It is estimated that over half of college student affairs practitioners support students through traumatic life events on at least a monthly basis (Lynch & Glass, 2018). Subsequent research has indicated that over a third of college student affairs professionals met criteria for secondary traumatic stress before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic (Lynch, 2022), with new professionals being most impacted by this phenomenon. This case presents readers with the opportunity to identify symptoms and causes of secondary trauma, as well as discuss ways in which student affairs departments can better support the wellness of their new professionals.
Keywords: International Students, Burnout, Secondary Trauma, Staff Well-Being
Jacob (he/him/his) is an entry level international student advisor in the Office of International Relations under the Associate Director of Student Community He is in his first year of working at this office, having previously graduated from a higher education master’s program the year before. He identifies as a white, heterosexual, cis-gender man, from an upper-middle class upbringing. During his undergraduate years, he had the opportunity to study abroad more than once and made friends with many of the international students on his campus. He describes himself as highly empathetic and prides himself on the close relationships he builds with the students with whom he works.
Northeastern State University (NSU) is a mid-size regional public four-year college in a metropolitan area of the United States. Given the city’s large and diverse population and fast-paced environment, the university is a popular selection for international student. Given this context, a significant proportion of the student body (15%) is comprised of international students, with most being graduate students (master’s and doctoral level). The institution prides itself on its global diversity and has received numerous awards and recognitions for its service to international students.
The Office of International Relations is the primary entity serving the international student population at NSU. The office is comprised of an Executive Director, and Associate Director for Immigration Administration (Visa Processes, Registration, etc.) and an Associate Director for Student Community. Within the Student Community branch there are 5 international student advisors.
As Jacob approaches his one-year anniversary as an international student advisor, he decided to attend a statewide advising conference that was being held at a nearby university. When he reviewed the conference program, he chose to attend a session entitled “The Dark Side of Professional Helping.” This session explored issues of burnout, compassion fatigue, and secondary trauma. While listening to the session speaker he began to reflect on his experience over the past year supporting students through various traumatic life events brought up during the presentation.
He began thinking about Abdel (he/him/his), a graduate student he worked closely with, who would regularly speak of how much he worried for his family that he left in a war-torn country as he sought a path forward for he and his family to permanently escape. He also thought of Sunny (she/her/hers), a quiet Japanese student, who often spoke with him about her experiences of discrimination by professors and peers due to her accent and cultural touchpoints. Additionally, he thought of several Indonesian student leaders in the Phi Beta Delta International Honor Society who recently had to witness their hometown left in shambles after a devastating earthquake. While these were specific students he reflected on in the moment, there were many more similar situations in which he provided similar support for students over the course of the year.
The session speaker asked that participants privately think about their own emotions and physical experiences over the past academic year. Jacob had not taken much time to stop and take stock of himself in a long time. In pondering this question, he identified long periods of sadness that increasingly has turned into emotional numbness. While he thoroughly enjoyed his work, he also recognized that he felt tired almost all the time and recently began suffering from insomnia. He often stayed up replaying student stories in his head and wondering how he could better support them. Since he was so frequently exhausted, he rarely made time anymore for physical activity and rarely cooked. He also frequently suffered from headaches and momentary random dizziness.
While the session facilitator offered useful tips for further reflection and action, Jacob left the session feeling discouraged, as he was concerned not only about his state of wellbeing, but also about what his next steps may be. Would he damage his reputation at work by pulling back? Would he lose his connections with his students? But most of all, would he end up burning out of a job that he loved so dearly?
Other Contextual Information
- Jacob’s job description includes duties such as advising students on matters such course selection, cultural adjustment, and co-curricular opportunities. In addition, he is an active advisor for the Phi Beta Delta International Student Honor Society who meets on a weekly basis at 8pm on campus.
- Jacob regularly works 50+ hours per week, and even won Club Advisor of the year for his efforts within his first year. He also received mostly “meets expectations” with a few “exceeds expectations” in various categories on his end of year evaluation.
- Jacob lives alone and his primary social network (family, old friends, etc.) live across the country. While he has made a few friends in his new city, he does not very close friends outside of work.
- In what ways might Jacob be experiencing burnout, compassion fatigue, and/or secondary trauma? What evidence is available for each of these phenomena in the scenario?
- In what ways might his work and personal environment implicitly reinforce practices or circumstances that lead to burnout, compassion fatigue, and/or secondary trauma?
- How might Jacob’s social identities play a role in his experience? If Jacob possessed a different set of identities, how might his experience play out differently?
- What do you believe Jacob should do in order to place more emphasis on his well-being? What challenges may exist in implementing your recommendations?
- If you were Jacob’s supervisor, perhaps without knowing all the details of this scenario, what actions might you take as a trauma-informed supervisor?
References and Resources
Chessman, H. M. (2021). Student affairs professionals, well-being, and work quality. Journal of Student Affairs Research and Practice, 58(2), 148-162. https://doi.org/10.1080/19496591.2020.1853556
Keliher, R. (January 9, 2022). Student-facing college workers, contingent faculty face exhaustion. Diverse Issues in Higher Ed. Retrieved from https://www.diverseeducation.com/faculty-staff/article/15286978/studentfacing-college-workers-contingent-faculty-face-exhaustion
Lynch, R. J. (2022). Prevalence and predictive factors of secondary traumatic stress in college student affairs professionals. Journal of Student Affairs Research & Practice. http://doi.org/10.1080/19496591.2022.2080555
Lynch, R. J. (2022). Trauma-informed colleges begin with trauma-informed leaders. American Council on Education (ACE) Higher Education Today Blog. https://www.higheredtoday.org/2022/03/14/trauma-informed-colleges-begin-with-trauma-informed-leaders/
Lynch, R. J. (2022). The cost of professional helping in higher education. In Shalka, T. & Okello, W. (Eds.), New Directions for Student Services: Trauma-Informed Practice in Student Affairs: Multidimensional Considerations for Care, Healing, & Wellbeing (p. 69- 80). New Directions for Student Services. Wiley. https://doi.org/10.1002/ss.20416
Lynch, R. J. & Glass, C. (2020). The cost of caring: An arts-based phenomenological analysis of secondary traumatic stress in college student affairs. Review of Higher Education, 43(4), 1041-1068. http://doi.org/ 10.1353/rhe.2020.0030
Lynch, R. J. & Klima, K. (2020). Emotional labor and wellbeing. M. Sallee (Ed.), Creating Sustainable Careers in Student Affairs: What Ideal Worker Norms Get Wrong and How to Make It Right. Sterling, VA: Stylus
Lynch, R. J. (2019). An interdisciplinary approach: Using social work praxis to develop trauma resiliency in live-in residential life staff. The Journal of College & University Student Housing: Special Edition on Training & Development in Residential Life, 45(3), 42-55.
Lynch, R. J. & Glass, C. (2018). The development and validation of the secondary trauma in student affairs professionals scale. Journal of Student Affairs Research and Practice, 56(1), 1-18. https://doi.org/10.1080/19496591.2018.1474757
Lynch, R. J. (2017). Breaking the silence: A phenomenological exploration of secondary traumatic stress in U.S. college student affairs professionals [Published doctoral dissertation]. ODU Digital Commons. http://doi.org/10.25777/hyh9-b004
Pettit, E. (January 13, 2021). They’re called #TeamNoSleep. The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from: https://www.chronicle.com/article/theyre-called-teamnosleep
Sallee, M. S. (2021). Creating sustainable careers in student affairs: What ideal worker norms get wrong and how to make it right. Stylus.
Steele, W. (2019). Reducing compassion fatigue, secondary traumatic stress, and burnout: A trauma-sensitive workbook. Routledge.
Student Affairs Now Host. (2022). Combating trauma, burnout, and compassion fatigue. [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nUc1WOXJx8o&t=3s
Student Affairs Now Host. (2022). Navigating trauma and burnout [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YzVS-I4ipBg
van Dernoot Lipsky, L. (2009). Trauma stewardship: An everyday guide to caring for self while caring for others. With C. Burk. Berrett-Koehler.
Whitforld, E. (March 23, 2022). Student affairs staff quit because of low pay. Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved from: https://www.insidehighered.com/quicktakes/2022/03/23/student-affairs-staff-quit-because-burnout-low-pay
Dr. Jason Lynch (he, him, his) serves as an assistant professor of higher education in the Reich College of Education at Appalachian State University, as well as founding executive editor for the Journal of Trauma Studies in Education. Through his research, teaching, and service he hopes to inspire a vision for a more trauma-informed system of higher education for students, faculty, and staff. His work is informed by over a decade of experience as a student affairs practitioner and has been featured in outlets including American Council on Education (ACE), the Review of Higher Education, and the Journal of Student Affairs Research & Practice.