo Freire, 1970, 2018

We are a small group of early career Black faculty members in higher education. During the last year, we have reflected on the toll the season has had on our Black selves, colleagues, students, and neighbors. While these reflections and thoughts brewed in each of our respective souls long before 2020, we convened to jointly contemplate and process the national reckoning on racism in the United States during the last few years, as well as the death of George Floyd, the 2020 election, social unrest, and a global pandemic.

At the center of our discourse were the events of the past year epitomizing the subsistence of systemic and anti-Black racism that continue to threaten the lives of Black Americans. By systemic racism, we mean the interconnected (white) hegemonic and normative ideas, beliefs, and concepts that are oppressive and disenfranchising (Tevis & Croom, in press). The evidence of such includes the horrific deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Duante Wright and the countless others before, in between, and after that demonstrate not only systemic racism, but more specifically anti-Black racism–a blatant disregard for Black human life. We also witnessed increased political rhetoric that plagued conservative airways and outlets subsequently inciting an insurrection–a level of incivility that came with nooses, death threats, lives lost, and a resurgence of white nationalism (New York Times, 2021).

Grounded in our thoughts about anti-Black racism, nationally, we would be remiss if we did not grapple with the local context of this issue at our respective campuses and the campuses of many of our Black colleagues at other institutions. We continue to witness cases of anti-Black racism pertaining to faculty hiring, unwelcoming workplace environments, academic freedom, and promotion and tenure, such as the refusal of the University of North Carolina Board of Trustees to grant tenure to Pulitzer Prize winner and MacArther Genius Nikole Hannah-Jones (New York Times, 2021). Substantially, we contemplated how anti-Black racism persists at higher education institutions and particularly how institutions have responded and addressed the matter.

As we deliberated, we acknowledged and named a common theme during our discussions which we now refer to as the routine institutional responses to address anti-Black racism at colleges and universities. We have watched as institutional leaders have posted diversity statements, press releases or videos, committed to structural and administrative changes (such as the hiring of a Chief Diversity Officer), and/or offered more trainings and workshops about diversity and racism, all in an effort to do better, i.e., disrupt anti-Black racism and promote welcoming institutional environments for Black folks on campus. As we further pondered on this matter, we questioned and continue to question: have we done better in the past year?

The aim of this brief commentary is to offer a succinct description of our perspectives about how institutions have responded to anti-Black racism. In the next section, we discuss our deliberate viewpoints about the routine institutional responses enacted by colleges and universities during the past year, which usually embodies the: propagation of diversity statements and artifacts, proclivity to form customary diversity task forces, committees and work groups, and the creation and preservation of normative institutional structures and spaces. We provide assertions characterizing the normative reactions of institutions following critical social and racial incidents, nationally and locally, which often epitomize insufficient and disingenuous attention to disrupting anti-Black racism on campus. As a resolve, we also offer propositions for higher education institutions and leaders to consider for transformational change and progress toward anti-Black racist college environments. To supplement these perspectives, in the final section, we provide our broader reflections about the salient ways in which higher education should address anti-Black racism on campus.

The Status Quo: Routine Institutional Responses

The conventional practices and routines that Black folks at colleges and universities usually observe after major incidents of racial injustice represent a status quo that is consistent with Ahmed’s (2012) description of performance culture in higher education. Performance culture proposes there is a critical link between realized institutional processes, decisions and practices and institutions’ objectives for performing well and being seen as performing well (Ahmed, 2012). From our perspective, an example of performance culture is the widespread outpouring of letters and addresses by university presidents after the murder of George Floyd in 2020 conveying support and care for Black folks but with minimal attention to transformational change (Bartlett, 2021). Organizational theoretical perspectives help us to understand these actions that we observe are often the result of isomorphic tendencies where organizational leaders merely mimic other institutions rather than develop critical initiatives that promote change at their respective institutions (Scott, 2014). We contend there exists a status quo and performance culture in higher education that symbolizes the customary institutional rituals, routines and responses when addressing anti-Black racism on campus.

Propagation of Normative Diversity Statements and Artifacts

We contend diversity statements and plans do little to disrupt and undo anti-Black racism on campus if there is little or no purposeful attention to institutional change. Diversity statements epitomize the normative tendencies of higher education leaders to respond and react to some impetus, usually a crisis pertaining to racial campus, or national, incidents. First, when crises pertaining to anti-Black racism occur the conventional response is to create a task force or work group. Next, these institutional groups work tirelessly to create and develop additional iterations of diversity plans, statements and documents capturing newly formulated diversity strategies. The resulting documents and artifacts are maintained as long as non-Black institutional members embrace them; however, they are also often found resting on bookshelves and/or archived in computer folders until the next anti-Black racist incident and crisis occurs on campus. Despite these repeated undertakings, Black institutional members maintain these diversity statements and plans as merely symbolic initiatives meant to appease Black folks but do little to confront hostile and toxic campus environments for Black bodies.

Consistent with Ahmed’s (2012) description of performative and performance culture, the strategic institutional focus to attend to diversity or anti-racism often centers on the outcomes and deliverables, e.g., diversity statements and plans, rather than the process (Watt, 2020). Recent scholarship (Ahmed, 2012; Squire et al., 2019) have described the usual diversity statements and practices as non-performatives. Non-performatives may represent the normalized practices that usually espouse the importance of diversity and the inclusion of diverse people while usually remaining as ineffective artifacts that do not address and fulfill its stated purpose (Squire et al., 2019). It is this routine attention to diversity statements and plans, devoid of sincere attention to institutional change, that evokes the continued and recurring frustrations of Black folks on campus.

For clarification, our critique is about the routine of the institutional response to disseminate these diversity statements and plans to address anti-Black racism as normative tendencies with little attention to institutional change. However, we acknowledge diversity statements and artifacts are reasonable methods of disseminating information and conveying institutional goals to internal and external stakeholders. We acknowledge the critical importance of words, language, and discourse. As such, we propose higher education institutions develop clearly articulated and assertive language about anti-Black racism that helps to undo anti-Black racism at colleges and universities. We maintain anti-Black racist language, generally, is the antecedent for anti-Black racist institutions and college environments. Institutional change begins with recognizing and naming the racist language that is ingrained in institutional culture. Thus, progress toward disrupting anti-Black racism represents actionable steps toward creating and developing ani-racist (and similarly anti-Black racist) mission statements, documents, job descriptions, admissions letters, policies, promotion and tenure criteria, and every artifact that embodies the foundation of the institution. One step might entail an anti-Black racist audit of the current policies and policy library to discern and eradicate language that is problematic for disrupting anti-Black racism on campus. For example, attention ought to be directed to student conduct codes and how the handling of hate speech is explicated in those policies.

Proclivity for the Formation of Customary Diversity Committees, Task Forces and Work Groups

We assert diversity committees and task forces are merely habitual surface-level undertakings employed to appease Black folks and allies on campus. Diversity committees and task forces charged with taking up diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) efforts make recommendations that are oftentimes not adopted for the purpose of addressing systemic issues with equitable outcomes, let alone addressing anti-Black racism. DEI agendas are “often imagined as a form of repair, a way of mending or fixing histories of being broken” (Ahmed, 2012, p. 164). But these “repairs” do not address the systemic issues that have caused the continuous cycles of responding to on campus racism with task forces and committees. DEI committees and task forces fall into the realm of what Ahmed (2012) described as some individuals being passionate about addressing diversity issues on campus, yet “the commitment of individuals can also be a means for organizations not to distribute commitment” (p. 135). Members of DEI committees often have various levels of experience and knowledge around DEI work. Research, and our own lived experiences as former administrators and current Black faculty members in higher education, has revealed that the burden of diversity committee work at the program, department, college/school, and university levels often falls on Black folks and other People of Color. The burden becomes an added “service” and “tax” (Padilla, 1994) on Black higher education administrators, faculty, and the token student. This added tax sometimes only compounds the feelings of racial battle fatigue, racial trauma, and resentment
(Smith 2004). This labor taken on by Black faculty, staff, and students to pacify and coddle their white peers is within itself rooted in anti-Black ideologies of not seeing the burden of this work on our humanity as Black people.

Even frameworks from a multicultural organization development (MCOD) lens (Jackson, 2006; Pope, 1995), rooted in addressing change that centers diversity, equity and inclusion have been ignored or not integrated to address anti-Black racism. Instead of using MCOD frameworks as tools for implementing and assessing the work of diversity committees, committees are formed with no direction and broad missions. When the committee is charged with a broad purpose, it becomes difficult to hold the committee or task force accountable for deliverables. Also, a broad committee purpose then leads to broad recommendations without specific actionable items that address diversity, equity, and inclusion.

We propose that colleges and universities who have convened campus-wide diversity committees in the past, first assess the work and any recommendations from diversity committees and task forces from the past 10 years as an intentional step in addressing anti-Black racism at colleges and universities. As highlighted, formulating and creating the usual diversity statements and diversity committees can be performative and a method of protecting whiteness and maintaining the status quo (Ahmed, 2012, p. 147). Meaningful action toward addressing diversity, equity, and inclusion takes a paradigm shift that must be rooted in equity and justice. Pope (1995) acknowledged that the change must be transformational, and the paradigm shift is a second-order change for organizations, groups, and or individuals. Meaning the second-order change is a radical transformation in how a group creates and sustains a multicultural organization (Pope et al., 2014). Anti-Black racism has deep roots in higher education, and it will take deep transformational and radical change rooted in equity and justice to eradicate it. The cycle of addressing racism with calling together a group of stakeholders and forming a committee to make recommendations for change, has become the status quo that results in no real systemic change at the organizational level or in higher education more broadly.

Creating and Preservation of Institutional Structures and Spaces

We contend routine structural responses, such as creating a living learning community, establishing a multicultural center, and inaugurating the first Chief Diversity Officer, do not represent the end, just the beginning. We observed the tendencies of higher education institutions to create and implement the usual structures and spaces as reactionary responses to anti-Black racism. First-year programs for minoritized students, DEI living learning communities, a dedicated space (i.e., room, lounge, house, or cultural center) for the Black students, and the appointment of a Chief Diversity Officer are some of the typical structural and institutional undertakings (Patton 2006, 2010; Patton et al, 2017; Williams & Wade-Golden, 2013). Campus leaders often intend for these spaces to signal a commitment to equity and inclusion from the institution. However, Black folks often consider these to be performative rituals symbolizing structural responses to a much larger cultural and racist issue. However, these implementations must represent the beginning stages of a sustained action-oriented commitment to institutional change.

We propose institutions consult with and include Black folks in decision-making in a meaningful way beyond a climate survey. To identify and undo anti-Black racist aspects of institutional culture, higher education leaders must partner with the campus members who are engaging in anti-racist labor to better understand the elements of institutional culture (e.g., racialized spaces, statues, traditions) that maintain an anti-Black racist college environment. We contend institutional administration must sincerely integrate Black folks into the conversations that guide decision-making addressing institutional change.

As a final note, our perspectives do not represent a critique about the saliency of diversity initiatives, such as the formation of diversity committees, but rather a disapproval of what we perceive as normative acts that minimally attend to disrupting anti-Blackness or deconstructing racist systems and structures on campus. Certainly, the formation of committees or work groups is important for promoting collaboration and institutional accountability. However, these repetitive actions do little to dismantle anti-Black racism if these normative actions lack meaningful and sincere goals for institutional change.  Hence, in the following sections, we offer some meaningful resolution of these normative actions that have the potential to challenge status quo and anti-racism.

“Reclaiming My Time”: Progress Toward an Anti-Racist Academy

During a congressional committee meeting, the honorable Rep. Maxine Waters famously uttered reclaiming my time to the individuals she perceived as wrongfully, and disrespectfully appropriating her time (Greene, 2017). This occurrence represents familiar territory for Black folks when non-Black individuals devalue our existence as legitimate societal or institutional members. In higher education, reclaiming my time illustrates and accentuates Black folks’ insistence that our time and labor make us valued institutional members. Thus, higher education institutions must make progress toward anti-Black racist environments, and can do so by attending to action, practicing self-reflection, and appropriately partnering with institutional faculty. In the previous section, we offered our perspectives and propositions pertaining to the routine institutional responses we have observed during the past year. In addition to the propositions pertaining to routine responses in the prior section, we now offer our broader reflections about what institutions should do to address anti-Black racism.

Anti-Racist Work Requires Action and Accountability, with Critical Attention to Process

Diversity strategies should move beyond simply respecting difference to real and actionable steps toward establishing an anti-racist institution. We acknowledge that reading lists, book clubs, and mandatory diversity trainings characterize a reasonable programmatic start for anti-racist strategies. However, those represent the preliminary steps. Attention directed toward disrupting anti-Black racism must embody continuing strategies and education. Further, progress toward disrupting anti-Black racism represents greater attention to accountability. In every aspect of the institutional pillars, research, teaching and service, campus members ought to be held accountable for promoting an anti-Black racist environment. Incorporating strategies that address anti-Black racism into matters of evaluation and assessment is critical for present-day higher education institutions.

We would be remiss if we did not underscore the significance of the process in working toward anti-racism in higher education. Regarding anti-racist work, Watt and colleagues (2021) underscore the importance of process. Racism is an enduring construct, and accordingly anti-racist labor does not end, i.e., “there is no finish line” (Watt, 2020, para. 14). When individuals solely focus on doing anti-racist work and finding outcomes, we tend to observe the performative rituals discussed earlier in this commentary, e.g., diversity statements and plans. However, progress toward anti-racism characterizes how (i.e., process) we are working toward undoing anti-Black racism on campus, considering racism will persist at our institutions. Thus, to address anti-Black racism, the focus ought to be on how you are doing the work as well as what you are doing.

Practice Self-Reflection about Anti-Black Racism

During the past year, our nation faced an attack on democracy, civility, and order, i.e., the insurrectionist rioting at the capital in January 2021 (New York Times, 2021). The events of the past year helped to further uncover the often-hidden viewpoints and convictions of the individuals, and possibly insurrectionists, who we regularly encounter at our institutions pertaining to critical social and political issues, e.g., social movements such as BlackLivesMatter. While some of the non-Black campus members who we encounter are not overtly far right extremists or insurrectionists, it is important for the individuals who are reading this commentary to self-examine how anti-Black racism persists in oneself and the spaces in which one inhabits. Watt et al., (2021) eloquently suggested that addressing anti-racism represents not just doing anti-racist work but being an anti-racist. We encourage the readers of this commentary to self-reflect and interrogate the ways in which you may (sub)consciously sustain anti-Black racism in higher education.

Ponder on Money Follows Mission

When rationalizing why the institution cannot do diversity work or appropriately compensate institutional members for added diversity work; budget issues, constraints and the lack of resources are often the common response given to Black folks on campus. Yet, funding and financial support seem to magically materialize for other activities, such as the procurement of a third-party vendor to provide a new online training program or the hiring of a national executive search firm for open positions. The phrase money follows mission (Schloss & Cragg, 2012) epitomizes the notion that institutional missions, strategies, and goals are directly linked to institutional funding and allocation. If diversity, inclusion, and an anti-racist environment is truly a goal of the institution (as represented in institutional missions), we urge leaders to partner with and draw from (and appropriately compensate) the diversity and social justice champions who inhabit the spaces at the institution. These individuals are most familiar with the climate and environment and can more effectively pinpoint the institutional structures that persistently promote anti-Black racism on campus. The institutional members who do diversity and anti-racist work at colleges and universities are quite familiar with being unreasonably expected to perform added work with little or no compensation. Thus, it is imperative that institutions compensate these individuals for the supplementary work and labor that promotes institutional change.


We offer our deliberate viewpoints about the resolve needed for higher education to make progress toward a more anti-racist, anti-oppressive academy. In the above commentary, we not only capture what we view as routine institutional responses characterizing the normative ways in which institutions have responded to anti-Black racism and other anti-sentiments on college campuses, but we also offer substantive resolve of these approaches, with the need for institutional actors to pay attention to accountability and institutional priorities. As a small group of early career Black faculty members in higher education, we drive these points home because we want to see change and because we are invested in the wellness of our communities. We have all come to learn that the definition of insanity is to do the same thing repeatedly and expect different results. Hence, it is time to do something different.


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Author Bios:

Eugene T. Parker, III, Ph.D. is an associate professor of higher education administration at the University of Kansas. Dr. Parker’s research focuses on the impact of diversity experiences on college student outcomes and the significance of diversity in organizational contexts and environments.

Tenisha L. Tevis, Ph.D. is an assistant professor of Adult and Higher Education at Oregon State University. Dr. Tevis’s research seeks to disrupt dominant ideologies and biased institutional practices, exploring the ways in which institutional agents (namely administrators and faculty) can better support historically disenfranchised students, and transform the communities in which they serve.

Cameron C. Beatty, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of higher education and undergraduate leadership studies at Florida State University. Dr. Beatty’s research explores the intersections of gender and race in leadership education, leadership development of Students of Color on historically white college campuses and understanding experiences of racial battle fatigue for Black and Latinx students.

Reginald Blockett, Ph.D. is an assistant professor of Educational Leadership and Counseling and Grand Valley State University. His scholarly interests focus on the sociocultural experiences of lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans*, and queer collegians of color, doctoral students’ socialization, and social justice practice and pedagogies across educational contexts.

Making the Transition: Undergraduate and Doctoral Programs | Solomon

written by:

Dr. Beth D. Solomon
Auburn University


By the time the first day [of school] arrived, Wemberly had a long list of worries. What if no one else has spots? What if no one else wears stripes? . . . What if I can’t find the bathroom? What if I have to cry? “Don’t worry,” said her mother. “Don’t worry,” said her father. But Wemberly worried. She worried and worried and worried (Henkes, 2000).

Though Wemberley Worried is a children’s book about a nervous girl starting elementary school, many of the worries Wemberly had were similar to my experiences as a first-year student—both as an undergraduate and a doctoral student. I was armed with knowledge on student development and transition theories as I started my doctoral program. Despite the knowledge, I had a similar experience as a first-year undergrad; despite the experiences being 11 years apart. Throughout the first year of my doctoral program, I reflected on the commonalities. A few years have passed since I completed my doctoral work, and as the new school year approaches, it seems to be the apt time to share my transitions and experiences. In higher education we are about to be joined on our campuses by students who will be navigating the same kinds of things that I will describe here.


New University Welcome Letter: Welcome to campus! We are excited you are here. When you come to campus, here are a few things you will want to bring with you:

  • Bedding (Twin XL)
  • Communicate with your roommate about shared items such as: MicroFridge, television, fans, etc.
  • Laptop
  • Area Rug
  • Alarm Clock
  • Clothes Hangers
  • Cleaning Supplies
  • Pictures/Posters
  • Shower Caddy
  • Towels

Think back to your first day of your freshman year. What were you feeling? What were you excited about? Nervous about? Did you want your parents to go home as soon as possible or did you wish they could have stayed a bit longer?

If your first day on campus was anything like mine, there were nerves—lots of them. My parents moved me into my room, my mom made my bed because according to her, “That’s what mom’s do”, we went to the bookstore for some college swag, and we all shed some tears when we had to say goodbye. Fast forward 11 years. I moved into my off-campus apartment for my Ph.D. program. My parents helped me pack up the car, drive down with me, and move me in. My mom, yet again, made my bed, and we shopped for some new college swag.

Naturally, I cried when they left, knowing that instead of four hours, I was now 15 hours away from home. However, I finished unpacking and organizing. After that the lost feeling set in. You know that lost feeling? The one where you realize you’re on your own? You have to make new friends. You have classes and have NO clue where they are? Yeah, that set in. Only this time, I didn’t have a week of orientation. There were no hundreds of ice breakers that are awkward, but at least it allowed you to say hello to someone by their first name as you pass them on the way to class, or rather, as you try to navigate your way to class.


New University Welcome Letter: Part of your welcome to our campus will include your orientation program!

As an undergrad orientation included a tour of campus, Title IX training, ice breakers, and sessions on academic integrity. While some of the requirements for an orientation program were similar, the reality was, spending a Saturday morning in a classroom with other new students was not as helpful as I had hoped. Quick introductions, course requirements, library information, some of these things were like my freshman orientation, but the biggest difference was the online training. I was shocked. How on earth could Title IX training be online? Wasn’t this something that had to be done in person? Also, why was everyone that was new not at orientation? Years ago, I wondered how people skipped orientation, apparently, some things never change, like how people complete online trainings.

I had to do an online training before I started at Union College—AlcoholEdu. I had to email the Dean of First Year Students for an extension. I was working at a summer camp in rural Vermont and could not take AlcoholEdu or my math placement test unless I had a day off and went to the Dartmouth College library (talk about feeling WAY out of place…). I did not want a hold on my account, so I asked for, and got, the extension. When I did complete the program, I took notes on the entire thing. I passed the tests, and I learned things. Once I got to school, I learned that people hit play on the training sessions, walked away and then took the quizzes. My first thought was, “They cheated!”

I showed the Dean my notes from that training when I interned for her three summers later. We laughed over it, and still laugh about it today. I’m always going to be a serious student. I’ll admit it, I learned from that AlcoholEdu experience, and as a doctoral student while I had Title IX training playing, I was organizing my kitchen and putting away groceries. I mean, I helped facilitate trainings on Title IX for the past few years in Residence Life, and since I didn’t walk so far away that I couldn’t hear the training, it wasn’t cheating.


New University Welcome Letter: Your roommate may become a great friend in your life. It is also possible that you can have a great roommate but different social circlesthere’s no one right way to have a great roommate experience!

As I prepared for my undergraduate experience, everyone talked about finding their roommates on The Facebook (yes, it was THE Facebook back then) and then being able to post on their walls and look at their profile picture. That was how simple Facebook was “back in the day.” Union did things a little bit differently. You didn’t get your college email address or roommate until August, so there was no trying to find a roommate via some board on Facebook before you were assigned one. When I eventually learned her name, I emailed my roommate. She hadn’t set up her email account (which I learned when we finally met in person). Believe it or not, I actually called her on the phone—a total struggle for an introvert. Despite trying to plan, we still ended up with clashing bedding (and personalities), but somehow coexisted for a bit. Not everyone meets or lives with their life-long best friend their first year of college.

As a doctoral student, I was lucky. I got to pick my roommate. I knew things were going to be great because we had been living together for 10 months already. She was perfect. I should probably mention that “she” is my dog, a Chihuahua Spaniel, named Pudge. Pudge and I know each other well, I mean, we were introduced at a shelter, and over the course of an hour (and about a hundred pieces of hot dog), became best friends, and fell in love. It is true what they say about rescue dogs, you’re never sure who rescued who, but either way, Pudge had little choice in our living space, and in our move (Sorry, Pudge).

We had a few house breaking issues when she moved in with me (a challenge I thankfully hadn’t faced with my undergraduate roommate), so I was all ready to spend some time trying to teach her the run of the new place and my new schedule. I got Pudge a haircut, which turned out to be her being shaved, but at least I wouldn’t feel bad about her having a ton of hair and moving to the South in August. We hopped in the car (well, I shoved her in a crate) and when we finally arrived, she adjusted better than I did. She learned to float in the lake with a life jacket, made friends at the dog park, and never really put up a fight. Dogs are adaptable. They are also good roommates, and our décor didn’t clash.

Additionally, she was a great listener and she didn’t really talk back. It’s kind of nice. Though I’m sure my neighbors might have concerns that I had full conversations with her. While she is a good roommate, the biggest difference is my undergraduate college roommate celebrated when I left for class because she would have the room to herself. Pudge pouts and sits on the couch waiting for me to come home every time I leave.


New University Welcome Letter: You’re here and going to have great social and extracurricular experiences, but your academic courses need to be your focus.

Speaking of class, what do you wear as a doctoral student? Business clothes? You’re a full-time student—can you wear a sweatshirt? Flip flops? What will everyone else be wearing? How do you take notes? Computer? Pen and paper? Was using a colored pen appropriate? What about one from another school? Should you use a pencil? These thoughts flew through my head as an 18-year-old, and yet again, at the age of 29. Before the first day of my doctoral program, I thought I would not have any concerns about re-entering the classroom. Instead, I found myself reminiscing on my first day of class at Union College, and feeling very similar.

First Day of School

New University Welcome Letter: What to expect on day one: Looking for a certain building? Look for staff and faculty in polo shirts to give you directions (and a doughnut)!

I packed literally EVERYTHING I could possibly fit into my backpack on day one of my first year of college as an undergraduate. I also figured out which building I was going to before leaving because I didn’t want to be caught carrying a campus map. Once I arrived, I quickly realized everyone was just as lost as I was, as we all pulled out planners, binders, folders, notebooks, computers, pens and paper. Was using the college provided planner with the student handbook in the front “cool”?

No one was willing to admit to the lost feeling, and shuffled their student handbook planner under everything else. A sophomore in the class pulled out a notebook and a pen. I followed suit. A year under your belt at college makes you a pro, right?

Students talked about SAT scores, majors, and if they were an athlete, to try to find connections and make small talk with others. I bonded with the girl across the hall about summer camp. I didn’t need people knowing my SAT scores (which were horrible), and I was already feeling self-conscious that I wasn’t a “scholar” like the young woman across the hall. Was I not smart enough to be in this “honors” program? Did I not belong at Union?

I cried. Lots. I had some of those same feelings from time to time in my doctoral classes when other students seem to have more of a grasp on the material than I did. The only difference was, as a doc student I knew that this feeling had a name—imposter phenomenon. Just like undergraduate students, no one wants to admit that they feel like they don’t fit in. It’s where the idea for this article came from—chatting with the professor that I worked with and realizing that I was far from the only one who has had these feelings.

First day of school as a doctoral student meant bringing just about everything again. How do I get to the classroom? How do I make friends? Where do I sit? The list went on and on. Luckily, in my first class the professor told us it was a technology free class—phew. I didn’t have to decide how I was going to take notes. I went with a colored gel pen. Some things never change (well, the brand was a bit nicer this time around than 11 years ago, but same concept).

As an undergraduate I went into college as an undecided major. I told everyone that I majored in “life”. I took things that I liked, hoping something would speak to me. I found myself doing the same thing as a doctoral student. While I knew what I was focusing on academically, I was not sure what I would write my dissertation on. I hoped that through coursework a subject would speak to me, begging me to study and write about it. Just as I dreaded the “What’s your major?” question, I got nervous when people asked me what I wanted to do for my dissertation.

One thing I had already figured out by my first year in college was time management. I’m thankful that my downhill ski racing “career” taught me more than how to ski fast. Balancing everything from workouts, practice, and travel, to homework and classes helped me succeed. It’s a skill I will carry with me forever, and I’m glad I learned it early. Balancing time seemed like a non-issue for me, so I decided to do the unthinkable. I took 12 credit hours that first semester of my doctoral program. So much for a social life.

Social Connections

New University Welcome Letter: Get involved and make friends!

So, as a freshman, I was shy, not sure what I wanted to do socially or academically, and thought that parties were scary and intimidating. I spent part of my high school career at a boarding school, but for some reason, living away from home was new all over again. After all, you could get in trouble for being at those parties, and I was (and am) not one to get into trouble.

So instead I decided that I would support the athletic teams. I grew up with my dad saying, “If you cannot be an athlete, be an athletic supporter”. Well, I ski raced, but it was “Club D3” and I was in no way college varsity athlete material despite my short stint on the women’s cross-country team.

So I wandered off to my first college football game. It was D3, so nothing like what was on TV.  I read up on the stats beforehand (naturally), so I knew a few names, but other than that—there I was, standing up against the fence, clueless. I didn’t know how to get where other students were sitting, and I was there alone. I jumped each time we scored, and they set off cannons, and after watching few more plays, I walked home. I called my parents. I told them I went to a football game.

Fast forward 11 years. I went to my first football game as a doctoral student—alone. This time I at least managed to figure out how to get student tickets, and figured out the disaster that everyone calls game day parking. After getting lost on campus, pulling into the wrong area a million times, I found myself parked literally a mile from my apartment. Lesson learned.

I dragged myself across campus, already defeated and dripping in sweat. My transition to the South was not even close to complete. The heat was still beating me each day. My goal was to watch the running of the hill—I had heard it is the most exciting 25 seconds in college football. It seemed like a Clemson thing to do, so I went (thinking back to my dad’s saying of being an athletic supporter), again alone. I managed to get right up against the boundary where the team was announced and ran onto the field by Howard’s Rock at the top of “The Hill” (thank goodness I’m short), and watched the team run down on to the field.

After sweating for another 12 minutes of game time, I left and walked home, exhausted and overheated. Talk about totally being confused—football up north requires layers and blankets not sunscreen and constant hydration. Why I was dragging myself around at 95 degrees out with 90% humidity was beyond me. It seemed like the thing to do though, and why not support my new institution’s football team? I heard it was part of the experience, though I was completely perplexed as to how all those fans were going to stay to watch a noon game in that sun and heat. Once I finally made it home, after a freezing cold shower, I sat under an air conditioning vent, and called my mother and told her I went to a football game. Clearly history repeats itself. (Note: My mom doesn’t even care about college football).

Each time I came across a new experience in the first semester of my doctoral program, I was brought back to my first term at Union College. Trying to make friends, navigate campus, and doing it all on my own this time. I was on my own without the same support system I had as a first-year student.

Without realizing it, I relied heavily on my Resident Advisor (RA), who was fantastic and helped me through my transition. This time, I had no RAs, and unlike my transition to the working world, there were no co-workers in my department. Yes, there were other doctoral students and candidates doing research and working with and for professors, but let’s be honest. It was NOTHING like joining a residence life staff full time (think balloons, door decs, flowers, signs, t-shirts—the student affairs uniform of belonging—and a decorated office and apartment).

After figuring out the flow of classes, work, and making some friends, things started to feel more normal. In addition to being a new student, I was very new to the region. I moved 1,000 miles away to complete this program, and for me it was a big change. It was the farthest I had lived from home. While there were moments that I missed—snow, car horns, angry drivers, and the uniquely grating Boston accent—I found South Carolina to be welcoming. Despite being a former ski racer, and still an avid skier, there was something nice about being able to walk outside without a jacket and feel the warmth of the sun on your face in January. Besides, home was only a flight away.

Transitions take time, and everyone has moments of feeling lost. As I sit back and think about how far I have come, I realize how change can put you right back to where you started. For me, it brought me back to my first-year at Union College. For others, it may be different, but transitions are not going to happen overnight. I will never know all the answers, and I may still get lost on whatever campus I am on. Life is funny like that.

The Year in Review

After my first year of living in the South and being a doctoral student, I learned more than I could have imagined. My learning was beyond the classroom, which will not surprise those in Student Affairs. I utilized many of the lessons in the work I did with students. Beyond learning how to make friends, find your way around, caring for yourself (and a dog), learning a new culture (regionally and within higher education) are things I continue to utilize in my conversations with students and colleagues today. I find that I embrace a new sense of bravery, a readiness for challenging myself in new ways, and always find ways to make connections. While not every area in higher education is full of confetti, t-shirts, and welcome signs, finding a way to connect with new students each year is important. We often do not know what students are going through, and while there is a focus on undergraduate transitions, we should remember our new graduate students (at all levels) are going through transitions as well.

As we welcome new students into our campus communities this fall, please don’t forget the graduate students. I urge you to spend some time getting to know them individually. Help them connect to state chapters of professional organizations, or across different departments on campus. Knowing students on an individual level and understanding where they are in development and transition is something stressed in graduate preparation programs. We should aim to role model that for students as we get to know our doctoral students—after all, they are the next generation of educators for our graduate programs.


Henkes, K. 2000. Wemberley Worried. Greenwillow Books.

Dr. Beth D. Solomon is a lecturer in the Educational Foundations, Leadership, and Technology department of the College of Education at Auburn University. She earned her B.A. from Union College, her M.Ed. from Salem State University, and her Ph.D. from Clemson University. Dr. Solomon’s research interests include leadership development, student-athletes, college athletics, and student development.

A Brave New World: First Year College Students & Post-Pandemic Resilience | Potts

written by:

Charlie Potts
Gustavus Adolphus College

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the student experience. While the transition to college has always been an opportunity for growth and change, the pandemic has disrupted traditional college experiences and influenced the ability of students to adapt and overcome obstacles. It is imperative that we take the time now to learn from these experiences.

I conducted a research study in the winter of 2021 to explore the impact that the COVID-19 pandemic has had on first year college students’ sense of belonging (Potts, in press). The study showed that new students experienced a collective roadblock to “traditional” college entry which could create developmental barriers and challenges that would linger into a post-pandemic world.

The pandemic and institutional response has created new challenges for first-year students (Patel, 2020; Brown, 2020). Patel (2020) discussed the challenges that institutions faced during the pandemic as they worked to continue providing “high touch” care to students in a “no touch” world (p. 4). Evidence indicates that the pandemic has negatively affected student mental health (The Healthy Minds Network & American College Health Association [ACHA], 2020) in the form of increased levels of moderate-to-severe depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts (Wang et al., 2020; Fruehwirth et al., 2021). A national survey conducted by The Mary Christie Institute (2021) found that 87% of faculty report that students’ mental health has worsened—or significantly worsened—since the start of the pandemic. How will we equip students to respond? How will we encourage students to bounce back from challenges they have faced during the pandemic? I conducted a qualitative study to explore how students were processing their experiences and preparing for what is next.


I conducted virtual focus groups of students about first-year student transitions during the fall semester of 2020. Participants were recruited via email at a predominantly white, small, residential liberal arts institution in the Midwest United States. Three focus groups of six participants each were conducted prior to the start of the spring 2021 semester, and all participants had just completed their first semester in college. Focus group questions focused on the effect that the COVID-19 pandemic had on participants’ experience (e.g., “How has COVID-19 affected what you anticipated college would be like?” and “What has been challenging about being in college during COVID-19?”). This study explored social connections, living in residence halls, classroom learning, and mental health.

Among the 18 participants, seven identified as men and 11 identified as women. Additionally, 11 were White students, four were Black/African American students, two were Latinx students, and one was an Asian/Asian-American student. A higher percentage of BIPOC student voices were represented in the focus groups than are reflected in institutional student body demographics. Pseudonyms were assigned to each participant. All 18 participants lived in on-campus housing.


Data were analyzed using constant comparison analysis as it has a useful application to qualitative data such as that collected via focus groups (Glaser, 1978, 1992; Glaser & Strauss, 1967). Analysis was also informed by Krueger and Casey (2015), who noted that any approach to focus group data analysis must be systematic, verifiable, sequential, and continuous. The coding process began immediately following the first focus group, therefore establishing a process that Onwuegbuzie, et al. (2009) referred to as emergent-systematic focus group design, where the first group is used for exploratory purposes and subsequent groups are used for verification. The progression through Strauss and Corbin’s (1998) coding steps—open coding, axial coding, and selective coding—resulted in the emergence of several themes centered on developing resilience, as outlined below.


Analysis of the data resulted in the emergence of four key themes related to resilience during the pandemic – experiencing change, demonstrating determination, reconciling losses, and navigating challenges. These themes are explored below and highlighted with quotes from participants.

Experiencing Change

The college experience is filled with opportunities for change for students, including navigating new experiences, shifting priorities, and the clarification of values. A by-product of students experiencing college during a pandemic is that constant change and adaptation became the norm and a necessity. As a result, shared adversity experiences created a connection to the institution and to peers.

Uncertainty surrounding social and academic experiences significantly altered daily college life expectations for participants. They discussed a willingness to alter expectations, finding comfort in a sense of hope, developing patience, managing isolation, and coping with losses both big and small. Student resilience led to an understated sense of accomplishment about trying to connect with peers and feeling connected to the institution. Jenny, a White woman, said,

This idea that we have to kind of persevere and deal with challenges and figure out how to do it makes me proud of being a [student at this institution]. We have this connection to each other even before we met and we’re kind of in this together.

Sophia, a White woman, said “I’m low-key so proud of how [other students] seem hopeful about getting through [COVID-19]. I feel like we’re doing better here than my friends are at other colleges and we just know it’s going to get better.”  Experiencing constant change enabled participants like Jenny and Sophia to develop a tolerance of disruption and gave them confidence in their ability to adapt.

Demonstrating Determination

Participants acknowledged that there were not directions for being a student during a pandemic, and that sense of the unknown led to self-determination and internal motivation. Larry, a White man, said,

No one could have predicted this is what [college] would be like, and I know we can’t predict the future, but it makes you realize you must take control of your own situation if you want to get something out of this [experience].

Larry’s determination to seize the reins of his own experience was echoed by Signe, a White woman, when she said,

[It is] so easy to think about how it’s all going wrong, and you fall into a pit of sadness. You must figure out on your own how to be grateful for the chance to do things, even if it’s not ideal.

Ella, a Black woman, and Oren, a White man, both commented that losing focus and getting distracted during virtual classes and meetings. As a result, self-discipline and self-motivation were needed. Students felt compelled to control what they could even when so much in the environment was beyond their control.

However, finding control was no easy and was something students had to do repeatedly. Serena, a Black woman, said, “You have moments of motivation but then times when you are like paralyzed and can’t get things done… It’s so hard to figure out how you’ll feel each day or even each moment in a day.” The lack of control and motivation was a new experience for students but provided perspective on how focusing on what they could control motivated them to adapt.

Reconciling Losses

In addition to determination, students discussed losses they experienced. Andrea, a Latinx woman, shared,

[As high school seniors], we missed out on some of the stuff that makes you who you are going into college. But we all have that in common, so I think it maybe gives us a perspective that helps us manage how we feel about it.

Allen, a White man, added “I didn’t get to go to prom and my [graduation] was virtual, so having to follow some extra rules here doesn’t actually seem that bad if it means I can still be in college.” The losses made participants aware of what the loss of milestones or rites of passage felt like, which eased the burden of an altered college experience but—more importantly—provided them with tools to rationalize and negotiate loss to move forward.

In addition to senses of loss, participants felt that their transitions from high school to college during the pandemic put them in a unique position. Anna, an Asian woman, said, “I think… the upper-class students struggled way more than we did. They knew what college was like before. We’re just rolling with it because we’re just happy we get to be here.” Calvin, a Black man, concurred, saying,

Wearing masks, doing social distancing, not having visitors allowed on campus, and all those other rules can be frustrating and feel, like, heavy. But it’s basically all we know since we’re new here, so I feel like we are getting used to it more than [returning] students.

Students acknowledged that the pandemic was incorporated into other transitions they navigated as they started college.

Navigating Challenges

Students’ experiences during their first semester reified their commitment to succeeding in college. Irene, a White woman, expressed optimism despite loss, saying,

The things that were taken away from us are the things that kept us here. Not being able to have friends visit, not easily being able to go to parties, not having sports… it sucked not to have that, but it’s the reason we’ve been able to stay [on campus].

Because students did not have another first-year college experience to compare to theirs, they navigated the challenges while maintaining a focus on persistence and achievement.

Participants noted the strain that the pandemic was putting on their mental health, mentioning their feelings of stress, anxiety, isolation, and depression. Emily, a White woman, said “I was so excited to start [college], but after about two weeks of realizing how life would be here I kind of like just hit an all-time low where my mental health had never been so bad, and I was crying all the time.” Casper, a White man, was faced with a similar low point. He said, “I struggled a lot. I was always good with mental health but after the excitement of starting wore off, I just got buried in all these feelings. I suddenly just worried about everything, here and with my family.”

Not all student challenges were the same. Students of Color in the focus groups talked about racialized resilience at a PWI. Students said that their racial identities were at the center of overcoming systemic as well as pandemic obstacles. Calvin, a Black man, said,

I knew from the start [of college] that I wouldn’t always feel like everyone else here because I’m Black. So, everyone else is worried about just making friends and I’m like all worried about whether I can ever even fit in here.

Fitting in surfaced for Ella, a Black woman, as well. She discussed the significance of being asked to limit close contacts to groups of four to help mitigate the spread of COVID-19. She said,

We had to basically choose and prioritize who our friends could be. So, I basically ended up with other [Black] girls in my dorm because it was easier, but then it was hard to figure out who else [on campus] was there to help me and who would make sure I was doing okay.

Andrea, a Latinx woman, described how her identities as a Student of Color and a first-generation student impacted her experience. She said,

It was hard for me to try to get information to my parents. They are not great at speaking English and I’m the first one in my family to go to college, so they already weren’t sure what to expect. [COVID-19] just made things so much more complicated right away when I left home.

The additional obstacles that Students of Color had navigate created a burden that white students did not experience. Their identities required them to develop additional resilience.


The challenges of entering college during a pandemic altered how students persisted. The expectations that students in this study had about how college should look or feel were challenged. As a result, students identified challenges they had to overcome. The COVID-19 pandemic created stress and anxiety among students, inspiring them to employ resilience and navigate uncertainty. Participant responses about mental health during the pandemic reflected findings from extant research (Borkoski & Roos, 2020; The Healthy Minds Network & ACHA, 2020; Browning et al, 2021).

Student affairs administrators and educators are likely familiar with post-traumatic stress (PTS), which refers to the on-going psychological and physical effects that occur after a trauma has ended (American Psychiatric Association, 2020). PTS is an issue that many students will face once we move beyond the pandemic (Li et al., 2021). Post Traumatic Growth (PTG) is action-focused growth that stems from trauma (Almedom & Glandon, 2006; Infurna & Jayawickreme, 2019; Levine, et al., 2009). Keith Edwards (2013), a noted student affairs educator who often focuses on positive psychology, wrote in a blog post,

Post Traumatic Growth is not about putting a good superficial face on bad things, but comes from deeply experiencing trauma and finding learning, discovering new things about yourself, gaining new insight on the world, experiencing growth, and gaining increased resiliency as a result.

This aligns with the experiences of students in this study who talked about discovering, experiencing, and learning—not just loss—during their transitions to college.

Participants in this study did not explicitly use terms like grit or resilience but specified characteristics associated with those traits that were vital to their ability to transition to college. Participants demonstrated Dweck’s (2008) growth mindset by exhibiting their ability to adapt and learn changes with effort and are not set in a fixed state. Participants described the challenges they and their peers faced as they transitioned to college and acknowledged that if they could just get through the complexities created by the pandemic, they were confident that they could adapt and succeed.

Participants faced the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic in their first semester of college with optimism, confidence, and creativity, which are Duckworth’s (2013) cornerstones of resilience. Despite missing end of high school and beginning of college experiences, participants valued the experiences they did have. They focused on how persisting through the current situation would lead to a better experience. They acknowledged that by not knowing what they were missing, they were equipped to move through their first year of college.

Resilience is interpreted, developed, and shaped in unique ways depending on students’ identities. The nuanced development of resilience based on identities and on specific interpretations of experiences frames resilience in an important light. As Nicolazzo and Carter (2019) noted, the notion that the dualistic construct of resilience – that “one has resilience, or one does not” (p. 77) – is problematic. Viewing resilience and grit as individualistic endeavors shifts the onus of development away from the institution (systemic inequities, etc.), placing it instead on the individual student. That approach incorrectly assumes that all students have the right tools in the toolbox and just need to figure out how to use them to demonstrate resilience. It is important that individual experiences – particularly based on identities – are considered when discussing resilience-building for students, particularly as institutions continue to respond to the effects of the pandemic.

Attenberg (2020) asked whether we are focusing on fixing the right problems when we teach resilience. Rather than focusing on building protective factors, she encourages us to focus on factors that disproportionately hinder the growth of marginalized students, like systemic racism, poverty, and inadequate educational and social supports. Students of Color in this study spoke explicitly to these types of issues as challenges based on the identities they hold.

Implications for Practice

The findings of this study illuminate the need to reframe educators’ ways of thinking about student transition and resilience. Participants identified the need to develop resilience to manage the complexities of life during the pandemic. Educators must work to foster resiliency skills in students as they continue to navigate the pandemic and begin their post-pandemic experiences.

Educators working with first-year students should create environments that foster engagement and connection through the utilization of resources. Imad (2021) noted that institutions must help students connect stress, trauma, and learning while focusing on mental health. Some suggestions for practitioners include:

  • Counseling Centers and campus partners must develop strategies to assist students in managing isolation, loneliness, interpersonal relationships, and social media. An American College Health Association survey (2020) indicated that 41% of undergraduate students experienced moderate to serious psychological distress and increased to 50% at the onset of the pandemic. Browning et al. (2021) found 85% of college students surveyed experienced elevated levels of distress during the pandemic.
  • Collaborations between Counseling Centers, Health Service Centers, and Peer Education programs can help students navigate trauma, anxiety, and stress through resilience skill development resources. For example, Carleton College offers Happy Hour, a program designed to teach students skills to help them flourish. (https://www.carleton.edu/health-promotion/mental-health/happy-hour/)
  • Faculty and instructors need to focus on students’ classroom adjustment. Students may need help adjusting to norms and expectations of college classrooms. Instructors can also address mental health issues by encouraging open dialogue and sharing resources.
  • Student Affairs professionals should partner with faculty to develop and implement courses related to resilience. Gustavus Adolphus College offers courses called Bouncing Forward and Resiliency Rebound that introduce tools, concepts, and principles of resilience and positive psychology. (https://news.blog.gustavus.edu/2018/01/29/sirois-explores-resiliency-with-gustavus-students/)
  • Educators in the classroom and student affairs must assist students in connecting PTS and PTG. This requires allowing them space and opportunity to develop post-pandemic resilience skills.

Student affairs educators should recognize moving beyond the pandemic may create dissonance and confusion. Students who started college during the pandemic have not had the same college experience as upper-division students. For first-year students, the stress and anxiety of navigating a pandemic may have limited how they interpret what possibilities exist at college. It will be a challenge to engage students where they are. These opportunities speak to multiple ACPA/NASPA Professional Competencies, including Advising & Supporting and Student Learning & Development. Specifically, student affairs practitioners might focus on:

  • Advising & Supporting: Enhance inclusive active listening to fully understand students’ anxieties or concerns; recognize the disproportionate impact that COVID-19 has had on marginalized or underrepresented communities; work to create inclusive spaces for those affected; facilitate individual decision-making and goal setting; (re)teach students about campus resources and opportunities.
  • Student Learning & Development: Existing student development theories do not account for the pandemic experiences of students today. As a result, we must create, adjust, and adapt to meet the needs of students. Use the adapted practices implemented during COVID-19 (e.g., Zoom meetings; online training modules; asynchronous content sharing, etc.) to expand methods of teaching, training, and practice in the future.

Finally, students of color in this study did not talk about community-based practice but focused instead on what they did as individuals. Developing more community-based work and resources is an opportunity for innovation in student affairs. A community approach may be a vital aspect of resilience development in a post-pandemic world on many campuses and is worthy of further investigation.


The traditional first-year student experience was dramatically altered for new students because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the ripple effects of our pandemic response may be felt for years to come. The opportunities and challenges ahead for all of higher education – but in particular the experience of newer students – will be monumental. Students will undoubtedly experience dissonance and discomfort as they unlearn the behaviors they were taught during the pandemic, and educators must be intentional in providing opportunities for students to process and reflect on their experiences. The pandemic has created a burden for many students that may have lasting effects on various aspects of their lives, both on campus and away. Therefore, it is imperative that educators acknowledge and help address pandemic-related trauma by providing resources and tools that will equip students to develop resilience. The findings of this study indicate that students are primed to develop and strengthen resilience skills in a post-pandemic college landscape.

Discussion Questions

  1. What opportunities can be created on your campus to listen to student concerns about a return to “normal” in a post-pandemic world?
  2. How do issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion intersect with building resilience among underrepresented/marginalized students on your campus and how do you help mitigate disproportionate challenges those students may face?
  3. What types of assessment might be conducted on your campus to understand gaps in student development to adjust student services to appropriately meet the needs of students in a post-pandemic setting?
  4. What partnerships/collaborations can occur on your campus to assist students in recognizing and developing resilience skills?


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American College Health Association (2020). American College Health Association-national college health assessment III: Undergraduate student reference group executive summary spring 2020. American College Health Association. https://www.acha.org/documents/ncha/NCHA-III_Spring_2020_Undergraduate_Reference_Group_Executive_Summary.pdf

American Psychiatric Association (2020, August). What is post-traumatic stress disorder? https://www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/ptsd/what-is-ptsd

Attenberg, J. (2020, August 19). Is Resilience Overrated? The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/08/19/health/resilience-overrated.html

Baumeister, R. F., & Leary, M.R. (1995). The need to belong: The desire for interpersonal attachment as fundamental human motivation. Psychological Bulletin, 117(3), 497-529. https://doi.org/10.1037/0033-2909.117.3.497

Borkoski, C. & Roos, B. (2020). Cultivating belonging online during COVID-19. American Consortium for Equity in Education. https://ace-ed.org/cultivating-belonging-online-during-COVID-19helping-students-maintain-social-distancingwithout-feeling-socially-isolated/

Brown, S. (2020, November 10). Meet COVID-19’s freshman class. The Chronicle of Higher Education. https://www.chronicle.com/article/meet-COVID-19s-freshman-class

Browning, M. H. E. M., Larson, L. R., Sharaievska, I., Rigolon A., McAnirlin O., Mullenbach L., et al. (2021) Psychological impacts from COVID-19 among university students: Risk factors across seven states in the United States. PLoS ONE 16(1): e0245327. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0245327

Duckworth, A. L. (2013). Grit: The power of passion and perseverance [Video]. TED Conferences. https://www.ted.com/talks/angela_lee_duckworth_grit_the_power_of_passion_and_perseverance

Edwards, K. (2013, May 29). Post traumatic growth. https://www.keithedwards.com/2013/05/29/post-traumatic-growth/

Fruehwirth, J. C., Biswas, S., & Perreira, K. M. (2021). The COVID-19 pandemic and mental health of first-year college students: Examining the effect of COVID-19 stressors using longitudinal data. PLoS ONE 16(3): e0247999. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0247999

Imad, M. (2021, May 25). How to make mental health a top priority this fall and beyond. Retrieved May 24, 2021, from https://www.chronicle.com/article/how-to-make-mental-health-a-top-priority-this-fall-and-beyond

Infurna, F. J., & Jayawickreme, E. (2019). Fixing the growth illusion: New directions for research in resilience and posttraumatic growth. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 28(2), 152–158. https://doi.org/10.1177/0963721419827017

Krueger, R. A., Casey, M. A. (2015). Focus group: A practical guide for applied research. 5th Ed. Sage Publishing.

Levine, S. Z., Laufer, A., Stein, E., Hamama-Raz, Y., & Solomon, Z. (2009). Examining the relationship between resilience and posttraumatic growth. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 22(4), 282-286.

Li, X., Fu, P., Fan, C., Zhu, M., & Li, M. (2021). COVID-19 stress and mental health of students in locked-down colleges. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 18(2), 771.

Mary Christie Institute (2021). The role of faculty in student mental health. Retrieved April 24, 2021, from https://marychristieinstitute.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/04/The-Role-of-Faculty-in-Student-Mental-Health.pdf

Nicolazzo, Z., & Carter, R. (2019). Resilience. In E. S. Abes, S. R. Jones, & D-L Steward (Eds.), Rethinking college student development theory using critical frameworks (77-93).

Onwuegbuzie, A. J.; Dickinson, W. B.; Leech, N. L.; & Zoran, A. G. (2009). A qualitative framework for collecting and analysing data in focus group research. International Journal of Qualitative Methods, 8(3), p 1-21.

Patel, V. (2020, April 14). COVID-19 is a pivotal moment for struggling students. Can colleges step up? Retrieved July 20, 2020, from https://www.chronicle.com/article/COVID-19-is-a-pivotal-moment-for-struggling-students-can-colleges-step-up/

Potts, C. (in press). Seen and unseen: First year college students’ sense of belonging during the COVID-19 pandemic. College Student Affairs Journal.

The Healthy Minds Network & American College Health Association (2020). The impact of COVID-19 on college student well-being. American College Health Association. https://www.acha.org/documents/ncha/Healthy_Minds_NCHA_COVID_Survey_Report_FINAL.pdf

Wang, X., Hegde, S., Son, C., Keller, B., Smith, A., & Sasangohar, F. (2020). Investigating mental health of U.S. college students during the COVID-19 pandemic: Cross-sectional survey study. Journal of Medical Internet Research, 22(9):e22817. https://doi.org/10.2196/22817

Author Biography

Charlie Potts is Assistant Vice President for Student Life at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minnesota. He earned his MA and EdD at the University of Minnesota. His research interests include men & masculinities, social media, and mental health.

Returning to the Classroom: Being a Graduate Student After Years in the Workforce (2/2) | McGrath, Leppert, Jacobs, Rodriguez, Mallory Jr., Nicklas

written by:

Ali McGrath
Clemson University

Abigail Leppert
Clemson University

Ashley Jacobs
Clemson University

Brandon E. Rodriguez
Clemson University

Jamel Mallory Jr.
Clemson University

Drew Nicklas
Clemson University

In the first article of this two-part series, we shared narratives of work-to-school graduate students who worked before their graduate programs. This deviates from the “traditional student affairs career path” where highly involved undergraduate students, motivated by their involvement in campus organizations, go directly to graduate school to continue their higher education experience. As mentioned in part one, this myth regarding the career path leaves out a significant portion of students who come to graduate programs after years in the workforce or other full-time experiences. These “work-to-school” individuals bring with them additional considerations, experiences, and skillsets when transitioning and studying in a graduate program.

The transition to graduate school as a full-time student is challenging for everyone, but it is unique for work-to-school students as they navigate income, priorities, responsibilities, relationships, and living situations. This article elaborates on our experiences impacted by our journeys, as introduced in part one (Developments, April 2021). Our voices are not intended to be a monolithic representation of all work-to-school students in all graduate programs. Instead, we are sharing our individual stories to provide insight to overlooked or absent experiences.

In this article, we focus on five transition and graduate program experiences common to each of us as work-to-school students: (a) Academics, (b) Assistantship Work and Supervision, (c) Finances, (d) Relationships and Social Connections, and (e) Job Search. We conclude with practical recommendations for supervisors, faculty, and aspiring work-to-school students with the intention of improving understanding and support of this student population.


Determining when to pursue graduate school was not easy, but Jamel decided it was a necessary step to achieve his student affairs career goals. While he had been anticipating challenges associated with his assistantship, Jamel was surprised by the difficulties in returning to the classroom. He struggled applying his time management skills to academics to meet course assignments and reading deadlines. After receiving constructive feedback on his first writing assignment of the semester, Jamel adjusted his priorities and developed new time management techniques to meet the expectations he set for himself to improve in the program.

Alternatively, Ashley’s transition back into the student role was easier than she expected after her five-year career as a teacher. She was ready for the academic requirements of the program and felt more prepared to handle the time pressures and workload than she did as an undergraduate. However, despite working as a high school English teacher, she was not used to graduate-level academic writing and had to refamiliarize herself with APA and the editing process. As a result, and despite her excitement for learning, writing assignments took longer than expected as she relearned how to navigate faculty expectations.

Abigail also struggled relearning the requirements for academic writing and classroom learning but for different reasons. Coming from the corporate world, she had perfected short and direct email writing and was skilled with her work software. In graduate school, she found it challenging to write lengthy papers and reports and had to learn newer applications like Canvas that other students directly from undergraduate institutions were already accustomed to. Like Ashley, Abigail also struggled with APA formatting; whether papers needed to be double-spaced, and when to include a professor’s name and cover page.

Abigail also struggled with assignment prompts that focused on undergraduate experience reflections. It was difficult to remember back to her freshman year since it was more than seven years prior. Additionally, she felt her post-graduation experiences were largely ignored or misaligned with the prompts and overlooked the significant development and growth she experienced while working full-time. These factors made Abigail feel as if she was misrepresenting herself in assignments that ignored her work-to-school experiences.

We also noticed a difference in the classroom between our experiences and those of our direct-from-undergrad classmates who viewed their graduate program as the final step before beginning their careers. Academic burnout seemed more prevalent among the individuals who came straight from undergraduate programs compared to those of us transitioning from the workforce. Since we had time away from schoolwork and academic deadlines, we were re-energized, committed to, and enthusiastic about our learning and coursework. We each made an intentional decision to leave the workforce in pursuit of further education. Some of our peers coming from undergraduate experiences were less inclined to read or prepare for class if assignments were not part of graded assignments. We, however, saw our program as professional development and practical application, which motivated us to learn as much as possible.

Assistantship Work and Supervision

Our unique experiences went beyond the classroom. Abigail anticipated a transition coming from the quota-driven, male-dominated field of Information Technology (IT) into the bureaucratic, learning-focused, female-dominated field of education. She prepared for almost two years—studying educational politics, reading professional organizations’ information, and aggressively saving during the last year of her IT sales salary. She also did intentional and thorough research in preparation for her transition to higher education and graduate school.

Abigail’s work background helped her transition to virtual engagement due to the COVID-19 pandemic. She utilized her corporate administrative skills to learn new systems and used her expertise to assist fellow graduate students. Working 25 hours a week instead of the 40-50 hours she was accustomed to was more complicated than she expected. As a result, she worked over her paid hours when she began the program, but eventually realized she needed to prioritize her learning and development instead of operating as if she had a full-time job.

Additionally, Abigail’s professional development opportunities were reduced based on her full-time experience. For example, at times others assumed Abigail had educational work and supervisory experience. These assumptions resulted in a lack of training or reduced exposure to professional opportunities. It was not until Abigail advocated for herself and clarified her prior experiences and areas for growth that she received the support she needed.

Ali also struggled with changes in her new role. Coming from a full-time, collaborative, position grounded in trust, she quickly realized being a graduate assistant was temporary. She lacked the influence to make significant departmental or institutional changes. Her frustration with this was exacerbated because Ali had more full-time experience than the full-time staff with which she now worked. She found herself trying to prove herself during her first semester to gain more responsibilities and independence. After building trust by proving that she could handle additional responsibility, Ali discussed opportunities with her supervisor and was made a supervisor of her own staff. She worked successfully and asked for help when needed.

Ashley also advocated for more responsibilities in her graduate assistantship role as an academic advisor. Having managed a caseload of over 100 students as a high school teacher, Ashley wanted more challenge and experience in her graduate position. Ashley’s supervisor was open to her suggestions, and Ashley was given a larger workload, more advisees, and the opportunity to work with a statewide higher education conference. However, as with Abigail and Ali, Ashley struggled with the lack of influence and autonomy that her assistantship offered.

While none of these authors came from the same industry – Abigail from technology, Ali from nonprofit, and Ashley from education – all of them struggled to work fewer than 40 hours a week.  In their past experiences they had ownership of projects, initiatives, and long-term responsibilities. The shift to temporary graduate assistantship roles came with less autonomy and positional power. Given this tension, clear communication between work-to-school students and their supervisors is essential to ensure these students feel their skills are best utilized.


Like many work-to-school graduate students, Brandon’s decision to pursue a master’s degree was also a financial one. Before graduate school, Brandon worked full-time for a logistics company making a salary with benefits, owned his first home with his husband, went on vacations, and had financial stability. However, Brandon knew pursuing a graduate degree was necessary to build a career in higher education. To accomplish this, while in school Brandon and his husband lived several states apart with Brandon renting a separate one-bedroom apartment while he attended graduate school. Housing, cost of living, moving, and transportation had to be navigated strategically and intentionally to allow Brandon to focus his time and energy on networking and gaining necessary work experience in graduate school.

Like Brandon, Ashley considered her decision to attend graduate school from a financial standpoint. Different from Brandon and his husband, however, Ashley and her partner relocated together. It was important to that he secured a job in his field comparable to his previous role. This was necessary to maintain the household income as they prepared for her contribution to be significantly reduced. Ashley also knew she needed to select a program that offered tuition reimbursement. The cost of moving from Illinois to South Carolina ultimately drained much of their savings. Ashley took out student loans so they could cover all the expenses. Since Ashley had a full-time employed partner, they moved for her graduate program without significant lifestyle changes.

Alternatively, when Jamel graduated from Bowling Green State University, he considered a student affairs career but did not immediately enter a master’s program. To gain applicable skills and save money to cover graduate school expenses, Jamel worked at the University of Michigan in the First Year Experience office, earning a salary with benefits. It was important to him not to take out any student loans while in graduate school, and he pursued programs with tuition remission and competitive stipends. These financial assistance options allowed him to live comfortably, but he did have to make changes in his spending to ensure he could pay student fees, rent, and other expenses. Although his income dropped nearly 70% when he started graduate school, the temporary financial strain was worth advancing in his career. Jamel returned to school without additional loan debt.

The financial impact of pursuing a master’s degree affected Brandon, Ashley, and Jamel’s decisions about where and when to attend graduate school. They knew the financial cuts they would take leaving full-time jobs. That said, their planning for and individual financial situations varied. The financial change was more than comparing a salary to a stipend but included pieces of their lives which would have been less complex than if they had gone directly into a graduate program after their undergraduate experiences.

Relationships and Social Connections

Not only was financial strategizing important but navigating relationships during transitions into graduate school were challenging. Brandon had been in a relationship with his husband, Denis, for eight years and married for a little over two when they decided for Brandon to get his graduate degree. Coming to the program as an older graduate student with a spouse made Brandon feel “othered” beginning with the application process and intensified when he attended the assistantship placement weekend. He was the only married individual in his cohort which impacted the way that he connected socially to his younger, single counterparts. Additionally, he felt like he was late to start his career, took career path detours, and wished he had started a graduate program sooner.

While Brandon wished he had started graduate school earlier, he also recognized that the six years he worked helped him narrow his career focus and build a strong foundation for his marriage. Being secure in his relationship helped him overcome that feeling of “otherness” while developing strong friendships with classmates. Despite these friends being younger and at different stages of their lives, Brandon found meaningful, deep connections and shared experiences that would provide support during his transition in and out of graduate school.

Ali also navigated relationship changes and her ability to connect socially when she began her graduate program. Having lived and worked in Charlotte, North Carolina for four years after graduating from Framingham State in Massachusetts, it was challenging to manage out-of-state friendships and a long-distance relationship while attempting to engage with program peers. She often felt torn between time with friends and family in Massachusetts, visiting her partner and friends in Charlotte, and creating new relationships in Clemson. Due to her partner and strong network in Charlotte, Ali prioritized those relationships. However, to engage, Ali ran for a vice president position in the Student Personnel Association. Through this role, she developed better connections with her classmates and deeper bonds with the program by planning social and professional development programs.

Ali also faced imposter phenomenon. She worried she would not be able to create programming that engaged her cohort, but she polled her peers and created programs that aligned with their interests. She found her officer experience rewarding – especially when a fellow work-to-school student cited Ali and Brandon’s involvement on the executive board as an inspiration, proving that work-to-school students can be leaders in the program as well.

Drew came to graduate school after working full-time with the intention of building strong relationships away from campus. She was excited to get to know her co-workers, faculty, and cohort, but also eager to meet people beyond her program. As an undergraduate student, Drew built most friendships through on-campus involvement. After working professionally, she learned the value of building friendships beyond work.

To recreate a network of support and healthy boundaries outside of work, Drew sought a part-time job during the first semester of grad school.  The benefits of creating community off-campus while working full-time allowed Drew to focus on social connections in and beyond her program and campus department. By establishing friendships through recreation sports teams and her gym, it was refreshing to talk about things besides work.

Faced with a different challenge, Jamel transitioned from the workforce to a graduate program in the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic. Remote offices and classes, delayed assistantship start dates, and restrictions on in-person gatherings created additional obstacles to building social connections and meaningful relationships. Jamel had an opportunity to connect with others during the assistantship interview weekend and was excited to get to know people and establish relationships. Instead, Jamel struggled to develop relationships virtually.

When Jamel’s office pushed back his start date due to the pandemic, his living situation was affected.  Instead of living with a fellow cohort member, Jamel had to adjust his housing and ended up living with roommates unaffiliated with the program. Although Jamel adapted, the change affected his ability to build relationships with his cohort as quickly as he had anticipated.

As work-to-school students, we naturally gravitated toward one another. We have made connections and friendships with direct-from-undergrad cohort members but having others who understand previous experiences and splitting time between work, academics, and partners or other obligations helped. Working before graduate school taught us to manage commitments, relationships, and to develop boundaries.

Job Search

With graduation approaching, Drew prepared for the job search by attending conferences, webinars, and workshops. She found resources on navigating her student affairs search, but most information focused on students doing their first job search. Drew needed to consult with mentors to craft her application materials to explain her graduate and full-time experience.

Additionally, Drew had to figure out how much experience she had according to job postings. Having worked one year between undergraduate and graduate education, Drew expected to be applying to entry-level positions, but found some positions required one to three years of experience. Drew has cultivated support from professors and professionals who also worked before returning to school, but it took additional effort and time.

Ali also found applying her work experience challenging. While she worked four years professionally supervising volunteers, position descriptions often discredited non-student affairs experience. Therefore, despite having years of professional experience, Ali was only qualified for the same entry-level positions as her direct-from-undergrad classmates. Ali was also discouraged from talking about her full-time professional experience during interviews because her previous industry was “not applicable to a student affairs job.”

Ali struggled with this given the highly transferable skills from her previous role which included supervision, relationship building, and critical thinking. The feedback and culture in student affairs job searches exacerbated Ali’s feelings of being behind her straight-from-undergraduate classmates since their searches looked similar despite her additional experience. In the spring semester classroom conversations and support seemed to focus on first-time job-seekers and she felt overlooked. Ali saw students were provided identical job postings, advice, and resources regardless of their professional and personal experiences.

In our experiences, the student affairs field assumes a common linear path from undergraduate education to grad school to full-time employment. Students approaching graduation were treated as a monogamous group and received generalized job search advice and best practices. Additionally, our field often undervalues experiences outside of student affairs. Work-to-school students need unique support in the job search process by practitioners, faculty, and mentors that understand their experiences and can help them best articulate their qualifications and find jobs that respect their previous experiences.


Each of us had a lot to consider in transitioning back to the classroom. We anticipated changes such as income, but other aspects surprised us, like differences in our workplace responsibilities. Though challenges presented themselves throughout this process, our time spent working helped ground us and fueled our success in the program. Having taken the time to work, we better understand our respective career non-negotiables and what drives us as individuals. We also can reflect on how we can continue to solidify transferable skills, identify areas of growth, and utilize reflective practice that we may not have had without our prior experiences.

We will take these experiences with us as supervisors and mentors in the future. To provide the field with some tools we have developed a resource for continuing the conversation and thinking on the experiences of work-to-school students. The prompts and recommendations for supervisors and faculty to consider and incorporate in their work. We have also included prompts and recommendations for students who are preparing to shift from work to a graduate program. In the end, we see our experiences not as less than, but simply different from those of our peers. We are excited to continue the work in the future and hope that these articles provide information that can be used to support all students in student affairs graduate programs.

Recommendations for Supervisors and Practitioners

  • Ask non-traditional students about their experiences before graduate school.
  • Challenge personal subconscious ageist and/or classist biases.
  • Consider these prompts when supervising graduate students with work experience:
    • How can you better understand your students’ past work experiences?
    • How might previous work experience affect onboarding processes?

Recommendations for Faculty & Instructors

  • Make sure intended learning outcomes and material apply to all students
  • Invite non-traditional students to speak on their experiences.
  • Consider these prompts when teaching graduate students with work experience:
  • How do classes include opportunities to bring in previous work experiences?
  • How can course activities highlight transferable skills from former positions?

Recommendations for Those Considering Making a Work-to-Graduate School Transition

  • Fill out the FAFSA each year as you may qualify for aid and not realize it.
  • Consider the full application process, including requirements of interview days.
  • Review application material with others who worked before graduate school.
  • Build your network in and out of the program.
  • Communicate your needs with your supervisor and faculty.
  • Find alternate sources of support and advice.
  • Do not forget to maintain your relationships during the transition.
  • Be confident in your experiences.
  • Consider these prompts when transitioning back to the classroom:
  • What transferable skills do you possess that will help class or your assistantship?
  • What support do you need from your supervisor?
  • Which offices or departments do you want to experience?

About the Authors

Ali McGrath graduated in May 2021 with a Master of Education in Student Affairs from Clemson University. She is currently an Area Coordinator at Wingate University.

Abigail Leppert is a second-year, full-time graduate student at Clemson University (Class of 2022). She is a Graduate Community Director with Clemson Home.

Ashley Jacobs is a second-year, full-time graduate student at Clemson University (Class of 2022). She is a graduate assistant for Student Services in the Department of Languages.

Brandon E. Rodriguez graduated in May 2021 with a Master of Education in Student Affairs from Clemson University. He currently works as the Transfer Outreach Coordinator at the Oregon Institute of Technology in Portland, Oregon.

Jamel Mallory Jr. is a second-year, full-time graduate student at Clemson University (Class of 2022).  He is a graduate assistant for Off-Campus Internships & Marketing in the Center for Career & Professional Development.

Drew Nicklas graduated in May 2021 with a Master of Education in Student Affairs from Clemson University.  She is currently searching for employment opportunities in orientation programs and student leadership but is open to learning more about possible opportunities.

We also wish to acknowledge previous contributions made to this series by Mallory Powers of Clemson University, as well as the editing efforts provided by Dr. Michelle Boettcher and Dr. Tony Cawthon of Clemson University.

Book Review: The Post-Pandemic Liberal Arts College: A Manifesto for Revolution | Hays

written by:

Dylan Paul Hays
Clemson University

The Post-Pandemic Liberal Arts College: A Manifesto for Revolution is a light at the end of the tunnel for times that have been so very cruel to the liberal arts college community. Its seriousness and genuine heart provide an enjoyable read that will also engage you in a sense that the present is only the beginning for liberal arts colleges.

Benedix, B., Volk, S. (2020) The post-pandemic liberal arts college: A manifesto for revolution. Belt Publishing.


Graduating in 2020 and 2021 will long be associated with the COVID-19 pandemic and its lasting implications not just on the experience of recent college grads but on the entire world. Being a college senior in the spring of 2020 was my entire identity, and the four years I spent at my small liberal arts campus will be the foundation for whom I become. In March of 2020, as the pandemic’s force unfolded—my  campus community, my support system, and my identity were changed. Four years of college seemingly wrapped up in one email asking us to collect our items and never come back.

Many other liberal arts college students across the country shared these experiences. Those who were not graduating lost the chance to say goodbye to close friends and other once-in-a-lifetime opportunities. Coming back to campus in a compromised system was likely just as agonizing and frustrating and filled with loss as what the recent graduates experienced.

Additionally, we are facing the potential loss not only of experiences, events, or time away from in-person campus experiences. We are losing liberal arts institutions themselves. Zemsky (2020) estimated that within the next five years, nearly 20% of all small liberal arts colleges will have to close their doors for good. This context is essential for fully engaging with the work Bendix and Volk have done with this book.

The Post-Pandemic Liberal Arts College: A Manifesto for Revolution is a testament to the lived experiences of modern liberal arts students. The striking truths laid out through the book echo what students have been saying for years: This simply is not working (Benedix & Volk, 2020)

Text Overview

The Post-Pandemic Liberal Arts College: A Manifesto for Revolution by Benedix and Volk (2020) is a compelling and timely read. The text centers the experience of liberal arts institutions in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. Instead of simply grieving loss and change, the book positions the pandemic as a catalyst for change in liberal arts institutions, and across higher education. Divided into three sections, the book details the collapsing structure and foundation of liberal arts colleges. Each section itself is divided into detailed subsections and narrative insights. Within the early sections of the book, the authors detail the lived on-campus experience as the pandemic forced closures and demanded faculty to restructure entire curriculums overnight. One student testimony in particular struck me, as I could not have thought of better words to describe how I, as a 2020 liberal arts graduate, felt at the time:

I’ve been ripped away from my home of the last four years. That was, obviously, the right call; however, I did almost everything for four years inside one square mile plot of land. I lived, worked, slept, ate, felt every range of emotion, calibrated every facet of my academic life within that one square mile. All of my routine, all of my community which I rely on to stabilize me and help me be successful at DePauw (University) is unavoidably gone. (p. 26)


The second section, “This Really Isn’t Working” explores how years of economic turmoil, civil unrest, and rising inequality have resulted in a system of higher education that is inherently toxic. This section details why small liberal arts colleges are dying off at such an alarming rate. The stories and narratives of the students detailed in the first two sections can be heartbreaking at times, as well as refreshing to hear as a recent liberal arts grad myself.

The third section, “A Manifesto”, is a detailed overview of how to rebuild these institutions after this pandemic. The “post-pandemic” institutions the authors advocate for are colleges and universities that properly serve their institutions’ true missions and values as well as create a type of liberal arts education that works for the students who need it the most. Students with marginalized identities could thrive in liberal arts colleges, but only if those colleges are ready, willing, and able to do the work necessary to be an institution that works in the twenty-first century. This section lays out a constructive framework detailing the cracks in the system and how to fill them, as well as nearly two dozen small changes that could completely change the way small liberal arts colleges serve their students.


The book is most compelling when it connects personal stories with suggested changes. The authors have an incredible ability to think critically about their own experiences but also convey the experiences of their students and their colleagues in ways that are clear and meaningful. The formatting of the book, within its three sections, allows the reader to gradually understand the issues as well as their importance, not just the educational process, but the actual lived experiences of the students receiving this education.

The text focuses heavily on diversity, equity, and inclusion practices across higher education, and acknowledges the new civil rights movement we are in. The social inequalities that have torn us apart in recent years will only grow wider—things will get worse before they get better. The book acknowledges the important role colleges and universities will have in social justice movements in the coming years but does not focus heavily on the past. These sections of the text are the most difficult to digest, as it requires the reader to contextualize and reconsider entire systems of doing things. The manifesto portion of this book excels at forcing the reader to reconsider entire systems, not just individual actions or programs.

The book could be strengthened with more focus on just how crucial the role of higher education will be in addressing inequality and inequity. Additionally, the role of higher education in the past as it relates to social change would enhance the text. There are thousands of examples of social justice movements on college campuses. Improving our future must come with an understanding and acknowledgment of our past—and although the manifesto focuses on that bright future, the book could have spent more time helping the reader understand how the complex political and economic histories of colleges and universities directly impact the challenges our students are facing today.

Connection to Student Affairs

The manifesto itself covers how universities run from a business perspective but explains it in a way that student affairs or academic affairs staff can easily understand. The manifesto portion provides an overview of both qualitative and quantitative data, oral histories, and a meaningful core curriculum that has the potential to change the work we all do at colleges and universities. Even when thinking about my own journey through a liberal arts institution, I knew that the faculty and staff around me were listening, but it’s empowering to read those same stories and concerns the way they’re written in the text.

This text, if properly introduced into liberal arts curriculum, could make a serious and meaningful impact on those institutions and their students. Institutions that pride themselves on diversity and inclusion, professional development, or listening to their students in general should consider making this a required reading for all faculty, staff, and student affairs professionals.

For professionals at all types of institutions, the book provides a critical analysis of higher education as a hole and speculates on its future. As we transition into the post-pandemic world, the financial and political stressors facing colleges and universities will only get worse. Inequalities, especially systemic ones deeply rooted within higher education will only grow. One section, focused on public policy’s role in higher education expresses the following:

A disregard for higher education at any time is shortsighted. But at a time where our very lives depend on the knowledge produced in these institutions – consider not just the current COVID-19 pandemic, but the climate crisis already upon us – such negligence must be recognized as nothing less than suicidal. (p. 139)

Professionals and faculty will find new examples and policy analysis of many of the more complex financial barriers that university administration attempts to shield their employees from. Benedix and Volk (2020) make comprehensive arguments for every financial, logistical, and social-justice based policy they address, and use a multitude of examples from institutions across the country.


As we begin to unpack the trauma this pandemic has brought, as well as work to find solutions to the many problems this virus has created, critical thinking of our students and our nation’s higher education institutions will be a key part of that future. This book is a testament to a bright future for all types of students and all types of institutions but serves as a brutal reminder for what our future could be if we fail to act now. I leave you with the author’s own words, as they describe it best:

It is our firm belief and ardent hope that we will learn ourselves out of these crisis and that small liberal arts colleges, as they have before, will play a critical part in this. Now is the time to seize back the power we have given away. (p. 145)


Zemsky, Robert, et al. The College Stress Test. Johns Hopkins, 2020.

Dylan Hays is a graduate student in the Clemson University Counselor Education – Student Affairs program. Hays’ assistantship is currently working with Student Leader Development in the Center for Student Leadership & Engagement at Clemson University. Hays received his bachelor’s degree from a small liberal arts college, Ohio Wesleyan University.

Reflections on Career Change – An Autobiographical Case Study | Grites

written by: Tom Grites

Dr. Quincy Martin’s article in the last issue of Developments (March 2021) resonated so clearly with me that I wanted to share my own rather unconventional path in comparison to the one that he described. Since I have been a member of ACPA for over 50 years and was more actively engaged in it early in my career, I thought it would be good to share the experiences that enabled the transition I made from Student Affairs to Academic Affairs. First, allow me to share my experiences with our organization.

ACPA Experiences

The Dean of Students at Illinois State University (then Illinois State Normal University), Dr. Richard Hulet, was the person who first talked to me about the possibility of a career in student affairs. While the seed was planted, it did not begin to take root until two or three years later when I was asked by a faculty member from ISNU that I had for a class to volunteer to assist him as an exhibitor at the American Personnel and Guidance Association (APGA) Convention in Detroit in 1968. Dr. David Livers knew I had opted to start my career at Eastern Michigan University, just outside Detroit as a Head Resident Advisor. It was then that I learned of ACPA as the higher ed and student affairs “arm” of APGA.

Once I got to the University of Maryland and started my Ph.D. program in 1969, I learned more about ACPA and within a few years was elected Chair of what was then Commission I Organization, Administration, and Development of Student Personnel Services, reporting to Susan (Bowling) Komives, the VP for Commissions. I was simultaneously serving as the second President of the brand new National Academic Advising Association (NACADA). From that point I have dedicated my professional efforts to NACADA, but I have maintained continuous membership and investment in ACPA.

I published my first article in the NASPA Journal (1977) and several early ones in the Journal of College Student Personnel. NACADA’s journal was not yet in publication. During my ACPA experiences I became acquainted with Ted Miller, Roger Winston and Steve and Ken Ender. I also met Burns Crookston (while I was writing my dissertation) and Terry O’Banion, whose 1972 articles form the foundation of the developmental academic advising concept that is still practiced and after which many programs are modeled today. Ted, Roger, Steve, and I subsequently co-authored the highly-cited and often-quoted book on Developmental Academic Advising (1984).

Furthermore, while at Maryland both Lee Knefelkamp and Nancy Schlossberg joined the CAPS faculty, and Susan Komives later became the Department Chair. They have been instrumental in developing the field of student affairs, in engaging with ACPA, and I am fortunate to have maintained contact with all of them throughout my career. Summarily, my ACPA roots are deep, and they bloom every year via my consistent membership. I was inspired by ACPA as an organization and helped develop the organizational structure for NACADA along the lines of what I learned from being involved in ACPA.

As I read Martin’s article, I kept thinking “That was me” or “That could have been me.” For example, I did not recognize the motivations he describes, such as a faculty position, lack of recognition for the work done in student affairs, flexibility, autonomy, and work independence, until after I made the transition. My motivations were different, as described in the “story” below.

The factors he describes were also somewhat different for me. Whereas his article focused on individual factors and social support factors to be examined prior to making a decision to transition from student affairs (e.g., socioeconomic status, psychological preparedness, culture isolation, and metrics for success), my experiences in academic affairs took place after I had already made the transition. For example, I was already in the second year of coursework in my doctoral program; I was learning the value of research skills and publishing; and I was developing ideas for the latter as I gained more experience in my first job in academic affairs. I also realized from my four years of experience in student affairs (then housing, now residence life) that I wanted to remain in an administrative role, rather than move to that of a tenure-track faculty member. However, I did teach a course as part of my doctoral internship and have loved teaching one course each semester at Stockton University as an adjunct.

Lastly, I fully agree with Martin’s implications for practice and future research. He recommends a “careful consideration of holistic factors” with an opportunity to enable stronger student affairs and academic affairs relationships when making this transition. Additionally, I concur with his conclusion that those who are contemplating a change from practitioner to faculty “take inventory of factors that will facilitate a smooth transition.” I would have benefitted from his insights earlier in my career as I learned in reflecting on my own story as described below.

My Career Story

As we approach the 100th anniversary of ACPA and engage in reflection, I find myself reflecting on my own experiences during almost exactly half that time. Just as I think my career path exemplifies a story worth telling, I would encourage others to share their experiences – whether you have been working in Student Affairs for a year, ten years, or decades. Let me begin with my decision about where to attend college.

Phase 1

In mid-August of the summer following my graduation from high school in Danville, IL in 1962, I was sitting in the local pizza hangout with some of my high school friends. We were discussing our college plans, although mine were still uncertain at the time. I was a pretty good athlete in high school (football and track – sprints) and had opportunities to attend several colleges on partial scholarships. I was a first-generation college student and had little guidance in how to go about making that decision about higher education.

As we were chatting, another friend came in, along with a family friend of his who was passing through the area on his way to California. When I mentioned the Colorado School of Mines as a possible school I would attend, he offered to give me free transportation there so that he would have some company for the next 1,000 miles of his journey. I agreed, and that was how I decided where to attend college, at least for the first year.

I was now going to become an engineer – although I had absolutely no idea what that meant at the time. My father thought it seemed like a good idea, since I had excelled in math in high school, and he had some acquaintances who were engineers. He was a tradesman (glazier) and often had to speak with construction officials (engineers). My future seemed to be falling into place.

Phase 2:

My first year at Mines opened my eyes to real academic competition – the first time I had ever really experienced any such challenges. They really did tell us the “look to your left; look to your right” story – the one where two out of three of us would not make it through the program – at my orientation in September of 1962. I am still today counted in the attrition statistics at the Colorado School of Mines. I left Mines after my first year, barely escaping with a 2.01 GPA, but still doing well in math (and the one English course we had to take). Chemistry, Physics, Engineering Drawing, Geology – not so well.

Upon my return to Danville, I was now faced without the scholarship. We had no college savings, so I sought summer employment, but I did not earn enough to be able to return to Colorado or even to transfer anywhere. Very near the end of August (1963) I was offered a job as a brakeman on a railroad, which was one of the better paying jobs in the area at that time, so I took it and became a college stop-out.

I worked until December when I was placed on leave because the freight business was not as busy in the winter. During this time, I had already applied to transfer to Illinois State (then Normal) University for the Fall Term of 1964, and I had researched the scholarship program that provided two scholarships to every high school in the state for students who would follow a teacher education program. I had always thought about being a math teacher – at least I knew what that was. I was awarded one of the scholarships that was returned by a student who had “attritted” from another school. Rather than wait until the fall, I requested admission for the spring and was permitted to enroll. I now became a math major and English minor.

In my first English class I was faced with a new way of studying literature. Honestly, I could not take the criticism of my opinions, so I changed my minor to Physical Education. I always knew I wanted to coach as well as teach, so it made perfect sense.

I returned to work on the railroad the next summer and earned money which enabled me to return to ISU. That decision to return to school, however, was solidified when I accidentally overturned a boxcar load of soya beans because I was not being fully attentive to my work. Yes, picture it – several tons of soya beans strewn all over the tracks and roadside, not to mention the overturned boxcar that was now blocking all passenger rail traffic for two days. I knew it was time to get back to college as quickly as possible. I did, and also enrolled the next two years in summer school and graduated “on time” in June 1966, fully certified to teach high school math and physical education. I was ready for my career to begin…or was I?

Phase 3:

While doing my student teaching in math, I tutored and worked with students individually after school. I learned that I also enjoyed the individual work, so I thought it might be fun to be a guidance counselor. Why not? I could stay at ISU another year – a place I very much enjoyed, and I could earn my master’s degree. Now, picture this – a first-generation student going to graduate school. By this time I knew a little bit more about higher education, but I had to explain to my parents why I was still going to be in college for another year.

Through a series of events, I was admitted that summer to the graduate program and awarded an assistantship in general psychology with the same instructor with whom I had taken my only undergraduate psychology course. Plus, the assistantship was going to pay for everything AND provide a stipend (I did not know what that word meant at the time). I held review sessions, barely staying a chapter ahead of the students, graded papers, and even taught the course several times due to the instructor’s illness. What I quickly learned from this experience career-wise was that I enjoyed working with college students even more than I did high school students. So, what to do next?

I really did not know how to approach a job search, so I turned to something familiar. I felt I could be an asset to my high school if I could return there to teach, coach, and counsel. I inquired about the possibility and they liked the idea and offered a contract to me. However, a few months earlier I had seen a flyer in the Guidance Department office that described residence hall positions at Eastern Michigan University. I had sent an application there – even though I had never lived in a residence hall. As I waited for my teaching contract, I visited Eastern and was offered a position. Here was my opportunity to work with college students, so I took that position instead. Thus began my unintended higher education career.

Phase 4:

While working for two years at Eastern I realized how the world of student affairs in higher education worked and that I had found a niche. I also discovered that I needed to pursue a doctoral degree in order to advance in this profession. As a result, I began exploring these programs, but knew that I had to work full-time to be able to afford further education.

I was fortunate to be offered two residence hall positions where I could simultaneously pursue a doctoral program. The combination of the degree program I wanted (College Student Personnel Administration) and a full-time position offer (Assistant Director of Housing) at the University of Maryland College Park seemed to fit, so I accepted both. I was on my way to a career as a future Dean of Students or Vice President for Student Affairs…  so, I thought.

During my (only) year in residence halls at UMCP I became aware of the first Director of Housing position at a new branch campus – the University of Maryland at Baltimore County (UMBC). I applied and was hired. Of course, this meant commuting back to College Park for graduate courses, but I was ready to do that. However, certain personnel decisions on the UMBC campus frustrated me, so I considered going to school full-time in order to complete my degree sooner and move on.

I consulted with the Dean of Graduate Studies in the College of Education about graduate assistantships (since I now knew what benefits were associated with them). She had also been one of my instructors in the doctoral program, but she had to inform me that all assistantships had been awarded. However, she noted that the Dean’s Office had a full-time position available, but that it was an entry level position and would not pay as much as I was currently earning. I interviewed for it with the Associate Dean – mostly because it was going to be a lower stress position than what I was currently doing. Additionally, my office would be located across the hall from my academic department. The Associate Dean also indicated that I could work on my degree as much and as hard and as fast I wanted. I accepted.

As Supervisor of Admission to Teacher Education and this new environment in an academic dean’s office rather than a residence hall, I became exposed to an entirely new higher education environment. This world included faculty, curriculum, no late-night meetings or mischief, academic standards, and academic advising. The latter work – academic advising – that I began doing as a matter of course was exactly the nature of work for which I had a latent passion that enabled me to unleash and flourish.

During my first three years in this position, I found the happy medium between academic and student affairs work. I even changed my dissertation research because of the work I was doing and the personal rewards I was experiencing. Upon completion of my Ph.D. in 1974, I remained in the position for three more years until I accepted the position of Director of Academic Advising – a relatively rare title and position in 1977 – at (then) Stockton State College. This was an institution that was barely six years old, but with opportunities to experiment and develop an academic advising program from its beginning.

At Stockton I continued to learn about students, faculty, curriculum, collaboration with other units, administration, technology, and campus politics. Most importantly for me, I learned that the academic advising process interfaces with all these other areas. As such, I have held several positions in academic affairs, although I have never held faculty rank. I have reported to work in academic affairs for the past 43 years, and I do student development work every day. What a job!

Lessons Learned

The first thing I learned from all this is that it is really difficult to “plan” a career. Some people do and are successful, but I expect those people are quite rare. I can only talk about my career where almost every aspect was somewhat accidental or circumstantial. In fact, I changed my academic/career plans every time I earned a degree: math teacher to counselor; high school counselor to college residence hall director; student affairs Ph.D. to academic administrator.

Another thing I learned is that you just never know when your true passion for the work you love will become evident. For me it was not until I accepted a “lower-level” position in a relatively unknown environment. Similarly, I did not realize I had a passion, and even a skill, for writing until I began writing my dissertation. I changed my English minor, but not because of the writing aspect. I just never had the opportunity to have my writing ability surface until the dissertation experience.

Finally, I learned (for myself) that one’s college major does not dictate what your career will eventually be, or even your first job. My math major was my strength and my interest at that time in my life, and I use some of that, but not to the extent or in the context that I originally thought I would.

Advice Given

To Undergraduate Students

Major in what you enjoy studying. If you try to pursue something that is not your passion, you will probably not reach your optimal level of success or satisfaction. Also, remember that you never know when your true passion will emerge and evolve.

To Student Affairs Graduate Students

Keep your eyes on the prize: a job, but work in this field is about student success: personal, academic, and career development. Supporting student success occurs in a multitude and wide variety of jobs. I was often encouraged to seek employment in the corporate world, but after two or three interviews, I quickly learned that I could not “sell” anything but a college education. That passion always surfaced and prevailed in every aspect of my professional life – advising, teaching, writing, making presentations, holding national offices, and even helping found a national professional organization – NACADA: The Global Community For Academic Advising with over 12,000 current members.

I do not expect every graduate student to engage in all these areas – and there are other areas in which you may choose to invest your time that have not been a part of my career experience. Regardless, make your presence, your passion, your skills known through all the professional activities in which you choose to engage. Bear in mind that “student success” means something different to different students and can change for individual students over time.

To Academic Advisors

Relate your career path to students, especially if it is as checkered and unplanned as mine has been. I would even suggest you post a diagram, or prepare a handout, that illustrates your path to where you are.

Additionally, do not be afraid to share your experiences and insights. Another anecdote I learned was that a significant reason I was selected for the position of Director of Academic Advising at Stockton was due to the influence of a very well-respected political science faculty member on the Search Committee. That person had read my NASPA article and advocated that I “actually thought about this stuff.” As practitioners your knowledge of student experiences is current, based on student engagement, and invaluable to our profession.

To Faculty

In all honesty, I saw my undergraduate advisor only once, and never thought such a person could make any difference in what I was doing. Faculty have more opportunities to facilitate student success than most other individuals on campus simply because they have more regular contact with students. Do not overlook the opportunities to teach students more than accounting, biology, computer science, fine and performing arts, history, literature, etc.

As for graduate faculty, you now teach mostly graduate students – about undergraduate students, characteristics, and behaviors – and often advise, engage and sponsor research about the same. Try to engage yourselves in undergraduate learning opportunities as frequently as you can, e.g., attending athletic events and/or live music and drama performances, advising student clubs and organizations, sponsoring undergraduate research projects, or even academic advising (small numbers, of course) where permitted.

My learned experiences, both in student affairs and academic affairs, have enabled me to adopt the “academic advising as teaching” mantra as an opportunity to teach every student something when I am engaged with them. I never know what I’ll be teaching until they give me a cue, but I can almost always probe beyond the simple questions to attempt a more developmental conversation.

To Administrators

Resist establishing policies that force or require students to make major/career decisions prematurely. I realize and understand the reasons for doing so, but such actions might be unintended and serve as contributors to students leaving our institutions prematurely. Obviously, this approach suggests that a very strong academic advising program on the campus needs to be in place so that students have access to someone who is able to challenge and support students in their quests for the perfect fit.

To Parents and Other Constituents

The college experience is a time for exploration and growth. Students need space and time for their own development journeys. Undue pressures, mandated policies and requirements, and financial burdens can compromise the value of this experience.


I hope my response to Dr. Martin’s excellent transition guide will generate many conversations about the value of collaboration between student affairs and academic affairs units in order to foster the best learning for your students. I also hope that those now working student affairs realize both the value and the expectations of making the transition from one “side of the house” to the other, irrespective of the uncertain and perhaps twisted path that might lead you there.


Grites, T. J. (1977). Student development through academic advising: A 4X4 model. NASPA Journal, 14, 33-37.

Martin III, Q. (2021, March). Motivations and factors of student affairs professionals who transition into academic affairs. ACPA Developments (2).

Author Biography

Having retired on July 1, 2020 Tom Grites served as Assistant Provost for Academic Support in his nearly 43 years at Stockton.  He primary responsibilities were in academic Orientation programming, First-Year Experience efforts, and transfer student initiatives. He regularly teaches his transfer seminar course for new transfer students.

He was a founding member of the National Academic Advising Association (NACADA) and served as its President.  He serves as Senior Editor of the NACADA Journal.

Dr. Grites has written over 60 professional publications; delivered more than 120 conference presentations and webinars; and he has conducted academic advising workshops and program reviews on over 100 campuses.

Tom earned his B.S. and M.S. degrees from Illinois State University and Ph.D. from the University of Maryland.  Both institutions have awarded him distinguished Alumni Awards; he was inducted into the ISU College of Education Hall of Fame in 2007.  He was recognized as a Transfer Champion by the National Institute for the Study of Transfer Students in 2015.  Most recently, he received the 2021 NACADA Region 2 award for his Outstanding Contribution to Scholarship; additionally, in 2021 Region 2 awarded the Thomas J. Grites Service to Region 2 award in his name.


Examination of Admissions Criteria in Higher Education Graduate Preparatory Programs| Tolman, O’Halloran, Meert

written by:

Steven Tolman
Georgia Southern University

Kimberly O’Halloran
Widener University

Abby Meert
Grinnell College


The field of student affairs in higher education highlights a noble commitment to the growth and development of the whole person (Gansemer-Topf, Ross, & Johnson, 2006; Komives & Woodard, 1996). This commitment is not limited to student development, although in a helping-profession it can often take precedence. For aspiring and current student affairs professionals, a commitment to holistic individual development can be just as intrinsically and extrinsically beneficial. One avenue for stimulating whole person growth is the pursuit of a graduate degree; a transformational experience also has the ability to increase an individual’s potential earnings (Baum, Ma, & Payea, 2013; Zhang, 2005).

As of fall 2019, approximately 19.9 million students enrolled at an institution of higher education in the United States; 16.9 million of which enrolled in an undergraduate program while 3 million pursued a graduate degree (National Center for Education Statistics [NCES], n.d.). In an effort to attract more students to higher education, institutions have continued to expand their graduate program offerings both in number and subject matter. As a result, the number of graduate degrees conferred has increased substantially since the late twentieth century, prompting many to call them “the new bachelor’s degree” (Blagg, 2018, p. 1). For example, in the academic year 2000-01, postsecondary institutions conferred approximately 474,000 master’s degrees and 120,00 doctoral degrees; of those, 134,300 were related to education (NCES, 2019). The most recently published data indicate that in the 2016-17 academic year, postsecondary institutions awarded 805,000 master’s degrees and 181,000 doctoral degrees; of those, 158,700 were related to education (NCES, 2019). Applications to graduate programs increased steadily at a 4% average annual rate from Fall 2007 to Fall 2017. Graduate enrollment is projected to increase annually by 3% through 2028 (McFarland et al., 2019).

The American College Personnel Association’s (ACPA) online “Graduate Prep Program Directory” lists 127 higher education graduate programs across the United States in educational leadership, higher education administration, student affairs, and counseling, among others (n.d.). These programs in particular face the challenge of recruiting from a diverse pool of prospective students in the absence of true undergraduate feeder programs. For example, while many biology graduate students will possess undergraduate biology backgrounds, higher education graduate students come from diverse educational backgrounds as it is not a typical undergraduate degree option. The same can be said of prospective Ph.D. or Ed.D. candidates; although most professionals in higher education have a master’s degree related to education, these degrees often vary in focus. For example, a candidate may have a master’s degree in “Higher Education Administration,” “Student Affairs,” “College Student Development and Administration,” “College Student Personnel,” “Educational Leadership,” “Global Higher Education,” or “College Counseling,” to name a few (ACPA, n.d.).

As graduate education continues to increase in popularity (Blagg, 2018; Darolia et al., 2014), admissions committees for degree programs in higher education have been tasked with identifying candidates who are more qualified for success with relatively limited applicant information. In good humor, Litwiller (2017) posed a valid question: “. . . what criteria are they using, anyway? Grades? Good looks? Tea Leaves?” (p 43). While this process may seem mysterious to those outside of the decision-making process, admissions committees generally use the following as common indicators of graduate success: undergraduate grade point average (UGPA), undergraduate institution, degree field, standardized test scores, letters of recommendation, personal statements, academic writing, interviews, and research experience, although this list is not exhaustive (Chari & Potvin, 2019; Darolia et al., 2014; Kuncel et al., 2014; Posselt, 2016). However, these admissions criteria may or may not predict the extent to which a student will excel or struggle in graduate school (Darolia et al., 2014).

Review of the Literature

For many years, test scores such as those from the Graduate Record Examinations (GRE) have been widely influential in the selection process of potential students for graduate programs. First introduced by the Educational Testing Service (ETS) in 1949, the GRE has become a mainstay in the evaluation of applicants to many graduate school programs (Educational Testing Service, 2014; Miller & Stassun, 2014). According to ETS, “GRE tests are best known for their role in helping faculty committees select applications for admission to graduate programs” (Educational Testing Service, 2018, p. 4). ETS notes that their assessment has been shaped by over 70 years of data to create an examination that is a fair and reliable measurement of a person’s knowledge (Educational Testing Service, 2018). However, data suggests that disagreements have developed regarding the GRE’s ability to predict the success of future graduate students leading some to suggest it may be best suited as one measure amongst many (Orlando, 2005).

Kuncel et al. (2001) evaluated both GRE scores and UGPA as predictors of graduate school success for over 80,000 graduate students, and they found that both measures were generally valid predictors of graduate GPA. Moneta-Koehler et al. (2017) also considered the GRE as a tool in predicting success of doctoral students in the bio-medical field, and they found that the exam featured several limitations. While Moneta-Koehler et al. (2017) provided evidence that the GRE was moderately predictive of student grades, the data showed a failure to predict student research productivity and overall student progress in the program as measured by qualifying exam results, graduation and time to defense, and the number of presentations and publications.

Both Kuncel et al. (2001) and Moneta-Koehler et al. (2017) found the GRE to be a valid predictor of first semester GPA, which could be due to the GRE’s assessment of “characteristics such as test taking skills, attention, time management, stress management, test question comprehension, and reviewing one’s work” (Moneta-Koehler et al, 2017, p. 14), skills that do not encompass the critical thinking, research, and writing skills necessary for continued success in many graduate programs (Kuncel et al., 2001; Moneta-Koehler et al., 2017). Sternberg and Williams (1997) produced similar results in their study of graduate psychology students, for which they found the GRE to be useful in predicting first semester GPA but fairly limited in its effectiveness at predicting other measures of progress or success. In general, a majority of studies seem to advise admission committees to limit the value they place on the GRE in favor of a more wholesome admissions process (Fedynich, 2017).

ETS also makes a couple of cautious claims regarding the application of GRE scores. They state that GRE scores, “do not and cannot offer insight about all of the qualities that are important in predicting academic success,” and, “The scores need to be interpreted carefully because… they are not exact measures” (Educational Testing Services, 2018, p. 5). In fact, there are other arguments that the GRE may even have bias against certain demographics of people that may be statistically more likely to score lower on the GRE due to factors such as race, gender, or socioeconomic status (Educational Testing Service, 2012; Moneta-Koehler et al., 2017; Pennock-Roman, 1994). For example, data exists that suggests that men systematically score higher on the GRE than women, and white people score higher than African Americans in the field of physical science (Miller & Stassun, 2014; Scott & Shaw, 1985).

Milner et al. (1984) suggested that not only does the GRE fail to predict future school performance, but they also argued that its elimination would not result in the matriculation of a lower quality population of students. Removal of the GRE as an admission requirement may also attract students that would not otherwise apply to graduate school. However, one study of health professions programs showed that removing the GRE will not necessarily increase the enrollment of underrepresented populations (Cahn, 2015). Rather, intentional recruitment practices seemed to promote more diverse student populations. Additionally, studies that consider GRE scores as a predictor of graduate school success often only offer data on matriculated students, which may skew results through the exclusion of this possible data (Kuncel et al., 2001; Moneta-Koehler et al., 2017; Ryan et al., 1998). Although they found that GRE scores slightly predicted graduate performance in a Master of Public Administration (MPA) program, Darolia et al. (2014) ultimately suggest that admissions officers consider the benefits and costs of using an exam that research has suggested has implicit race, gender, and age bias.

Darolia et al. (2014) also concluded that GRE scores and UGPA are the two most common variables considered by committees in the graduate admissions process. Various studies have reinforced the importance of UGPA by concluding that as an “objective [measure] of previous academic performance,” it is predictive of an individual’s graduate GPA (Darolia et al., 2014; Halberstam and Redstone, 2005, p. 267; Leavitt et al., 2011). However, Chari and Potvin (2019) found that in addition to UGPA and standardized test scores, letters of recommendation were perceived by undergraduate students and faculty as an important part of the graduate admissions process for programs in physics. This perception was mirrored in a study of graduate admissions files for students in speech-language pathology, where Halberstam and Redstone (2005) concluded that letters of recommendation are “a powerful source of information for how well students will be able to perform academically” and “whether students will be rated as strong or weak” by academic staff members (p. 268).

Several studies identified standardized test scores, undergraduate GPA, and letters of recommendation as the three most important elements that demonstrate a prospective student’s ability to succeed in graduate study (Khaydarov et al., 2019). These elements collectively represent a prospective student’s experience, skills and interests in the specific field of study.

In their study of the graduate school admissions process for students of psychology, Appleby & Appleby (2006) identified five common “kisses of death” (KOD), or the “characteristics of graduate school candidates that decrease their chances for acceptance” (Appleby & Appleby, 2006, p. 19). The study found that admissions committees gave strong consideration to an applicant’s letters of recommendation and academic writing, among other criteria, in the decision-making process (Appleby & Appleby, 2006). Although the KODs were not viewed as a reflection of the applicant’s intelligence, they were indicative of what admissions committees view as a potentially successful candidate: someone with strong, reliable letters of recommendation and scholarly writing mechanics at the very least (Appleby & Appleby, 2006). Affirming the latter in their study of graduates from a specific Master of Public Administration (MPA) program were Leavitt et al. (2011), who together found that strong writing mechanics positively contributed to an individual’s academic performance. However, GRE scores and letters of recommendation were not found to be strongly predictive of the same measure (Leavitt et al., 2011).

Evans (2017) conducted a study of admission criteria for graduate teacher education programs. The study found that overall GRE score did not have a significant impact on graduate GPA. However, undergraduate GPA had a positive relationship with graduate GPA, and the effect of undergraduate GPA on graduate GPA was less for older students. Overall, the study concluded that undergraduate GPA was the best predictor of graduate student success, as defined by graduate GPA.

In their study of admissions criteria for Speech Language Pathology graduate programs, Forrest and Naremore (1998) examine the relationship of undergraduate GPA and GRE scores to graduate student success. They defined this success based on final graduate GPA and scores on a required PRAXIS test. The study concluded that undergraduate GPA had the greatest predictive effect on student success, and it did so with 93% accuracy. When the researchers added the GRE score to the formula, accuracy dropped to just 63%.

In a study of graduate business program admission criteria, Lizares et al. (2015) similarly found that undergraduate GPA was a strong predictor of graduate student success. However, they also found that quantitative test score, as opposed to overall test score, also served as a predictor of success.  Verbal and writing test scores, on the other hand, did not have the same effect on success. While there are areas of agreement across several studies, the differences illustrate the importance of examining the effect of admission criteria on graduate student success by discipline or field.

Discussion and Implications for Research & Practice

There is a growing movement nationally for HE/SA programs (and similar graduate programs) to remove GRE and ETS requirements. The catalyst for this change is in part due to biased nature of these exams towards certain groups (Educational Testing Services, 2012; Darolia et al., 2014; Moneta-Koehler, 2017; Pennock-Roman, 1994; Miller & Stassun, 2014), higher financial cost associated with taking these exams (Darolia et al., 2014), and their limited ability to predict academic success at the graduate level (Evans, 2017; Leavitt et al., 2011; Milner et al., 1984).  While there is growing support for this removal, it poses a challenge to the graduate admission’s process as it removes a central variable to consider when reviewing the student’s candidacy into admission into the program.

Its removal obviously benefits students who have strong undergraduate GPAs (as there would not be another metric to compare their GPA to), but it can inadvertently harm students with lower GPAs. A good number of students had life hardships and/or just lacked the maturity to be successful during their undergraduate experience. However, these students do not lack the academic ability to be successful at the graduate level and could apply themselves to study for the GRE/MAT and receive a score that could offset graduate admission’s committees’ red flags about undergraduate GPA. It’s plausible that a student with a weak UGPA could be denied admission outright or given provisional status, while coupling that same low UGPA with a solid GRE/MAT score could yield that same student full admittance into the graduate program (especially when coupled with an admission essay articulating their academic shortcomings but solid test scores). To this end, it is critical for future research studies to examine the other components of the graduate admission application to help identify the students who will be most successful in the program without the use of GRE/MAT test scores.

In the absence of having GRE/MAT test scores as an admission criterion, there is an inherent benefit and/or predictive nature of undergraduate GPA (Darolia et al., 2014; Leavitt et al., 2011; Khaydarov et al., 2019; Evans, 2017). Similarly, it has been found there are stark differences between the recommendation letters between the caliber of students within the program (Chari & Povtin, 2019; Halberstam & Redstone, 2005; Khaydarov et al., 2019). Anecdotally from our experiences, it can be posited that recommenders of less qualified students will have greater variance in the rankings from their recommender, who also would tend to write lackluster letters that are vague and/or unclear if they have developed a meaningful relationship with the student. This is particularly troubling, as Halberstam and Redstone (2005) assert that recommendations are “a powerful source of information” (p. 268). Recognizing the elevated writing requirements at the graduate level, it is not surprising that others before us have found this to a be a predictor of future academic success (Leavitt et al., 2011).

Recognizing that HE/SA programs are apprenticeship models where graduates immediately move into student-facing positions on college campuses holding great responsibility for student well-being, it is important for studies like this one to examine these programs. Many of these programs are only able to admit a finite number of students, so there is great benefit in identifying the students who will be the most successful if admitted. Conversely, there is great power in understanding which students are likely to struggle academically in the program.

On one-hand, this knowledge could arguably be used in admission’s decisions which may result not favorably in these students’ admission. However, a better use may be to identify students who showed promise in their admission application (i.e. held UG leadership positions such as a Resident Assistant or voice a clear desire to work in higher education) and to identify them as “at-risk” students once admitted into the program. Doing so would enable the faculty to provide additional layers of support to these students to help them be successful. To that end, there should be transparency with these students to share their concerns proactively to help them understand the need for services being offered to them. In addition, providing them the information to make an informed decision on whether they believe they can be academically successful in the program while taking on debt/loans/tuition to do so.

Implications For Practice

This article can serve as a catalyst to help inform HE/SA faculty and program directors on admission decisions. For highly selective programs that seek to take the most academically accomplished students, who in turn should perform at the highest level academically once matriculated into the program, these insights into the components of the admission application can be another criterion to evaluate from a critical lens. This could be especially helpful as programs begin to eliminate the GRE requirement from their admission practices and thus are seeking other data points to help make their decisions.

Conversely, programs can use the findings of this study not as a gatekeeper to graduate school, but rather as a mechanism to identify students who are potentially at-risk for not being academically successful in the HE/SA program. Having this information would allow the HE/SA program and its faculty to be proactive with these identified students and to offer interventions. These interventions can include support for writing at the graduate level, navigating scholarly engagement with classmates in the classroom setting, developing an identity of a scholarly-practitioner, communication with faculty, and time management.

Considerations for Future Research

This article should serve as a catalyst for further inquiry into the admission practices of graduate preparatory programs in higher education and the correlation with student success once matriculated. Considerations for future research should include:

  • The assumption of this study and the academy is that academic success correlates with professional success upon graduation. Is there evidence to support academically stronger students are better student affairs and higher education administrators? The profession would benefit from empirical studies that examine if this correlation exists.
  • Are academically stronger HE/SA students more likely to pursue their doctorate? Is their academic success at the graduate level beyond GPA (i.e. perception of their faculty) an indicator of their potential success at the doctoral level?


Regardless of whether HE/SA programs desire to be highly selective or open access, faculty and program directors should seek additional insight into those applying to their programs. Recognizing the national movement to remove the GRE/ETS requirements from HE/SA graduate admission, it’s likely that faculty will need to focus on undergraduate GPA, quality of writing, and recommendation forms/letters. This reinforces there is clearly a need to empirically study these admission criterions and their correlation to student success once matriculated into the program. Faculty should now be positioned to systematically examine their admission decisions and/or provide interventions to at-risk students based on deficiencies found in their admission application.


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Darolia, R., Potochnick, S., & Menifield, C. E. (2014). Assessing admission criteria for early and mid-career students: Evidence from a U.S. MPA program.  Education Policy Analysis Archives, 22(101), 1-21.

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Educational Testing Service. (2014). The research foundation for the GRE revised general test: A compendium of studies. Retrieved from https://www.ets.org/s/research/pdf/gre_compendium.pdf

Educational Testing Service (2012). GRE general test score information by ethnicity/racial groups, 2009-2010. Retrieved from https://www.ets.org/s/gre/pdf/gre_general_test_score_information_by_ethnicity_2009_2010.pdf

Evans, C. M. (2017). Predictive validity and impact of CAEP Standard 3.2: Results from one master’s-level teacher preparation program. Journal of Teacher Education, 68(4), 363–376.

Fedynich, L. (2017). The grand question: do entrance examinations determine graduate student academic success? Research in Higher Education Journal, 33, 1-8.

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Halberstam, B., & Redstone, F. (2005). The predictive value of admissions materials on objective and subjective measures of graduate school performance in speech-language pathology. Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management, 27(2), 261–272.

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Steven Tolman, Ed.D is an Assistant Professor of Higher Education Administration at Georgia Southern University. His previous roles included serving as a Higher Education Administration program director and 12 years as a student affairs administrator in Residence Life, Student Conduct, and Student Life. He holds a Doctorate from Rutgers University, Master’s from Texas Tech University, and Bachelor’s from Central Michigan University. His research is theoretically informed and guided by the tenets of student development theory.  In particular, he explores the application of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, Kolb’s Experiential Learning, Sanford’s Model of Challenge and Support, and Astin’s Theory of Involvement.  This theoretical framework is intertwined with the two streams of his scholarly agenda: 1) The profession of student affairs and 2) The residential and co-curricular experience of college students.

Kimberly O’Halloran, Ph.D is Associate Provost and Dean of Graduate Studies and Extended Learning at Widener University, where she also serves as an Associate Professor in the Center for Education. She has spent the last 25 years working in higher education, including posts in both academic affairs and student affairs at Rutgers University, Cornell University, New York University and Montclair State University.  Her research has focused on organizational issues in higher education and the factors that impact persistence and success for non-traditional undergraduate and graduate students.  Dr. O’Halloran received a B.A. in English and an M.Ed. in Education Administration, both from Rutgers University – New Brunswick and Ph.D. in Higher Education Administration from New York University.

Abigail Meert is a Residence Life Coordinator at Grinnell College.  She holds a Master’s from Georgia Southern University and Bachelor’s from Armstrong State University, now named the Armstrong Campus of Georgia Southern University.  Her previous roles included being a Graduate Hall Director, Resident Advisor, First-Year Peer Mentor, and Honors Ambassador. Abigail’s research interests include higher education law and policy, university systems, and the consolidation of post-secondary institutions.

Should I pursue the doctorate? | Bailey, Musoba

written by:

Krista J. Bailey
Texas A&M University

Glenda Musoba
Texas A&M University

Should I Pursue the Doctorate?

When considering the field of student affairs, there are many reasons why individuals choose to pursue a doctorate in higher education or a related discipline. Some are hoping to hold faculty positions, others enjoy the learning process, and others want to pursue senior-level positions requiring a terminal degree. Regardless of the motivation to begin a doctoral program, it is a significant commitment and is a complicated, individualized process. The purpose of this paper is to provide readers with a series of reflection questions to assist in their decision making as they choose a doctoral program. We wish there was more research evidence to provide, but there is little research on doctoral student success (CGS, 2010; Gittings et al., 2018; Gardner et al., 2011).

Is Now the Right Time to Pursue a Doctorate?

A doctoral degree is often a multi-year commitment to finish all requirements for a full-time student and five or more years for part-time students. Students in some programs may finish in as little as three years, but the national average across disciplines is 7.5 years (which in some disciplines includes earning a master’s degree as part of the doctorate) (Geven et al., 2018). You need to ask yourself is now the right time in your personal and professional life to pursue this goal. Is your physical and mental health ready to take on this challenge? This can depend on a life partner, children, aging parents, and other family relationships. You will also want to look at work obligations and whether your supervisor and institution are supportive. Even positive life events, like a job promotion, can delay progress.  For example, one of our students got several promotions while writing her dissertation, and each time it stalled her writing for about six months. A doctoral degree will require sacrifices to dedicate the time needed for your studies. Only you know whether your work and relationships can handle the stress of the time commitment. McCray and Joseph-Richard (2020) concluded supportive family members are positively associated with doctoral success, you may want to involve others in your decision-making process.

Consider whether you will attend a local program or move to a new area. Unless you are studying online, you should consider committing to living in the geographic area of your graduate program until you finish. Transfer between doctoral programs often means starting over. Further, our experience at multiple institutions has been that those who move away before defending their dissertation find it much more difficult when not seeing their advisors and classmates regularly. Gittings et al.  (2018) concluded that a new position during the dissertation stage was negatively associated with completion. Therefore, you will want to ask yourself if you want to stay with your current employer for the duration of the degree or if you have the self-discipline to finish during a job transition.

Will You Finish Your Doctorate?

Institutional factors make a difference in whether students finish. The Council of Graduate Schools (CGS) (2010) found flexible coursework allowed the students to pursue their interests while clear expectations and strong advising assured students were progressing. Strong advising with timelines for the dissertation process, rather than no expectations and isolation, led to shorter time-to-degrees (CGS, 2010). Additional factors to consider when exploring graduate programs include (CGS, 2010; Gardner, et al., 2011; McCray & Joseph-Richard, 2020; Owens, et al., 2020):

  • Role and support provided by the dissertation chair
  • Financial support available
  • Opportunities for publishing
  • Culture of collaboration
  • Program sponsored social and academic activities

Interviewing current students, graduates, and faculty to find out whether these factors are present should be a part of your search. Further, programs should be able to tell you what percent of their students finish and their average time to completion. Ultimately, finishing the doctoral degree will be something you determine. Searching for a school with the support systems described above may help clear your path to completion.

Geven et al. (2018) reported that nationally, about 50 – 60% of people who start a doctoral degree, ultimately earn a doctoral degree. There are clearly differences between programs’ support, but part of the probability of finishing is individual motivation and self-discipline. Some of the brightest students do not finish because their interests change, they were pursuing the degree for the wrong reason, or they find it difficult to organize the unstructured dissertation writing process. If you are only pursuing the degree for the next professional promotion, ask yourself, “If I get the job, I’m earning the degree for, will I still finish?” As we shared earlier one study found that a change in employment status after taking comprehensive exams, but before finishing the dissertation, was negatively associated with completion (Gittings, et al., 2018).

Should You Pursue a PhD or an EdD Degree?

In the ideal, a PhD is a research degree to prepare future research scholars and faculty while an EdD is a doctorate to prepare scholarly practitioners. One scholar distinguishes between the two by highlighting that the PhD student begins research from a gap in the literature and conducts research based on a theory or hypothesis, while an EdD student begins with a problem of practice and conducts applied research to solve the problem (McNabb, as cited in O’Connor, 2019). If this were the case at all institutions, the choice would be based on future career plans. Yet, one study concluded that PhD and EdD programs generally looked very similar, and both focused on research (Levin, 2007). An older study, Nelson and Coorough (1994) found that PhD dissertations in education used more rigorous statistical procedures resulting in greater generalizability, while EdD dissertations were more likely to have survey research, but they found no difference in basic versus applied research. Many institutions only offer one of the two degrees. There are 245 Higher Education graduate programs in the Association for the Study of Higher Education (2021) database and only 39 indicate they offer both an EdD. and a PhD. At some universities, the degrees distinguish between part- and full-time students with the EdD having greater flexibility for those students attending part-time. You will need to ask the institutions you are considering what the differences between a PhD and EdD are at that institution.

Should You Go Full-Time or Part-Time?

The choice between part- and full-time study is a personal one, which must consider the time-to-degree and the reduced income if attending full-time. In a study of doctoral completion, Gittings et al. (2018) concluded fulltime employment was positively associated with graduating but job changes during the dissertation writing stage was associated with not finishing. Students who attend full-time often have a more immersive experience as they spend more time with faculty during their graduate assistantships and are more easily able to attend academic and social functions and conferences. Multiple studies found a positive relationship between institutional funding (fellowships and assistantships) and completion suggesting that the funding in part provides more opportunity to engage in the academic experience (CGS, 2010; Geven et al., 2018; Wollast et al., 2018). A part-time doctorate can be equally rigorous, and programs that cater to part-time students can plan the academic and social enrichment at times that are convenient for students. One study found part-time students persist at a higher rate than full-time students (Gittings et al., 2018).

Students interested in pursuing a faculty rather than administrative career are encouraged to consider full-time study as the need to produce research and publish beyond the dissertation to be competitive in the job market (Helmreich, 2013). When reviewing current job postings for tenure/tenure track faculty positions job requirements include statements like “A record of published research, grants, and conference presentations in higher education” (ASHE, 2021). Occasionally, full-time professionals are supported by their current institution to pursue graduate work. For example, full-time professionals at Florida International University can get a semester or one-year leave for graduate study or professional development and Texas A&M University provides educational release time to take courses. If you fit in this situation, consider taking the leave for writing the dissertation rather than for completion of coursework.  The coursework phase has built-in structure and deadlines, making it easier to prioritize, while dissertations have few concrete deadlines.

Once you have determined a degree program and whether you will be enrolling part- or full-time, you will need to identify possible institutions. Part of that decision is whether you want to move to enroll in a program.

Is it Worth Moving?

Pursuing a doctoral degree is a personal decision, based on multiple individualized criteria which should be evaluated as your pursue institutions. For some, studying with the perfect faculty member who does research in your area, and/or if the institution has committed to financially support you for the duration of the degree, moving can be the best thing for your career. Yet so much of the decision can depend on your personal life. For others, you may be considering the impact on your family, or the need for an established community. Before moving, make sure the financial commitment is in writing, including the dollar amount and number of years of funding. We also recommend you have interviewed the faculty in the program, particularly the faculty member(s) with whom you aspire to study with and be mentored by. We will provide details on how to do this below when we discuss campus visits.

For those individuals who are place-bound, the decision may be very different. Yet, you should still interview the faculty and look for characteristics of programs where students are more likely to finish. Research about the institution, program requirements, faculty and academic support, and cost of living will help determine if the program is the right fit.

How Do I Know If a Program Is the Right Fit for Me?

The best way to know if you want to spend the next four-plus years at an institution is to visit and interview the faculty and students and explore the campus and surrounding community.  Before visiting, make a list of all your non-negotiables for your doctoral program. It is easier to objectively determine what you need from a program before you start meeting exceptional faculty and students.

A virtual or on-campus visit can include one-to-one interviews with one or more faculty, attending a class, learning about financial support, visiting with current students, and exploring the community. The graduate admissions office can arrange campus tours, but to talk with program faculty and current students, you will need to contact the academic advisor for the program or program director. Some programs host campus visit days while others arrange visits on an as needed basis. Programs with large numbers of applicants may be less willing to accommodate a personalized visit. You may need to take the initiative to schedule your own appointments with faculty and current students. Faculty do realize this is a major decision for prospective students, so even if they will not host a visit day, they usually will meet with prospective students. Once you have narrowed your list of possible programs, read a published article by the faculty members you are interested in meeting. While you may think of admissions as the institution deciding if they want you, it is also important for you to interview them to decide if you want to spend the next few years with the student peers and faculty you meet.

Financial and time restrictions may make it impossible to visit multiple institutions you are interested in pursuing. Utilize technology to connect with current faculty and students. The pandemic has made us all savvier with zoom and other technology. Take a virtual campus tour, research the community, review your list of non-negotiables, and be sure you collect as much information as you can about the institution. When researching, you also want to be sure that you understand all the financial costs of the program.

What Questions Should You Ask When on a Campus Visit?

First, do your homework and learn all you can from an institution’s website, so you are asking deeper questions. When looking at the website, look at the diversity of the faculty and students, and determine if the faculty have any specialized areas of research that aligns with your interest. When you go on a virtual or in-person campus visit, or connect with faculty members, they will be looking for you to take the lead on gathering the information you need to make a good decision. Schedule meetings with faculty and current students. Develop a set of comprehensive questions for both faculty and current students to guide your conversations. This will also allow you to compare information across the different institutions that you are considering.

Possible questions include:

  • How frequently do you meet with your advisees?
  • What is your current research agenda?
  • What is your approach to mentoring? How frequently do you meet with your mentees?
  • Am I assigned a dissertation chair, or do I select mine?
  • Are their funding opportunities to work with you on research? What other funding/assistantships/fellowships are available?
  • What is the typical time-to-degree, and what portion of students graduate? How are those numbers disaggregated by race and gender?
  • Is there any flexibility with the program requirements?
  • Is there a residency requirement?
  • What portion of students attend full-time?
  • Where are most of your graduates employed? What types of positions do they hold?

Ask current students:

  • Can you tell me about your relationships with your faculty and their mentoring styles?
  • Are students treated as junior colleagues?
  • What is a strength of this program? Weakness?
  • If you could go back, would you pick the same program and advisor?
  • What is a typical day like for you?
  • What is the community of students like? Is everyone welcome?
  • What is the city/town/community like? Are there other graduate students? How have you built a community?

Should Money Matter?

Funding for students varies across programs. Depending on your need, it may be appropriate to choose your second-choice doctoral program with full funding over your first choice without funding. Several research studies concluded that institutional funding was positively associated with completion and shorter time to degrees (CGS, 2010; Geven et al., 2018; Wollast et al., 2018). If you are forgoing a full-time salary for four years, that is already a substantial sacrifice. Funding for your program can come in different forms. Fellowships and scholarships usually have the least conditions attached and are often for the duration of your study. Graduate assistantships usually require the student work with a faculty member on their research or possibly teach an undergraduate class. Assistantships usually compensate with an hourly salary or stipend and tuition assistance. Not all assistantships pay full tuition, but, at minimum, they usually mean the student will be charged in-state rather than out-of-state tuition rates and cover some the tuition.

What About Online Programs?

First, we must share our potential bias: we teach in a program that was exclusively face-to-face before the pandemic. Yet, we know that sometimes with full-time employment, or for other reasons, a face-to-face program would be a hardship. We have also seen programs that do an exemplary job of online doctoral education. Look for a program with experience in online education. The one study we found, showed higher dropout rates among online graduate students, but the study was not with education students (Su & Waugh, 2018). We found minimal research on online graduate education programs.

A key component of the doctoral experience is professional socialization and mentoring (CGS, 2010; Gardner et al., 2011, Gittings et al., 2018; McCray & Joseph-Richard, 2020; Owens et al., 2020). Therefore, pick a graduate program, whether online or face-to-face, where you will develop a relationship with your faculty members beyond the classroom. Explicitly ask about this in your virtual on in-person visit. Good online programs include opportunities for students to build community and networks with faculty and students (Berry, 2017; Kumar & Coe, 2017).

What Is the Value of a Cohort-Based Program?

Some programs intentionally admit students in a group or cohort, and progress them through coursework and the dissertation stage together. In other programs, students from any admissions year can be in classes and on the journey together. There is substantial informal knowledge for socialization into the program that you want and need, such as how preliminary exams work, how to select a dissertation chair, and learning the new vocabulary associated with your degree program. In a cohort model, this is more formalized, and it is easier to form relationships which in some studies has been shown to increase completion rates (Dorn et al., 1995). Yet, in the non-cohort approach, those opportunities are usually still available. For example, in our program, all incoming students take at least one class together and some have been very intentional about taking courses together for multiple semesters.

As you are considering if you would thrive better in a cohort or non-cohort program, consider your own learning style. You likely experienced one or the other for your master’s program. How did it assist or deter from your learning?

Should Institutional Rankings or Reputation Matter in Your Decision?

Again, putting our biases up front, we believe program reputation should matter but not the university ranking. An exceptional program may exist in a university with an overall average ranking and vice versa. Further, a program could be highly ranked, but they may not have a faculty member whose interests align with yours. You can still do your research at that university, but you may not have the same mentoring. As described above, for some people their decision to select a graduate program is driven by current full-time position or life circumstances. When this occurs ranking and reputation may not be a viable factor to consider. Part of the quality of a doctoral experience is your investment in your own learning and that can be done at any university. Through your research you will be able to determine if a program will meet the needs you have for a doctoral program.


Ultimately, the decision to pursue a doctoral degree is very personal. Many different factors could be considered while making the decision. Ask your mentors and faculty from your master’s program, and we are certain they will provide you with additional items to consider and may recommended institutions to consider. A doctoral program requires a deep commitment of time, money, and intellectual energy. The decision should be made thoughtfully after exploration of self, future aspirations, and institutional options.

Discussion Questions

  1. Why do you want to pursue a doctorate?
  2. Do you want to pursue a PhD or an EdD? Why?
  3. Knowing that we can only plan for what we know at the time of planning and life has a way of changing plans. When would be an ideal time for you to pursue a doctorate?
  4. Based on your learning style and personal circumstances, would full-time or part-time be best for you?
  5. What are the factors or non-negotiables that must be present for you to feel supported in a doctoral program?


Association for the Study of Higher Education (n.d.). Higher education program directory. https://www.ashe.ws/ashe_heprogram

Association for the Study of Higher Education (n.d.). Position information. https://www.ashe.ws/jobs_listing.asp?id=899

Berry, S. (2017). Student support networks in online doctoral programs: Exploring nested communities. International Journal of Doctoral Studies, 12, 33.

Council of Graduate Schools. (2010). Ph.D. completion and attrition: Policies and practices to promote student successhttps://cgsnet.org/phd-completion-and-attrition-policies-and-practices-promote-student-success-0

Dorn, S. M., Papalewis, R., & Brown, R. (1995). Educators earning their doctorates: doctoral student perceptions regarding cohesiveness and persistence. Education, 116, 305–314.

Gardner, S., Mendoza, P., Austen, A. & Kruger, K. (2011), On Becoming a Scholar: Socialization and Development in Doctoral Education, Stylus Publishing, Sterling.

Geven, K., Skopek, J., & Triventi, M. (2018). How to increase PhD completion rates? An impact evaluation of two reforms in a selective graduate school, 1976-2012. Research in Higher Education, 59(5), 529–552. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11162-017-9481-z

Gittings, G., Bergman, M., Shuck, B., & Rose, K. (2018). The impact of student attributes and program characteristics on doctoral degree completion. New Horizons for Adult Education and Human Resource Development, 30(3), 3-22. https://doi.org/10.1002/nha3.20220

Helmreich, W. (2013, June). Your first academic job – I. Inside Higher Ed.  https://www.insidehighered.com/advice/2013/06/17/essay-how-land-first-academic-job

Kumar, S., & Coe, C. (2017). Mentoring and student support in online doctoral programs. American Journal of Distance Education, 31(2), 128-142.

Levine, A. (2007). Educating researchers. The Educating Schools Project website: http://www.edschools.org/EducatingResearchers/educating_researchers.pdf

McCray, J., & Joseph-Richard, P. (2020). Towards a model of resilience protection: factors influencing doctoral completion. Higher Education, 80, 679–699. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10734-020-00507-4.

Nelson, J. K., & Coorough, C. (1994). Content analysis of the PhD versus EdD dissertation. Journal of Experimental Education, 62(2), 158–168. https://doi.org/10.1080/00220973.1994.9943837

O’Connor, S. W. (2019, September 12). EdD vs. PhD in education: What’s the difference? https://www.northeastern.edu/graduate/blog/edd-vs-phd-in-education/

Owens, A., Brien, D.L., Ellison, E., & Batty, C. (2020). Student reflections on doctoral learning: challenges and breakthroughs. Studies in Graduate and Postdoctoral Education, 11(1), 107-122. https://doi.org/10.1108/SGPE-04-2019-0048

Wollast, R., Boudrenghien, G., Van der Linden, N., Galand, B., Roland, N., Devos, C. De Clercq, M., Klein, O., Azzi, A., & Frenay, M. (2018). Who are the doctoral students who drop out? Factors associated with the rate of doctoral degree completion in universities. International Journal of Higher Education, 7(4), 143-156.


Krista Bailey is a Clinical Associate Professor at Texas A&M University, and her research interests include the graduate student and new professional experience, assessment of student leadership, and women in student affairs.  She earned her doctoral degree at Texas A&M University and worked as a Student Affairs educator for 15 years before joining the faculty full-time.

Glenda Musoba is an Associate Professor at Texas A&M University, and her research interests include who gets into and who stays in college particularly as it relates to family income, ethnicity, and institutional practices. She earned her doctoral degree at Indiana University and her first faculty position was at Florida International University.

Based on a True Story: Analyzing Disney’s Film Safety & Application to Higher Education | Hines-Farmer, Forslund

written by:

Shauna Hines-Farmer
Clemson University

Erika Lynne Forslund
Clemson University

Film and media portray higher education in a variety of ways. From unrealistic college residence halls to sensationalized individual student stories, audiences can quickly become captivated by the embellishment of higher education in film. As authors, we selected the 2019 Disney movie Safety as an opportunity to examine theory to practice through the lens of popular culture as it relates to contemporary college students. The movie was filmed on Clemson University’s campus in Fall 2019 and premiered on Disney+ in December 2020.

We originally chose this film for a graduate school podcast assignment and took viewing the film as an opportunity to see how Disney portrayed our institution. The film addresses common challenges contemporary college students may experience new student transition, family achievement guilt, roommate relationships, student-athlete academic balance, and more.

Hollywood productions often neglect to show the support student affairs professionals provide to college students. We examined college student experiences in the film and identified ways to use Safety to discuss higher education issues and explore creative pathways to utilize media in student affairs practice.

Overview of the Series

This article is the first in a two-part series on the utilization of film and media to discuss contemporary college students. This series was created to provide different perspectives on film analyses and usage within higher education, utilizing the Disney film Safety as a foundation for the series. The goal of this first article is to summarize the film, speak to how the film can be viewed with a student affairs lens, offer a critique that speaks to gaps in higher education, and connect McElrathbey’s journey to the experiences of contemporary college students. The second article in the series will discuss the application of theory to the film through Chickering’s theory of student development. In addition, we dive further into using the film for case study and training purposes. We hope this series provides opportunities for practitioners to reflect on their practice, create discussion of contemporary college student issues in practice, and find ways to incorporate film and media into classroom instruction, professional development practice, and departmental training.

Film Summary

Disney’s film Safety is based on the true story of former Clemson student-athlete Ray “Ray Ray” McElrathbey and his unique journey at Clemson University. The movie focused on the relationship between McElrathbey and his little brother Fahmarr, who is several years younger and living with their mother, who struggles with addiction. After moving into his residence hall and beginning practices as a Clemson football player, McElrathbey receives multiple calls from Fahmarr asking him to come home. After some time at Clemson University, McElrathbey returns home for a weekend to find his mother has been sent to an inpatient rehabilitation facility to receive the medical attention and support she needs, and Fahmarr will be sent to foster care unless a new legal guardian steps in to care for him.

Therefore, McElrathbey chooses to secretly care for him and brings him to live on campus which could jeopardize his scholarship and NCAA eligibility. However, he does tell his roommate as it would be impossible to hide his brother. McElrathbey, with assistance from his roommate, goes to extremes to avoid others finding out about his familial obligation and responsibilities. For example, McElrathbey makes his younger brother hide and sneak around to avoid any friends, coaches, and University professionals including his RA.

As the movie continues, McElrathbey’s teammates and coaches learn of Fahmarr living on campus and McElrathbey must decide if he will send Fahmarr to foster care. The two brothers take a bus and return home to visit their mother to determine a more permanent plan of care for Fahmarr. Upon their arrival, she informs them that she has decided to go to an extended rehabilitation program to get more of the treatment she needs. At this point in the film, McElrathbey is extremely conflicted as he does not want to send his brother back to foster care, but also does not want to lose his spot on Clemson’s football team. At the time, McElrathbey sends Fahmarr back to foster care.

When he returns to school, McElrathbey tries to return to his “normal” student-athlete routine. However, the viewer can tell McElrathbey feels he has abandoned his younger brother. When trying to manage his feelings about his mother, his brother, and the constant stress of being a student-athlete, McElrathbey finally decides to tell his girlfriend Kaycee about the challenges he is facing. Kaycee is shocked to learn McElrathbey has been trying to manage being a student, an athlete, and a parental figure to his brother. Kaycee then convinces McElrathbey to talk to his coach and see if there is a way to still take care of his brother and be on Clemson’s football team. McElrathbey has an impromptu meeting with Coach Simmons, who decides to help him get Fahmarr out of the foster care system temporarily. Afterwards, McElrathbey and his brother find an off-campus apartment.

Kaycee decides to write a story in the Clemson school newspaper, “The Tiger”, about McElrathbey’s athletic success and the challenges he faces taking care of his brother. The story quickly spreads around the Clemson community, and others who do not know McElrathbey begin to reach out and help the brothers. For example, members of the local church decide to help with an apartment project, Coach Simmons’ wife provides Fahmarr with rides to school, and the film depicts a scene where the Simmons family hosts the brothers for a meal.

The climax of the films occurs after the article about McElrathbey and Fahmarr spreads rapidly and becomes an NCAA eligibility issue in terms of violating the benefits student-athletes can receive. Such violations could include receiving financial assistance outside of scholarships or accepting favors from coaches and the community. The NCAA and the Clemson football coaching staff explain to McElrathbey that if he continues to take care of his brother and receive help from others, McElrathbey could lose his athletic scholarship and spot on the football team. The NCAA alerts McElrathbey that he must appeal his case to the NCAA through an eligibility hearing.

To fight for his right to take care of his brother, McElrathbey takes on complete legal guardianship of Fahmarr. Towards the end of the movie, McElrathbey meets with his mother and asks her to relinquish her parental rights. This is truly a hard decision for his mother, as she knows that once the paperwork is signed, she will no longer legally be Fahmarr’s mother. McElrathbey explains this is the only way to create stability for Fahmarr since there is no knowing how long she will be in treatment. She agrees to sign away her rights.

At the conclusion of the film, McElrathbey attends a NCAA eligibility hearing and reads his statement where he explains that he wants to take care of his brother with or without football. He also explains to everyone present that he has taken on full guardianship of his brother. Finally, the NCAA eligibility committee votes in favor of McElrathbey allowing him to receive benefits to support himself and his brother, obtain his education, and stay on the football team. The film is a story of brotherhood, familial hardship, higher education, college athletics, and contemporary college student issues.

Critique of the Film

Although this movie provides opportunities to learn about student affairs issues and practice applying theory, we offer a critique of the film’s portrayal of the student experience. Bryman (2004) defined Disneyfication as “to translate or transform an object into something superficial and even simplistic…applying a distinctive template to stories and legends” associated with “trivialization and sanitization” (p.12). Disney movies frequently depict characters overcoming and being successful no matter what they face. Disneyfication applies to Safety because the film portrays a student overcoming all obstacles successfully. Additionally, throughout his journey, McElrathbey was surrounded and supported by the Clemson community. At Clemson, one may hear the concept of and experience the “Clemson Family” as it is a theme of the institution. However, scholars have found that particularly first generation and other underrepresented students do not always feel a sense of belonging in higher education (Hurtado & Alvarado, 2015; O’Keefe, 2013; Strayhorn, 2008, 2018). Therefore, the embellishment of the Clemson Family, in the film could be seen as another form of the Disneyfication of Clemson University. We as professionals can clearly express to our students, particularly underrepresented students, that we are available to help, and truly mean it, if they need anything.

Furthermore, sense of belonging issues are overlooked in Safety regarding students of color at Predominantly White Institutions (PWIs). Students of Color may not feel as welcome at PWIs for various reasons, such as buildings bearing names of slave owners or higher education’s history of racism and oppression and institutions still working to own up to the histories of ancestral lands and those who built the institutions (Thomas, 2020). The movie does not go into Clemson’s history, but institutional history should be considered in fostering a sense of belonging for students at any institution. Practitioners should critically analyze how students on our campuses feel and work to remove barriers as a means of providing open and welcoming spaces that foster success for all.

Finally, the movie does not thoroughly explore the impact of students’ home lives and resulting impacts on college success. Many administrators, practitioners, and faculty assume students have a stable place to go during breaks. However, this is not always true, and some students combat homelessness and food insecurity even while in school (Goldrick-Rab et al., 2018). It is imperative that student affairs professionals build rapport and trust with students to fully know and understand their individual backgrounds. As professionals, this film is a reminder to build strong relationships and positive regard with students to ensure they have the support they need on and off campus.

Viewing the Film with a Student Affairs Lens

Safety highlights aspects of college student development and transition. This movie is an ideal resource for teaching, programming, or other transition and development activities. As student affairs professionals, our role is to support students like McElrathbey. Since the film lacks a major student affairs character, it is a great tool for discussing what a higher education professional could have done to help McElrathbey navigate challenges faced. Both student affairs and academic affairs staff can be instrumental sources of support for students. The work we do to support students on campus goes well beyond the classroom.

Students in Transition

Students coming to college are in new settings facing challenges and responsibilities they have not previously encountered. We see this in Safety as McElrathbey works to adjust to his new setting, schedule, and academic responsibilities at Clemson University. At the beginning of the movie, McElrathbey asks his coach to leave practice early to get his textbooks before the book-store closes. When the coach says no, McElrathbey runs to the bookstore and begs a student worker closing to let him get his textbooks. Here McElrathbey navigates new responsibilities while also trying to be a successful student.

What might a student affairs professional, coach, or other university employee have done to assist McElrathbey? Without assistance to McElrathbey (and other students), there is extra stress on students to figure things out on their own. A student experiencing this kind of situation is under pressure to meet both academic and involvement obligations. Parham (1993) wrote that student-athletes in transition are:

(a) learning to balance academic and athletic pursuits; (b) adapting to a certain degree of isolation from social and more “mainstream” activities; (c) managing success or lack thereof; (d) attending to their own physical health in a more deliberate way so as to minimize injury and subsequent rehabilitation; (e) satisfying multiple relationships, including those having to do with coaches, parents, friends, and community; and (f) terminating an athletic career and finding other activities in which participating will bring about a very similar, if not a more heightened level of satisfaction. (p. 412)

In Disney’s production of Safety, for McElrathbey to achieve holistic success, he had to cultivate a balance between athletic and academic commitments, manage relationships, balance athletic and social lives, and navigate familial responsibilities. Again, student or academic affairs professionals could have assisted him with these challenges.

Achievement Guilt

Achievement guilt is another issue students navigate and is represented in the film. Family achievement guilt includes “feelings of discomfort with one’s college success, particularly in the context of family members” (Covarrubias et al., 2015, p. 2031). Covarrubias et al. (2015) found that in college students an association exists between increased family achievement and increased depressive symptoms. This experience can impact student mental health.

In Safety, McElrathbey struggles with achievement guilt and worries he has abandoned his brother by going to college. When Fahmarr describes an instance where he hid money in his room and his mother found and stole the money from him, McElrathbey says he did not know that was happening. To which Fahmarr responds “and you wouldn’t, because you left me” (Hudlin, 2020, 46:11). The sense that McElrathbey left his family behind to create a different future for himself was difficult for him to work through and mirrors what other students experience. Higher education professionals working with students expressing achievement guilt should actively listen to student stories, explain the concept of achievement guilt, help students name their feelings, and offer university services that provide mental health and other support as needed.

Roommate Relationship

Like other college students, McElrathbey develops a social circle and finds a sense of community while transitioning to college. One of McElrathbey’s first friends in the film is his roommate Daniel, who quickly learns of McElrathbey’s family circumstances and even helps take care of Fahmarr. Like other contemporary college students, McElrathbey is skeptical of his roommate at first, but finds they have more in common than he initially believed.

The support and friendship McElrathbey developed with Daniel are prominent in the film. For example, when McElrathbey finds himself having to run on the football field as punishment for hiding taking care of Fahmarr from his coaches, Daniel explains what this relationship means to him. Daniel says, “I helped Ray hide the kid coach. He runs, I should be running” (Hudlin, 2020, 59:35). This scene is a turning point where McElrathbey and Daniel realize they are not just roommates; they are friends, brothers, and support systems for each other.

Student-Athlete Academic Commitments

The unique circumstances of student-athletes are other important aspects of the film. Parham (1993) wrote that student-athletes’ academic responsibilities during their sport’s season create challenges inside and outside the classroom. Student-athletes try to balance their multiple commitments as “one’s participation in both domains really does test the mental and physical stamina of even the most well balanced and committed student-athlete” (Parham, 1993, p. 413).

As a first-year student, McElrathbey registered for 18 credit hours in his first semester, a large course load for any student. At a study hall, McElrathbey’s Academic Advisor, Mr. Kurt, comments he is worried that McElrathbey may be trying to balance too many commitments. Mr. Kurt asks McElrathbey if he feels that this course load could be too much given his dedication to football. McElrathbey replies, “They’re free classes, why not take advantage?” (Hudlin, 2020, 34:35). McElrathbey felt that he needed to be a successful athlete as well as make the most of his scholarship and education.

Practitioner Examples: Academic Advising and Cooperative Education

In higher education, functional areas can look different as we strive to support student success. We (the authors) have provided practitioner examples of how professionals can support students facing challenges like those faced by McElrathbey.

As an Academic Advisor and Coach (Erika) in Clemson University’s Academic Success Center, members of our advising team focus on supporting students and empowering them to become confident and independent learners. Additionally, we support students in one-on-one academic advising and coaching appointments. Our academic coaching appointments focus on asking students open-ended questions about their goals, academic skills, study strategies, and organizational skills. While I do not work with student-athletes, I do work with students like McElrathbey, who may find themselves trying to navigate multiple priorities at once. As an Academic Coach, I wonder what it would be like if McElrathbey had sought out support from either athletics or other departments on campus to discuss his overall approach to academic success. When students have multiple priorities, I try to discuss what may be most urgent. Or, if they are trying to build a schedule and routine, I may inquire about their negotiable and non-negotiable commitments. The challenge McElrathbey faced, unlike other students, is that it seemed nothing for him felt non-negotiable. His goal was to support his brother, no matter the academic or athletic implications.

Students have responsibilities such as regularly taking care of their families, which requires extra effort to manage, as seen with McElrathbey. In my role (Shauna) as an advisor for the Clemson University Cooperative Education (Co-op) Program, I speak with students about possible academic-engaged learning opportunities available through the Program. Students in the Program complete multiple rotational experiences under a mentor from a company teaching partner within their field of study. When discussing companies and co-op assignments of interest, students sometimes express obligations that require them to stay near their family as they have caretaker responsibilities for parents, siblings, or other family members. I work with these students to meet their interests in professional assignments while considering their outside commitments by discussing which co-op assignments meet their professional interests. Taking the extra time needed to get to know my students helps me learn about them as individuals and ensure I am providing tailored support on their higher education journey.

Finally, due to the impact of COVID-19, we also now see a desire for students to take classes virtually. As mentioned earlier, Safety takes place in the early 2000s, a time when asynchronous classes were a concept of the future. However, now students normally log on to Zoom classes. What would be the benefits and challenges of McElrathbey potentially completing classes online in terms of supporting Fahmarr and navigating his responsibilities? Regardless, the desire to support his brother, transition, and succeed are constant themes in the film and for college students today. Still, the individualized challenge and support that student affairs professionals provide helps students like McElrathbey succeed.


Safety provides a peek into the life of a college student-athlete. We valued the opportunity to analyze Safety to assess student needs and consider how the experiences portrayed in the movie relate to real-life work as higher education professionals. Furthermore, we encourage you to watch the film and see if and how your analysis aligns with ours. More topics than we discussed may provide inspiration in your higher education practice. The discussion questions below serve as a viewing guide for analyzing the movie and determining how you can use the themes discussed in the film and this article in your work. Finally, as previously mentioned, inspiration for analyzing this movie came from a course assignment to create a podcast. If you would like to review our podcast, here is a link to the podcast: Based on a True Story: Analyzing Disney’s Safety Movie & Contemporary College Students.

Reflection Questions & Viewing Guide

Undergraduate Students:

  1. What was your transition to college like?
  2. Did you face similar or different challenges than those McElrathbey faced?
  3. What challenges did your peers face?
  4. How can you support yourself and your peers in obtaining support during transition?

Graduate Students:

  1. What impact does this movie have on higher education or contemporary college students?
  2. What are some common themes or experiences that you have seen in films that portray higher education issues?
  3. As an emerging practitioner, how would you support in a similar situation to McElrathbey in your functional area?


  1. If you found out about a student in a situation like McElrathbey, what would you do as a Student Affairs professional? How could different function areas help?
  2. What resources exist on your campus to support a student in crisis?
  3. How can you use the discussion presented in your role? What implications can you pull?


  1. What would happen if more faculty knew about McElrathbey’s situation earlier on in the film?
  2. If a student was struggling in a course, would you speak with the student individually to see what is causing the situation?
  3. How could you use this movie, or other film and media, in the classroom to provide case study examples?


  1. As a student-athlete, what education or information was provided to you about NCAA eligibility and inequitable benefits?
  2. If McElrathbey was on your team or played your sport, what would you do if you found he was hiding his brother?
  3. In your opinion, what are some ethical issues or challenges that student-athletes face?
  4. Where do you prioritize your energy as a student athlete – in athletics or academics? What does your institution, coaches, or team want you to prioritize?

Film In Higher Education:

  1. How might you see this film fitting in the context of training or development in your office or unit?
  2. What other films or media help surface the issues identified here?
  3. What are the benefits and challenges of using popular culture to frame student affairs work?


Bryman, A. (2004). The Disneyization of society. Sage Publishers.

Covarrubias, R., Romero, A., & Trivelli, M. (2015). Family achievement guilt and mental well-being of college students. Journal of Child and Family Studies, 24(7), 2031-2037.

Goldrick-Rab, S., Richardson, J., Schneider, J., Hernandez, A., & Cady, C. (2018). Still hungry and homeless in college. The Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice. http://hope4college.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/09/Wisconsin-HOPE-Lab-Still-Hungry-and-Homeless.pdf

Hudlin, R. (Director). (2020). Safety [Film]. Disney.

Hurtado, S. & Alvarado, A. R. (2015). Discrimination and bias, underrepresentation, and sense of belonging on campus. Higher Education Research Institute. https://vtechworks.lib.vt.edu/bitstream/handle/10919/83064/DiscriminationBiasCampus.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y

O’Keefe, P. (2013). A sense of belonging: Improving student retention. College Student Journal,

47(4), 605-613.

Parham, W. D. (1993). The Intercollegiate Athlete: A 1990s Profile. The Counseling Psychologist, 21(3), 411–429.

Strayhorn, T. L. (2008). Sentido de pertenencia: A hierarchical analysis predicting sense of belonging among Latino college students. Journal of Hispanic Higher Education, 7(4), 301-320.

Strayhorn, T. L. (2018). College students’ sense of belonging: A key to educational success for all students. Routledge.

Thomas, R. (2020). Call My Name, Clemson: Documenting the Black experience in an American university community. University of Iowa Press.

Shauna Hines-Farmer is an Assistant Director for the Cooperative Education Program at Clemson University. She received her M.Ed. from Clemson University in 2021, and BA in Exercise and Sport Science and BA in Psychology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2018.  

Erika Lynne Forslund (she/her/hers) M.Ed:  Is an Academic Advising and Coaching Specialist in Clemson University’s Academic Success Center. Erika also received her M.Ed. from Clemson University in May 2021, and a Bachelor of Arts in Communication Studies from The University of North Carolina at Greensboro in May 2019.  Erika enjoys working with Exploratory Students, First-Generation Students, and Student-Athletes. Erika is originally from Apex, NC, and sees Baxter Magolda’s Self-Authorship (2004), Chickering’s Student Development Theory, (1969-1993) and Sanford’s Challenge and Support Model (1962) all as applied theories in her advising philosophy.