Moving from Serendipity to Intentionality
On a Friday night in late April of 1987, during the spring of my sophomore year, I was attending a movie with friends in Brody Hall at Michigan State University (MSU). Back then, the Residence Hall Association screened movies in select lecture halls across campus. We didn’t have Netflix. We didn’t even have cable; just ABC, NBC, CBS, and PBS (if the rabbit ears were adjusted just right).
After the movie, an event happened that changed my life forever.
On my way out of the lecture hall I ran into a friend of mine, Stacy Huffman, from my hometown of Saginaw, MI, who had also been attending the movie. As friends who hadn’t seen each other in a while (after all, it was a 2100 acre campus of 30,000+ students), we caught each other up on our lives. As the semester was nearing an end, our discussion moved to our summer plans in Saginaw. Stacy said that she was going to be staying on campus working for the Academic Orientation Program. She continued to tell me they were looking for one more orientation leader and encouraged me to apply. The interviews were the next day and there was an open slot at 8:00 a.m.
I got up early, wiped the sleep from my eyes, ate my Wheaties, and headed to the interview. A few days later I was notified that I had been selected as an orientation leader. This was an exciting opportunity. Serendipity opened the door to my first student affairs job and my career – although I didn’t comprehend it at the time.
Fast forward to June of 1993. Frustration and anxiety were setting in because I had recently graduated with my master’s degree from MSU and, unlike my classmates, was still job searching. And searching. And searching. There had been a few phone interviews and even a couple of campus interviews, but nothing panned out. Self-doubt became all-consuming as I wondered why no one wanted to hire me despite what I thought were excellent grades and extensive experience.
When hope was waning, serendipity struck again.
I received a call from the Department of Residence Life at the University of New Hampshire for an on-campus interview. A hall director job at UNH was my “perfect” job from the start of my search. Unfortunately for me, a few weeks before, shortly after the phone interview, I was told that they had hired other individuals for their open spaces. However, a residence hall director had decided to leave UNH in June, opening up a position. I jumped at the chance for a campus interview. I distinctly remember sitting outside my hotel – The New England Center, which was embedded in a beautifully wooded area, saying that I could live and work here. Those words came true and two months later I was packing up a U-Haul to make the trip Durham, New Hampshire for my “perfect” job. This position created the foundation for who I am as an educator today. Plus, UNH was where I met my current partner, Terri. Call it destiny. Call it kismet. Or maybe it was just chance. But, this result was certainly not intentional.
The orientation leader position began my career in student affairs but working for the Department of Residence Life at the University of New Hampshire changed how I approached my job. While I learned many things during my six years as a hall director (YES – six years living in), one word has stuck with me and was the concept that compelled me into assessment work. That word is “intentionality.” During numerous staff and supervision meetings hall directors discussed how we were being intentional in our outreach to students and in our programming. Intentionality became a mantra for my work then and the driving force for the assessment work I have been undertaking the past 15 years.
Synonyms for serendipity include chance and accident while synonyms for intentionality include designed, deliberate, and planned. While not antonyms of one another, the concepts of serendipity and intentionality are opposed to one another creating a tension we continue to struggle with in regard to learning in higher education. All too often we assume or think that learning is happening outside of the classroom and we aren’t doing as much as we can to intentionally foster it. Today, we can no longer rely on serendipity to ensure student learning and success.
External demands for accountability are increasing the need for intentionality. The completion agenda dominates the national discourse of higher education. Students, parents, and legislatures are questioning the return on investment of a college education and want to known what students are learning after paying exorbitant amounts of money. College administrators are questioning the value of student affairs in an era of service provision where students are customers and clients. During a program session with college presidents at ACPA15, when asked what the priority should be for student affairs professionals, all panelists stated that college student educators need to be able to demonstrate how they and their work positively contributes to student learning and retention. The completion agenda at the federal and state level is a major thrust behind the current accountability movement in higher education.
More important than external calls for accountability are the internal calls for accountability that originate from inside each one of us as college student educators. We chose this profession for our careers because of the desire and need to positively impact lives of college students. Thus, we strive to do the best job we can to assist students. As a field, we need to make intentionality an interwoven thread in the fabric of everyday practice to ensure student success, both academically and personally.
Intentionally isn’t rocket science. It can be explained in a simple four-step process outlined by Linda Suskie (2009). The first step is to begin with what you want students to achieve (aka outcomes which can be learning, operational, or program). Once outcomes are identified, existing literature and other evidence are used to identify strategies to foster those outcomes in step 2. Step 3 is to collect and analyze data to determine if the outcomes are achieved and how outcome achievement can be improved. The final step is the most important – closing the loop by making improvements. Intentionally is a process, not a destination.
Assessment cycle by Linda Suskie (2009)
How Can ACPA Help You Be More Intentional
ACPA’s focus is student learning. As stated in our mission “ACPA supports and fosters college student learning through the generation and dissemination of knowledge, which informs policies, practices and programs for student affairs professionals and the higher education community” (ACPA, 2015). There are many ways ACPA can help you foster student learning, development, and success.
Individuals can leverage ACPA to help foster and support student learning by accessing the scholarship that is generated in a variety of ways. ACPA’s signature publication is the Journal of College Student Development. There are articles in each issue pertinent to faculty and practitioners alike. Previous issues include scholarship regarding experiences of Asian American and Latino/a students at an HBCU, the academic performance of Black emerging adults, a method to increase the grade point averages of fraternity members, and others.
About Campus is a scholarly publication directed towards practitioners. This bi-monthly magazine provides insights to improve practice in higher education. Past issues include articles addressing positive psychology, long-term success in work and life, as well as high impact practices.
In addition to these publications, and Developments, which you are reading now, ACPA also sponsors books and monographs. This past year ACPA published Job One 2.0: Understanding the Next Generation of Student Affairs Professionals which focuses on the first jobs of college student educators as well as Working With Students in Community Colleges: Contemporary Strategies for Bridging Theory, Research, and Practice which provides approaches to support community college students in their success. Additional publications can be found here. ACPA books and monographs coupled with our other publications provide faculty and practitioners a library of invaluable scholarship to inform further research and practice.
Another major way that ACPA supports student learning, development, and success is assisting college student educators across the spectrum of higher education by bridging theory to practice. Some of this work is done through our acclaimed professional development events. Most of our activities are driven by curricula rooted in research. Upcoming events include
- Mid-Level Management Institute, June 13-17 in Nashville, TN
- Student Affairs Assessment Institute, June 17-19 in Louisville, KY
- Phyllis Mable New Professionals Institute, June 28-30 in St. Louis, MO
You can find additional professional development events here.
Theory to practice is also addressed in other venues including ACPA On Demand and Higher Ed Live, sponsored by ACPA. ACPA On Demand is collection of pre-recorded videos covering a variety of topics relevant to college student educators. Higher Ed Live is a weekly talk show viewed online covering critical emergent issues in higher education. Recorded versions of the shows are available the Higher Ed Live website and podcasts are available in iTunes.
As college student educators, we need to be much more intentional in how we cultivate student learning and development. While learning may happen by serendipity, we can rely on it no longer. Our students – our future – are too important to rely on chance. ACPA is your go-to source for research, scholarship, and proven practices for fostering student success. Tap into the resources now!
ACPA (2015). Mission, vision, and values. Retrieved on April 8, 2015 from http://www.myacpa.org/values
Suskie, L. (2009). Assessing student learning: A common sense guide (2nd Ed). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.