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.