Reconstructing Professionalism Post-COVID: New Professional’s Hope for the Future of Student Affairs

written by: Hermen Díaz III, Amy B. Wilson, Ph.D., Laura A. Brown

The COVID-19 pandemic has heavily altered the professional environments of millions of higher education professionals across the country, creating new opportunities to think about how and where we work. Remote working environments significantly altered rules of professional engagement and professional socialization within the field of student affairs. It is perhaps too early to understand to what extent student affairs may be changed. That said, it would also be naive to operate from a “business as usual” perspective when returning to in-person operations. There is much to be learned from this critical moment in our profession’s history, particularly as it relates to expectations surrounding the performance of professionalism post pandemic.

The research described below is part of a larger study examining new student affairs professionals’ conceptualization and practice of professionalism. The timing of data collection (spring 2021) allowed for inquiry about the impact of COVID-19 and remote work within the context of professionalism. The findings reveal new professionals’ shifting priorities and emerging values, which has the potential to influence how professionalism is defined and performed. This data is relevant not only to resuming in-person operations but within the field at large, as new professionals’ experience, satisfaction, and retention are critical factors for the field moving forward.

Literature Review

To effectively discuss the changing values and practices surrounding professionalism, we must first understand how individuals develop their professional identity and philosophies of practice. Primarily, research on professionalism in student affairs has focused on the socialization of graduate students in organizational and higher education contexts (Weidman et al., 2001; Ashforth, 2008; Tull et al., 2009). More recent scholarship has focused on new professionals’ ability to make meaning of professional constructs and their capacity for self-authorship (Perez, 2017; Bureau, 2018; Hirschy et al., 2015; Duran & Allen, 2020; Perez, 2020).

Socialization is defined as “the processes through which individuals gain the knowledge, skills, and values necessary for successful entry into a professional career requiring the advanced level of specialized knowledge and skills” (Weidman et al., 2001, p. iii). Tull et al., (2009) found effective socialization increases new professionals’ quality of work-life and reduces attrition in the field. Other researchers have found that new student affairs professionals learn about professionalism through socialization in their respective graduate preparation programs (Bureau, 2018; Perez, 2020).

Internships and graduate assistantships strongly affect the cultivation of students’ internal voice as well as their standards, norms, and values of professionalism, more than coursework (Lidell, et al., 2014). Students observe how mentors and supervisors perform and exhibit professionalism. This performance includes attire, communication, time management, and work style. Research suggests that effective socialization may contribute to job satisfaction, organizational commitment, increased performance, and values development, effectively minimizing role conflict or dissonance (Ashforth et al., 2006).

A key component of developing professional identity for graduate students is the opportunity to acknowledge and engage with tension or compatibility issues between what they have learned, how they are instructed to perform professionalism in the workplace, and their values and beliefs (Perez, 2017; Duran & Allen, 2020; Perez, 2020). Perez (2017) found students’ professional identity and self-authorship are influenced by supervisors and mentors. The development of professional identity and engagement in self-authorship is a critical juncture for graduate students and new professionals because it serves as the foundation for how one sees themselves and others within the profession and within the academy.

Self-authorship is a constructive developmental theory defined by Baxter Magolda (2007) “as the internal capacity to define one’s belief system, identity, and relationships (Baxter Magolda, 2001b; Kegan, 1994)” (p. 69). It was found that supervisors and mentors who encouraged students to explore dissonance between beliefs and experiences elevated a student’s confidence as they reevaluated their graduate preparation and training more critically (Perez, 2017). Those who did not experience opportunities to discuss tension reported feeling reluctant to trust their internal voice and reconsidered working in the student affairs field long term (Perez, 2017). Students commonly encountered these discrepancies in their assistantships, where their training may neither have prepared them for, nor reflected the realities of stricter, bureaucratic professional settings.

While there is a wealth of literature on how graduate students are socialized for the field of student affairs, there is a lack of information on how new professionals comprehend and manage dissonance between their values and standards of professionalism. We sought to further understand how new professionals from the same student affairs preparation program acknowledged and comprehended dissonance regarding their expectations and the practice of professionalism in student affairs. We argue that dissonance may be greater for newer professionals returning to in person operations given the impact of COVID-19 and remote work environments.


This study utilized a qualitative research methodology through a constructivist paradigm to better understand the experience of new student affairs professionals’ (re)construction and engagement of professionalism as result of the COVID-19 pandemic and remote engagement (Lincoln & Guba, 1985). Self-authorship served as the theoretical framework of this study as the participants were constantly and continuously engaging in the defining and redefining of personal and professional values associated with the act of professionalism (Baxter Magolda, 2001; Pizzolato & Ozaki, 2007).

We utilized narrative inquiry to understand the participants’ experience while also recognizing the larger constructs and nuances of cultural, social, and institutional realities (Clandinin & Cane, 2000). Participants in this study are higher education and student affairs professionals with less than five years’ experience in higher education administration. Convenience sampling was utilized and a total of 25 participants were selected.  All participants are graduates of the same higher education administration master’s program from an urban college in the northeast region of the United States. Participants were asked “How has COVID-19 and remote engagement impacted your practice of professionalism?” and “Has COVID-19 and remote engagement made you rethink your definition of professionalism?”

Each participant participated in one semi-structured individual interview and one focus group, which allowed participants to reflect on and expand upon initial and generalized findings from individual interviews. Data was transcribed and coded to create a general narrative heuristic (Miles, Huberman & Saldaña, 2014; Riessman, 2005). Utilizing a constructivist narrative research methodology along with a narrative thematic data analysis, we were able to develop a pattern and grouping of data into themes which are shared in the findings (Braun & Clarke, 2006; Miles, Huberman & Saldaña, 2014; Riessman, 2005).


The narratives of new and emerging student affairs professionals around how the COVID-19 pandemic and remote work has shaped, or impacted professionalism produced four dominant themes. The themes center the potential evolution of how professionalism is defined and performed in the field of student affairs post-COVID-19.

Deconstructing Professional Boundaries

One of the more traditional notions of professionalism within student affairs has centered on the establishment of personal and professional boundaries. For many of the participants in this study, they indicated the situations surrounding COVID-19 and remote work facilitated a loosening of those boundaries or a deconstruction of that professional layer, either with their supervisor or within themselves as supervisors.

As Michael stated, I feel like we are able to see a little bit more behind that professional layer. I think some of those boundaries have decreased a little bit. I think my current supervisor is a little bit more candid with us now, as opposed to in the past… I appreciate that.

Similarly, Stephanie reflected on the seemingly more personal nature of the virtual space and the impact this has had on her relationships with colleagues.

It’s [virtual space] made me more empathetic to folks because you’re kind of getting a snippet of like, their day to day outside of work. So, it’s kind of weird, because you would think that in a physical space, we’d have more of these conversations. But I think in a virtual nature, people have been more open about their living situations.

According to the professionals in this study, the virtual work environment facilitated opportunities for professionals to demonstrate a more personal side, one that centers them outside of their institutional position. This level of engagement has been rooted in empathy and understanding for the challenges and unique nature of the virtual work environment. Participants shared that greater empathy and understanding on the part of supervisors and colleagues has altered the perception of boundaries within professional relationships.

John recognized in himself the need to lower what he referred to as his “wall” which was rooted in the belief that he had “to be professional.” For him this meant personal relationships were secondary to work relationships. He reflected on the evolution of his philosophy both pre-COVID, during the pandemic, and his hopes moving forward.

I think when it comes to relationships, boundaries are important, but we also need to be able to breach them a little bit and be vulnerable with them. That’s where my supervisory philosophy has sort of evolved over time. And now with COVID, it’s evolved even more. Because now, I know even further that wow, this relationship building is really, really important now because…we’re in this time where they [my staff] now lack the social attention. They’re lacking all these other support systems, and so I have an even more important role to play, than I did before.

Cori agreed adding, I think the way we used to think about professionalism is totally different now. In my current role, our managers are a little bit more personable now… when we’re in a work setting, we’re constantly talking about work, but now, it’s the whole idea of wanting to know if you’re okay, like, “How are you feeling?”

According to participants in this study, the pandemic and remote work have made professional relationships more personal, blending the traditional boundaries and creating more satisfactory working relationships. With a virtual and remote work environment, the notion of living where you work and working where you live has extended beyond residence life professionals. Participants shared that redefining boundaries has positively impacted their experience and reinforced the value of personal relationships in professional satisfaction.

Showing Up Authentically

Participants reflected on their virtual work experience during the pandemic and noted a greater acceptance and value of professionals showing up as their authentic selves. Participants noted their own openness and acceptance to the “realness” of their colleagues, which may not have typically shown themselves in a traditional work environment. Catherine stated,

People probably aren’t showing up in this virtual world you know, quite exactly the same that they showed up in person and I think that’s okay. I think that’s the kind of the general direction that we’re going in, is that you know, maybe there’s just more real life going on in the virtual world and it’s okay. You know it doesn’t mean that you’re unprofessional or that you’re not, you know, fulfilling that obligation of your job.

Likewise, Tiana spoke to her own ability to show up authentically in a virtual space in ways she felt had not been accepted in person, specifically referencing her natural hair, stating,

I appreciate the fact that it’s [COVID-19] supported the notion that you know, be you, be who you are, show up and do what you got to do because I’ve been doing that for years, but people come at me for going to work like this [reference to hair], you know, but nobody has a problem because I’m at home.

The personal identities and experiences of participants were supported in some ways during the pandemic and virtual connection in a manner that was not always evident when  working in person The welcoming of authenticity while acknowledging life and reality outside of a professional position allowed for participants to engage in their work and personal life in a more seamless and realistic manner.

While some focused on personal, other participants talked about career advancement and how it was enhanced during virtual experiences. John spoke about his hope for the future as he made his way into higher administrative roles with greater supervisory responsibility,

I think that’s like my goal, like 10 years from now, when I’m in [upper administration/leadership] roles, I really want to make sure that [relationships] is the focus, and that people can show up authentically, and people can be themselves…  Most of our awake life is spent in the office at work. People need to feel comfortable, right? And people need to feel like they can be themselves.

The recurring theme in participants’ stories was both a recognition that there has been more acceptance and emphasis on showing up authentically through work during the pandemic. Participants also shared a desire that authenticity would continue to be a value.

Valuing Flexibility

The shift to remote work for many professionals in student affairs and higher education presented a new way of conceptualizing how, where, and when work gets done. Participants appreciated  new flexibility and expressed a desire to see those “lessons” carried over post-COVID-19. Penny spoke of her supervisor, saying,

She’s extremely flexible and I think that has come across in terms of her showing her dedication to us as a staff and like her trust in us, which I think is really nice because I’m a firm believer that if you’re happy in your work and with the people that you work with then that will shine through in your programs and the ways you engage with your students. I think there’ll be a lot of lessons that we carry over post pandemic.

The value of flexibility was also discussed as it relates to productivity in the workplace, some noting the value of having in-office days and work from home days. Prophecy, who has been a full time professional for two years, spoke about lobbying for greater flexibility even before COVID-19. He valued the opportunity to show how his productivity would stay consistent in a remote work environment. He was later frustrated with his campus’ response to limit remote work options, “I guess leadership says it doesn’t apply for everyone. Everybody’s results are not the same. But everybody’s home situation is not the same.” This decision lacked the desired flexibility to engage with the work remotely while still meeting the responsibilities of the position and objectives of the department; this was a continuation of ‘business as usual’.

Abigail agreed and added, “people have the opportunity for that more individualistic kind of professionalism, doing what they need to do to get work done versus what their workplace deems important to get work done, or society deems important to get work done.” Among these newer professionals, there was a strong desire to reconsider traditional notions of how work gets done. Post-pandemic they found themselves lobbying for sustained flexibility.

Challenging Norms of Professional Appearance

In addition to authenticity and flexibility, participants frequently cited a desire to challenge norms of professional dress and appearance. Participants shared that their actions and the quality of their work should speak more to who they are as professionals than attire or how they looked. Tiana said,

COVID-19 has proved my point that what your hair looks like, what your environment looks like, has nothing to do with how well you as an individual can do your job. I evaluate the skill set that you have. I evaluate your ability to connect with people across

demographics. It doesn’t matter where you are or what you look like. You’re still able to rock at what you do, and I feel like COVID-19 has really highlighted that.

Similarly, Tricia stated,

I’m just trying to be more understanding and like I don’t care if you have your camera on, I don’t care if you’re not like dressed like you’re ready for work, I don’t care if you’re laying (sic) in bed taking a zoom meeting. Awesome! I love that for you. I don’t think that affects how you do your job.

Chloe echoed this sentiment and noted the direct impact of remote work on standards of presentation for women specifically. She spoke about the opportunities the pandemic might present to challenge norms of professional appearance moving forward.

I think having the remote work environment has continued to kind of challenge some of the ideas of, you know, presentation of things. I think about even things as small as women wearing makeup, a lot of women wear a lot less makeup now. And should they have to present themselves in a way that looks more professional? No. And maybe we’re kind of getting away from those types of standards. Because we are just in an environment where comfort is important, where safety is important. And it feels a lot more important than doing things that would make you present in a certain way.

The narratives of these new and emerging professionals suggest a strong desire to break from traditional notions of professional appearance and dress as criteria or indicators of professionalism. The remote work environment has facilitated an opportunity to challenge norms of professional dress and center quality of work.

Finally, Penny spoke about how remote work has challenged her own notions about what professionalism looks like. She expressed hope for an evolving definition of professionalism that centers students above appearance.

I think [COVID-19] definitely has made me rethink it [professionalism]. In terms of like, why should this [appearance] matter if we’re getting our jobs done, if we are being professional, if we’re being respectful? If we are, like, doing what is most important and why we came into this field for our students, I think that should be at the top of our minds.

New and emerging professionals were clear about their values and their reasons for pursuing a career in higher education and traditional standards and expectations surrounding professional appearance is one they do not often subscribe to and hope will evolve with a return to campus.


The findings from this study affirm previous research on the socialization of student affairs professionals and the development of professional identity. The remote COVID-19 work experience of new professionals facilitated opportunities to acknowledge and engage in the tension between what they learned about professionalism in student affairs and their personal and professional values and practices. COVID-19 has allowed new professionals to explore this dissonance, some for the first time, resulting in a desire to create a paradigm shift in how professionalism is defined and enacted within the field of higher education and student affairs. Like graduate students who had supervisors and mentors that supported and engaged in the dissonance of learned professionalism and personal values (Perez, 2017, Duran & Allen, 2020; Perez, 2020), current supervisors, institutional leaders and colleagues have the same opportunity to acknowledge, embrace and engage in the conflict of professionalism being experienced by new practitioners in the field. Just as important, is the opportunity to evolve such traditional ideas and practices of professionalism to meet the needs and wants of new professionals, both during COVID-19 and beyond.

The dominant themes of deconstructing professional boundaries, showing up authentically, valuing flexibility and challenging norms of professional appearance, offer ways in which new  professionals are open to challenging traditional notions of professionalism, with COVID-19 serving as a strong impetus for change. Participants in this study supported a definition and engagement with professionalism that is more inclusive of their personal and professional values. This further supports research connecting professional identity development to self-authorship and a commitment to one’s internal voice (Baxter-Magolda, 2007, Perez, 2017). A vast majority of the experiences of professionalism shared by participants in this study aligned with the research and literature, in that professionalism often felt limiting, caused tension between personal values and professional identity and lacked a human centered approach. This study, through the lens of surviving a current global pandemic, shows that new professionals not only want a more authentic and equity centric definition of professionalism, but that such a definition should be enacted and embraced, much as it has been during remote and hybrid work. The seemingly positive narratives above suggest greater alignment between personal and professional values among newer staff, thus, reducing conflict and tension between expectations and experience. The reduction in tension may ultimately contribute to greater satisfaction and commitment to the field; a field where they see themselves not solely surviving but thriving.

Implications for Practice

This exploration of professionalism within the context of COVID-19 and beyond is but a small piece of a larger examination of professionalism in student affairs. However, the work provides some insight into the values of newer professionals and how they believe professionalism should be defined or enacted within the profession. This understanding may help supervisors reduce the dissonance and tension between new professionals’ expectations and experience, reducing the attrition of new professionals in the field.

Specifically, supervisors may help deconstruct traditional professional boundaries by developing more human and equity centered supervisory relationships, that acknowledge individuals’ identities and roles beyond work, creating more supportive environments. Supervisors may also help deconstruct traditional professional boundaries through more transparent and informal communication methods that seek to empower and value individuals at all levels of the organization. Through the deconstruction of traditional professional boundaries and centering individuals in the supervisory relationship, staff may feel more comfortable bringing their true and authentic selves into the workplace. Supervisors can further support staff showing up authentically by creating a safe space in which staff can present as they feel comfortable. This may involve openly discussing what professionalism means to people in their shared space and co-constructing a shared vision that allows for individuality and authenticity. An open discussion about what professionalism looks like in a shared space may also open dialogue around the appearance of professionalism and the opportunity to challenge norms of professional dress. And finally, supervisors should explore ways of increasing flexibility around how and when work gets done. Remote work has allowed for new ways of conceptualizing our work and in some ways enhancing productivity and morale. Supervisors who can leverage the strengths and innovation surrounding remote and in-person work may create a more synergistic work environment that further facilitates the deconstruction of professional boundaries, the ability to show up authentically, and the ability to challenge norms of professional dress.

As many professionals return to full on-campus operations, many will also return to traditional standards of work, despite what we have learned through the pandemic and remote work.  The profession of higher education and student affairs has experienced one of its more challenging eras and we do not yet know the impact this will have on the attrition of staff who are fatigued and burnt out. Instead of returning to “normal” operations, supervisors should consider how they might facilitate a new sense of what in-person work looks like and leverage some of the lessons and strengths facilitated through remote work. Those who take advantage of this opportunity to look at things differently, capitalize on lessons learned through the pandemic, and reconstruct definitions of professionalism, may find a renewed energy and commitment to the profession among themselves and their staff.

Reflection Questions

  1. What did you learn about yourself and how you work best during the pandemic and remote working opportunities?
  2. What aspects of remote work did you find rewarding or positive? Are there opportunities to facilitate those aspects through in-person operations?
  3. In what ways has your definition of professionalism evolved through a remote work environment? As a staff, or a team, how might we define what professionalism means and how it is enacted in our office? 


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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.

Amy B. Wilson, Ph.D. (she/her) is an associate professor and chair of the Higher Education department at Buffalo State College.  She earned her B.S. in Human Development and Family Studies from Colorado State University, an M.S. in College Student Personnel from Western Illinois University and a Ph.D. in Higher Education Administration from the University at Buffalo.

Laura A. Brown (she/her) is a graduate student in the Higher Education & Student Affairs master’s program at Buffalo State College. She earned her B.A. in sociology from SUNY Geneseo.