Identifying and Addressing Secondary Trauma in New Professionals in Student Affairs | Lynch


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

Key Characters

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.

Institutional Context

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.

Case Scenario

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.

Discussion Questions

  1. 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?
  2. In what ways might his work and personal environment implicitly reinforce practices or circumstances that lead to burnout, compassion fatigue, and/or secondary trauma?
  3. 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?
  4. 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?
  1. 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.

Keliher, R. (January 9, 2022). Student-facing college workers, contingent faculty face exhaustion. Diverse Issues in Higher Ed. Retrieved from

Lynch, R. J. (2022). Prevalence and predictive factors of secondary traumatic stress in college student affairs professionals. Journal of Student Affairs Research & Practice.

Lynch, R. J. (2022). Trauma-informed colleges begin with trauma-informed leaders.  American Council on Education (ACE) Higher Education Today Blog.

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.

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. 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.

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.

Pettit, E. (January 13, 2021). They’re called #TeamNoSleep. The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from:

 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. 

Student Affairs Now Host. (2022). Navigating trauma and burnout [Video]. YouTube.


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:

Author Biography

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.

A Heavy Lift: The Impact of the Resident Assistant Position | Díaz III, Amos, Samano, Livingston, Vasquez


The Resident Assistant (RA) position is often noted as a premier leadership opportunity on many college campuses.  The RA position centers community building, peer support and skill development as some of the unique opportunities for students in the role.  While undoubtedly an important institutional position, such a role is a complex one.  In this case study, Victor (Resident Director) navigates challenges, impacts and considerations that RAs Cameron and Rachel have experienced, and as the RD begins to question how RAs these student staff members might be resourced and supported as a means of responsibility and care for RAs.

Keyword/Phrases: Resident Assistants, Residence Life, Mental Health


Victor (he/him) – Serves as a Residence Director (RD) and has been in this role for five years.  This job is Victor’s first full-time position since completing his graduate program in student affairs/higher education administration. Victor has been on staff in residence life positions since his undergraduate career, serving as a Resident Assistant (RA), Assistant Complex Director (ACD) during graduate school and now as an RD. Victor is a cis-gender, queer, able-bodied Latino man.

Cameron (they/them) – Serves as a Resident Assistant (RA) and has been in this role for three years.  Cameron has the highest seniority among the RA staff and is one of a few returning RAs.  Cameron will be a graduating senior this spring and is currently studying for the LSAT to enter law school. Cameron is a Black, gender non-binary, pan-sexual, able-bodied person with a learning difference.

Rachel (she/her) – Serves as a first-year Resident Assistant (RA). Her placement is in a first-year residence hall. She is involved in various organizations on campus and is currently a student government senator for the Women and Gender Advocacy Center. Rachel is a first-generation college student and came to the institution from out of state. Rachel is a multi-racial, cis-gender, heterosexual, able-bodied woman. She is also an independent student who has no contact/communication with parents/guardians.


This case is set at a regional, comprehensive, liberal arts public institution enrolling 24,000 students (19,000 undergraduates, 5,000 graduates). It is an emerging Hispanic Serving Institution with roughly 22% Latinx/a/o/e enrolled students. The institutional mission states, “The university’s diverse and inclusive learning and living experience, distinctive in its rigorous intellectual engagement and its global and experiential learning opportunities, leads to a life of meaning and means. The university prepares graduates who support and create positive change in their communities and the world.” There is an on-campus residential population of 10,000 students.

The Residence Life Department includes 72 resident assistants (RAs), and six resident directors (RDs). The RDs have two weeks of summer training followed by another two weeks of training with and for RAs. During the semester there are weekly full-time residence life staff meetings at the departmental level. There are also monthly all staff meetings that include the RA staff. The compensation for the RA position is room and board. 

Case Study

Victor, a current Resident Director, threw himself down in exhaustion on the sofa in his on-campus apartment.  Reflecting on an already busy semester, despite only six weeks in, he had a strong sense of concern for a number of RAs he supervised.  In a meeting today with Cameron, a returning RA whom Victor supervises, it became apparent they were struggling not just to manage the workload of the position but more specifically, the impact of student incidents on their personal well-being.

Reflecting on the semester thus far, Cameron highlighted the issues they and the team had navigated already this term. There had been a steady number of Title IX reports, a missing student case, hostile RA conduct meetings, a racial bias incident, and ongoing roommate conflicts. Cameron, a dean’s list student, indicated they were having trouble focusing in class because they were constantly thinking about all of the issues and the students who were by these situations. Because of this, Cameron had mounting anxiety related to future on-call situations.

Victor listened and affirmed Cameron’s feelings. Victor in some ways was feeling the same stress but did not let it show. Victor confirmed that Cameron felt adequately trained and had the resources to uphold the RA responsibilities. Cameron shared that they were appropriately trained and had the resources they needed to help students. What they were feeling was something beyond that.

The meeting with Cameron was similar to a conversation Victor had with a first-year RA, Rachel.  Excited to build community, a team-player and a wonderful ambassador for the institution, Rachel hit the ground running. Victor noticed that her happy-go-lucky disposition began to fade over the last two weeks. During Victor and Rachel’s one on one meeting, Rachel shared that she was not expecting the RA position to impact her general well-being as much as it had.  She shared that she loved working with students on her floor and getting to know other RAs but noted the interpersonal violence incident she responded to recently in her community put her in a bad place mentally and emotionally. Victor could understand because he still struggled with incidents involving violence despite having worked professionally in Residence Life for five years. Rachel hesitantly shared that despite her initial excitement to be an RA, she was not sure she would come back the following year and was considering potentially leaving the role next semester.

It was becoming apparent that the string of intense student and community concerns was having drastic influence on the well-being of a number of RAs. Victor and the rest of the professional Residence Life staff always advocated for and supported RAs utilizing the Student Mental Health and Counseling Services on campus along with prioritizing self-care. Outside of those two options, there were not a lot of direct institutional or department resources available to RAs to address the mental, emotional and physical well-being.

Victor thought back to the summer training before the fall term began and felt like there was an honest conversation about the realities and difficulties of the position but recognized the shortcomings of such training in navigating the reality of the position.  Victor reflected and acknowledged the RA position can be difficult and demands a great deal from students.  He balanced that reality with a strong sense of obligation for the well-being of Cameron, Rachel, and other RAs both as residence life staff and as people.

As Victor picked up the TV remote and clicked the power button, he said aloud “There has to be something else we can do.”

Discussion Questions

  1. What additional information might Victor need to determine next steps?
  2. How might the roles of RAs in crisis situations be different based on both social identities and the intersection of these social identities?
  3. Given the realities of secondary trauma – “the stress resulting from helping or wanting to help a traumatized or suffering person” (Figley, 1999, p. 10) – how can Residence Life practitioners better address the ‘secondary traumatic stress’ RAs endure as a result of responding to traumatic incidents?
  4. How can supervisors help identify indicators of burnout in an RA before it becomes a serious problem?
  5. While most RA positions are marketed as a great leadership opportunities, how might the Residence Life department address the challenges of the position in the recruitment, selection and on-boarding processes?


DuBose, D. R. (2022). Burnout in college resident assistants: Indicators of emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and personal accomplishment (Publication No. 2599) [Doctoral dissertation, Liberty University]. Scholar Crossing.

Figley, C. R. (1999). Compassion fatigue: Toward a new understanding of the costs of caring. In B. H. Stamm (Ed.), Secondary traumatic stress: Self-care issues for clinicians, researchers, and educators (2nd ed., pp. 3–28). Lutherville, MD: Sidran.

Harris, C. J. (2021). Differences between resident advisors and undergraduate residential students on resilience, mental health, burnout, and perceived stress [Doctoral dissertation, The University of North Carolina at Charlotte]. ProQuest Publishing

Lynch, R. J. (2017). The development and validation of the secondary trauma in resident assistants scale. The Journal of College & University Student Housing, 44(1), 10-29.

Roland, E. (2021). Institutional support and black women resident assistants across environments.  Journal of Student Affairs Research and Practice, 58(5), 507-519.

Author Bios

Hermen Díaz III, Ph.D., (he/him) is an assistant professor in the Higher Education Administration Department at SUNY-Buffalo State College.  He received a B.A. in Psychology from Grand Valley State University, an M.S. in Student Personnel Administration from SUNY-Buffalo State College and a Ph.D. in Higher Education Leadership from Colorado State University.

 Shelbymarie Amos, (she/her) of Buffalo, New York holds a B.S in Childhood Education from SUNY College at Buffalo. She is currently in the process of obtaining her M.A in Higher Education Student Affairs Administration. With her “student centered philosophies” and many years of experience working with students,  Shelbymarie strives to be an equitable student affairs practitioner.

Jasmine Samano, (she/her) is a second year graduate student at SUNY- Buffalo State College in in the Higher Education and Student Affairs Administration program.  She received her B.S. in Human Development and Family Science from Oregon State University.

Carly Livingston, (she/her) is a current second year graduate student in the Higher Education and Student Affairs Administration program at SUNY-Buffalo State College. She is currently a Graduate Assistant Student Life Coordinator at Villa Maria College.  She received a bachelor’s degree in psychology from SUNY-Oneonta.

Andres Vasquez, (he/him) is a second-year graduate student in the Higher Education and Student Affairs Administration program at SUNY Buffalo State and currently works in the Residence Life department. He received his undergraduate degree from SUNY Purchase.

Racial and Political Tensions at an Open Enrollment Institution | Sokolich


This scenario presents a complex problem facing student affairs practitioners related to funding, enrollment, politics, and identity. The students involved are from different geographical regions of a politically contentious swing state, with diverse racial identities, political ideologies, and socioeconomic statuses. The environment is an open-enrollment campus of a land-grant institution, situated in a rural and politically conservative part of the state, with a significant local student population, but with a primary recruiting territory in a politically progressive urban and suburban area. Campus-wide enrollment is declining, which is contributing to budget cuts for all academic and student affairs units.

 Keywords: Racial tensions, political ideologies, open enrollment institution, Predominantly White Institution

Primary Characters

Doug Francisco (he/him): Coordinator for Diversity and Inclusion and advisor for the Students for Progress (SfP) student organization. He is a student affairs practitioner with a background in multicultural affairs as a graduate student at a large regional predominantly white institution and worked his way up to be a director of multiculturalism at a small private institution. Doug has been with the Regional Campus of State University for three year, but previously worked in urban and progressive environments.

Jamie Feldman (she/her): Coordinator for Campus Engagement and advisor of the Conservative Values Alliance (CVA) student organization. She is also a student affairs practitioner with experience in campus activities, student organizations, and leadership programs. Jamie is an entry-level professional who recently completed a graduate assistantship and earned her master’s degree from a small private institution in a rural region of the state. She grew in the same conservative rural area where she completed her education.

Dr. Matthew Norris (he/him): Dean of Students and supervisor of Doug and Jamie. He has been at the Middlefield Campus for ten years with a wealth of student engagement, leadership development, and multicultural affairs experiences. Dr. Norris has also published research about open enrollment institutions.

Case Narrative

The Middlefield Campus of State University is located in a rural town. As a regional campus, Middlefield offers open enrollment as a part of the institution’s land-grant mission. State University’s flagship campus in the state’s capital has competitive admissions practices that have resulted in increased GPA and test score requirements for the entering class over the last several years. In order to satisfy the institution’s open enrollment mission, any student who graduates from high school in the state can be admitted to any of the system’s regional campuses, even if they do not have the GPA and test scores to be competitive enough for the flagship campus. Each of the regional campuses recruit from a different part of the state; Middlefield recruits from the northeast, which is generally urban and suburban with liberal and progressive political ideologies. The Middlefield Campus itself is located in a rural and politically conservative north-central part of the state.

The Student Life team on the Middlefield Campus is small, but mighty. Every major functional area of student affairs is represented, but the operations are limited to one full-time staff member per area, and some staff have more than one job responsibility. Doug Francisco is the Coordinator for Diversity and Inclusion. Because of Doug’s extensive work and career multicultural affairs, he is keenly aware of the specific needs of students of color at a predominantly white institution such as the Middlefield Campus of state University. Every fall semester, Doug sees more new students of color coming from the northeastern recruitment territories, and they are consistently shell-shocked by their surroundings. These students are out of their element in the rural conservative town, which is also overwhelmingly comprised of white residents.

Year after year, students from outside of Middlefield report concerns or incidents involving local students and community members ranging from harassment to physical altercations and threats. Local students tend to commute to campus while living at home or with friends from high school. Staff and faculty often hear local students referring to campus residence halls as “the slums” or “the ghetto” because that is where non-local students live. Often, faculty and staff reach out to Doug when they hear this biased and potentially harmful language.

A large proportion of the students of color that attend the Middlefield Campus live in on-campus housing. While the surrounding community is predominantly white, the Middlefield Campus has the highest percentage of non-white students of any state system campuses, including the flagship. Because of this, it is clear to Doug that the white students are referring to on-campus housing as “the ghetto” because of its high population of students of color. Students of color who are new to campus and the Middlefield area want nothing more than to enjoy their college experience. Many of them leave difficult family situations behind, looking for a new opportunity for a better life and a stable educational and career path. The tensions between white students and students of color makes the campus climate challenging at best, and uncomfortable and contentious at worst.

In addition to the negative perceptions based on race and ethnicity, political ideologies further reinforce the divide between local rural students and students who are new to the Middlefield area. The recent presidential election and extremely partisan fallout has driven a wedge between students on campus. An overwhelming majority of white students and their families from the Middlefield area voted for the conservative candidate, who promised a resurgence in the prominence of farming and traditional family values under their leadership. Alternatively, students of color and those who are from more urban areas of the state voted for the progressive candidate, who promised a more equal distribution of wealth, access to affordable higher education, and greater inclusion for historically marginalized groups.

The harsh rhetoric used by the conservative candidate has blurred the line between hate speech and free speech; the language used is seen by progressive students as racist hate speech and by conservative students as free speech. Alternatively, the language and goals of the progressive candidate has been accusatory and patronizing to rural farming communities and residents feel disrespected in how they have been depicted. The weeks leading up to the election have been polarizing for students on the campus and tension has been building. The existing chapter of the Conservative Values Alliance (CVA) prides itself in historically being the only political organization on campus, which prompted outspoken student leaders to start a new chapter of Students for Progress (SfP). Once both groups were registered and established for the school year, the students in the CVA were all white and many were vocal about their political views, using microaggressions and stereotypes to reinforce their opinions. Students in the Students for Progress chapter were of mixed identities and considered themselves to be more socially just, accusing the CVA of being a fascist organization which further reinforced the political and racial tensions on campus. Students in both organizations were following the examples set by their preferred candidate for president using incendiary language used to rally their own base while upsetting the other.

Tensions came to a head when the groups got into an argument about values, ethics, and morality at the popular student organization fair. What started as loud, passive-aggressive commentary, escalated into name-calling and yelling, disrupting the event. After several tense moments where it looked like things might get physical, the organizers of the event dismissed both groups from the fair for violating the terms and agreements of participation. As advisors of the student organizations, both Doug and Jamie were summoned to the Dean of Students’ office to provide a better understanding of what happened during the event. The Dean of Students, Dr. Matthew Norris, stated that this altercation was just the tip of the iceberg and he had received reports and concerns from other faculty and staff after hearing inappropriate language and comments during class discussions, in the halls between classes, and in common spaces on campus, and that it was time to take some action.

Dr. Norris asks Doug and Jamie to create a brand-new initiative to help bridge relationships between students on campus. With the assistance of other colleagues, Doug and Jamie created a successful early-arrival program to promote leadership self-efficacy for students of color and encourage them to become involved in campus life. Dr. Norris is hopeful that Doug and Jamie can be innovative once again with another solution to the issues facing campus and the community. Specifically, Dr. Norris wants Doug and Jamie to address sense of belonging for all students on campus; local students and students from outside of the local area both deserve to feel a sense of safety and security on the open enrollment campus. This new initiative cannot have a substantial impact on the budget or take away from other programs or services on campus. Aside from the financial implication, the directive was open-ended; it could be a learning community, leadership program, sociocultural programming series, or any other new enterprise that is grounded in theory but will have a lasting and sustainable impact in practice. When considering the multiple and intersecting identities of the students involved, Doug and Jamie realize that the culture of the campus needs to experience a dramatic shift towards inclusion and a spirit of togetherness shared by all students.

Discussion Questions

  1. How would you assess the campus climate and gauge the students’ senses of safety and belonging?
  2. Which theoretical frameworks would help you to assess the cultural needs of the Middlefield Campus? How will you apply them to the students in this scenario?
  3. What is your solution and how would you implement it on the campus? Who are your key stakeholders and change agents? How will you express the importance of this solution to students, faculty, and staff on campus?

 Author Biography

Andrew Sokolich (he/him) is the Program Manager for the Online Associate of Arts degree at Cuyahoga Community College and will begin the Higher Education Administration Ph.D. program at Kent State University in Spring 2023. Previously, he has served in various roles in student activities, diversity and inclusion, admissions, and retention at open access institutions. Andrew is a Cleveland, Ohio native and attended Kent State where he earned his Bachelor of Business Administration and The Ohio State University where he earned his Master of Arts in Higher Education and Student Affairs.

One of These is Not Always Like the Other: Social Class & First-Generation College Student Status | Ardoin, Nguyen


This case addresses intersections of two salient identities—social class and first generation college student (FGCS) status—which are often challenging to visibly distinguish and mistakenly conflated (Ardoin, 2021; Rubin et al., 2014; Warnock & Hurst, 2016). In this scenario, the Vice President of Student Affairs (VPSA) meets with two prospective students and makes a “well-intended” but harmful comment during a meeting; the students then seek guidance from their assigned admissions counselor, who must figure out how to assist the students, navigate campus politics, and suggest training on these identities and student populations for the Division or Institution.

Keywords Social class, first generation college students, class consciousness

Primary Characters

Greta (she/her) is an admissions counselor for Winton College. As an admissions counselor, she is primarily responsible for the recruitment of first-generation college students. She completed an undergraduate degree from Winton. As an undergraduate student, Greta found employment in the Admissions office and subsequently filled an opening three years ago when an admissions counselor position became available.

Trenton (he/him) is a prospective first-generation college student from a working-class background.

Alexis (she/her) is a prospective first-generation college student from a middle-class background.

Dr. Foster (she/her) is the Vice President of Student Affairs at Winton College for the past 12 years and the admissions office is part of her portfolio. 


Social class remains a misunderstood and ambiguous concept within higher education contexts because it is often a taboo topic and visible markers make it difficult to distinguish students across different objective and subjective indicators (Ardoin, 2021; Evans et al., 2022; Rubin et al., 2014; Warnock & Hurst, 2016).  These measures stem from upbringings and meaning-making with the world. Like social class identity, first-generation college students (FGCS)—students whose primary caregivers did not earn four-year degrees–are not easy to identify. While many FGCSs come from poor or working-class (PWC) backgrounds (Lohfink & Paulsen, 2005; Ward et al., 2012), these multiple identities should not be conflated as students may feel strongly about one construct, but not the other, or identify with a different social class (Davis, 2010; Herrman et al., 2022).  Consequently, higher education and student affairs administrators need to further develop and refine normative understandings around social class identity.  Given the complexity of this concept, educators need to allocate time to learn students’ stories, rather than making common assumptions.  Understanding and acknowledging social class differences can shape how institutional leaders and student affairs professionals develop structures, policies, and data gathering techniques to create systems that recognize the complexity of and systemic issues around identity. 


Winton College is a small private liberal arts college in the Northeast.  Winston holds a reputation of being a homogenous and expensive institution. With escalating tuition prices, diminishing state appropriations, and declining returns on endowment investments, Winston is experiencing challenges recruiting students from underserved and historically excluded identities, including FGCS and PWC backgrounds.  The President and Board of Trustees have directed the admissions office, which falls under the direction of the Vice President of Student Affairs (VPSA), to increase enrollment of underserved and historically excluded populations by 10 percent for next Fall. Funding for additional scholarships for this particular population has been increased and secured.

The majority of the faculty and administrators at Winton College mirror the student population, holding privileged identities, and the institution has not hosted any training or professional development opportunities for its employees on working with FGCS or students from PWC backgrounds. Thus, it is unclear if Winton College is truly prepared to welcome new student populations to campus or support their path to success. 

August 1. Before admissions recruitment season began, Greta, an admissions counselor for Winton College was tasked with recruiting more FGCS to apply for admission. During prospective student visits, Greta and other admissions counselors specifically invite FGCSs to meet the VPSA at Winton during November campus visit dates. The VPSA, Dr. Foster, believed this kind of personal attention would be attractive to prospective students.

September 30. During a high school recruitment event, Greta met Trenton, a high school senior and prospective FGCS. The recruitment event occurred at a high school gymnasium in Southwick, which is generally known to be a working-class community. During the course of the conversation Trenton confided that he was very interested in applying to Winton College as a chance at “a better life” as the first in his family to pursue a four-year degree but was concerned about the financial component because his family had limited income. Greta noted this specific interaction in her admissions counselor logbook and earmarked Trenton’s information to have him visit campus during one of the specialized FGCS campus visit dates in November.

During this same event, Greta met Alexis – the likely salutatorian of the high school with elite test scores and extensive extracurricular engagement. Alexis shared with Greta that she was being sought after by several institutions but that she was drawn to Winton College because of its smaller size and liberal arts focus which would allow her to build relationships with faculty and explore different subject areas. Although Alexis would be the first person in her family to pursue a four-year degree, her family ran several successful businesses in Southwick, owning and operating the local gas station and construction company. Financially, the family was solidly middle-class. Greta was impressed with Alexis and added a notation to put her on the invitation list for one of the specialized FGCS campus visit dates in November.

November 15. Both Trenton and Alexis were excited to visit Winton College and meet with Dr. Foster, the VPSA who had been in her position for 12 years. As a third-generation college graduate, she earned a bachelor’s degree at an institution very similar to Winton and then graduate degrees from elite, private institutions.

Dr. Foster met with a small group of students—including Trenton and Alexis—attending Winton’s FGCS recruitment initiative. She began the meeting framing Winton as a friendly place for FGCSs, particularly those from PWC backgrounds. Believing that all the students in the group came from similar backgrounds, Dr. Foster discussed at length how Winton provided upward mobility for PWC students and offered food pantry, career closet, and emergency funds services to help meet students’ basic needs. Dr. Foster ended her time with the group by stating that the students would be more successful at Winton because other universities in the area “threw students into the pool to either swim or sink” and she warned the group that they would be more likely to sink because of their PWC backgrounds. She also reiterated how many FGCSs from PWC families flourished at Winton.

After their meeting with Dr. Foster, Trenton and Alexis began to re-evaluate if Winton was the right place for their college experience. While they thought the campus was beautiful and would meet their academic needs, they both were slightly insulted by the VPSA’s comments and contemplated mentioning their hesitation to Greta, their admissions counselor.

Two weeks later, Greta followed up with the two prospective students and was surprised to hear that meeting with Dr. Foster made the students question their interest in Winton rather than solidify it. Her initial thought was that she would need to increase any scholarships being offered to Trenton and Alexis to hopefully make up for the meeting mishap. She then remembered that there were other prospective FGCS in that meeting and some of these other students may have experienced Dr. Foster and the meeting similarly. Greta began to recognize that scholarship funding may not be the appropriate or realistic response. But what was appropriate? She and her colleagues in admissions had to figure it out because there would be consequences for them and Dr. Foster if the 10 percent targeted enrollment increase for underserved populations was not achieved.

Questions for Discussion

  1. How should Greta, the admissions counselor, respond to the prospective students?
  2. In what ways can the high school or college support the students in understanding the complexity of their identities?
  3. How can Greta, the admission counselor, address the “well-intentioned” bias of Dr. Foster, the vice president?
  4. What training or professional development activities could be utilized on campus to further develop the consciousness and skills of administrators around social class identity and/or FGCSs?


Ardoin, S. (2021). The nuances of first-generation college students’ social class identity. In R. Longwell-Grice & H. Longwell-Grice (Eds)., At the intersection: Understanding and supporting first-generation students (pp. 88-99). Stylus.

Davis, J. (2010). The first-generation student experience: Implications for campus practice, and strategies for improving persistence and success. Stylus.

Evans, O., McGuffog, R., Gendi, M., & Rubin, M. (2022). A first class measure: Evidence for a comprehensive social class scale in higher education populations. Research in Higher Education.

Herrmann, S. D., Varnum, M. E., Straka, B. C., & Gaither, S. E. (2022). Social class identity integration and success for first-generation college students: Antecedents, mechanisms, and generalizability. Self and Identity, 21(5), 553–587.

Hurst, A. (2010). The burden of academic success: Loyalists, renegades, and double agents. Winton.

Lohfink, M. & Paulsen, M. B. (2005). Comparing the determinants of persistence for first-generational and continuing-generation students. Journal of College Student Development, 46(4), 409–428.

Rubin, M., Denson, N., Kilpatrick, S., Matthews, K. E., Stehlik, T., & Zyngier, D. (2014). “I am working-class” subjective self-definition as a missing measure of social class and socioeconomic status in higher education research. Educational Researcher, 43(4), 196–200.

Ward, L., Seigel, M. J., & Davenport, Z. (2012). First generation college students: Understanding and improving the experiences from recruitment to commencement. Jossey-Bass.

Warnock, D. M., & Hurst, A. L. (2016). “The poor kids’ table”: Organizing around an invisible and stigmatized identity in flux. Journal of Diversity in Higher Education, 9(3), 261–276.

Author Bios

Sonja Ardoin, Ph.D. (she/her) is a learner, educator, facilitator, and author. Proud of her rural hometown of Vidrine, Louisiana, her working-class, Cajun roots, and her first-generation college student to PhD journey, Sonja holds degrees from LSU, Florida State, and NC State. She considers herself a scholar-practitioner of higher education; she served as an administrator for 10 years before shifting to the faculty in 2015. Sonja currently serves as an associate professor of higher education and student affairs at Clemson University and studies social class identity, college access and success for rural and first-generation college students, and career preparation and pathways in higher education and student affairs. Learn more about Sonja’s work at

Dave Nguyen, Ph.D. (he/him) is Dean of the University College and Associate Professor of Higher Education & Student Affairs at Ohio University. Even with his administrative post, Dave maintains his advising/coaching load to support the next generation of scholar-practitioners. His research explores how campus ecology contributes to student success by calling attention to how individuals and organizational features hinder or widen equitable opportunities for students holding minoritized identities.

“My Body, My Choice”: The Campus Abortion Debate in Post-Roe America | Williams, Herrera, Anderson


In this case study, we explore the tensions of campus programming, supervision, and student activism through an issue of polarity. Grounded in a disagreement within a campus identity center, we consider how state and federal law, institutional policy and practice, campus reputation, and student activism impact and influence campus programming.

Keywords: Supervision, Abortion, Women’s Issues, Activism on Campus

Primary Characters 

Denise (She/Her): Is a white woman from the U.S. Southeast. She spent all her formal education as well as her student affairs practitioner training in the region and was highly recruited to join Baldwin University as the Executive Director of the Women’s Resource Center (WRC) five years ago. She also serves as the interim Vice President of Student Affairs. She oversees the entire WRC directly through Rebecca, and vocally describes herself as an ally to women from other marginalized communities.

Rebecca (She/Her): Is an Indigenous-American woman from a federally recognized tribe who spent all her life in the U.S. Midwest. She serves as the Associate Director of Programming and Engagement in the Women’s Resource Center (WRC) and is an alumna of Baldwin. She oversees all entry-level WRC staff and reports directly to Denise.

Alex (She/Her): Is a white woman, dual national citizen of Ireland and the United States. She is a junior dual major in sociology and social work. Back in Ireland, Alex’s family was instrumental in organizing for the successful passage of Irelands’ 2018 Health Act. She is president of the Women’s Empowerment student organization and reports to Brenda for all official student group needs.

Brenda (she/her): is a Afro-Latina trans woman, continuing generation college graduate, from a wealthy, politically engaged family in California. She serves as a Senior Program Coordinator in the WRC and reports to Rebecca. 

You, the reader: a brand new Program Coordinator in the WRC. You work alongside Brenda and directly report to Rebecca.

Campus Context

Baldwin University (BU) is a four-year, mid-sized, regional comprehensive public university in the Midwest. There are 8,500 students enrolled at Baldwin and the campus is primarily residential and 90% of the enrolled students are at the undergraduate level. Baldwin’s recent self-reported campus data suggests the student body is 30% racially diverse with students identifying as the following: Two or more Races: 10%; Asian: 7%; Non-White Hispanic: 6%; Black: 4%; Indigenous/ Native: 3%; White: 65%; and other/ not disclosed: 5%. The same campus data revealed 64% of the students identify as women, 31% as men, 1% as non-binary, and 4% prefer not to disclose/other. The university is in a state where an abortion trigger law went into effect with the Supreme Court overturn of Roe v. Wade in 2022. In addition to the immediate overturn of abortion due to an old trigger law, the state has required that all discussion of abortion include “both sides” (understood as Liberal and Conservative).

Case Scenario 

You (the reader) are a brand-new Programming Coordinator (PC) in the WRC at BU. On your first day in the office, you shadow the existing senior programing coordinator (SPC) Brenda. That day, one of the center’s highly engaged students, Alex, wrote to Brenda suggesting a programming idea to support the reproductive rights of women and other people who can give birth. Thus far, Brenda explained to you, PC’s and SPC’s are expected to run all programming ideas by your (shared) supervisor Rebecca (Associate Director) for her approval. The proposed program is as follows from Alex’s campus programming proposal:

  • Program Name: The Dangers of Roe v Wade Being Overturned
  • Purpose: The purpose of the program is to educate women on how the overturning of Roe vs. Wade impacts their bodily autonomy and how to engage in activism for helping women access alternatives as well as mobilize a Get Out the Vote (GOTV) campaign in the next election cycle to combat anti-abortion legislators in office.
  • Description: During the program students will hear from faculty who are experts in women’s issues, social justice activism and protests as activist power. The event is being put on by Baldwin’s Women’s Empowerment student organization.
  • Topics:
    • Reviewing and comparing state laws
    • Discussing how the different state laws impact women
    • Identifying alternative resource agencies for bodily autonomous healthcare resourcing and support
    • Sharing information on how students can be activists regarding abortion in their current state (where Baldwin is located) and in their home states.

Brenda, your colleague, relays the program ideas and topics to your supervisor, Rebecca, who is immediately concerned given the local and national tensions on the subject. You listen along to their unstructured chat about the program as Rebecca mentions she would prefer to stay away from this kind of programming unless students agree to follow the new state law. The law, Rebecca turns to explain, requires all WRC programs to include both sides about abortion (liberal and conservative views).

You watch as Brenda shares the news from your supervisor with Alex. She decided to call Alex rather than writing back by email, and Alex expresses deep disappointment by the proposed program changes because the idea of “both sides” would deeply undermine the realities of what abortion means and how it functions in a post-Roe America. Brenda explains that she feels her hands are tied. While Brenda takes you around the student center to meet staff in the other identity centers, you both learn that Alex decided to go around the WRC to put on the event. Alex gained traction on the programming issue from campus faculty members who had already voiced support for the program prior to the WRC proposal submission.

Outraged because they feel the new direction of the program is a copout for the institution to avoid taking a stance on women’s issues, the campus faculty wrote a scathing email to Brenda and your boss Rebecca. The campus newspaper editorial team decided to publish this email with a bold headline reading: “Women’s Resource Center? OR Wayward Right-winged Center?” The headline is then picked up by the local paper and Denise (the WRC executive director) is called to meet with the University President and the media relations team. While you and Brenda work to brainstorm next steps with your supervisor, the three of you learn that the faculty decided to forge ahead with their support of Alex. A social media post reveals the program will continue without support of the WRC the next day.

At the close of your first day, your supervisor Rebecca (Associate Director) immediately calls both you and Brenda to their office to decide a plan of action upon learning the President has summoned and verbally reprimanded Denise for failing to control this situation. After the meeting as Brenda walks you to your car, she reveals that Alex invited her to the program since Alex knew that she (Brenda) believed in the program as designed. Because the event is taking place without WRC and Brenda is in support of the student’s idea, she explains to you, the new WRC program coordinator (the reader) that she plans to attend the program.

Unfortunately, as word gets out about the program more “pro-life” students begin to act. The next day, protests against the abortion program begin in the hours leading up to and during the scheduled event time. As the event time draws closer, you can hear the chants from your new office from anti-abortion protestors declaring they deserve to be heard. The students and faculty responsible for putting on the program write online that they no longer feel safe to continue and cancel the event at the last minute. You learn via text from Brenda that as she was arriving to the student center where the event was to be held, she instead decided to turn around to go home. The text reads: “Just got here & IDK if you plan to attend, but don’t! It’s chaos and I’m leaving.”

The next day, Denise (WRC Executive Director) and the BU campus President put out the following joint statement regarding the event:

Yesterday, several students and faculty came together to put on an event called “The Dangers of Roe v. Wade Being Overturned.” Unfortunately, the event organizers did not go through the proper channels to get the event approved and were met with a group of students in protest of the event topic. Baldwin University supports freedom of speech and diversity in thought. Therefore, we ask all event organizers to share all sides of current events or topics. At BU, we understand that students with different political, religious, and individual values will view the overturn of Roe v. Wade differently. We welcome discourse about these topics but require that any event go through the proper procedures to ensure the safety of presenters and attendees.

Not long after the release of the joint statement by Denise and the BU President, numerous student body members begin to express their thoughts via social media. A viral twitter hashtag and gif begins to circulate rapidly. The hashtag (#BUmeanBodiesUnacknowledged) and a gif of the BU President high-fiving President Trump while shouting “5-4!”

Later that afternoon, you overhear Rebecca pulling Brenda aside outside your office. Rebecca then admits to Brenda that she did not agree with the joint statement because as an alumna, she struggles with how students are supported in their activism. She explains that because of the legal restrictions and the inflexible program registration protocols, BU is failing to honor the commitment to students as leaders and change agents that it ascribes to in the institutional mission, vision, and values statements. However, Denise calls you, Rebecca, and Brenda to her office and demands to know what the three of you knew about the program, how long, and why you failed to report the usurping of the center’s programming oversight. In that meeting, you learn Denise was alerted to the staffs’ prior knowledge of the event after receiving a snapshot of Brenda’s twitter timeline retweeting a friend’s post. The friends’ post in question criticized the anti-abortion protestors as well as the institution’s failure to augment the voices of students advocating for respect of bodily autonomy.

Rebecca resigns in protest explaining that it has long been time for her to leave BU, because it is no longer the BU she recognizes. This leaves you and Brenda with no buffer between her role and the WRC ED while negotiating the political fallout from the event. Given you are brand new to the office, you leave your second day at work disheartened, frustrated, and concerned about preparing for a check-in meeting the next day with your interim supervisor Denise.

Discussion Questions

  1. Identify and describe the supervisory tensions in this matter between Denise, Rebecca, Brenda, Alex, and yourself.
  2. How does campus activism and protest impact student affairs practice and institutional response in this matter?
  3. How, if at all, does the joint statement align with the state law and/or support or deny student’s first amendment rights? Why does this matter?
  4. Considering the social identities and workplace positioning of the affected WRC staff, how might current students, alumni, and stakeholders respond to Rebecca’s immediate resignation? What, if anything, might this mean for how we consider identity and positioning in student affairs practice?

Author Bios 

Brittany M. Williams (she/her) is an Assistant Professor of Higher Education and Student Affairs Administration at the University of Vermont. She primarily studies career development and supervision issues, social class, and the nexus of education and health. Williams centers Black women and girls in her scholarship.

Vanessa Kay Herrera (she/her) is a Doctoral Candidate at St. Cloud State University. She also serves as the Assistant Director of Student Resources & Support at the College of the Florida Keys.

Wachen Bedell Anderson (she/her) is a Doctoral Candidate at St. Cloud State University. She also serves as a member of the Administrative Service Faculty at the College of Nursing and Health Science at Metropolitan State University.

“It’ll be like Biden and Harris”: A Black Woman’s Conundrum in Collegiate Student Government | Brown, Goodman


In this case study, Sasha grapples with issues of systemic racism she faces while serving as student government (SG) vice president, specifically when the SG president is a white man at a predominately white institution. After experiencing several microaggressions by white administrators, tensions between students, and finding her personal values incongruent with those of SG, Sasha needs to decide whether to stay in SG and work within the organization to change the system or resign and push for systemic change from the outside.

Keywords: student government, Black Women, leadership, identity, campus racial climate

Primary Characters

Colby (she/her/hers) is the Student Government Advisor at Southern University and has been in her role for just over one year. Colby has a student affairs background, and just before this role, graduated from a student affairs graduate program at a predominately white institution in the Midwest. She has a student-centered approach to advising and believes in the power of both student government and student leadership. Colby identifies as multiracial, and outside of her role at Southern University, she volunteers with several community-based organizations and efforts related to racial justice. She met Sasha through community organizing.

Sasha (Say-shuh) (she/her/hers) is the newly elected student body vice president in Southern University’s student government. She is a Black woman who has been encouraging students and administrators to be more intentional in centering inclusivity and equity on campus; including student government, as they pass legislation, develop bills, and interact with constituents. Sasha is the first Black woman elected to a student body-wide executive role in over ten years. Centering inclusion and equity was a pillar of her campaign platform.

Preston (he/him/his) is a white man, and the newly elected student body president after having served in multiple student government positions before this election. He and Sasha ran on a ticket together, after Preston approached her to be his running mate. Preston is a member of a historically and predominately white fraternity, one with a lot of social capital on campus; he comes from a family with a deep legacy status at his institution and knew from his first year on campus that he wanted to be a student body president.

President Craig Zilker (he/him/his) has been the University President of Southern University for nearly six years, after previously serving as Dean of the College of Engineering for 22 years. President Zilker is a white man, very active in his church, and has four children who went to Southern University. President Zilker has been known by students to perpetuate a “good old boys” club on campus by visiting only historically and predominately white fraternity meetings, hiring white students to work as aids in his office, and hiring/appointing white men to campus administrative leadership roles. President Zilker has never made a comment on the campus racial climate and has not issued statements of support to students in the wake of national incidents of violence against Black and Brown people. President Zilker says he refrains from doing these things because he is not “a political president.”

Context and Case

Southern University (SU) is a large public research university in the southern region of the United States. Students of Color make up 26% of SU’s undergraduate population, of which only 4% are Black students. The university President’s cabinet is composed of twelve administrators, of which ten are men, two are white women, and three identify as People of Color, including one man who identifies as Latino and two men who identify as Asian.

Recently, there has been racial unrest affecting the student body, on- and off-campus. Students of Color, specifically, have shared with administrators and stakeholders the many macro- and microaggressions faced on campus, including racist incidents between students and faculty members. When George Floyd was murdered by a Minneapolis police officer in 2020, SU did not make a public statement. Instead, student leaders and activists on campus held space for community support and processing, primarily used by Students and Staff of Color.

Student government (SG) at SU is a significant leadership space where students have access to university administrators and key campus decision-making. Over the years, SG has been led primarily by white men who had large political backing on- and off-campus. After student organizing efforts, Sasha knew she wanted to run for an executive SG position to use her leadership at a different level. When Preston heard Sasha was interested in running, he asked if she would be interested in being his running mate. Preston pitched his campaign to Sasha and was receptive to her ideas. “It’ll be like Biden and Harris. This will be great,” Preston assured Sasha. While Sasha did not feel comfortable being compared to Vice President Kamala Harris, she appreciated having a large student backing to support her candidacy. Preston and Sasha won the election by a wide margin and were sworn in a few weeks later.

When the new school year began, Preston and Sasha started meeting with university administrators and community leaders. These intimate meetings were new to Sasha who had more experience with town halls, open forums, and a sit-in she participated in when the local city council failed to pass legislation funding from police to social programs.

Knowing the tensions related to the lack of campus and community responses to racial incidents, Sasha wanted to bring up SU’s lack of response to George Floyd’s murder. Before meeting with the Provost, Preston told Sasha, “Please don’t bring up anything about racism in this meeting. We need to plant seeds and don’t want to come off like that in these early meetings.” Sasha was taken aback but hesitantly trusted Preston. When they met with the Provost and his team, it was clear Preston already knew these administrators, while Sasha felt like she was invisible. The Provost only made eye contact with her two times. She felt the conversation was directed solely at Preston.

After this meeting, Sasha met with her advisor, Colby, who could see that Sasha was upset. Colby helped Sasha identify a few examples to bring up with Preston in a meeting later that day. That evening, Sasha called Colby saying Preston was “incredibly defensive.” He told Sasha, “This is just the way it is. It’s politics.” Colby helped Sasha process her emotions, but after the call, Sasha began to reconsider her VP position. She understood how important it was for a Black woman to be in this role but was unsure how much she could take.

Sasha and Preston’s next meeting was with the university President. “You’re the girl who doesn’t like me very much aren’t you?” the President said to her, laughing, as he shook her hand aggressively. Sasha, taken aback, looked at Preston who indicated she should play along. “Oh, I wouldn’t say that” she replied nervously. President Zilker then greeted Preston with a warm hug, saying, “Preston, it’s wonderful to see you! You look so much like your dad!” Preston said, “Oh, stop! Great to see you, Dr. Zilker.” Their exchange made Sasha even more uncomfortable.

Dr. Zilker gestured for Sasha and Preston to sit down. He looked at the agenda Sasha created and noticed the first item was, “Iota Omega Upsilon Party.” At the party two weeks earlier, the theme was “Rapper’s Paradise.” Several members donned blackface as they wore basketball jerseys, cornrow hairstyles, and fake tattoos. Pictures from the party went viral on social media and Black students on campus felt even more isolated and frustrated due to this party. Black students, including Sasha, met to develop a list of grievances and calls to action to address their concerns.

Sasha began, “Well, I think of the concerns you may know about is the Iota Omega Upsilon party—” “Yes, Sasha (Saw-shuh),” President Zilker interrupted, “The situation has been brought to my attention and we’ll defer to Student Conduct to adjudicate.” Sasha ignored the mispronunciation of her name and responded, “With all due respect, sir, students are still waiting for some type of response from the university that this is not tolerated. Black students feel uncomfortable on campus and since there hasn’t been a response from your—” This time, Preston cut her off saying, “Sasha, I have to agree with President Zilker here, this is up to Student Conduct.” Sasha remained quiet for the rest of the meeting, and afterward, she and Preston went separate ways without speaking.

The following week, SG hosted an open forum for non-SG members to hear about recently passed legislation and learn about the structure of SG. Sasha and Preston had not spoken since they met with President Zilker. A group of Black student leaders began protesting the President’s office two days before the open forum. Members of the Black Student Alliance (BSA) attend the open meeting and acknowledged Sasha as SG began their meeting.

Toward the end of the meeting, Sasha and Preston open up to the floor to allow non-SG members to ask questions. One of the Black student leaders says, “Thank you for allowing us to be here. We noticed that there was no discussion around the fraternity party that happened a few weeks ago. As a leader of BSA, we are curious if SG will be releasing a statement of solidarity?” Sasha and Preston looked at each other, but before Sasha could respond, Preston said, “Thanks for your question, but SG does not believe it is our responsibility to respond to that issue. It is the responsibility of the Office of Sorority and Fraternity Life.” Sasha made brief eye contact with Preston as he quickly adjourned the meeting. The murmuring in the room began as Preston exited, leaving Sasha at the front to respond to additional questions from BSA members.

Later that evening, Sasha called Colby and told her that BSA friends said they were worried about Sasha’s values since joining SG. Sasha added that Preston has not been a supportive colleague. She feels strongly that SG should make a statement about the recent party, even if Preston is not willing to do so. Sasha is considering resigning from her vice president position. She feels she may be able to make a greater impact outside of SG. Sasha is conflicted because she has access to those spaces of power to create change for underrepresented students while increasing visibility and financial support for Students of Color. Sasha added that the pressure and stress of SG have pulled her away from schoolwork and friends, and she just does not know if it’s worth it anymore. They agree to meet in-person the next day.

Discussion Questions

  1. What role do SG organizational history, student advocacy, and activism play in SG particularly related to Students of Color?
  2. How might Colby advise and support Sasha through this decision as it relates to Sasha’s desire to be an activist/advocate and how her peers are questioning her work?
  3. How can Colby support Sasha and Preston in their relationship and individually as student leaders?
  4. How might climate, male-dominated spaces, and gendered notions of leadership affect Sasha and other women and Women of Color in student government roles?
  5. What pressures exist for underrepresented students who pursue high-profile leadership positions on their campuses? Further, what can and should institutions do to make sure all students get the support they need, both pursuing positions and while serving in office?


Demick, S. (2022, April 12). Feature: Kasiyah Tatem, the university’s first Black student government association president. The Review.

Workman, J. L., Hull, K., Hartsell, T., & Weimann, T. (2020). A chilly climate: Experiences of women student government association presidents. The Journal of Campus Activities Practice and Scholarship, 2(2), 39-54.

Author Bios

Shawntal Z. Brown (she/her/hers), M.A., is a Senior Outreach Program Coordinator in Inclusive Campus Support, Division of Diversity and Community Engagement at The University of Texas at Austin. Her practitioner work primarily focuses on campus climate assessment and initiatives. As a part-time second-year doctoral student in the Program in Higher Education Leadership, Shawntal’s research focuses on analyzing the diversity, equity, and inclusion practices and policies implemented by universities.

Michael A. Goodman (he, him, his), Ph.D.,  is an Assistant Professor of Practice in Educational Leadership and Policy at The University of Texas at Austin, and Co-Coordinator of the Program in Higher Education Leadership. Goodman’s research focuses on college student governance and involvement, and in particular, students’ experiences in collegiate student government, the student body presidency, and sorority/fraternity life. Goodman is the Research Coordinator for the NASPA Student Government Knowledge Community and is a member of the Association of Fraternity/Sorority Advisors Research Community.

You Don’t Know Me | Boettcher, Dillard


This scenario focuses on the experience of Barbara – a white woman who is a first-generation (FGCS) and low socio-economic status (SES) graduate student. When a conversation about low SES takes place in her graduate program, Barbara challenges her peers to consider the assumptions they are making about SES, race, and how their privilege may be informing those assumptions. Simultaneously, Barbara struggles with her own identities that do not align with the assumptions her cohort members have made about her. The goal of this scenario is to encourage reflection around the assumptions we make in graduate programs, in student affairs, and in our interactions on and beyond campus.

When a conversation about low SES takes place in her graduate program, Barbara challenges students to consider whether or not they are using low SES as a synonym for not white. Students in her cohort have misread her as coming from a middle/upper-class background and both critique and praise her for her perspective given her economic privilege. The goal of this scenario is to encourage reflection about who we make assumptions about people and that there are problems that can accompany those assumptions.

Keywords: First-Generation College Student, Socioeconomic Status (SES), Race, Gender

Primary Characters

Barbara – (she, her, hers) First-generation college student (FGCS), white woman; low socioeconomic status (SES), graduate student in student affairs program

Corey – (he, him, his) man, white, upper-middle SES; continuing generation college student

Anna – (she, her, hers) Woman of Color in Barbara’s graduate cohort

Claire – (she, her, hers) white woman in Barbara’s graduate cohort



Barbara is a first-generation college student (FGCS) graduate student in a counseling/student affairs preparation program. She has not had access to many FGCS resources through her academic career as she did not realize that being FGCS was “a thing” until she started her graduate program. As an undergraduate student, Barbara was very involved. She was a resident assistant (RA) (primarily to help pay room and board) and also a member of a sorority (which she was able to join because of scholarships through the organization). Barbara also worked in outdoor recreation on campus so that she could go on outdoor recreation trips as a staff member for reduced cost.

Upon starting her graduate program in student affairs, Barbara has done a number of reflective activities around identity. She has taken risks in some of her writing and shared her experiences with faculty – some of whom also identify as first-gen – who have been tremendously supportive. She has been able to learn from mentors and others outside of the faculty about some of the strategies FGC students use to overcome challenges navigating higher education and understanding the hidden curriculum. Barbara has also learned that many people choose not to disclose their FGC student status for a variety of personal reasons. This has put Barbara at ease as she has taken time to navigate this identity and the new ways it is emerging for her.

Where Barbara has faced challenges, however, has been in the classroom. While she has been somewhat open about her experiences as an undergraduate – and specifically has talked about the transformational experiences she had as an RA, in her sorority, and on the various outdoor recreational trips she helped lead – she has not publicly discussed her FGC student identity and low SES background. While a few close friends know about Barbara’s identities, most students and a few faculty do not.

Additionally, Barbara often gets ignored or talked over. The few times she has been bold enough to try and share information about her less visible identities regarding SES and first-gen status, faculty members have not called on her. She often sees her faculty calling on men in class rather than women, even though there are only five men in her cohort of 25 students.

In one class, students raise issues around economic privilege. Barbara notices that some of her peers are using “low SES” to mean “not white.” She asks, “Are we saying that white students can’t be low SES and that all Students of Color are low SES?” The conversation in class intensifies, becoming very heated. Some white students get defensive saying things like, “You know what I meant,” or “Why are you assuming that’s what I was saying?” Additionally, some of the Students of Color agree with Barbara, adding “We hear this all the time. Guess what? Not every Student of Color is poor and not every white student is rich.” The exchange continues to escalate and several of the white students become even more defensive.

A white classmate – Corey – asks, “Are you calling me racist because I said that low SES students have access to scholarships?”

“Not at all,” Barbara responds. “I really am just trying to understand how we are using language. I was only trying to clarify so I knew what points people are trying to make.”

Corey replies, “Just because I’m white, male, upper-middle-class, and my parents and grandparents are college graduates, I don’t think that makes me racist. You obviously aren’t low SES given how you dress and the fact that you were in a sorority and now you’re in grad school and you went on all those whitewater rafting trips as an undergrad, so if you’re saying I’m racist, are you saying you are, too?”

Before Barbara can respond and clarify either her intention in asking the question or her identities, another student speaks up and the conversation continues to intensify. Some students continue to argue and others shut down completely. Barbara is frustrated and hurt, but not sure what to say or do, so she says nothing more. In addition, the faculty member neither navigates nor facilitates the conflict well and students leave the room angry without guidance on how to reflect on what they had discussed.

That evening students continued the dialogue via a shared social media space accessible only to members of Barbara’s cohort. Without being in the same space and without the ability to read body language, the dialogue escalated into argument very quickly. Barbara did not engage, but watched the exchanges unfold.

One of Barbara’s peers, Anna, reached out to Barbara via text to thank her trying to clarify things in class. She texted, “I can’t tell you enough how much it means that you said what you did. I feel like sometimes white people – especially white people with a lot of privilege like you have – don’t speak up and leave all the work to people like me. Thanks for what you said. Sorry not everyone is ready to hear and engage in the conversation in productive ways.”

At almost exactly the same time Barbara received a text from another student, Clarice – a white woman in the cohort. She said, “I would love your help. I am not sure how you have all the insight you do. Clearly you have most every privilege except gender privilege, but you seem to ‘get it.’ I want to learn more. How have you overcome your privilege and learned this?”

Barbara isn’t sure how to navigate the dialogue, her identity, or her interactions with her cohort in or out of the classroom.

Discussion Questions:

  1. How should Barbara respond to Anna? To Clarice?
  2. What might Barbara do to prepare for the next class meeting with her cohort?
  3. Was Barbara right not to engage in the social media conversation? Why or why not?
  4. How might the faculty member have played a different role in this exchange? 


Michelle Boettcher (she, her, hers) is a first-generation college student and an Associate Professor at Clemson University in the Higher Education / Student Affairs program. She teaches law and ethics and contemporary college student courses. Her research interests include community and senses of belonging in higher education.

Stacy Dillard is an advisor in the College of Education at Clemson University. She previously worked at Mississippi State University serving as the Admissions Coordinator for the Bagley College of Engineering and the Coordinator for Student Success for the Center for Student Success.

The Needed “New Normal”: Understanding the Experiences Of Graduate Students Needs During the Coronavirus Pandemic | Camarillo, Dissassa, Martinez-Benyarko, Hixson


With campus leaders requesting college campuses return “back to normal” after nearly three years of overwhelming trauma during the COVID-19 pandemic, staff, faculty, and especially students have struggled to transition to this new normal. With this in mind, we take an intentional moment to pause and reflect on this case study and thoughtfully consider their social, mental, academic, financial, and physical circumstances. In addition, we focus on graduate students, an understudied population in need of support and holding vulnerability as both students and employees.

Keywords: Graduate Students, Food Insecurity, Wellness/Well-being, Student Affairs

The Case

How do institutions consider the needs of graduate students outside of their academic experience? How can student affairs administrators and faculty members create partnerships to support graduate students outside the classroom?

The Setting

Hope University (HU) is a mid-size, public, land-grant institution in the Northeast United States. HU is a historically white institution (HWI) actively working to remedy the exclusionary practices that disproportionately impacted historically and presently marginalized student populations through recruitment, attrition, and retention initiatives. This case takes place in the context of the fall semester of 2021. For HU, fall 2021 is the second year of the COVID-19 pandemic and first semester fully back on campus for staff, faculty, and students. The president of HU and their cabinet members consistently communicate with faculty and staff about “returning to normal.” Still, campus units struggle to reinstate programs provided prior to the pandemic while managing the transition in person with limited resources and staff.

Key Players

Laura (she/her): Laura is a cis-gender Latina woman who identifies as a first-generation student from California. Laura is in her second year of the M.Ed. student affairs graduate program and is employed as a graduate assistant in the Leadership Development unit in the Division of Student Affairs but in the context of the pandemic, her graduate assistantship decreased from twenty to ten hours a week.

Nelson (he/him): Nelson is a cis-gender Latino man who has served as the Coordinator of Graduate Student Life at HU for the last two years.

 George (he/him): George is a cis-gender white man who has served as the Assistant Vice President for Student Affairs at HU for the last 17 years.

Catherine (she/her): Catherine is a cis-gender Black woman who has served as the Academic Program Director for the Student Affairs Graduate Program for the last five years.

The Situation

Nelson finished cleaning up from the Graduate Student Life (GSL) “Grad HU Welcome Back Event” on campus. He worked non-stop to implement health and safety precautions, such as providing individually wrapped food at the welcome back event which is the first in-person program for this academic year. Nelson was locking up the office when Laura arrived. Laura attended a few GSL events online last semester but seemed frazzled today.

When meeting Nelson at the door, Laura asked him if the event was over and if there was any leftover food. Nelson let her know there were a few cookies left on the table. She quickly pulled her Tupperware out and grabbed the last few. She then asked if there were any more GSL events that week.

Nelson handed Laura a flyer of the upcoming events, which included a movie night and a meditation session. “Will there be any food at these?” Laura asked. Nelson responded that due to the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on financial budgets at the institution, GSL would not have any other events with food this week. Laura quickly responded with, “Ok, thanks!”

A few weeks later, at a Latinx welcome event, Nelson saw Laura on a panel for incoming graduate students. Many Latinx graduate panelists were discussing their struggles as first-generation graduate students. Laura mentioned that it was hard socializing in the area because she is from California and has few family or friends in town. She added that she has found community in GSL. Laura also highlights the financial challenges she faces as a result of limited work hours. These challenges present difficulties as she readjusts for a healthier financial balance since her assistantship hours were cut during the COVID-19 pandemic. She has searched for a new assistantship, but many offices were not hiring because of  HU’s hiring freeze as a result of budget cuts.

Nelson was happy to hear that Laura found a community in GSL and appreciated the shout-out. He was walking over to thank Laura when he saw that she was filling up Tupperware with the leftover sandwiches. He decided to wait until she was done.

When exiting, Nelson stopped Laura to thank her for sharing her positive experiences with GSL. Nelson said, “Laura, I am so glad to hear you found a community at GSL. You know our offices have services that extend beyond programming, and we are here to support graduate students overall.” Nelson invited Laura to sit for a quick chat. Nelson took this opportunity to check in with Laura about her assistantship, courses, and how COVID-19 has impacted her and her loved ones. Nelson continued, “I noticed you mentioned things have been hard. If there is anything I can do to help you, let me know.” Laura thanked him and shared, “I’ve got to be honest with you; things have been hard for me during COVID.” Nelson remembered Laura’s vulnerability and honesty during the graduate student panel.

Nelson spoke to Laura about the challenges she was facing. As the conversation concluded, Laura began walking out when she turned around and said, “There is one thing… could you talk to Dr. George about opening the campus food pantry? It has been closed since last May. I’ve emailed his office several times but haven’t gotten a response yet.”


Nelson identifies four options in terms of how he can help Laura and other students affected by the closure of the food pantry:

Option 1: Nelson contemplates connecting with his supervisor about reopening the food pantry.

Option 2: Nelson schedules a meeting between the Leadership and Service Office and the GSL    to discuss potential resources to address food insecurity for graduate students.

Option 3: Nelson develops a list of campus partners and community resources that may support graduate students. While Laura is a graduate student, most of the partnerships in Nelson’s division center around the undergraduate experience. Aside from Nelson’s office, there are not any other university-wide graduate offices that provide support outside of the classroom experience.

Option 4: Nelson could reach out to Catherine, Laura’s student affairs graduate coordinator, to learn more about graduate student support in the college and graduate assistantship processes. Nelson has had limited interactions with Catherine. Nelson and Catherine’s connection has been through admitted student days in the assistantship matching process for newly admitted graduate students.

As Nelson makes his way across campus, he considers his options. He does not have a strong relationship with the AVP, George, but knows George will be instrumental in reopening the pantry. Nelson does have a team of dedicated colleagues who helped to establish the pantry and who have been making efforts to get that resource open for students this fall, but other projects have taken priority at the beginning of the term. Additionally, Nelson is connected with community agencies that provide resources to students, but he is frustrated by the lack of institutional support for graduate students.


  1. What additional information/resources would be helpful for Nelson as he works to devise a plan to address food insecurity for graduate students?
  2. What is important for institutions to understand about graduate students’ experience to properly address their financial well-being and assistantship opportunities?
  3. What assumptions do we make about graduate students and graduate students’ experiences?
  4. In considering Laura’s situation and her social identities, what other issues or concerns could be present for her? How would you engage in conversation with this graduate student regarding other issues that can impact their holistic well-being? How could you address these issues?
  5. As a field, how do we balance the staffing concerns and needs of graduate students through an equitable lens?

Author Bios

Nancy Camarillo (she/her/ella): Nancy Camarillo is a doctoral candidate in the Higher Education, Student Affairs, and International Education Policy Program at the University of Maryland, College Park. Nancy currently serves as the assistant director in the Center for First-generation Student Success at NASPA.

 Di-Tu Dissassa (she/her/hers): Di-Tu Dissassa is a doctoral candidate in the Higher Education, Student Affairs, and International Education Policy Program at the University of Maryland, College Park. Di-Tu currently works as a project coordinator for the Center for Diversity and Inclusion in Higher Education.

 Marinel Martinez-Benyarko (she/her/ella): Marinel Martinez-Benyarko is a doctoral candidate in the Higher Education, Student Affairs, and International Education Policy Program at University of Maryland, College Park. Marinel also works at the Adele H. Stamp Student Union as a Coordinator for Curriculum, Training, & Development.

Ashley Hixson (she/her/hers) Ashley Hixson is a doctoral candidate in the Higher Education, Student Affairs, and International Education Policy Program at University of Maryland, College Park. She currently serves as the senior associate director for diversity and inclusion at the Carey Business School at Johns Hopkins University.

The Intersections of Identity and Sense of Belonging: First-Generation Graduate Student Belonging During a Pandemic | Olson, Sterk


Research has demonstrated that first-generation graduate students may experience similar challenges as they did while completing their undergraduate careers. Many of these challenges surround imposter phenomenon, finding a sense of belonging, and being from historically excluded populations. In this case, we explore the dynamics between these concepts during the COVID-19 pandemic. We present a scenario to help readers consider the intersection of race, gender, first-generation status, and being a graduate student during unprecedented times. The case also presents challenges faced by student affairs practitioners in responding with the appropriate supports in this context.

Keywords/Phrases: First-Generation, Graduate Students, Sense of Belonging

Primary Characters

Kaila (she, her, hers) is in her final year of her master’s-level graduate program in Student Affairs and Higher Education (SAHE) at Golden State University (GSU). Kaila identifies as a Black woman and as a returning adult learner. Kaila is also the only Black identifying student in her cohort. Kaila is a first-generation college graduate, and a first-generation graduate student. Kaila’s mother graduated high school and her father graduated elementary school. Kaila describes her experience in her master’s program as positive overall but has experienced some challenges during her time in the program that caused her to extend her time-to-degree for one additional year. Now in her final year, Kaila (like all other graduate students) is experiencing challenges with the COVID-19 pandemic and the shift of the program online.

Mayra (she, her, hers) serves as the student affairs program advisor to the SAHE program at GSU. She has served in this capacity for over five years and is very familiar with the program, the cohort model, and the program faculty. Mayra’s department offers administrative support services to students, and students often interface with Mayra regarding any challenges they might be experiencing throughout the program. Mayra has her master’s degree in student affairs and identifies as a Latina and first-generation college graduate.

Context and Case

Institutional Context

Golden State University (GSU) is a large, public, four-year university located in an urban California community within the 23-school California State University system. GSU boasts over 60 different master’s degree programs with over 6,000 graduate-level students. Additionally, based on institutional data available for the fall 2020 incoming graduate student population, GSU’s first-generation graduate student population makes up 54% of the overall student population.

The graduate student population at GSU continues to grow as the number of master’s-level applications received at the site increased by 16% from 2019 to 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic provided a significant societal context for graduate education at GSU. It was not necessarily the pandemic alone that forced this increase in graduate-level student enrollment, but rather the potential (and real) economic downfall caused by the pandemic, as it is well-documented that during times of recession, individuals return to school in the hope of improving or securing future career prospects (Barr & Turner, 2013; Dworak, 2020).

GSU is designated as a Hispanic-Serving Institution (HSI) as well as an Asian American and Native American Pacific Islander-Serving Institution (AANAPISI). Based on institutional data available for fall 2020 incoming graduate student population, GSU welcomed approximately 1,900 new graduate students. The racial/ethnic information for incoming graduate students was 43% Latinx; 23% White; 16% Asian; 6% studying on a visa from out-of-country; 4% Black; 4% two or more racial/ethnic identities; 4% unknown; less than1% Hawaiian/Pacific Islander; and less than 1%; American Indian.


During the fall 2020 semester, Kaila reaches out to Mayra in an email to discuss possibly leaving the program in her 3rd and final year. In this email, it is clear to Mayra that Kaila does not feel she can keep up with the demands of the graduate program, including her upcoming comprehensive exams. Kaila’s email also hints at her not feeling very connected to the program anymore. Mayra quickly schedules a Zoom advising meeting with Kaila to determine how she can help. In this appointment, Kaila tells Mayra how things have always been difficult for her as a first-generation graduate student, and that graduate programs seem to assume that we carry a lot of “college knowledge” that can help us navigate graduate school. Kaila shares with Mayra:

Even once you have successfully navigated the undergraduate degree, you still don’t know about graduate school and that definitely affects us [first-gen students] throughout the program. Honestly, this is my fourth year and I’m still learning to navigate things.  I’m that person that has read my handbook from the front cover to the back cover… It has been like this since the beginning. Even during the application period, I had so many questions about so many things like, what even is grad school? What is it like? No one could really explain the essence of it. It just was this thing shrouded in mystery and that’s scary for a first gen student, and especially one who struggled so long in undergrad because I’m like… ‘Well, if I don’t know what it is, how do I prepare for it? How do I know that I’m prepared? How can I succeed?’ I don’t want to spin my wheels here. You know all of these things, so it definitely has affected me. Even just having to explain to my family why I’m still in school. It seems like everything is a challenge.

On top of this, Kaila is feeling disconnected from the program after the shift to online. She cannot find community in this environment, which is necessary for her to push through the comprehensive exam. Kaila does not feel able to speak up, as she has zero anonymity in the department as the only Black female student in her cohort. She also says imposter phenomenon is holding her back from discussing this with her faculty, despite connecting with them in the past. She says, “I am always very afraid to come forward with these concerns because it’s going to be proof that I don’t belong here.”

Kaila describes feeling angry about the pandemic and feeling like there is not enough support, especially as the cohort members are in their internships. In those roles students are “getting hit on both sides” as they are placed in student affairs departments providing support to undergraduates during the pandemic while, “On the flip side we are students are we are not getting enough accommodations and support.”

Kaila also has concerns about how the pandemic will impact post-graduation employment. Kaila shares, “I love what we’re learning in the program, but we are also a part of higher education as students, but it’s not built for all of us. It’s not built for women, it’s not built for people of color, it’s not built for low-income people.”

Mayra validates what Kaila has shared, as she understands Kaila’s fears related comprehensive exam support and post-graduation employment opportunities in the current context. Mayra attempts to work with Kaila to highlight the positive things that she sees in Kaila. She also encourages Kaila recognizes her own assets, or Community Cultural Wealth (Yosso, 2005) as those assets may have fostered resiliency for her. They also discuss the ways in which Kaila’s diverse and intersecting identities with being a first-generation graduate student not only impact her experiences, but also contribute to potentially feeling like an imposter (see Gable, 2021; Gardner & Holley 2011). However, Mayra also feels limited in her role in terms of supports she can offer Kaila regarding sense of belonging and programming during the pandemic.

Discussion Questions

  1. What are the primary challenges presented in this case?
  2. What are the immediate responses Mayra and the program can provide? What should a longer-term response look like?
  3. How might the different aspects of Kaila’s identity (e.g., race, gender, first-generation status) need different kinds of support?
  4. How can we re-think sense of belonging in an online and hybrid space to support students and advance equity and inclusion?
  5. How might the institution and program address first-generation graduate student challenges on campus? What programming and supports could be developed? Additionally, what institutional support is necessary for Mayra’s role? 

References and Resources

Barr, A., & Turner, S. E. (2013). Expanding enrollments and contracting state budgets: The effect of the Great Recession on higher education. The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 650(1), 168–193.

Dworak, A. (2020). United States university enrollment numbers during the COVID-19 pandemic recession. In Perspectives on the new normal: Post COVID19 (pp. 67-80).

Gable, R. (2021). The hidden curriculum: First generation students at legacy universities. Princeton University Press.

Gardner, S. K., & Holley, K. A. (2011). “Those invisible barriers are real”: The progression of first-generation students through doctoral education. Equity & Excellence in Education, 44(1), 77–92.

Lunceford, B. (2011). When first-generation students go to graduate school. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 2011, 13–20.

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

Author Bios

Avery B. Olson, Ph.D. (she/her) is an Associate Professor of Educational Leadership at California State University, Long Beach. Her research examines the experiences and outcomes of underserved populations in higher education; the influence of context on student development; and the relationship between social policy, education, and social inequality in the contemporary United States.

Lindsay Sterk, Ed.D. (she/her) is the Assistant Director in the College of Business Graduate Programs Office at California State University, Long Beach. She received her doctorate in Educational Leadership from CSULB. Her research examines the experiences and outcomes of first-generation master’s level graduate students.

Graduate Student Staff as Campus Activists | Kniess, Cawthon, McCluskey-Titus


This case will allow for conversations related to multiple identities and how our identities impact issues such as advocacy, supervision, role and expectations, professional and personal identity, navigating campus politics and community expectations.

Keywords : Graduate students; Racial identities; Gender identities; First generation

Primary Characters

Olivia Navarro (they/them) is a first-year graduate student in the master’s program in student affairs and higher education from New Jersey. Her graduate assistantship is in the Office of Admissions at Midwestern University.

Dana Madison (she/her) the Associate Director of Admissions, supervises Olivia. Dana has a master’s degree in Business with a minor in Women and Gender Studies who has worked at Midwestern University for two years in the Office of Admissions.

Prospective students and family members (all first-generation students as a part of a special campus visiting day program)

Dr. Bailey Calderon (she/her) is the President of Midwestern University. Dr. Calderon previously served as the Provost for a small, private college in another state and is now in the third year as Midwestern’s president. Dr. Calderon has been working with faculty, staff, and students at Midwestern University to generate new ideas and initiatives to increase enrollment.

Dr. Peyton Washington (he/him) is the Director of the Graduate School at Midwestern University. Dr. Washington has been at Midwestern for 16 years as a member of the faculty in the Department of Sociology. Well-respected at Midwestern, Dr. Washington is a national leader in student advocacy having researched and written on this subject for over twenty years. Dr. Washington is active in local service organizations in the community serving underrepresented populations.


This scenario takes place at Midwestern University, a comprehensive, public, residential, four-year coeducational institution of 10,000 in a medium sized community. A majority of students are undergraduates, but there are about 750 graduate students enrolled in education and business programs. Having been founded in 1890 as a Normal school, the institution offers a rich teacher education experience for a large portion of the student body. Enrollment on campus has declined over the past 10 years with state-wide budget cuts and student reluctance to both commit to a teaching career and move to a small town with seemingly “nothing to do.” Historically a predominantly white institution, Midwestern University has been successful in recruiting students of color, transfer students, undocumented students, and first-generation students to campus using state and institutional financial aid made available through scholarships and grants to underserved populations committed to education. This institution has been a leader in encouraging students to have a voice on social justice issues. While the institution has supported student voices on social justice efforts, the institution does not have any written policies on student activism, free speech zones, and registering campus rallies and protests.

The Case

Olivia is a new graduate student studying student affairs and higher education at Midwestern University. Her graduate assistantship is in the Office of Admissions. Admissions at Midwestern is housed in Academic Affairs, specifically in the Office of Enrollment Management which is comprised of Admissions, Registration, and Financial Aid.

Olivia’s primary graduate assistantship task is coordinating the campus tour guide program and supervising 20 tour guides who represent the university by giving walking tours of the campus and residence halls. These tours happen daily every hour during weekdays. Olivia is responsible for all aspects of the tour guide program, including selection, training, and supervision of the tour guides. One of their goals for this program is to select a diverse group of tour guides that represent all students enrolled at the institution. Olivia is in her first year and has learned much from this experience. They completed her undergraduate degree at Rutgers University where they were active in the Latinx Student Organization, Student Government, and as a campus tour guide. Olivia is the first person in their family to graduate with a bachelor’s degree. While they would not call themselves a social justice warrior, they are committed to helping those who did not have the privileges they did growing up.

Each spring, the University provides a special visiting day program for first generation students where they and their family members visit the campus, attend information sessions from admissions and financial aid, meet with enrolled students who are also first generation, meet with academic advisors and department faculty, and take tours of campus and residence halls. This event typically brings over 100 students and their families to campus. It is believed that these visiting day programs are part of the reason for the success Midwestern University has had in attracting first generation students, students of color, and undocumented students to enroll on campus. Assessments of the program clearly demonstrate the role the program also plays in student retention and graduation. This program is heavily funded, as a recent donor made a sizable gift to the university having benefited from attending it herself.

On the same day as the special program, the Latinx student organization plans a campus-wide rally to educate the community about issues facing undocumented students in the U.S. and on college campuses nationwide. The campus has a history of activism, supported by the administration and local community. The issue of undocumented students has, however, been a highly contested one as the campus has admitted many undocumented students, and most students, faculty, and staff feel the university has been unresponsive to the needs of these students. As a tour is passing by the large group assembled, the undergraduate tour guide proudly tells the group that his supervisor, Olivia, is one of the speakers at the rally. Several family members with potential first-generation students seem surprised that a staff member would be so publicly vocal about how the university should admit and support undocumented students. The tour group passed by the rally as Olivia was speaking and the tour group saw attendees holding up signs with messages of “Undocumented and Unafraid,” “Support DACA,” “No Human is Illegal,” and “Education not Deportation.” A number of participants on the tour were shocked, alarmed, and expressed concern for their safety given the intensity of the rally. They questioned the tour guide as to the frequency of such rallies, types of students attending the institution, and if the administration realized this event was occurring.

After the visiting day, Dana, the Associate Director of Admissions, receives emails from several family members expressing concern about the rally, the admissions graduate assistant who was involved and the tour guide who appeared to support the rally. Comments from the emails included “The campus rally was disruptive”; I do not want my student to come to a campus where there are protests on political issues all the time – it interferes with their education” and “I was afraid for my safety and worry about the safety of my child attending the institution.” Other comments indicated concern for the graduate student’s comments which seemed to advocate sit-ins and demonstrations that she appeared to lead and questioned if that was her role as a paid graduate staff member. Given the history of activism at Midwestern Dana is shocked at these emails, and unsure of how to proceed. Dana does take special note that for almost all the emails the President of the university and the Director of the Graduate School were copied. The President has been encouraging the President’s leadership team, under the direction of the Vice President of Student Affairs, to establish polices related to campus rallies and protests. The Vice President of Student Affairs has been reluctant to develop any policies related to staff participation in campus activism. Ironically, both the President and the Director of the Graduate School were not on campus the day of the rally. They were meeting with the state legislature to share the successes of their efforts to increase student diversity on campus and to present the institution’s strategic plan which would work toward increasing diversity among faculty and staff.

Discussion Questions

  1. What is the role of graduate students in advocacy efforts, such as rallies and campus protests? What is the role of administrators in advocacy efforts, such as rallies and campus protests?
  2. What response is warranted from campus administrators… to the emails received from prospective students/families? to the current policies in place? To Olivia?
  3. What resources, tools, and strategies need to be consulted and considered in framing a response?

References and Resources

*Free speech

Ben-Porath, S.R. (2017). Free speech on campus. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Binder, A. J., & Kidder, J. L. (2022). The Channels of student activism: How the left and right are winning (and losing) in campus politics today. The University of Chicago Press.

Chemerinsky, E., & Gillman, H. (2017). Free speech on campus. Authors.

DeVitis, J. L., & Sasso, P. (2019). Student activism in the academy: Its struggles and promise. Myers Education Press.

Linder, C., Quaye, S. J., Lange, A. C., Evans, M. E., & Stewart, T. J. (2019). Identity-based student activism: Power and oppression on college campus. Routledge.


American Council on Education website. Protect Dreamers Higher Education Coalition.

College Board website. Advising Undocumented Students.

National Association for College Admissions Counseling website. Undocumented Students.–ethics/initiatives/undocumented-students/

*Ethics in student affairs

ACPA: College Student Educators International. Statement of Ethical Principles &  Standards.

CAS Statement of Shared Ethical Principles.

Eberhart, D.M. & Valente, A.M. (2007). The moral landscape of student affairs work. Journal of College and Character, 9(2).

*Ethical practice in admissions work

National Association for College Admissions Counseling website. NACAC’s Guide to Ethical Practice in College Admissions–ethics/NACAC-Guide-to-Ethical-Practice-in-College-Admission/

*Role of parents in higher education

Kiyama, J.M. & Harper, C.E. with Delma Ramos, David Aguayo, Laura A. Page,  Kathy Adams Riester. (2015). Parent and family engagement in higher education. ASHE Higher Education Report, 40(6), 1-94.

Wartman, K. L. & Savage, M. (2008). Parental involvement in higher education: Understanding the relationship among students, parents, and the institution. ASHE Higher Education Report, 33(6), 1-125

*Theories of intersectionality of identities

Cole, N. L. Definition of Intersectionality. ThoughtCo, Dec. 11, 2016,

Crenshaw, K. The Urgency of Intersectionality.

*Latinx students in higher education

Freeman, M., & Martinez, M. (2015). Special issue- College completion for Latino/a students: Institutional and systems approach. New Directions of Higher Education, #172. San Francisco: Jossey Bass.

Garcia, S. A Vega, (2017). Latinx students research guide.

Nora, A., & Crsip, G. (2009). Hispanics in higher education: An overview of research, theory and practice. In J.C. Smart (Eds), Higher Education: Handbook of Theory and Research, pgs. 317-353. New York: Springer.

Patel, V. (2016, December). Grad-Student Unions. The Chronicle of Higher Education

*Graduate Assistants Work Agreements and Activism

Haider, A. (2014). The Power of grad students. Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved on November 24th, 2014

Jaschik, S. (2012). Revived fight on grad unions. Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved on November 26th, 2014

Schmidt, P. (2012). College leaders and labor organizers spat over possible graduate student Unionization. The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved on November 26th, 2014

van Leer, K. A. F., Ashby, K. M., Bhattacharyya, S., McGillen, G. G., & Simmons56, C. M. (2021). When students listen: A Co-Constructed autoethnography of graduate student activists eradicating racism in higher education. Global Journal of Community Psychology Practice, 12(3).

Wong, K. N. (2021). The role of on-campus, race-based student activism in a multicultural center at a predominantly white institution: An ecological case study (Doctoral dissertation, The George Washington University).

*First Generation Students

Capannola, A. L., & Johnson, E. I. (2022). On being the first: The role of family in the experiences of first-generation college students. Journal of Adolescent Research, 37(1), 29-58.

Nyhan, S. (2022). Beating the odds: Finding success as a first-generation college student. National College Fairs.

Ricks, J. R., & Warren, J. M. (2021). Transitioning to college: Experiences of successful first-generation college students. Journal of Educational Research and Practice, 11(1), 1-15.

Suwinyattichaiporn, T., & Johnson, Z. D. (2022). The impact of family and friends social support on Latino/a first-generation college students’ perceived stress, depression, and social isolation. Journal of Hispanic Higher Education, 21(3), 297-314.

Biographical Sketches 

Dena Kniess (she/her/hers) is an Associate Professor and Director of the Higher Education Administration doctoral program at the University of West Georgia. She teaches courses in higher education administration, capstone, qualitative research, and organizational theory. Prior to becoming a faculty member, she served as a student affairs practitioner in residence life and student transition programs for 11 years.

Tony Cawthon (he/him/his) is an Alumni Distinguished Professor of Higher Education and Student affairs at Clemson University. He teaches student development theory, higher education administration and current issues in student affairs and higher education. Prior to being a faculty member, Tony served as a Director of Residential Life. His research interests are in inclusion, identity development, and career development.

Phyllis McCluskey-Titus (she/her/hers) is Professor Emeritus of Higher Education and Student Affairs. She taught student development theory, organization and administration, and college students and their cultures. Her research interests included the study of teaching and student learning inside and outside the classroom. Phyllis served as a student affairs practitioner before joining the faculty and is currently serving as the Interim Director of Academic Advising at Illinois Wesleyan University.

Keeping up Appearances: The Role of the Graduate Assistant | Kern


The University of Elm Harbor is bustling with university life and strives to provide meaningful experiences for all students. In Sam’s case, this experience is as a graduate assistant in the Medical Laboratory Science (MLS) program. This role comes with excellent benefits for the student, both educationally and financially. Sam, however, is conflicted with their role as graduate assistant and the classroom power dynamic when their supervisor assigns them to teach the same course in which they are enrolled.

Keywords: Situational ethics, teaching assistant, classroom roles, student attitude, faculty relations, student relations

Primary Characters

Dr. Rhys Briggs (he, him, his) – Dr. Briggs is a tenured professor in a teaching role in a small professional studies program focused on Medical Laboratory Sciences (MLS). He worked as a Laboratory Director before transitioning into his current academic role as a second career and has a genuine interest in the professional success of his students. Dr. Briggs provided career counseling to many students who cite him as essential to starting their careers. He is sometimes referred to as “old school” regarding his classroom teaching methods and high expectations, yet, he receives primarily positive feedback from student evaluations. He teaches a full course load of three courses each term, mixed between undergraduate and graduate courses, and is assigned a graduate assistant from the experiential learning program.

 Sam West (they, them, theirs) – Sam is the current graduate assistant for Dr. Briggs and is extremely grateful for the opportunity. Along with experiencing MLS through Dr. Briggs’ lens, Sam receives a 75% discount on tuition, without which Sam would be pressured into student loans and may not be able to attend the program. Previously, Sam was the graduate assistant for Dr. Briggs’ undergraduate classes where additional support was needed. 

Context and Case

The University of Elm Harbor is a private, non-profit college situated just outside a coastal New England city. Harbor serves approximately 7,000 students and a combined faculty and staff of 1,000. The claim to fame of Harbor is its faculty, who are well-respected and known across their fields before transitioning to an academic career at Harbor. Several of the faculty hold national prominence and received multiple coveted awards. A significant draw for graduate students to these programs is the opportunity to apply for the experiential learning program in which graduate students receive substantial tuition discounts and stipends as graduate assistants. Most students selected as graduate assistants are offered positions in their program of study; however, opportunities are also available in other offices on campus. As the graduate assistant role is extensive, the University of Elm Harbor does not offer a standardized training program for the selected students. Any training remains at the discretion of the department or the student’s supervisor.

At the end of Sam’s first year as a graduate student and graduate assistant, Dr. Briggs asked if Sam would be interested in being a teaching assistant for a combined undergraduate-graduate level course in the upcoming semester. Sam agreed and was excited about the opportunity and did not ask which class, trusting that Dr. Briggs would take care of the assignment as he had done in the past when Sam worked with him as an undergraduate student.

Sam registered for classes over the summer and found that Dr. Briggs was teaching one of Sam’s required courses in the fall. Throughout the summer, Sam occasionally worked for the Health Professions Department, completing various tasks as needed; however, there was little time to interact with Dr. Briggs or talk about the upcoming fall classes. Sam did not have any concerns about this because the previous classes for Dr. Briggs had a “go with the flow” attitude, and in his role as a graduate assistant, Sam was always provided with the materials before the class meetings.

At the start of the fall semester, Sam was excited to start classes and continue as a graduate assistant, as it helped them learn the material on a deeper level. However, when meeting with Dr. Briggs on the first day of the semester, Sam received the documents and syllabus for Laboratory Regulation and Compliance (MLS 3007/5007) and saw that this was one of the courses they registered for over the summer in the graduate section (MLS 5007). Sam was warned by past students in the MLS program that the MLS 5007 course is extremely challenging due to the sheer number of regulatory standards Dr. Briggs expects students to know. On asking Dr. Briggs which course Sam would be the graduate assistant for, Dr. Briggs told Sam it would be MLS 3007/5007, which is why he gave Sam the materials and syllabus.

Sam was confused and told Dr. Briggs that it seemed odd that a student taking the class would also be the graduate assistant. Still, Dr. Briggs said this happened before, which was not a big issue as Sam would be handling the undergraduate section of the course most of the time. However, the graduate section had materials and expectations above and beyond the undergraduate level. Although still concerned, Sam agreed without pushing much further.

At the first meeting of the class, Sam arrived shortly before Dr. Briggs and began to set up the computer system and arrange the classroom the way Dr. Briggs preferred. As Sam was setting up, some of their peers entered the room and began taking seats. Everyone shared about their summer and general excitement about the new semester bubbled throughout the room. Some of Sam’s peers knew that Sam was the graduate assistant for Dr. Briggs and heard that Dr. Briggs had high expectations for students in this course. A peer asked if Sam was “taking or teaching” in jest, and Sam replied that they were doing both. A couple of Sam’s peers looked confused, but no one asked Sam anything more about their role in the course.

Dr. Briggs arrived and began his course with an overview of the syllabus and introduced Sam as the class graduate assistant, including Sam’s university-based contact information in the discussion. He explained that Sam would be available to help with homework, run the class in Dr. Briggs’ absence, assign groups, grade quizzes, and provide general support. Sam noted that Dr. Briggs did not specifically say that Sam was there to support the undergraduates.

At the end of the session, one of Sam’s peers asked Sam if they were “like the TA (teaching assistant) for everyone or what” and if Sam was “seriously taking a class that they were TA-ing.” Sam gave an uneasy shrug and began to question what their role was.

As Sam’s contact information was circulated to all students of the MLS 3007/5007 course, Sam began to receive texts and emails from peers asking for support during the course. Some requests were class related, looking for participation in shared notes; others were very targeted, asking directly for answers to quizzes and tests or offering exchanges for these materials.

Throughout the coming weeks, Sam’s apprehension grew, and they began to question the ethics of their role. Sam was concerned with how it looked to be taking the class and acting as the graduate assistant and even considered dropping the course. Several of Sam’s classmates joked about Sam unfairly grading their quizzes, even saying Sam would be the only one to pass the course. They made remarks about how Sam did not have to study for the class because Dr. Briggs gave Sam all the answers without understanding that Sam only had access to the undergraduate materials. No amount of explanation from Sam assuaged the requests from peers.

Sam does not want to jeopardize their relationship with Dr. Briggs by bringing these issues to his attention. Further, dropping the course means Sam will have to retake it the next term it is offered, which is after Sam’s expected graduation date. If Sam extends for an extra year, they will not be eligible for the experiential learning program and receive minimal tuition assistance.

Discussion Questions

  1. What ethical issues is Sam facing in the classroom and in their relationship with Dr. Briggs?
  2. Teaching assistant training is beneficial to students and faculty. What aspects or topics of a training program would assist Sam in navigating this environment?
  3. What societal pressures or mores are affecting Sam? Based on your experiences, how should these be handled?
  4. What recommendations would help to resolve the conflicts in this case? What are the potential negative implications for each stakeholder in the case?
  5. What is the influence of identity in this scenario related to power, gender, or other social identities?

Recommended Readings

Flinko, S., & Arnett, R. C. (2014). The undergraduate teaching assistant: Scholarship in the classroom. Journal of the Association for Communication Administration33(1), 35-46.

Gundersen, D. E., Capozzoli, E. A., & Rajamma, R. K. (2008). Learned ethical behavior: An academic perspective. Journal of Education for Business83(6), 315-324.

McNichols, C. W., & Zimmerer, T. W. (1985). Situational ethics: An empirical study of differentiators of student attitudes. Journal of Business Ethics4(3), 175-180.

Mueller, A., Perlman, B., McCann, L. I., & McFadden, S. H. (1997). A faculty perspective on teaching assistant training. Teaching of Psychology, 24(3), 167-171.

Nguyen, D. J., & Yao, C. W. (Eds.). (2022). A handbook for supporting today’s graduate students. Stylus Publishing.

Shepard, V. A., & Perry, A. L. (Eds.). (2022). A practitioner’s guide to supporting graduate and professional students. Routledge.

Author Bio

Sydney C. Kern (she/her/hers). Sydney C. Kern is an adjunct professor at the University of New Haven (CT) and a doctoral student in the Doctor of Education program at the University of Hartford (CT). Outside of academia, Ms. Kern serves her community as a fire investigator, firefighter, and emergency medical technician. For fun, Ms. Kern explores local trails and experiences the underwater environment through scuba diving.