Right Where You Are: Unexpected Lessons about Undergraduate Research for Higher Education and Student Affairs Faculty | McCloud & Morrison

written by: Laila McCloud, Ph.D & Emily Morrison

Higher education and student affairs graduate programs play a significant role in the socialization of student affairs professionals. As faculty we are charged with not only introducing students to the expectations of the field, but also encouraging forward-thinking practice that leads to institutional transformation. There is a growing conversation about what curricular and pedagogical adjustments are necessary to achieve these aims. This is a time sensitive conversation as graduate preparation programs are noticing a decline in applicants (NASPA, 2021). As a faculty member, I think about additional ways to collaborate with undergraduate students to enhance their understanding of the field and its many career opportunities. I have taught in programs where the majority of our students are recent undergraduate students with a wealth of student affairs leadership experiences. However, I have noticed, for some students, a weighty dissonance between their experiences as undergraduates and the curriculum they experience as graduate students.


While there are opportunities to prepare undergraduate students to pursue careers in student affairs through credit-bearing courses and programs like ACPA’s NextGen and NASPA’s National Undergraduate Fellows Program (NUFP), what other opportunities exist? As a faculty member at a teaching-intensive institution, I have to be creative in finding the time and resources to nurture my research projects. This means that the summer has become a time where I can shift my energy toward often delayed projects. Imagine my delight when an undergraduate student (Emily) approached me about learning more about higher education and student affairs (HESA) in preparation for entering our graduate program. After a few conversations we agreed that Emily could provide some support related to my research on the socialization of educators who work in multicultural student affairs departments. This collaboration was valuable for many reasons. First, it presented an opportunity for Emily to learn more about higher education and student affairs as a field of study and practice. Second, it provided me with additional support for my research. Lastly, it allowed me to have intentional conversations with a future HESA graduate student about the ways that higher education understands diversity, equity, and inclusion.


The majority of the students I have taught over the last four years have been white women. As a Black woman professor, I have been challenged by the dynamic between myself and my students. But there is a particular dynamic that exists between myself and my white women students. White women have a unique way of employing their gendered brand of whiteness that should be understood in HESA graduate programs. There are a few studies that highlight the challenges and opportunities associated with engaging white women graduate students in HESA programs. One study found that white women experienced dissonance when learning about whiteness and institutional racism, but did not always have the confidence, concrete strategies or skills to help them move forward (Robbins & Jones, 2016). Additionally, Robbins (2016) highlighted graduate curricular and co-curricular experiences such as assignments focused on minority serving institutions or advising organizations for Students of Color as transformative experiences for white women students. One key finding from these studies is the resistance of white women to learning about the ways they protect whiteness. This resistance to doing this labor has been shown to harm Students of Color in HESA graduate programs (Harris & Linder, 2018) and faculty of Color (Haynes et al., 2020).


Providing opportunities for undergraduate white women students to engage in research with higher education faculty is one way to move them along in their understanding of their gendered racialized privilege. After Emily and I agreed to work together, I applied for and received a grant that would allow me to pay Emily for her work. This grant provided an opportunity for me to formally document my labor in mentoring and research skill development.  During our weekly meetings, I would ask Emily to reflect on the process of collecting data on an area of higher education she was not familiar with, multicultural student affairs. Our conversations were insightful for both of us. We developed a rapport with one another that allowed us to hear and listen to one another. I thought it would be valuable for Emily to write about her journey with me and with this topic. In the next section of this article, Emily will share her thoughts on working with me as an undergraduate research assistant.


Emily’s Reflection

At my college orientation, I remember sitting in a lecture hall with 120 other students being told why the general education curriculum characteristic of liberal universities is beneficial to creating a well-rounded individual. Not only can it develop new interests, they said, but it can provide you with new lenses to look at the world through and make you a more well-rounded individual. As someone who highly values education, I was excited about this aspect of my university. I hoped to be able to gain some knowledge on a broad range of topics while simultaneously delving deeply into my major field.

When I changed my career trajectory in my junior year from pre-med to higher education, I began looking into opportunities to build connections with professionals at my university. A mentor of mine encouraged me to research our College Student Affairs Leadership program and the faculty who teach in the program to see if I could become an undergraduate research assistant. Truthfully, I knew that I loved education at the post-secondary level and working in campus offices, but I really had no idea what student affairs entailed.

When I reached out to Professor McCloud and she was interested in having me support her work in multicultural affairs, I immediately felt out of my element. As a white student, I had never developed a relationship with our campus’ Office of Multicultural Affairs and really did not see where I could find a role in this work. I had no doubt I could do the tasks that supported her research well, but I did not know how to engage in conversation with Professor McCloud about important topics and issues related to multicultural affairs at universities. When reflecting on my past classwork, because of my enrollment in the honors program, where general education classes are reduced in variability, and my science-based major, I have not spent much time diving into race inequality outside of conversations with my friends who identify as BIPOC. As I have spent more time with this topic over the summer, I cannot help but think about the disproportion between the importance of these topics and the shallowness of knowledge I have.

The mission statement for the Office of Multicultural Affairs at my university states: “Our mission is to support efforts in recruiting and retaining diverse students; to educate, engage and empower all students to live in a multicultural world; and to advocate for a socially just campus environment.” What does this mean for students like me, who are not viewed as racially diverse but want to learn more about racial inequality, diversity, and share our experiences? As our world becomes increasingly diverse, we all require education to be understanding and open to each other. The programming in this office is primarily affinity groups and mentorship between students identifying as the same race. Do the programs offered within the office support the mission of engaging and empowering all students if they are largely centered around providing a space for students of the same race to connect? If the goal of liberal universities is to create well-rounded students, our programs should have the ability to be safe spaces for minority students and simultaneously connect students of all backgrounds with each other. In conversations I have had over the summer, I have realized there is a reason I have not interacted with the Office of Multicultural Affairs which is that in my socialization to campus, it was not made a priority to me.

This summer I have also worked as an orientation leader. What I have learned through my research assistantship has allowed me to reflect on the messaging I give to students as I welcome them to the university. As a fellow student, orientation leaders have a significant role in the socialization of students to campus culture. The way we discuss race on our campus and discuss the work of the Office of Multicultural Affairs impacts the way they perceive the importance of diversity on campus and can encourage their interaction with the office.

My work as a summer undergraduate research assistant has completely shifted my perspective on student affairs and the role of universities in fighting racial prejudice. I have never put much thought into my place at this university. I was surrounded by people who looked like me and came from similar places as me, so it was not until conversations with Professor McCloud that I realized there is another layer to the way that each student perceives themselves at our school because of how others interpret their race. I had never learned how the messaging we receive in our university socialization determines our engagement with other races.

When thinking about the Office of Multicultural Affairs’ goal to bridge cross-cultural gaps, it seems essential to consider the engagement of students from every race. While affinity groups and creating cultural awareness is extremely necessary, if we are truly aiming to bridge cultural and racial gaps, we must also create programs that are created for students of all cultures to engage with each other. Had a program such as this existed and been promoted through our Office of Multicultural Affairs, perhaps it would not have required an outside project for me to understand this aspect of the university.

The initial intention of my role as a summer undergraduate research assistant was to support Professor McCloud by collecting information and organizing it in a way to make her research easier. As our conversations have evolved throughout the summer, our intentions have changed significantly to include making meaning of my experiences as a white, female, undergraduate student at our university who is interested in higher education. Reflecting upon this experience has raised many questions for me: Had I not pursued working with Professor McCloud, how would my experience with BIPOC students be different when working in higher education? What aspects of student affairs would I not have seen until graduate school? How would this have affected the messaging I give to future students?

If I could provide advice to undergraduate students pursuing a career in student affairs, it would be to identify the spaces within the university that you have not utilized and ask yourself why you have not and what could be learned from connecting with that department. Student affairs is such a broad field, that to be well-rounded professionals, we must be aware of why students interact with some departments and not others and see what can be gained from altering that messaging. This will also help us to create programs that engage students across all backgrounds and truly create a more inclusive campus.



Opportunities for Higher Education and Student Affairs Faculty


As a faculty member in a HESA program, staying connected to undergraduate students is an important part of my work. Understanding the experiences of undergraduate students helps ensure that my teaching and research is relevant and responsive to current and emerging needs.  As previously mentioned, engaging undergraduate students in research opportunities can serve multiple purposes.

First, it increases undergraduates’ exposure to research processes such as empirical data collection and analysis. In one our weekly meetings, Emily and I discussed data sources (e.g. National Center for Education Statistics) and data collection (e.g., content analysis) methods. These conversations and trainings helped Emily develop the skills to assist me with my research.

Second, engaging undergraduates in research can complement their understanding of higher education and student affairs with their co-curricular engagement. Emily was able to engage different lenses about the messages communicated to incoming students participating in summer orientation sessions. Our conversations also enhanced my understanding of current orientation practices.

Lastly, as a faculty member who teaches three courses a semester having research support is invaluable. I appreciate that a teaching-intensive institution provides the financial resources to support faculty research. The process of securing the funding was seamless and efficient. Working with an undergraduate student with limited research skills pushed me to think about my own research socialization and how to not perpetuate harm in the process.

While it was not my initial plan to engage my undergraduate research assistant in conversations about whiteness, it is not surprising that this was an outcome. My research broadly examines how anti-blackness informs the academic and professional socialization of Black college students. Research has continued to point us to the ways that higher education and student affairs policies and practices perpetuate violence against Black students, staff and faculty (Stewart, 2019; Stewart & Nicolazzo, 2018). As a Black woman professor, I am mindful of the ways that I am both a recipient of this violence and sometimes a perpetrator. As a professor I take a proactive stance in addressing the ways that whiteness and antiblackness impact student affairs practice. However, I have to be mindful of the energy I spend educating students, and particularly white women students.

This leads me to the following reflection questions for my faculty colleagues and anyone interested in engaging with white women students around how their racialized gender identity informs their student affairs practice.

  1. How can HESA graduate preparation programs purposely engage undergraduate students who are interested in pursuing degrees and careers in student affairs?
  2. What resources are necessary to assist HESA graduate programs in a curriculum review to identify opportunities for students to explicitly understand how their racialized gender identities impact their graduate experience and student affairs practice?
  3. What opportunities exist (in addition to assistantships) for HESA graduate programs to partner with student affairs divisions to support the development of future student affairs professionals?
  4. What resources are necessary to ensure that racially marginalized HESA faculty are compensated and supported for their work in addressing whiteness in academia?



Harris, J. C., & Linder, C. (2018). The racialized experiences of students of color in higher education and student affairs graduate preparation programs. Journal of College Student Development, 59(2), 141-158.

Haynes, C., Taylor, L., Mobley Jr, S. D., & Haywood, J. (2020). Existing and resisting: The pedagogical realities of Black, critical men and women faculty. The Journal of Higher Education, 91(5), 698-721.

NASPA. (2021). 2021 NASPA faculty survey: Applications, enrollment, and funding. Retrieved from https://naspa.org/files/dmfile/Faculty-Survey-Results—11-08-21.pdf

Robbins, C. K. (2016). White women, racial identity, and learning about racism in graduate preparation programs. Journal of Student Affairs Research and Practice, 53(3), 256-268.

Robbins, C. K., & Jones, S. R. (2016). Negotiating racial dissonance: White women’s narratives of resistance, engagement, and transformative action. Journal of College Student Development, 57(6), 633-651.

Stewart, D. L. (2019). Ideologies of absence: Anti-Blackness and inclusion rhetoric in student affairs practice. Journal of Student Affairs, 28, 15-30.

Stewart, D. L., & Nicolazzo, Z. (2018). High impact of [whiteness] on trans* students in postsecondary education. Equity & Excellence in Education51(2), 132-145.


Laila McCloud, Ph.D. (she/her) is an Assistant Professor of Higher Education in the Educational Leadership and Counseling department at Grand Valley State University. Prior to pursuing a faculty career, Dr. McCloud served as a student affairs educator focused on issues of equity and access. Her research uses critical theories and methods to broadly explore the professional and academic socialization of Black students within U.S. higher education. Outside of her academic work she enjoys watching reality tv and cheering loudly at her child’s basketball games.


Emily Morrison (she/her) is an undergraduate student in the Honors College at Grand Valley State University pursuing a degree in Biomedical Sciences. She is an active student at the university and serves in various leadership roles, previously as an orientation leader and currently as a first-year student mentor. In her free time she enjoys traveling, reading, and being active.