For Us, By Us: A Student-Inclusive Approach to Redesigning Programs | Kenion

written by: Deja Kenion


Programming is the body of Student Affairs work with the intentions to implement programs/events that serve the student population and aid in their success, retention, belonging, and development. As the years have progressed, programming has evolved due to numerous factors, such as COVID, student trends, and student affairs philosophies. With the rapid change of programming, it is important to “keep up with the times” to ensure that we accomplish learning outcomes and objectives. So how does one do that? Well, it all begins with being in tune with your audience: the students. Often, they are left out of the process and the quality and quantity of our programs take a hit because of it. From experience, the most successful programs in Student Affairs value not only students’ opinions but their direct input in the planning and implementation stages. This article will provide readers with a student-inclusive approach to redesigning programs and a toolkit to achieving the quality and quantity of programming.

Rationale for Implementation

 Like many of you, my journey in student affairs began in undergrad. In the summer of 2018, I started as an orientation leader and later began Resident Advisor (RA) training. RA training opened my eyes to the art of programming and the rationale behind it. My first hall program still serves as a moment of failure later turned to triumph. I invited my residents to stop by the main floor and eat donuts as a “get to know each other” event. It was a complete flop. Barely anyone attended and there was a lack of purpose behind the program. Honestly, I cannot recall the name of the program, which may show my lack of intentionality. To say the least, that was a turning moment for my RA career, and it motivated me to create better programs for my residents.

Early on, I realized the value of my position in being connected to my residents. They were truly my eyes and ears in the hall, and I knew that they would give me their honest opinions about their experiences and needs. So, when the time presented itself to plan the next event, I humbly asked them for their help. I did not want them to solely promote the program, but to help me build it. The caveat to that was finding the students who were willing to share their insights and hands to help me build the event. I had a few of those students on the hall and they became key individuals to our community-building. The following programs were a success due to their involvement. One of the programs was centered around healthy living and choices. The students shared what should be incorporated, such as Wii games, exercise equipment, and healthy snacks. They also helped to promote the event outside, such as using word of mouth and oftentimes, they would invite other residents from different communities. Having their input and helped me find the missing puzzle pieces and since then, my rationale for a student-inclusive approach has remained the same – we need students for student-programming.

The student-inclusive approach to redesigning programming starts with our individual student affairs philosophies. In graduate school, I learned about the four student affairs philosophies: Student Control, Student Services, Student Development, and Student Learning. In the 1900s, student control was the primary focus due to the need of hands-on supervision of students. Then in the 1960s, more services pertaining to academic, financial, career, etc. became available for students. In this philosophy, students were seen as the consumers, and they needed “products” to be successful. Student Development in the 1970s and 1980s focused on the development or progression of students. Lastly, today, student learning is the major philosophy. For instance, today we are focused on student learning, which shows in the implementation of learning outcomes for programs. Whether it is student control, student services, student development, or student learning, all philosophies directly impact our students and how we program for them. By understanding this idea, we can remember our purpose to serve the students while fulfilling our current philosophy.

My rationale for a student-inclusive approach may seem obvious to some; however, it can be easy to fall away from the purpose and focus of student affairs, which is our students. As I saw the lack of student inclusion in different experiences, I searched for ways to continue to implement this idea in programming. Students can benefit greatly when they are involved in each step of programming.

Strategies and Recommendations

The toolkit to redesigning programs from a student-inclusive approach includes four parts: student buy-in, student interests/trends, student design, and student “hands”. Each part helps practitioners and student leaders think deeply about their student-inclusive approach to redesigning programming.

 Student Buy-In

First is student buy-in, which poses the question, “What are students saying about your office’s programs?” Take some time to reflect on that question and answer it honestly. Then – ask students for their perspectives. It is important to know your feedback, whether that is through formal and/or informal assessment. Many times, I would create a simple, short, and accessible survey or questionnaire for students to complete after the program. I would also ask them directly about their experience.

When developing this kind of feedback instrument, the key elements to include are a variety of open-ended questions, Likert scale questions, multiple choice, and rating scales. I found that a mix of survey questions will help the students engage more in the survey, rather than completing a long, drawn-out open-ended question survey. It is also helpful to ask students what they would like to see in the future regarding the program. This is direct feedback that change the success of your program.

Another strategy to learning about student buy-in is visiting other offices on campus and talking to the students there to receive input from a different group of students. Sometimes the feedback may overlap with feedback you have on your own programs, but the more, the merrier. If there are similarities that tells you… If there are differences you can… The overall purpose of this first step is to know what is already being said so you can take what you know and develop it further. This way, you will have a full picture in the end.

Student Interests/Trends

Not only do you want to know what students are saying about your office’s programs, but you want to know what students are interested in. The times are rapidly changing, and trends are bound to go out of season at some point. So, while you may be planning an event two months out based on a trend, just know that it could easily be “out of style” sooner rather than later. This is why it is important to always stay in the know of your students’ interests.

As a communicator, I love to listen and converse with students about what they like and dislike. Questions such as, “What are your interests and hobbies?” or “How do you think we can make that it into a program?” are good starter questions to understanding their interests. Asking open-ended questions and listening to their thoughts can go a long way and give you the direct information that you need for a successful program.

Student Design

Student design emphasizes the need for students to be involved in the planning process. I understand that as student affairs professionals with programming in their job descriptions, it is easier to do the planning alone. However, the student-inclusive approach calls for students to help in ways that only they can. Again, the objective is to create quality programs for a high number of students. We want quality and quantity. Therefore, it is pertinent to especially involve students in the planning stage. Whether it be a couple or a few students on the planning committee or outreaching to student organizations, we need students.

Student “Hands”

The last piece to your toolkit is student “hands”. For clarification, the “hands” serve as their direct engagement beyond surveys. This means that students are working the event, not for you, but with you. It is a collaborative effort with no hierarchies in place because you all serve as the puzzle pieces to a successful program. Evidently, based on skills, each person will have a different role in implementing the program or event. I have seen this work very well and boost the confidence of students and increase their professional development.

With this toolkit, we can shift the way we program and find better solutions to creating a more student-inclusive event. 

Lessons Learned

 There were many lessons that I learned from this approach: 1) Students can be the experts too, 2) Students deserve the opportunity to create programs for themselves, 3) This approach can be a win-win for everyone if done with good intentions, and 4) The student-inclusive approach is not a monolith.

Most recently, I co-chaired Clemson’s 2023 Black History Month planning committee. With this experience, I was granted a lot of autonomy to shift things based on the previous year. One thing that I noticed was the lack of student engagement regarding the planning and implementation process. In 2022, we had a much larger planning committee consisting of mainly staff, graduate students, and undergraduate students.

About midway in the planning process, most of the undergrad students left the committee for various reasons. Some had busy schedules that would not allow them to commit to the obligations. While I presume that others may have felt if their opinions did not matter or that their contributions were overshadowed by the professionals’ opinions. Whatever the reason may have been, it was critical to change going forward for the best of everyone.

Some of those changes included outreaching student organizations for their help and to collaborate on events. We found that some student orgs already had an idea but were missing pieces to their puzzle. That is where we stepped in to offer our expertise and hear theirs as well. For example, our Clemson Black Student Union and Council on Diversity Affairs were already in contact with a potential keynote speaker for the month. Our part as the committee co-chairs were to assist on the administrative side and flush out the idea. This worked out very well because our students knew who would be popular and of interest to bring to Clemson and the event turned out great!

Lastly, I saw the great potential for the expansion of this approach in different functional areas, such as advising, housing, dining, service-learning, and any other functional area that Student Affairs can create!

Reflection Questions

If you are striving for better quality and quantity programs for your students, I suggest reflecting on these questions.

  1. What is my office or department doing now regarding programming and is it working or not? How do the students feel about it?
  2. Who are the students that I have built relationships with to receive their input beyond a survey?
  3. What are my goals and intentions? Do they benefit just myself or others as well regarding programming?
  4. How can I step back and step up to help my students become more involved in the planning and implementation process of programming?
  5. If I am not working in programming, how may I also use this approach in other areas? 

About the Author

Deja Kenion is first a child and servant of the Lord Jesus Christ before any title or position. Her Christian mindset drives her thinking and approach to Student Affairs. As she is in growing in His grace, she strives to work as if she is working for the Lord and to lead in truth, grace, and love. Kenion is currently a nursing advisor at Clemson University and enjoys the work that she does for and with her students. Blessings to all and thank you for reading this article.