More Than Snow Storms and Hurricanes: The True Meaning of Essential Personnel in Student Affairs

Kevin P. Schafer
Montclair State University

I drove onto campus and there was plenty of parking, when just a week before, having arrived at the same time, I had to hunt for a parking space. I went into the office and what I should have seen was the hustle and bustle of staff getting ready for students returning from spring break, but instead of smiling faces I was met with empty chairs and a quiet office. My day was far from typical. I fielded calls from staff who had questions about the university’s anticipated response to COVID-19. My supervisor and I sat on many different calls and meetings trying to figure out our next step. I knew that the role our team would play would be important, because we had relationships with students, a commitment to student safety, and that our work was about to look different than it ever had before.

I teach courses in higher education, student affairs, and counseling. I also co-chair the university’s Student Crisis Response Team. Even with all of my education and expertise, I knew what lay before me was not an easy task and that I would need all of my skills and all of the teachings of my professors and mentors to help me navigate the times ahead. I was still in my office that day because I was essential personnel.

Essential Personnel

Many college and university websites provide definitions of essential personnel to this effect: “Essential employees are those that need to report to work to maintain critical functions of the university”. Essential employees play an important role in maintaining the safety and well-being of students, faculty, and staff who may be on-site throughout emergency events. Maintaining the safety and well-being of students is a critical function of and the true essence of what we, student affairs professionals, do every day on campus. One of the main reasons we are essential is because of the relationship we form with students and how critical those bonds are in a global crisis.

 Many of our job descriptions – especially for those of us in Residence Life – designate our roles as essential personnel. What does that really mean? For many of us, up until now, this has meant that when it snows we still come into the office or if there is a natural disaster we are there to support the functions of the university and assist students. Many times, there is a clear beginning and end to the crisis we are working through, unlike today. We have been essential because our roles need to be filled for the university to function, adapt, prepare, and support students, faculty, other staff, and the institution. However, in times like this I would say, more than ever, every single student affairs position is essential to support the mission of the institution.

No one anticipated that the definition of “essential personnel” would be characterized by what we have been doing over the past several weeks. While being essential personnel via your job description means having to be on campus to keep the functions of the institution move forward, being essential is not confined to job descriptions. In student affairs our main responsibility is to assist students in their progress to degree competition. Regardless of title, all staff in student affairs are essential personal to keep the students moving forward. We do not have to be on campus to be essential, we are essential from our makeshift office in the dining room, at the kitchen table, or the basement. Wherever we sit, it doesn’t matter to the students we are helping. 

Why We Do What We Do

When asked in an interview, “What do you like most about your job?” or “Why do you do what you do?”, many times the answer may be something like: “I do it for the students”, or “I love working with students”, or “Students keep me on my feet and I never know what to expect”. For the majority of student affairs professionals, regardless of our role, we do what we do for the students. But did we ever think all Student Affairs professionals would become essential personnel?

The National Association of Student Personnel Administrators (NASPA) and the American College Personal Association (ACPA, 2010) suggest that Student Affairs is a critical aspect of the higher education experience, and work done by student affairs professionals helps students begin a lifetime journey of growth and self-exploration. Student affairs professionals are responsible for providing a wide variety of professional services and activities ranging from preadmission to the university to post-graduation (Kuh et al., 2011). Traditionally, student affairs professionals are responsible for areas including academic advising, residential life, student conduct, athletics, financial aid, admissions, and student health, to name a few; during the pandemic, those roles have become increasingly complex.

When determining how to assist students at this time, student affair professionals must address students’ diverse needs and determine whether the staff can meet those needs. Many times, when working with students in crisis, my team and I try to find a professional that has a pre-existing relationship with the student in crisis. We have found this to be a great way to support students and help them be successful. Student affairs professionals play many roles in the lives of students, from being a “coach” and encouraging students to “give it their all”, to advising students through a change in their major, to being a financial aid advisor helping students figure out how they are going to pay the bill. We have an impact on students’ lives even if we do not realize it. This is why our relationships with students are vital to our work.

Relationships Are Vital

During trying times, the relationships we build with our students are critical to helping them succeed. This is as true in the context of the community struggling with the current pandemic as it is during “normal” times of personal challenge and struggle. As the generation of students on campus has shifted due to advances in technology and different life experiences than those of previous generations, the ability for student affairs professionals to be adaptable is essential. 

When instructors or staff exemplify the qualities of character (i.e., kind, virtuous, good) and caring (i.e., empathic, understanding, responsive), students report a greater likelihood of communicating with these instructors and staff (Myers, 2004). A study by Komarraju et al. (2010) revealed that students who know even one faculty or staff member closely are likely to feel more satisfied with their college life and to be more successful. Positive relationships between students and staff assist with positive student development. As Pearson (2012) discussed in their study, having one positive relationship helps to ensure that students perform to the best of their ability.  A sense of connection can also influence a student’s decision to stay at a university (Heisserer & Parette, 2002). At a time when many things in a student’s life can be chaotic having that one person to help them through times like this is invaluable. A study by Heisserer and Parette (2002) suggests that the single most important factor in assisting students deemed at risk is playing a part in making them feel that the institution cares for them.

 Student affairs professionals need to consider fostering the development of these relationships and encourage other student affairs professionals to develop meaningful and intentional relationships with students. These relationships will be advantageous for both students and professionals.  Fostering these relationships provides the foundation for professionals to support and encourage students, especially in times of crisis.

The importance of staff relationships with students is supported by the work of Ethan and Seidel (2013) who found that interpersonal connections developed between students and college personnel often go unrecognized for their central role in students’ emotional well-being. It is critical for a student to feel cared for both in ensuring that the student performs to the best of his or her abilities and to prevent attrition (O’Keeffe, 2013). As we look to the future, maintaining existing relationships with students and fostering new ones has never been more important.

Attending to the needs of the whole student has been embedded in the core values, philosophy, and literature of the student affairs profession from the very beginning (Reynolds, 2011).  Student development encompasses how a student grows personally, developmentally, progresses, or increases his or her developmental capabilities as a result of enrollment in an institution of higher education (Rodgers, 1990). All of our interactions impact our students greatly and leave an impression on them.

As I finish this article, I am on week five of a stay-at-home order. I have had numerous Zoom and Google Hangout meetings with students, many of whom are struggling. Each meeting   is different. Some are positive and uplifting. Some almost bring me to tears. However, in all of the uncertainty in our current situation, I am encouraged by what I hear students tell me consistently on these calls. They say, “Thank you for reaching out to me,” and “Thank you, it is so nice to know someone cares about me at the university,” or simply, “Thank you for listening.” These words remind me why I do what I do, and, even more importantly, why student affairs professionals are essential personnel during times like this. I, and we, do it for the students.

Author Bio

Bio: Dr. Kevin Schafer is currently the Associate Director for Residential Support Services at Montclair State University. Dr. Schafer has worked in the Student Affairs/Higher Education field for over seventeen years; he graduated from Siena College, in Albany, NY, with a degree in Psychology.  Dr. Schafer obtained his Masters of Arts and his Ph.D. degrees in Counseling from Montclair State University.  Dr. Schafer is an adjunct professor at Widiner University and Caldwell University teaching classes in both the Counseling program and the High Education Leadership program. He has served in many different positions in student affairs. Dr. Schafer’s research interests are in the area of working with student on campus with mental health concerns. Prior to arriving at Montclair State University, he served as Residence Hall Director at Seton Hall University. Dr. Schafer has been a key member in the development of many different initiatives while at the University such as the Mediation Resource Center, The Bystander Intervention Program, Gender Inclusive Housing, Crisis Assessment Response and Education Team and most recently the development of Recovery Housing. Dr. Schafer has presented at numerous national conferences on the successful collaboration between Academic Affairs and Student Affairs and the development of a Culture of Support for students on Campus. Dr. Schafer serves on a number of campus wide committees, and advisory boards.

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