Complicated Messes and the Joys of Student Growth: Reflections on Kathleen Deignan’s 46 Years of Leadership in Student Affairs | Jarvis

written by: Judy Jarvis

Kathleen Deignan was a leader in college and university student affairs for 46 years, retiring in 2023. Deignan was Dean of Students at Princeton University for over 25 years and worked in other student affairs roles at Princeton and Amherst College. In nearly half a century in higher education, Deignan worked under eight college and university presidents and led during times of significant cultural and political change in the country and higher education.

On the occasion of her retirement celebration, Deignan’s Office of Dean of Undergraduate Students (ODUS) staff team compiled a video tribute that featured over 80 former and current administrators at Princeton University. Colleagues repeatedly used the word “integrity” to describe Deignan and her work, as well as “kindness” and “sense of humor.” Others called her “steadfast,” “trust-worthy,” “compassionate,” with “razor-sharp reasoning,” “fierce intelligence” and a serious “backbone.” The range of people represented and the sincerity of their comments in the video speak to Deignan’s broad regard, as well as the collaborative and mentorship work she prioritized in her years at Princeton University.

2024 marks the 100th anniversary of the ACPA-College Student Educators International organization, and as we reflect on 100 years of student affairs, it is instructive to learn from Deignan’s experiences in and reflections on her career and the field. Deignan spoke with me, her Princeton University colleague, in the fall of 2023, in a two-part interview. We discussed how the work of a dean of students has changed and remained the same over her 46 years in the field; the importance of weaving in diversity and inclusion work to generalist student affairs offices; the complexity of conduct and discipline work; and advice Deignan would give to new practitioners, among other topics. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Judy Jarvis: Your first year of working in student affairs was 1977. What is something from your first year of working in student affairs that is still relevant to this day?

Kathleen Deignan: A couple of things. Ever since I’ve been in this field, we’ve been concerned about student safety and well-being. Today we use the term ‘well-being,’ which wasn’t a term we used back then. But whether it had to do with student social events or alcohol or drugs or hazing or whatever—ever since I’ve been in the field, people who are doing the work I do, have been concerned about how we give students the independence they want and allow them to emerge into this world of young adulthood while at the same time, keeping them safe.

The other thing that even back then we were thinking about, was how students learned from the experiences outside the classroom and what we could do as administrators to enhance that. How can we balance giving students, as individuals and as groups of students, the opportunities to make their own decisions, enjoy their own successes, learn from their own mistakes, while simultaneously setting appropriate limits and boundaries? So, I think those are two things that seem like through-lines: safety and learning.

JJ: And the inverse of that—what are some things that in the late 70s/early 80s that were central concerns of dean of students offices that are really not central in that way anymore?

KD: I wouldn’t necessarily say that there’s anything that we were concerned about then that we are unconcerned about now. But one of things that I have noticed is that we talk less about  the role alcohol plays in students’ lives. There was a time in the 80s and 90s when it was THE topic.

Everyone was struggling for an answer. When the drinking age changed [in 1984], colleges were really challenged. Prior to that, colleges were able to sponsor and monitor student events where alcohol was served. There was less tension between education and enforcement.

JJ: You didn’t have to be the enforcers in the same way when people are basically all drinking age.

KD: Right, exactly, and you could have all kind of events where alcohol was available. I think we’ve seen a real shift in what students are consuming – away from what was primarily beer, to now, a great deal of students pre-gaming with hard alcohol which is more dangerous. In those early days following the change in the drinking age, there was a lot of consternation among administrators about clear and consistent messaging. How do we enforce the law and institutional policy while at the same time encourage students who chose to drink to do so responsibly?  It was a constant subject and it dominated the conversation. But now I don’t think it is the central focus of most professional conversations that I’ve been in, in the last 10 years.

JJ: What is the new central focus?

KD: Well, I think there are a number of them. Sexual misconduct emerged as an issue that people were paying attention to. As you know, colleges and universities across the country came under fire for the ways in which they were handling or not handling sexual misconduct and so that emerged as a big topic.

Diversity and inclusion has emerged as a critically important issue. I think that it has moved more into the mainstream of conversation than was the case years ago. Higher education in general has moved from saying, ‘here are specific individuals designated to do DEI work—good  luck,’ to asking ourselves how do we embed these principles in every office, every department across campus? How does everybody absorb these as values and goals? That’s a shift.

JJ: Our field is increasing racial justice work and other equity work into offices that are not just DEI offices. But there’s also backlash to DEI work. What are the most effective ways to increase marginalized students’ sense of belonging on campus and navigate that backlash?

KD: I think you have to have a two-pronged approach. One is, continuing to support the specific DEI efforts that we have, like identity-based centers, programs and professionals throughout the institution. Particularly for students who have encountered racism or homophobia or other forms of bias, I think they need to have access to spaces that, by design, are there to affirm them.

The other is to have all student affairs staffs – residential life, financial aid, student engagement, counseling and crisis management, etc. – reflect the diversity we see in our student population. It’s really important, not just for students who  identify as being part of a marginalized community, but for students who don’t, to encounter people in their everyday work, who may not share their identity, but who can help them address challenges and meet their goals.

JJ: To what degree was addressing suicidality a part of the safety work in the 70s and 80s or is that something that’s also really changed?

KD: That’s really changed a lot. If you look at the trendlines around mental health in general suicidality and many other forms of mental illness and mental health challenges have risen.

I’m not a psychologist so I’m not equipped really to try and explain why we see that trend line, but there are a lot of factors involved. They operate in concert with each other to move mental health distress rates up. If I’m thinking chronologically along my own career: we had alcohol, we had sexual misconduct, diversity and inclusion—mental health is now a central feature of the work that deans do. When I first started in this field, we tended to focus more on homesickness, struggles to find a friend group, loss of relationships. Now the issues are more complicated, they’re deeper.

JJ: Is there anything that you wish you’d known about working in student affairs before you started? What you would say to people who are starting in the field right now?

KD: I never ever regretted my choice to work in student affairs. I kind of tumbled into this work. I thought, ‘oh I was an RA, that seems good’ and I had a friend who was in higher ed so I thought ‘let me try that.’ It’s not like I spent a lot of time thinking about it the way I think college seniors think about their careers now.

That said, I don’t think  there’s anything that, had I known it earlier, would have taken me down a different path or would have caused me to make different decisions. My awareness about the complexity of the field is certainly much deeper than it was when I first started out, but would that have deterred me? No, it wouldn’t.

JJ: You might have liked that! You like the challenges and the complexities.

KD: I like messes.

The advice that I would give to people just starting out in the field is get broad experience. I would say volunteer for a lot of things, when you’re early in career, get a taste of a lot of things. I just think people need to be open to unexpected surprises.

For me, my long tenure at Princeton was unexpected. I initially accepted a job that I imagined would be a short term thing and look what happened. So just being open to the possibilities and when people say, “Do you want to explore this?” don’t close those things off. Even if you think, “I’m not interested,” you just might be. Explore—that’s the advice I would give to people starting out. Don’t get fixated on, “I’m just going to specialize in this area, this is the thing I want to do.” Yeah, that’s good, but other things can be rewarding too.

JJ: It sounds like nothing was going to deter you from the field. 

KD: Yeah, nothing.

JJ: Was there ever a time where you got close to quitting?

KD: No. I never did. I mean, there were hard days, hard weeks. The hardest thing was making decisions or enforcing policy some students didn’t like. Sometimes people would say this or that was “unfair.” That probably bothered me the most, because if there’s one thing I want people to say about me when I retire, it’s that I was fair.

For me, that means being even-handed with people, even with the person who irritates you or isn’t being entirely straight-forward with you. Particularly in the area of student conduct, making decisions on the basis of evidence is very important. You can’t let your personal or emotional reaction to someone – good or bad – influence the outcome.

Even if your gut tells you the person is responsible for more than they are admitting, you are limited to what the evidence supports. Similarly, good people sometimes do bad things. You can find yourself being very fond of someone and admire the way they have handled their mistake. Still, you need to be even-handed. Sometimes, it can break your heart.

So many of the other decisions we make in our lives can be subjective – the people we choose to associate with, maybe the jobs we take, the workplaces we’re in. We get to bring our personal feelings and biases to bear on those decisions and that’s okay. You can make all those choices in your personal life.

You can’t make them when you’re doing university business. You have to use your brain to tell you to do the right thing—even when your emotions want to tell you something else. There were days when those things were hard.

JJ: I want to delve into that because you said earlier, “I like messes, I like complicated things.”

KD: Yeah. The messes I like are sort of complicated problems where you have to figure out, “okay, how are we going to approach this.” Like complicated disciplinary cases where it might involve lots of different people, where you’re pulling threads of information from different places. Sometimes you don’t know what you’re going to learn until you learn it. Sometimes things turn out in ways that are very unexpected. You may have your own impressions about what the facts are, and when you keep digging and keep looking, then you discover, actually, it’s not what it appeared to be.

That’s one of the things I’ve learned is that your instincts are important to help you know what to ask, what to pursue. But you have to be careful about your instincts replacing the facts.

It’s challenging to me intellectually – that’s what I like. “How are we going to approach this problem?” It’s like chess. You’re having to figure out, “okay if we do this, what are the consequences of that?” You’ve got to play it out three interactions down the road and I find that intellectually really interesting.

JJ: How do you stay motivated when students who don’t like the result say, “ODUS is unfair” or “The Dean of Students is unfair”? How do you stay motivated or get in touch with your own compass?

KD: That’s a really good question, how do I do that? What I can tell you is that it is easier to maintain your integrity when you are surrounded by people who act with integrity. For me, that’s been really important. I have had the benefit of that from the leaders I’ve worked for and my peers across the institution and I’ve tried to set that example for my staff. It gives me joy to feel like I’m empowering them to do the same thing.

At the end of the day, you’re only left with yourself – your own conscience. You have to look in the mirror and say, ‘Who am I?’ Did I take the right  stand on some value or principle I believed in? And that’s not to say, you don’t take into account – we all do – political concerns. But for me, that’s always been about how you message something, how you reduce blow-back or misunderstanding rather than making a decision that’s wrong or for the wrong reasons..

I would have left my position if I had ever felt those around me were motivated by values and principles I thought were the wrong or if I saw people acting unethically. I consider myself fortunate never to have encountered that.

JJ: Have you been a part of professional organizations or gone to professional conferences? What you think the value of those things are and what do you recommend to others?

KD: I have participated in the New England Deans Association and the COFHE [Consortium on Financing Higher Education] student affairs conferences.

I think developing relationships with professional colleagues at other institutions is really critical. Sometimes campuses are experiencing a trend that’s coming our way, it just hasn’t gotten here yet, but it’s coming our way so it’s useful to understand where colleagues think they made mistakes, where they think they did things right, being able to bring that back to our own campuses and say “what was different about their situation? What’s the same, and what can we learn?”

Developing a network of professional colleagues is really important. You can support each other in times of trouble, and you can also learn a lot about the trends.

JJ: Is there anything else you’d like to share?

KD: This has been a wonderful career. I find it energizing to have worked with young people and to see them grow and also to learn that that growth often happens around challenging moments. And my work has been centered, for better or for worse, on a lot of the really challenging stuff.

But I think it’s in those moments that students can really come to understand themselves and begin to clarify their own values and their own passions. They can discover their own North Star. If you feel like you have had a little role in that process, if you have helped shepherd students along the way, for me that’s just been an incredible reward of being in this field.

I wouldn’t ever discourage anybody from entering this field. It’s incredibly dynamic. Every time you think, “okay, we got it – we know it’s happening here” it changes and something new emerges.

Judy Jarvis (she/her) is the founding Executive Director of Princeton University’s Office of Campus Engagement and an instructor in the Temple University Office of Off Campus Programs and Trainings. Prior to these roles, Jarvis was Director of the Princeton LGBT Center and Director of Vassar College’s Women’s Center and LGBTQ Center. Jarvis received her B.A. in Psychology and Media Studies from Vassar College, her Ed.M. from the Higher Education Program of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and is currently pursuing her Ph.D. in the Rutgers University Higher Education Program.

Meeting in the Middle: Faculty Perspectives on the State of Graduate Preparation and Entry to the Profession | Harrington & Wilson

written by: Mark Harrington & Amy Wilson

Context of Problem

As student affairs faculty members we have connected as colleagues in locally adjacent student affairs professional preparation program to collaborate in a variety of ways. Recently, our conversations have been centered around the pervasive dissatisfaction that is seemingly consuming our recent graduates and the supervisors of these new professionals. What have previously been identified as simple generational differences in the workforce, has seemingly burgeoned in some cases into philosophical differences with practitioners and students questioning of each other’s values, priorities, intentions, and actions. As faculty in the middle of this dynamic, preparing the next generation of student affairs professionals, we feel the tension. We hear and see the concerns from both sides.

A recent study on the state of the profession asserts that more than ever, professionals in student affairs want to feel valued, properly compensated for their education and experience, and do not want to be burnt out by unrealistic performance expectations in the first five years of their career (NASPA, 2022). Newer professionals have also expressed their desire post-COVID to reconstruct professionalism in student affairs in such a way that deconstructs professional boundaries, values flexibility, allows individuals to show up authentically, and challenges norms of appearance (Diaz et al., 2021). In looking at traditional aged graduate students representing Generation Z, research suggests flexible work, liking their co-workers and boss, being able to bring their authentic self to work, and having a clear path for advancement are factors that may influence their retention in work (Center for Generational Kinetics, 2022).

These thoughts, beliefs, and ideologies are no doubt factors in both the attrition of new professionals and what has been referred to as “quiet quitting” – people who are not engaged, do the minimum required, and are psychologically detached from the job (Harter, 2022). This downward spiral of dissatisfaction and disengagement has implications for the individual and the organization as dissatisfied employees are less likely to engage in organizational citizenship behaviors or voluntary activities (de Clercq & Belausteguigoitia, 2020). Furthermore, within the field of student affairs, dissatisfied newer professionals (5 years or less of experience) are exiting the field at a higher rate than their more seasoned colleagues (Sallee, 2021).  This larger attrition phenom has been referred to as the “Great Realignment” (Center for Generational Kinetics, 2022), a reframe of the “Great Resignation,” which seeks to shed positive light on the factors that drive Generation Z employee retention: having a flexible schedule, liking their boss, and feeling like they can bring their authentic self to work.

Then there is the supervisor perspective. Senior student affairs officers (SSAOs) have suggested new professionals struggle to understand the difference between ideal and reality, implicating professional preparation and socialization (Ardoin et al., 2019). A SSAO referred to new professional’s unrealistic expectations as “graduate school syndrome” referencing the frustration of new professionals when their professional experience and reality do not match the best practice scenarios they talked about in graduate school, giving off the appearance of rigidity or general unpreparedness (Ardoin et al., 2019). Similarly, this same research suggested SSAOs believe new professionals are seemingly unprepared for the realities of entry into the profession and advancement, particularly as they relate to salary expectations, navigating the political terrain of higher education, and performing professionalism.

Expectations of a New Generation

More generalized research on the challenges in supervising Generation Z employees revolves around a perceived difference in work values including work-life balance, a sense of meaning at work, and opportunities for growth and innovation. Research suggests this generation desires greater work-life balance, which may result in more established boundaries around work and desire for greater work flexibility. These aspirations may be leading others to erroneously view new professionals as lacking a strong work ethic. For example, a recent study that was conducted by 4 Day Week Global found that organizations who move to a four-day, 32-hour work week have positive impacts for both the employer and the employee. For the organization, the pace of production increased and on average revenue was up by 8.1%. For employees, anxiety, burnout, and stress decreased while job satisfaction, well-being, and work-life balance levels increased (4 Day Work Week Global). Being open to innovative ideas like these would be fruitful for the higher education workplace.

Additionally, research suggests that it is important for Generation Z to find meaning in their work and seek an entrepreneurial workplace environment (Chillakuri & Mahanandia, 2018). If this is lacking, Generation Z is likely to leave the organization. While some may view this behavior as simply jumping around or younger staff lacking commitment, this generation is asserting their values and their worth are more meaningful than loyalty to an organization or industry.

Moving Forward

What transpires from these divergent and opposing values is the persistent attrition of new professionals from the field of student affairs and faculty questioning how to help address the problem. How do we recruit individuals to a field that is perceived as misaligned with their work values? How do we prepare new professionals to be change agents when higher education is known to be slow to change? How do we prepare new professionals to be enthusiastic and committed to values of diversity and inclusion, when they are met with work environments that ask them to conform to outdated standards and constructs of professionalism?

While we felt it important to share what we see as the context of the problem from our viewpoint, more importantly, we want to be part of the solution moving forward. The profession of student affairs is at a critical juncture. It is our assertion that there is no single answer to this burgeoning problem; rather it is going to take collective and innovative ideas from everyone in the field to change the discourse from negative to positive. Based upon research and personal observation and reflection, what follows are considerations for how graduate preparation faculty, supervisors of emerging professionals, and senior student affairs officers can work together to create a more seamless and successful transition to the field.

The Role of Professional Preparation Programs

It is critical that faculty in graduate preparation programs help students understand the current realities of the field of student affairs. This includes preparing graduate students to become entry-level student affairs educators and teaching critical skills to ensure success when students transition into the workplace. In introductory courses, a student learning outcome should include an exploration and understanding of the roles and responsibilities that successful candidates could assume as new and early career professionals and the anticipated compensation packages. Additionally, graduate students should understand the multiple and alternative pathways for career advancement, given the value of these factors for Generation Z (Center for Generational Kinetics, 2022). Additionally, we suggest introductory courses emphasize discourse around institutional and organizational culture, so students begin to consider what might be a best fit to facilitate their personal mission alignment (Hirt, 2006). This current generation of young professionals is seeking a balance of meaning making and stability in their work. Institutions that not only promote these values, but demonstrate them in practice will be most successful in attracting top talent.

In addition to knowledge of traditional theoretical frameworks which develop understanding of student diversity, graduate preparation curricula should integrate soft and hard skills that are needed to be successful in the field. Hard skills include systems thinking, strategic planning and budgeting, assessment and evaluation, which inform a broader understanding of institutions as complex and dynamic organizations. Soft skills include navigating higher education politics and crisis, engaging effectively in campus collaboration, and becoming an effective supervisor.

Effective supervision is consistently identified both as a factor in staff retention and as something in which one is rarely formally trained.  Given these opposing notions, graduate programs should critically evaluate curriculum to ensure supervision is consistently interrogated in the classroom and through reflection on supervised experiences. Theory to practice pedagogy should inform understanding of supervision as much as it is emphasized in understanding student development. Faculty should collaborate with graduate assistant and internship supervisors to ensure proper supervision has been defined and is consistently operationalized through supervised practice experiences. These direct supervisory experiences in graduate programs are often where supervision is first learned (Holmes, 2014). Graduate assistant and internship supervisors should understand their critical role in shaping supervisory practice for the field, identifying the development of supervision skills as a standard learning outcome across all experiences, as it is the foundation of one’s professional experience.

The Role of Supervisors

Supervisors of new professionals are undoubtedly one of the most important variables in the successful transition and retention of new professionals. The challenge in our traditional hierarchy of career development and advancement is that those supervising new professionals generally have the least amount of supervision experience. Therefore, we should be intentionally invested in the development of supervisory skills beyond graduate preparation and into the first few years of professional experience. Supervisors of new professionals should consider their own training and preparation for effective supervision and prioritize this responsibility. Supervision is a skill that evolves based on scope, responsibilities, and level of supervision. Therefore, a new professional who supervised resident assistants in graduate school may need additional guidance in transitioning to the supervision of graduate students or full-time staff.

Intentional, effective, and inclusive supervision will look different at various levels, but it is still necessary at all levels (Wilson et al., 2020). Inclusive supervision and understanding the unique needs of each supervisee should mirror how we interact and work with students. In this way, supervisors who emphasize holistic development of their staff are modeling principles of inclusive supervision, which may further facilitate the development of a safe space where new professionals feel their voice is value and their individuality is acknowledged (Wilson et al., 2020). Supervisors uniquely shape the environment and experience for new professionals.

Hiring and Onboarding

Supervisors of new professionals should be equally intentional about their role as a hiring manager, and create the type of job search process, onboarding, and training for their new supervisees, that they needed or wish they had been given. In an effort to conduct a successful search, supervisors should be transparent and clearly articulate to potential candidates the institutional mission, position responsibilities, office culture, work flexibility, compensation package and benefits, as well as your expectations/style of supervision. This involves sharing opportunities for professional development and growth within the organization and the broader community to allow candidates to see themselves connecting, developing, and advancing within both.

The notion that geographic mobility is needed for advancement is a widely held belief in the profession and is often reinforced through socialization practices (i.e. career advice, graduate school preparation, national job placement conferences). These norms may be limiting to women and people of color, who may be geographically bound based on personal situations and personal values (Kodama et al., 2021; Rhoades et al., 2008). Career advancement and development should be intentionally discussed apart from “moving out and up” as a way of engaging new professionals in meaningful work and reinforcing a commitment to their professional identity (Kodama et al., 2021; Wilson, et al., 2016). Facilitating a successful search is predicated on one’s ability to recruit a diverse pool of candidates and hiring someone who can be their best self within your department. Helping candidates see their potential for success and growth through a connection to the work, the surrounding community and the institution may ensure a successful search.

A successful search process can be quickly tainted by an ill planned onboarding process, particularly for new professionals. There is often an assumption that recent graduates should be equipped to navigate a new office transition with little guidance or support and that once you have the credentials of a graduate degree, your professional preparation and training also ceases. However, never has this been more untrue. The pandemic and the lack of engagement in official office settings has created disparity in experience that has not only challenged traditional knowledge of office culture and basic practice, but has also created some resistance to traditional norms of office culture. We recommend the hiring supervisors create an onboarding schedule to assist new employees with the transition to their role, the office, and the institution. Onboarding begins at the time an offer is made and extends through a new professional’s transition. This does not occur in a morning, a day or a week. Onboarding should involve regular, ongoing feedback about job performance and opportunities for growth, emphasizing the requisite coaching and mentoring involved in supervising new professionals (Green & Davis, 2021).

During the onboarding phase, supervisors should intentionally connect new staff with campus partners and facilitate their understanding of the history of the institution, campus governance and campus culture. Conversations about culture should help new professionals navigate professionalism within that space. How is it defined?

New student affairs professionals post-COVID are looking for professional environments not only where there is greater flexibility in when and where work happens, but they are also looking to deconstruct traditional professional boundaries and notions of professional dress in an effort to facilitate greater authenticity in the workplace (Diaz et al., 2021). Largely, emerging professionals are looking for campus environments where they can show up to work as their authentic selves and feel a sense of belonging and appreciation (Reece et al., 2021). First impressions about authenticity and sense of belonging are quickly formed in the job search process and continue to develop through one’s onboarding. Perez and Haley (2021) refer to this time with new professionals as re-socialization, which can be positively and negatively shaped by supervisor practice, leading new professionals to re-evaluate their commitment to a job and the field.

The Role of Senior Leaders

Finally, as staff advance in their careers and take on greater supervision responsibility, they should reflect on whether they are curators of established culture or co-creators of a new emerging culture. Do they seek to preserve what once was or do they seek to innovate, expand, and create? Senior leadership, role modeling and intentionality of practice is equally important in helping bridge this gap, enhance retention, and change the narrative about a career in student affairs. As individuals who are in positions of power in developing culture and creating expectations, senior leaders must be re-thinking their own leadership and professional practices to re-imagine and respond to a rapidly changing field.

Evaluate hiring practices, including intentional and unintentional messaging, and department culture. In what ways are new professionals invited to be part of co-creating a new culture of student affairs on campus? How are supervisors prepared to supervise new professionals? In what ways is professional development provided and are there pathways for advancement? Are senior leaders serving as an example of intentional and sustainable practice? Critical attention to the culture of student affairs work on campus is needed. How can senior leaders provide the support and recognition that is needed to ensure the success and sustainability of their staff? How can a culture of student affairs be developed  that centers wellbeing for staff, as well as students? And finally, how can senior leaders help staff create more meaning through their work?


As faculty, it is our responsibility to prepare graduate students for the new realities of a career in higher education and student affairs administration, serving as a bridge to the profession. We certainly have a unique view from the bridge and understand the concerns on both sides, which often leaves us feeling a lot like middle management…preparing front line staff and communicating expectations from the top. The tension between both sides has been growing and resistance to change on either side only serves to widen the gap and create greater instability in the profession.

Our call to action here is to open the door for conversation on your campus as you consider the state of the profession.

For faculty and professional preparation programs:

  • How are you collaborating with your division of student affairs and supervisors to intentionally prepare this new generation of professionals?

For those supervising new professionals:

  • How are you intentionally supporting new professionals through the transition from graduate school and developing positive supervisory relationships?
  • What is happening at the individual, departmental, and divisional levels that may be perpetuating the negative discourse and the attrition of new professionals?
  • Where might you lean a bit more toward the middle as it pertains to new professional concerns and their hopes for establishing a career in student affairs?

Through this reframe of dialogue, we hope to re-establish a career in student affairs as one of great significance and opportunity, restoring a collaborative commitment to transforming lives through higher education. Professional preparation and the success of new professionals is a keystone in the sustainability of the profession. We are at a critical juncture in our professional history, which requires a collective effort in building a strong and sturdy bridge from graduate preparation to successful new professional.


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About the Author

Mark Harrington (he/him) is a faculty-administrator at Canisius University where he serves as Assistant Professor and Director of the Higher Education and Student Affairs Administration program as well as AVP for Student Success. Prior to his current appointment in 2018, Mark served as a higher education and student affairs practitioner for 10 years.

Amy Wilson (she/her) is an Associate Professor and current Chair of the Higher Education Administration department at SUNY Buffalo State University. Amy has served in a faculty role for 10 years and previously as a practitioner in the areas of student leadership, student engagement, and residence life.

Boundaries Are Non-Negotiable: How to Set Your Boundaries in the Demanding Nature of Your Career in Higher Education | Mitchell

written by: MyKella Mitchell

As a higher education professional who has worked in student and academic affairs, my boundaries have shifted from job to job. Despite this, there are a few struggles that higher education professionals experience which remain the same regardless of the position. Post-COVID-19, prioritizing boundaries I have set for myself has become increasingly important. Many of my colleagues’ express feelings of increased stress, fatigue, and burnout induced by an ever-increasing workload. One could think that this stress is the nature of higher education or that burnout in our work is inevitable. This normalization of stress and burnout coupled with the COVID-19 aftershocks (which created job insecurity through layoffs and institutional closures), have caused many of my colleagues to express an inability to avoid workplace stressors.

While stress at times is unavoidable, it can be mitigated by setting boundaries. Such boundaries are imperative for employee well-being. So, the question is – how do we cope with this stress? In this article, I explore the current context and provide suggestions for addressing the overwork of higher education staff based on my own experience.

The Higher Education Work Environment

According to the College and University Professional Association for Human Resources (Bischel et al., 2022)

  • 67% of employees in higher education exceed the typical 40-hour workweek.
  • 63% of staff extend working hours assuming tasks handled by former colleagues.
  • 73% of higher education professionals work additional hours to meet responsibilities tied to positions that have been phased out.

This data corroborates the experiences of higher education professionals and amplifies the need to address issues of pressure and workplace culture related to stressors in the lives of higher education professionals. Furthermore, the National Student Affairs Administration in Higher Education’s (NASPA) new report on the field outlines current trends.

Whitford (2022) reported on the new findings from NASPA, noting that 84% of professionals in higher education who experience burnout cite stress and crisis management responsibilities as the primary source. The author incorporated the testimonial of an unnamed cabinet level professional who further stated that many are working 80-hour weeks without the compensation to match (Whitford, 2022). These insights draw more attention to the urgency of remedying these challenges in the field.

Strategies for Managing Stress

Based on this data and consistent anecdotal information from my colleagues, I encourage professionals to practice setting and enforcing boundaries. Good boundary practices support self-preservation and burnout prevention. Ultimately, the work begins with each of us prioritizing ourselves. Setting boundaries can be difficult, but I propose the following strategies accompanied by tips for implementing each.

Set Working Hours

While professionals’ schedules may vary, this should not lead to a constant encroachment on one’s personal life or downtime to address work-related situations. Establishing a reasonable schedule based on the job and its responsibilities is essential to boundary setting. This can include, but is not limited to, blocking out time for lunch breaks, time for administrative tasks, and blocking out Friday afternoon meetings. Be sure to include business hours in the email signature and post on the office door or wherever most appropriate for the job function. Furthermore, establishing the precedent that emails and phone calls may not be returned within 24 hours, especially during holidays and busy times, can create a reduction of follow-up emails or calls bogging down communication channels.

Working Hours Tips

  • Avoid scheduling meetings during mealtimes whenever possible.
  • If working on an event outside of regular business hours, consider adjusting working hours and, if available, utilize compensatory time (comp-time).
  • Save after hours working for emails labeled as “important.”

Vacation Time

Use vacation time! It is important to rejuvenate and detach. Prior to vacation, inform your colleagues and supervisors if there is limited or no access to email and provide information and contacts for assistance on projects and duties while away. Let people know when you will return and when you will be responding to email. If there is concern that tasks will not be completed, address prior to vacation, if possible. Strategies include adjusting deadlines, assigning specific roles with the accompaniment of accountability, state clearly and explicitly what needs to be accomplished (and by whom) in an email to all affected parties, and/or generate a scheduled reminder email to be sent about these assignments.

Create an away message set for the end of day before vacation through the first day back from vacation to allow for a chance to catch up. A sample I generally use is:


I am currently out of the office without access to my email. I will be out of the office between [start date] through [end date] and will return on [first day in office].

If your email pertains to [insert project or task here] please contact [name] at [email]. Otherwise, I will respond to all emails upon my return.

 If you need immediate assistance, please email my immediate supervisor, [name & email].

Thank you

Additionally, ask the immediate supervisors if remote workdays are possible to reduce distractions while getting up to speed on various tasks upon your return. This is an opportunity to catch up and delegate.

Vacation Tips

  • Use vacation-time as frequently as possible whether it is for a staycation or out of town vacation.
  • If long vacations are not feasible, consider scheduling extended weekends (Thursday through Monday) multiple times throughout the year, preferably before or after a busy period.
  • If working in a position that provides comp days, USE THEM. Take off on a random Friday or Monday to recharge and relax.

Say “No”

“No” is an important word. If you are feeling overwhelmed, uncomfortable, or asked to execute something outside of the job description, “no” is an accurate and important response. In certain situations, you cannot refuse to perform a task, but it is critical not to assume an assignment’s importance unless it has been explicitly communicated as a requirement.  In those instances, have conversations about expectations complemented by what you can offer to the project. This can help everyone involved be more comfortable and provides a chance for compromise. It is also acceptable to assess the request. Afterwards, provide a clear explanation for why the request is not acceptable or conditionally acceptable. It’s essential to recognize your boundaries, and while some colleagues and supervisors may not appreciate it, most will respect your discomfort with the request.

Tips for Saying “No”

  1. When possible, list alternatives when saying “no”. For example, “I cannot assist with the day of the event, but I can help distribute tickets prior to the event or assist with returning equipment the morning after the event.”
  2. Be confident when saying “no”.
  3. Once you say no, stick to it. If you jump in to help after you have said no, you are telling others that you do not abide by your own boundaries, and they will expect you to jump in again in the future.

Candid Conversations

As you begin to set your boundaries, share your rationale to ensure management understands. This proactive approach helps prevent the delegation of tasks from upper management and colleagues while minimizing the overstepping of boundaries. As these boundaries become established, there will be a decrease in requests for assistance with tasks that fall outside of these established boundaries and your role.

Boundaries apply to students as well. Start at the beginning by managing student expectations. Tell them what you are and are not able or willing to do in your work with them. What you do from the beginning sets a precedent for the rest of your work with individual students and student organizations.

Tips for Having Candid Conversations

  • Prepare in advance for conversations about your boundaries. Write down bullet points and articulate your thoughts.
  • Be respectful and professional throughout candid conversations while communicating your boundaries.
  • Document these conversations. This can be as simple as a follow up email recapping what you discussed.
  • Reengage with your supervisor when receiving task related requests to ensure it is in line with the department, job, and your boundaries.


In general, the information in this article can assist you in establishing and enforcing boundaries. As a young professional, I initially struggled with job insecurity upon returning to my home state, leading me to become an overly conscientious employee, striving for a 12-hour email response time and accepting additional tasks without hesitation. This unrelenting pursuit of productivity became the new normal for me and my colleagues, concealing the imminent threat of burnout. My non-work friends could not conceptualize the unique demands of higher education and its distinctness from the private sector. For years, my life revolved around work, homework, defending my lack of boundaries, working beyond the clock, and neglecting my family and friends, despite their proximity. However, the onset of the COVID-19 pushed me into a remote work situation, further corroding boundaries due to a shared bedroom-home office setup and increased workload to compensate for laid-off colleagues. It was during a conversation while waiting for a COVID vaccine that a colleague made me realize the deplorability of my work habits, as I continued to answer work emails on a day off meant for self-care. This moment marked the beginning of my journey to establish healthier boundaries, which has evolved over time in various positions throughout my career, culminating in the recommendations outlined above. I understand that each situation is different – institutionally, in terms of personnel, with various supervisors. There may be some of my recommendations that might not work in your current workplace. Additionally, there might be other strategies not listed here that could be useful. The important thing is to take steps to take care of yourself.

At first glance, you might not feel that these tips will change your current workplace environment and personal stress. But after closer inspection and utilization, you will see these tips may slowly reduce burnout over time. Ultimately, your mental health is at stake, and you are at risk of burnout. These are areas that are critical for boundary setting. In other words, as professionals, we must move forward in our careers by developing a practice of setting and enforcing boundaries. This practice can ease workplace stressors. In the eloquent words of Robert Frost from his poem “Mending Wall,” “good fences make good neighbors” (p.26). Establishing boundaries in life can prevent problems. Embracing these principles can lead to a more balanced and fulfilling professional journey and, ultimately, a more transparent and collaborative work experience.


Bichsel, J., Fuesting, M., Schneider, J., & Tubbs, D., (2022, July). The CUPA-HR 2022 higher education employee retention survey: Initial results. CUPA-HR.          findings-july-2022

Frost, R., Parini, J., & Paraskevas, M. (2017). Robert Frost. Lake Forest, CA, MoonDance.

Whitford, E. (2022, March). Student Affairs Staff Quit Because of Burnout, Low Pay. Inside Higher Ed.

About the Author

MyKella Mitchell (They/Them) serves as the Manager of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion, Outreach, Events & Communication at Princeton University, all while pursuing their Ed.D. in Policy, Planning, and Administration at West Chester University. With over six years of dedicated experience in higher education, MyKella frequently mentors emerging professionals and current students, helping them navigate advocacy, boundary setting, and general advising within the field. Beyond their work and studies, MyKella finds joy in watching the Philadelphia Phillies, exploring new culinary delights in Philadelphia, and dispelling misconceptions that locals’ cheesesteak favorites are Pats and Genos.

Back to Basics: How the Cycle of Socialization and Liberation Can Be Used in Residential Programming and Curriculum | Samuel & Stewart

written by: Kumi Samuel & Terah J. Stewart, PhD


As a graduate student and faculty member in a student affairs program, we both recognize the importance of theory informing practice and practice informing theory. Several scholars have emphasized the importance of theory-to-practice integration in student affairs, noting that it can lead to more intentional and reflective approaches to supporting students (Kuh, 2009; Pope & Reynolds, 2017). We also recognize that a plethora of literature can inform our work with college students as student affairs professionals. Incorporating theoretical frameworks into student affairs practice can improve student outcomes (Schuh & Gansemer-Topf, 2010). After engaging in a project for an equity, diversity, and inclusion course, we discussed the importance of going back to basics or social justice foundations, as it were. Samuel decided to use the cycle of socialization and liberation to frame his work with resident advisors within a residence hall context and, by extension, their residents when considering ways to improve hall programming and events. In this article, we briefly outline the cycles and their components; then, we discuss the way (author 1) advanced the framework within his work and how the lessons he learned can, in turn, inform future scholarship and theory (theory to practice to theory). We will conclude with a few discussion questions and personal reflections.

The Cycles of Socialization and Liberation

According to Harro’s (2000) theory of socialization, individuals undergo various stages of institutional socialization throughout their lives. Social structures and power dynamics influence these phases, altering people’s perceptions of their identity and agency (Harro, 2000). The cycle begins when we are born into the world. Parents, relatives, and teachers tend to be the first parties to socialize a person, and then socialization occurs institutionally and culturally through schools, churches, language, and media (Harro, 2010). These socializations are enforced with reward and punishment, which can result in dissonance, anger, and guilt (Harro, 2000).

For example, a young person born and assigned female at birth may be socialized and disciplined into girlhood first at home by the family because it is the first mode of socialization. The family tells them to wear pink and play with dolls. In my (author’s) experience growing up, girls are socialized toward careers in social sciences and the liberal arts, while their fellow boys are socialized to be scientists, engineers, and mathematicians. Eccles & Wang (2016) reported that gender divide is still very persistent in many areas, most prominently participation in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields, as there are many barriers for women who enter these STEM fields. As individuals are socialized through systems like the family, church, and school, one must consciously decide to disrupt and break away from these socializations (Harro, 2000). Individuals finally take action by education, interrupting systems of oppression, asking questions, doing nothing and not causing any change in our lives, or socially and continuously fulfilling the status quo of our socialization.

Similarly, as propounded by Harro (2000), the theory of liberation runs counter to the cycle of socialization and catapults people to empowerment by encouraging them to disrupt systems of socialization and be liberated. As people come to a critical understanding of oppression and their roles in this systemic phenomenon, they seek new paths for creating social change and taking themselves toward empowerment or Liberation (Harro, 2000). The model of liberation consists of seven stages. Waking up, Getting ready, Reaching out, Building community, Coalescing stage, Creating change, and Maintaining. The characteristics that make up the core of the Cycle of Liberation are what hold it together. These characteristics include self-love, care, hope, joy, support, and security.

Incorporating The Theory in a Residential Context

Hall directors can create a sense of collective action and empowerment among residents by supporting resident assistants (RAs) to plan hall and house events that address oppressive issues and promote equity within the residence hall community. In considering Harro’s (2000) model of liberation, I (author 1) was enthused by the reaching out stage as an assistant hall director. I noticed that RAs typically plan programs and events that do not prioritize students with minoritized identities. From my observation, most students with these identities were absent from these programs and events. I saw the need to bridge this gap and make these students part of the programs, encouraging my RAs to contact students from minoritized identities who were left out of hall events and solicit ideas for events that would bring them on board to socialize, share their experiences with other students, and create an inclusive community.

This plan yielded positive results as many marginalized students provided brilliant ideas that were later modified into house events. Many of the formerly excluded students now attend house programs and events based on their ideas, have conversations, and share their experiences in all of these programs. This has created a supportive community that acknowledges the different identities and appreciates their presence. As noted in the theory of liberation, this is how reaching out might look, and this is why I believe it contributed to the success of the programs that included minoritized students who had their ideas generated into these programs because it focused on issues of interest to the students.

Another stage of the model I have put into practice is Coalescing, which I practice through educating others. We achieve Coalescing by organizing, planning, educating, and motivating members of the uninvolved public (Harro, 2000). Through education, we can explore our identities and support others to explore and understand their identities. This process helps us understand how systems of oppression and dominance are interwoven with through socialization. Additionally, Coalescing teaches us how to consciously disrupt these socializations.

To educate and motivate the RA staff to make conscious efforts to disrupt their socializations, I presented topics like Identity Matters, Implicit Bias, and Socialization Through Multinational Perspectives for RAs and hall directors. These presentations provided opportunities for staff to engage in discussions about their identities and socialization and learn about the experiences of diverse groups on the staff. This has been very helpful to staff in unpacking their socialization, dominant, and non-dominant identities, as they are now conscious about program planning and how to include people of minoritized identities to engage in conversations and change the stereotypes others have about them. I have also observed their enthusiasm to learn more about diverse groups to break away from their preconceived notions and biases about other identities. Some RAs are now curious about the cultural diversity of their houses. They are open and approach me with questions on how to reach out and build inclusive communities, which we process together and implement in their programs.

Implications and Application

Harro’s (2000) theory of Socialization and Liberation proposes that individuals must undergo a process of critical reflection and action to overcome oppression and achieve Liberation (Harro, 2000). Within the housing/residence life context, these theories suggest that hall directors create opportunities for students to reflect critically and be empowered to challenge systemic oppression. These opportunities should be well-facilitated to foster effective liberation through adequate reflection and conscious critical analysis of their socialization, experiences, and unfair systems of oppression.

Housing professionals and other practitioners can apply Harro’s (2000) liberation theory by including critical consciousness activities in their programs and meetings through counternarratives, motivating staff to ask thought-provoking questions, and encouraging students to think critically about social issues and how they relate to their own experiences. This will help staff understand and implement inclusive techniques for transformational change. Hall directors, for example, can establish spaces for students to talk and reflect on issues of power, privilege, and oppression and encourage them to devise approaches for resisting these structures of oppression (Adams et al., 2022). Designing programs and initiatives that reflect critical concepts in each stage would be a great start, similar to how the author leveraged reaching out and coalescing to think about their work within the department and with students and staff.


While we focus on Harro’s (2000) theory of Socialization and Liberation, our goal is to highlight the importance of critical reflection and action in challenging systems of oppression. Theory can help us advance critical equity and justice work within student affairs. In current contexts where assaults on diversity, equity, and inclusion on local, state, and national levels are commonplace, now is the time to be ever vigilant about the way theory can inform practice and, in fact, give practitioners and scholars framing to understand the current moment we find ourselves in. Social justice foundations such as Harro’s theories are but one example. We hope that scholars and practitioners (and scholar-practitioners) can work together in ways similar to how we have to advance the work of equity and justice in student affairs. While there are voluminous pieces of research, scholarship, theories, and framework, consider going back to basics; there is still so much they have to offer.

Reflection Questions

  1. When considering ‘the basics’ of social justice education, what other theories and frameworks might practitioners return to when trying to advance social justice and inclusion in their work?
  2. What are the implications of embracing the cycle of liberation for promoting inclusion and empowerment within residential hall environments?
  3. What are the potential challenges and opportunities associated with incorporating the cycle of socialization and liberation into the curriculum of residence life programs?


Adams, M., Bell, L. A., Goodman, D. J., Shlasko, D., Briggs, R. R., & Pacheco, R. (Eds.). (2022). Teaching for diversity and social justice. Taylor & Francis.

Eccles, J.S. & Wang, M.T.(2016). What motivates females and males to pursue careers in mathematics and science? International Journal of Behavioral Development,40,100–106. doi:0.1177/0165025415616201

Harro, B. (2000a). The cycle of liberation. In M. Adams, W. Blumenfield, R. Castaneda, H. Hackman, M. Peters, & X. Zúñiga (Eds.), Readings for diversity and social justice (pp. 463–469). New York, NY: Routledge.

Harro, B. (2000b). The cycle of socialization. In M. Adams, W. Blumenfield, R. Castaneda, H. Hackman, M. Peters, & X. Zúñiga (Eds.), Readings for diversity and social justice (pp. 16-21). New York, NY: Routledge.

Kuh, G. D. (2009). What Student Affairs Professionals Need to Know About Student Engagement. Journal of College Student Development, 50(6), 683–706.

Pope, R. L., & Reynolds, A. L. (2017). Multidimensional identity model revisited: Implications for Student Affairs. New Directions for Student Services, 2017(157), 15–24.

Schuh, J. H., & Gansemer-Topf, A. M. (2010). The role of student affairs in student learning assessment. NILOA Occasional Paper, 7, 1-14.

About the Authors

Kumi Samuel (he/him) is a second-year international student in Iowa State University’s master’s program in student affairs. His academic and professional careers have been devoted to pursuing his passion for assisting students to succeed academically and professionally. In 2020, he graduated with a Bachelor of Education from the University of Cape Coast (Ghana). He works as an assistant hall director in the Department of Residence at Iowa State University as a graduate assistant right now. Kumi Samuel is eager to pursue a doctorate program, he is interested in studying the experiences of international men of color faculty and staff in higher education to fulfill his dream of becoming a faculty member in higher education. He is dedicated to becoming a lifelong learner in higher education and is ready to grow personally and professionally.

Terah J. Stewart, PhD (he/him) is an assistant professor of higher education and student affairs at Iowa State University. His research and writing focus on people, populations, and ideas that are hypermarginalized and/or have stigmatized identities including: college students engaged in sex work, fat students on campus, identity-based student activism. He also does conceptual and empirical work on antiblackness in non-black communities of color. His work often centers critical disruptive onto-epistemological frameworks and theories to destabilize dominant ways of knowing and being; including Black/endarkened feminist, womanist, and afropessimist perspectives. His research and writing has appeared in Action Research, Journal of Diversity in Higher Education, Journal of Student Affairs Research and Practice, Journal Committed to Scholarship on Race and Ethnicity, and the Journal of College Student Development. Dr. Stewart is the co-author of Identity-Based Student Activism: Power and Oppression on College Campuses (2020, Routledge); and author of Sex Work on Campus (2022, Routledge).

Rural Students Self-Definitions and Characterizations of Rurality | Ardoin & Koon

written by: Sonja Ardoin & Kendall Koon

There is no single, agreed upon definition of rural in the field of educational research (Kettler et al., 2016; Thomas et al., 2011), nor is there a consensus in educational practice or U.S. government policymaking and documentation (Le Tourneau, 2017). While quantitative metrics such as geographic locale classification metrics (e.g., USDA Economic Research Service rural and urban continuum codes) are often thought to be more objective than those that include self-declaration or identification, these alone do not fully capture social experiences and cultural perspectives of rural people and places (Gillon, 2017; Wendling et al., 2019). These ambiguous and sometimes conflicting definitions of rural can lead to unintended consequences during research comparisons, policy formation, and implementation of both research and policy for educational, governmental, medical, and nonprofit agencies and organizations (Dunstan et al., 2021; Gillon, 2017; West et al., 2010). For this reason, rural is often designated as a “know it when you see it” concept (Flora et al., 2018; Isserman, 2005), which over time has led to the development of qualitative characteristics about rural people and communities (Kettler et al., 2016).

Quantitative population metrics such as size and density are commonly used to distinguish urban, rural, and in between zones (e.g., suburban). In the process of this classification, rural can be seen as a deficit to urban and only defined in terms of what it is not (Ratcliffe et al., 2016; Gillon, 2017). Counties are often the smallest subset of population data that are widely available, and the variation and diversity in size or density within counties is not fully represented in existing metrics (Dunstan et al., 2021).

For example, the rural parts of an urban county cannot be differentiated by many governmental classification systems (Wendling et al., 2019). U.S. Census data collection occurring each decade also allows for large changes in communities without proper reclassification along the way (Kettler et al., 2016). Isserman (2005) referred to this phenomenon as the “county trap” which leads to misleading results such as the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2012 findings that more than half of U.S. rural populations live in metro or micropolitan areas.

Taking a more detailed look at the U.S. Census Bureau criteria for rurality shows that urban areas are defined using population density metrics and overall population while rural areas are defined as whatever is non-allocated as an urbanized area or urban cluster (Ratcliffe et al., 2016). The Office Management and Budget uses a separate set of terminology and defines counties as metropolitan, micropolitan, or neither. Both the U.S. Census Bureau and the Office of Management and Budget use population and population density metrics to label counties, though the cutoffs vary between the levels.

Considering the limitations and, often, deficit-based assumptions of these quantitative metrics, some educational researchers are calling for the use of more multidimensional, socially constructed, and self-identified definitions of rurality (Dunstan et al., 2021; Hawley et al., 2016). This study sought to contribute to that definitional expansion, inviting rural students themselves to name what rural is and how they characterized the rural places they called home.


This qualitative study utilized a constructivist paradigm and phenomenological approach to explore and describe rural students’ lived experiences (Creswell & Poth, 2018; Saldaña & Omasta, 2018). Phenomenology invites the researcher to center participants’ perspectives by describing the commonalities between their individual experiences and how they interpret those experiences (Creswell & Poth, 2018; Patton, 2015), getting to “essences and essentials to determine what something ‘is’ or ‘means’” (Saldaña & Omasta, 2018, p. 151). The central question for this study was: What is rurality to rural students? We chose eight participants utilizing criterion-based sampling (Creswell & Poth, 2018; Merriam, 2009; Mertens, 2015), focusing on students who self-identified as rural and who were enrolled in a regional, rural-serving (Koricich et al., 2022), public, four-year institution in a predominantly rural southeastern state. We recruited students via email through university channels.

Data collection for the study included an initial survey, to gather information about the rural areas where participants grew up as well as their self-identified demographics and identities, and one-hour long semi-structured interviews conducted via Zoom. The interview covered a variety of topics related to rural students’ experiences, with the questions related to this particular study focusing on how the participants defined and characterized rurality and the rural areas where they grew up as well as any value they found in being from a rural place.

Data analysis began with identifying significant statements related to how participants defined and characterized rurality. These statements were then grouped into broader meaning clusters or themes and finally into detailed descriptions of how students defined the phenomenon of rurality (Creswell & Poth, 2018; Patton, 2015). To ensure trustworthiness of this study, researchers engaged in interview processes that achieved data saturation, each independently coded data, and then collectively reviewed their analysis to ensure that coding and themes were well aligned with the data (Creswell & Poth, 2018; Krathwohl, 2009; Patton, 2015).

While the study provides insight on how rural students define their lived experiences of the phenomenon of rurality, in comparison to how the government and researchers define it, the study was limited to one institution and seven of the eight participants identified as white. This racial demographic is reflective of both the enrollment on the campus and the population of the part of the state where the study took place; however, audiences should be mindful that rural students are not a white monolith, and that rural Students of Color may have different ways of defining and characterizing rurality. As such, audiences should consider how the findings transfer to their own contexts.


Rural students defined and characterized rurality and the rural areas where they grew up in three primary ways: by the prevalence of nature/land, by proximity and access to stores, and by the close-knit nature of the community. Each of these themes is described.

Prevalence of Nature/Land

Perhaps unsurprisingly, rural students describe how the areas where they grew up featured open land and different aspects of nature. They viewed this as both an asset of rurality and a limitation related to “having things around.” Jason illustrated this concept:

For me there wasn’t much around, just trees and trees and trees, cow pastures … I often lived right in the woods. I guess the nature part of it is nice, being around a lot of trees and stuff, and I walked through the woods a lot as a kid. That was nice.

Sandra noted the sights of farms “every five minutes down the road”, and Marissa commented that “there’s not very many things that bring people into that town other than landscape, the mountains.” In general, the eight participants named the prevalence of nature and land as something they appreciated about rural areas and used to define what rural meant to them.

Proximity/Access to Stores

 To have open land and pristine nature often meant that rural students were from places that were somewhat remote, creating distance from resources and services like stores. The eight participants defined this in both quantitative ways, such as the number of miles from something, and qualitative ways, such as naming specific stores that were not present in the rural community. Alice described: “That’s what rural is to me, being very in the middle of nowhere. You’ve got to kind of drive to get somewhere, [like] 30 minutes [to] the nearest grocery store.” Sarah made a similar statement, who offered: “To go to a Walmart you had to drive 30 minutes or to go shopping you had to drive an hour and 30 minutes.” Marissa and Olaf also mentioned proximity to Walmart as a defining aspect of rurality. Jason was more general in his explanation, simply stating: “I wasn’t even close to a town with shops or anything.”

Alice also noted that other people were not familiar with her rural community unless she oriented it with proximity to another, more urban place in the state. She illustrated:

Because we’re 40 minutes away from [the state capital], so that’s the biggest major city that we have that we’re close to, and so people don’t really know where my area is unless I say, ‘Well, it’s 30 minutes from so and so.’

Having to continuously position their rural communities to urbanicity was unsettling for some participants; however, a few of the rural students acknowledged that moving to a new place to attend college did reinforce the distance and limited access to stores that they experienced in their rural hometowns. Jason chronicled his experience:

Honestly, even [this college town], which is a small rural town, even this feels like a city to me, because there’s so much here compared to where I’m from. There’s shops. I can take a bus. I couldn’t take a bus back home.

The eight participants saw proximity and access to certain things, namely stores, as a component of how they experienced and defined rurality.

Close-Knit Community

Finally, rural students’ characterized rurality through the social aspect of being a close-knit community. Participants framed this not only as “everyone knowing everyone” (Olaf, Sandra), but also as the ability to make connections, receive help, and feel seen and known. Raylan shared that, for him, “rural, it’s the people that make it.” Sandra commented on the “chill vibe” of rural people and communities. For Alice, it was the networking and connecting that illustrated the close-knit nature of rurality; she illustrated:

There is a very tiny knit community and it’s very easy to find connections because either your grandmother knows somebody who knows somebody, or they know something that could help you out with this and somebody could hook you up with that. That’s how a lot of business gets done. A lot of job opportunities get offered. My mom is part of that, so she hears something and she points people to people. It’s just a whole lot of connection that happens. I was always really, really grateful for that because everyone knew something that could help me out.

Olaf mentioned family dynamics as a component to rural areas being close-knit communities; he reflected on how “being able to have a cookout every Sunday with grandparents, aunts, your family” created a better connection for those living in rural areas. Marissa also noted how the connection points could lead to feeling seen, known, and safe; she recounted:

You walk into a store and everybody knows who you are and everybody knows your name and your family and the values in rural areas. Not a lot of people lock their doors, the little bit of feeling of safety that you get in the smaller [rural] areas.

Many of the students believed growing up in rural areas provided them with the foundation of knowing how to build relationships and make friends. Raylan contrasted this foundation with what he perceived about urban communities: “Whenever you go to bigger cities, there’s not that tight knit sense of community [as compared] to back home where you know everybody, which is a good and bad thing sometimes.” Sarah concurred with this stance, explaining: “It’s almost like you have closer connections to people that maybe you wouldn’t if there were so many more people around you. You’re able to have close relationships and learn how to create close relationships.” The eight participants believed rurality was defined by the close-knit nature of and connections within rural communities.

Discussion and Implications

When invited to describe what rurality is, the three characteristics that participants collectively named—prevalence of nature/land, proximity and access to stores, and close-knit communities—affirm prior findings of educational and sociological research (Gillon, 2017; Thomas et al., 2011). Rural students’ characterizations affirm Gillon’s (2017) position that “the construction of rural identity is intimately tied to the ways in which the dominant culture has defined rural people and places” (p. 20), which is often framed through deficiency. However, rural students leaned toward more qualitative and sociocultural characteristics and markers focused on locality, rather than quantitative metrics (e.g., population, zip code) at the county or national level. Showcasing the social construction of rurality, these findings reinforce the rural sociological concept that “something is rural if we define it as rural” (Flora et al., 2018; Thomas et al., 2011, p. 26).

Rural students’ definitions and characterizations of rurality should be important to educational researchers, policymakers, and practitioners who seek to represent, serve, and support rural college students. If we discount rural students’ own conceptualizations and sociocultural definitions of their home communities, we risk failures in “accurately assessing and understanding the issues rural individuals face … and effectively fund[ing] and support[ing] rural people and communities” (Dunstan et al., 2021, p. 61). In short, we patronize rural students and assume knowledge superiority over their own lived experiences. It is critical that researchers, policymakers, and practitioners utilize more nuanced and complex rural definitions—including sociocultural and self-identified definitions—as well as clearly define how they are using rural in policies, programs, and research studies so comparisons can be appropriately made or avoided (Dunstan et al., 2021; Gillon, 2017; Hawley et al., 2016; West et al., 2010). Further, we should invite students to self-identify as rural on applications (e.g., admissions, scholarship), for programs focused on rurality, and as part of research studies. Extending rural definitions can shift what and who are identified as rural and aid institutions and organizations in serving all who identify as rural students.

Reflection Questions

  • What are your assumptions and beliefs about people who come from rural places? Do those align with how rural students define rurality for themselves?
  • How can we support rural students in identifying the assets they hold from their rural backgrounds?
  • What are ways that campus programs and policies can recognize rurality and support rural students’ access, belonging, and success?


Creswell, J. W. & Poth, C. N. (2018). Qualitative inquiry and research design: Choosing among five approaches (4th ed.). Sage.

Dunstan, S., Henderson, M., Griffith, E. H., Jaeger, A., & Zelna, C. (2021). Defining rural: The impact of rural definitions on college student success outcomes. Theory and Practice in Rural Education, 11(1). 

Flora, C. B., Flora, J. L., & Gasteyer, S. P. (2018). Rural communities: Legacy + change (5th ed.). Routledge.

Gillon, K. (2017). Writing rural: Critical perspectives on rural students and the college going experience. Texas Education Review, 5(1), 10-23.

Hawley, L. R., Koziol, N. A., Bovaird, J. A., McCormick, C. M., Welch, G. W., Arthur, A. M., & Bash, K. (2016). Defining and describing rural: Implications for rural special education research and policy. Rural Special Education Quarterly, 35(3), 3–11.

Isserman, A. N. (2005). In the national interest: Defining rural and urban correctly in research and public policy. International Regional Science Review, 28(4), 465–499.

Kettler, T., Puryear, J. S., & Mullet, D. R. (2016). Defining rural in gifted education research: Methodological challenges and paths forward. Journal of Advanced Academics, 27(4), 245–265.

Koricich, A., Sansone, V. A., Fryar, A. H., Orphan, C. M., & McClure, K. R. (2022). Introducing our nation’s rural-serving postsecondary institutions: Moving toward greater visibility and appreciation. Alliance for Research on Regional Colleges.

Krathwohl, D. R. (2009). Methods of educational and social science research: The logic of methods (3rd ed.). Waveland Press Inc.

Le Tourneau, F-M. (2018). Using small spatial units to refine our perception of rural America.

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Merriam, S. B. (2009). Qualitative research: A guide to design and implementation. Jossey-Bass.

Mertens, D. M. (2015). Research and evaluation in education and psychology (4th ed.). Sage.

Patton, M. Q. (2015). Qualitative research & evaluation methods (4th ed.). Sage.

Ratcliffe, M., Burd, C., Holder, K., & Fields, A. (2016). Defining rural at the U.S. Census Bureau: American community survey and geography brief.

Saldaña, J. & Omasta, M. (2018). Qualitative research: Analyzing life. Sage.

Thomas, A. R., Lowe, B. M., Fulkerson, G. M., & Smith, P. J. (2011). Critical rural theory: Structure, space, culture. Lexington Books.

Wendling, A. L., Shipman, S. A., Jones, K., Kovar-Gough, I., & Phillips, J. (2019). Defining rural: The predictive value of medical school applicants’ rural characteristics on intent to practice in a rural community. Academic Medicine, 94 (11S Association of American Medical Colleges Learn Serve Lead: Proceedings of the 58th Annual Research in Medical Education Sessions), S14–S20.

West, A. N., Lee, R. E., Shambaugh-Miller, M. D., Bair, B. D., Mueller, K. J., Lilly, R. S., Kaboli, P. J., & Hawthorne, K. (2010). Defining “rural” for Veterans’ health care planning. The Journal of Rural Health, 26(4), 301–309.

About the Authors:

Sonja Ardoin, Ph.D. (she/her) is a learner, educator, facilitator, and author. Proud of her rural hometown of Vidrine, Louisiana, her working-class, Cajun roots, and her first-generation college student to PhD journey, Sonja holds degrees from LSU, Florida State, and NC State. She considers herself a scholar-practitioner of higher education; she served as an administrator for 10 years before shifting to the faculty in 2015. She is currently an Associate Professor of Higher Education and Student Affairs at Clemson University. Sonja studies social class identity, college access and success for rural and first-generation college students, student and women’s leadership, and career preparation and pathways in higher education and student affairs. Learn more about Sonja’s work at

Kendall Koon (he/him) is an alumnus of the master’s in school counseling program at Clemson University.

Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Dr. Sonja Ardoin, [email protected].

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.

Accreditation Shifts: Higher Education & Student Affairs’ Maturing Student Success Movement | Gordon, Shefman & Heinrich

written by: Sarah R. Gordon, Pamelyn K. Shefman & Bill Heinrich

In 2018, we found most accreditors required “student affairs” or “co-curricular” data in institutional reports, therefore,  student affairs professionals needed a seat at the accreditation table. We asserted, “student affairs professionals are often already doing work that aligns with accreditation standards and criteria, but the documentation and purposeful alignment of that work to the standards may be lacking” (Gordon et al.. 2018, p. 19). Over the past year, we have been revisiting that paper, specifically because accreditation standards have changed, as have student affairs’ assessment processes and accreditation roles. What have we learned so far?

Student success has found its way into recent accreditation changes; specifically, there has been a shift toward the need for and use of outcomes. Perhaps this is mirroring higher education’s maturing student success movement (Torres & Renn, 2021). Accreditation shifts reflect many campus realities for student affairs by moving toward collaboration and away from siloed divisions of academic and student affairs (Levy et al., 2018). We explored if and how student affairs might remain embedded in the accreditation process. Given trends in the literature and changes by accreditors, we reanalyzed the accreditation standards with a renewed focus on areas impacting student affairs.

To do this, we used current and past accreditation standards posted on each accreditor’s website. We observed three types of updates: 1) none; 2) minor changes; and 3) major changes (see Table 1).  Accreditation standards shifted toward institutional responsibility for student achievement, support, and outcomes and away from prescribing programs leading to desired outcomes. The change most often seen was a new focus on achieving success (i.e. graduation outcomes) rather than emphasizing services/programs. Standards are less prescriptive about how student success is achieved (e.g., number of programs) and instead focus on outcomes (e.g., time to graduation). Institutions as a whole, including student affairs, must now ensure programs and processes are in place to lead to student achievements. Previously, standards suggested “Do A to get B” (where B is graduation/student success). Now, several standards simply read “Get To B.”

Table 1

Changes Observed in Accreditation Standards

Change Observed Institutional Accreditor(s) Example/Observation of Change

e.g., no updates made, no substantive wording changes made

ACCJC– Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges


MSCHE–Middle States Commission on Higher Education

MSCHE 4.4 (identical in 2018 and 2023) – If offered, athletic, student life, and other extracurricular activities that are regulated by the same academic, fiscal, and administrative principles and procedures that govern all other program

e.g., clarifications, format changes, but the meaning of language would not meaningfully impact student affairs

NECS–New England Commission of Higher Education

SACSCOC–Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges

HLC–Higher Learning Commission

HLC 2018

4.B.2– The institution assesses achievement of the learning outcomes that it claims for its curricular and co-curricular programs

HLC 2020

4.B.1–The institution has effective processes for assessment of student learning and for achievement of learning goals in academic and co-curricular offerings


e.g., changes made from discussing resources and programs to student outcomes reflecting a paradigm shift

NWCCU–Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities

WASC–Western Association of Schools and Colleges

NWCCU 2018

2.G.1: Consistent with the nature of its educational programs and methods of delivery, the institution creates effective learning environments with appropriate programs and services to support student learning needs.

NWCCU 2020 2.G.1: Consistent with the nature of its educational programs and methods of delivery, and with a particular focus on equity and closure of equity gaps in achievement, the institution creates and maintains effective learning environments with appropriate programs and services to support student learning and success.


We are inspired to consider ways that changes might impact practice, and below provide beginning inquiry based on these shifts and implications of student affairs scholarship and practice.

How Might We Interpret These Changes From a Student Affairs Standpoint?

In 2012, Culp and Dungy argued for taking a cyclical approach to using assessment data to create and re-create cultures of evidence. The focus in student affairs then was learning outcomes and program quality. Now, changes reflect a focus on outcomes. Barr et al. (2014) offered perspectives on managing change including “foundational documents and ethics; applying theory, literature, and data to practice; managing resources; utilizing technology; advocating for students; fulfilling our responsibilities as educators; and reframing our professional practice” (p. iv). Each approach can be a single lens through which change is interpreted, however, institutional complexity challenges this approach. Bolman and Deal (2014) argued for using multiple perspectives in their concept of reframing organizations, while Allworth et al. (2021) argued for and offered tools to implement careful consideration and inclusion of students’ backgrounds and marginalized and minoritized identities for change in student affairs.  Student affairs professionals are uniquely positioned on campus to respond to complex changes with a multi-perspective, equity-centered approach.

Peter Burress (2018) described how universities anchor urban planning landscapes with a “fourth wave” (p. 24) of student development work, in which student affairs, as a less hierarchical entity on campus, builds on and combines the best of socio-cultural, diversifying, and critical and post structural development theories. This results in a possible future where student affairs is no longer bound to specific programs but focused on holistic outcomes. Might we reimagine/rearrange what it means to provide specific support, tutoring, and culturally responsive measures in appropriate spaces without segmenting or siloing? Scott Bass (2022) argued in Administratively Adrift that financial aid, academic advising, and even residential life are ideal locations for this work. Student affairs professionals need to be creative and adapt new tools and approaches to tackle a more networked environment. This can be achieved, perhaps, by borrowing technology, business processes, and human resource practices from outside higher education.

Are Accreditors Moving in the Same Direction?

With accreditation rules changing the term “regional” accreditation is no longer binding. Are accreditors’ changes in standards a reflection of institutions’ ability to “shop around”? What implications do state/regional politics or agendas (as seen in Florida and North Carolina) have on an institution’s choice of accreditor (or vice versa)? The accreditation policies are new so it is unclear how changes will affect individual campus decisions. Understanding how and in what directions accreditors are moving is important to campuses, as accreditation standards can define the work of a campus and thus student affairs. If a campus does change accreditors, it can require faculty and staff at every level to re-imagine their relationship with and expectations of students.

How are the Shifts Indicative of Future Directions? 

Student affairs is essential. At the same time, its form might change. In light of accreditation changes, practitioners might consider how to adapt existing programs and adjust to new expectations. If evidence of student success is lacking from a particular program, how might student affairs sunset some practices and in turn leave room for new practices to emerge?  In the case that existing practices constitute a baseline of support, how might we think about changes to assessment of co-curricular education or student success centers to show their value in terms of updated accreditation standards?

In order to effectively serve students, we need both a depth and breadth of knowledge . Student affairs’ focus on competencies is connected to certification for student affairs educators (NASPA, n.d.). Professional competency expectations mirror the outcomes driven approaches adopted by some accreditors. But how will certified student affairs educators lead to sufficient organizational changes to drive positive student outcomes? This leads to more questions. Can/should we change the way we think about work? How does this help or hinder appropriate distribution of work? How does this change case management? Can technology support ways we operate across our changing environments? All of these questions reflect a fundamental set of assumptions about what a campus does for students and societal expectations for what higher education provides for the larger society.

Practitioners and student affairs scholars are called to pay closer attention to the accreditation landscape and the impact on student affairs on our campuses. The inclusion of student affairs in accreditation is important. And at this time the nature of student success practices including de-siloing specializations, broader data-driven changes to practice, and increased technology support is driving different functional arrangements of student affairs. The ability for student affairs educators to be nimble with their work, applied to students’ needs, is paramount in the coming accreditation cycles. And in the end, the focus on outcomes is what is best for our students.


Allworth, J., Morrison, J., D’Souza, L., & Henning, G. W. (2021). Design thinking in student affairs: A primer. Routledge.

Barr, M. J., McClellan, G. S., & Sandeen, A. (2014). Making change happen in student affairs: Challenges and strategies. John Wiley & Sons.

Bass, S. A. (2022). Administratively adrift: Overcoming institutional barriers for college student success. Cambridge University Press.

Bolman, L. G., & Deal, T. E. (2014). How great leaders think: The art of reframing. John Wiley & Sons.

Burress, P. (2018). Fourth wave student development: Constructing student affairs-driven spaces that deliver knowledge and tools for effecting social change (Doctoral dissertation, The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee)., M. M., & Dungy, G. J. (Eds.). (2012). Building a culture of evidence in student affairs: A guide for leaders and practitioners. NASPA-Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education.

Gordon, S.R., Shefman, P., Heinrich, B., Gage, K. (2019). The role of student affairs in regional accreditation: Why and how to be included. Journal of Student Affairs Inquiry, 5(1), 1-25. Retrieved from

NASPA, Student Affairs Educators in Higher Education (n.d.). Student Affairs Educator Certification. retrieved on August 8, 2023, from

Levy, J., Hess, R., & Thomas, A. (2018). Student affairs assessment & accreditation: History, expectations, and implications. Journal of Student Affairs Inquiry, 4(1), 4284.

About the Authors

Sarah R. Gordon, Ph.D., (she/hers/her) is the Interim Dean of Research and Graduate Studies and Associate Professor of Educational Leadership at Arkansas Tech University.

Pamelyn K. Shefman, Ph.D., (she/hers/her) is the Executive Director of the Office of Planning and Assessment at the University of Houston-Clear Lake.

Bill Heinrich, Ph.D., (he/him/his) is the Director of Mindset by Symplicity in Hamilton, Ontario.

Elevate and Innovate: Professional Development and the Art of Design Thinking | Graham

written by: Melanie Graham

The Southern Association for College Student Affairs (SACSA) held an inaugural Future of Student Affairs Summit (FOSAS) in early June 2023. I applied for and decided to participate in FOSAS because of the transformative potential it presented for my career trajectory and personal growth. As a doctoral candidate and a mid-level professional eager to advance in my field, I recognized the critical importance of staying abreast of industry trends, gaining new insights, and expanding my network of peers and mentors. FOSAS offered a unique opportunity to immerse myself in a community of like-minded professionals, thought leaders, and experts, fostering an environment ripe for learning, collaboration, and inspiration.

Personal Background and Goals

My college aspirations were straightforward: play field hockey, immerse myself in reading and writing, and ultimately become a high school principal. As a student-athlete and sorority member, I prioritized making the most of my college experience, but soon found myself on sabbatical. After transferring to another institution, I figured out it was fun to be focused. A pivotal moment for me was when a professor suggested I consider pursuing a master’s degree in English. Intrigued by the idea and motivated by the prospect of a graduate teaching position, I decided to extend my academic journey. As I neared the completion of graduate school, my affinity for academia had grown, prompting a shift in my focus toward higher education administration.

While I acknowledged that a terminal degree was on the horizon, I wanted varying experiences before committing to that next academic pursuit. I joined the Peace Corps and served as a university instructor teaching English as a foreign language in Ukraine. The Peace Corps was a springboard into curriculum design, training, and policy development. I then returned to Ukraine as a Fulbright Public Policy Fellow and worked at the Ministry of Youth and Sports supporting their efforts to improve student mobility, increase youth activism, and engage young people in social projects. These experiences allowed me to foster mutual understanding and gain insight into other cultures and international higher education systems. I was excited to return home to the United States and apply all I had learned.

I now serve as the Director of Special Projects within the Division of Student Engagement & Enrollment Services at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia. My goals for the future align with continuous professional development and meaningful contributions to the student affairs field. I aspire to broaden my knowledge base, refine my leadership skills, and leverage my expertise to make a positive impact at my home institution and for higher education, overall. The insights I gained from FOSAS will continue to equip me to tackle these aspirations head-on, enabling me to navigate the challenges of my industry while striving for progress and success. Ultimately, I seek to establish myself as a leader who drives innovative strategy, fosters collaboration, and inspires positive change within my sphere of influence.

The FOSAS Experience

I initially learned about FOSAS through SACSA’s monthly association update, SACSA Alert, which offers insights into changes, member spotlights, program overviews, histories, and maintains a dynamic list of professional development opportunities. FOSAS was featured in early spring 2023, and I was immediately interested. The previous months had brought significant professional changes for me, so this opportunity resonated with me on a personal level. Just before the new year, my direct supervisor—who doubled as a mentor and friend—secured a new position and promotion at another institution, leaving me admittedly saddened. Fortunately, I was asked to step into her role on an interim basis, turning a surprise transition into a positive experience. Following the new year, my VPSA also moved on, which marked another challenging transition. I discovered FOSAS amid learning curves and uncertainty and found reassurance in its affiliation with SACSA. I applied to FOSAS for an intimate experience, to expand my professional network, learn new methodologies, and reset ahead of impending changes at my home institution.

The experience of participating in FOSAS has left an indelible mark on my approach to both my professional and personal life. One of my key takeaways was total immersion in design thinking strategies, providing me with a structured yet creative approach to problem-solving and innovation. The ability to think without limitations has been liberating, encouraging me to explore new possibilities, challenge the status quo, and envision creative solutions that can drive strategic change.

Moreover, FOSAS has significantly enhanced my ability to empathize with all stakeholders within our higher education ecosystem. Understanding diverse perspectives and needs is crucial for fostering an inclusive and responsive environment, and these skills have since informed my interactions and decision-making. I was also fortunate enough to build intimate connections with fellow student affairs professionals at various levels. Our layered insights and experiences broadened my horizons and reinforced the power of collaboration and shared learning. These connections have already sparked new projects and partnerships that I am confident will lead to meaningful initiatives benefiting our higher education community.

Design Thinking

Although this experience is called the Future of Student Affairs Summit, the Future of Student Affairs SPRINT might be a more fitting term. Through a series of activities, the summit provided a dynamic learning environment at a swift pace. The facilitator, patient and encouraging, guided us through a multi-day process that challenged conventional thinking. Generally, design thinking has five stages: empathize, define, ideate, prototype, and test. FOSAS moved through the first four. We utilized empathy mapping to explore the thoughts, feelings, sayings, and actions of those affected. We identified needs and problems specific to student affairs and eventually, some more successful than others, defined one problem to focus on. We ideated by challenging assumptions and creating ideas through design fiction, which required us to correlate cause and effect. And finally, we prototyped solutions but as the surrounding circumstances were ever-changing, so too were our fixes. FOSAS demanded that we embrace discomfort as a part of the learning process. It proved to be a challenging experience, pushing me to think hard and fast. Just as I began to grasp the concepts, the landscape shifted once again. Yet, this constant state of change mirrors the reality of staying current in today’s environment—ever-evolving and continuously expanding.

What stood out was the emphasis on approaching issues from a different perspective, not necessarily in a logical or linear manner. After all, how often do we jump from the problem to proposing solutions without doing the necessary work to understand how we ended up there in the first place? However, design thinking is not just about problem-solving; it is about understanding the people involved. From the very beginning, the facilitator encouraged us to think beyond the obvious. The introductory exercise that involved a seemingly unrelated wallet, exemplified this approach. Despite its apparent irrelevance, the exercise was a profound lesson in focusing on the individual it served rather than the object itself. Design thinking, as illuminated throughout the summit, transcends conventional notions of how, why, or what. Instead, design thinking centers “who” – the people affected by the design. This philosophy resonates with the higher education context, where the focus is on our students. Much like the wallet exercise, design thinking in education involves understanding and addressing the needs and experiences of the individuals we serve, reinforcing the idea that effective solutions are human-centric.

Putting the Experience Into Practice

Since attending FOSAS, I have actively applied design thinking strategies in my current role as Director of Special Projects within the Division of Student Engagement & Enrollment Services at Old Dominion University. Pursuing a design thinking approach has allowed me to tackle challenges with a more human-centered perspective, placing the needs and experiences of stakeholders at the forefront of problem-solving. By truly understanding their perspectives, challenges, and aspirations, I am better positioned to develop and advocate for initiatives and policies that resonate with diverse needs, ultimately improving overall student and staff experiences. I am also now more inclined to explore unconventional and out-of-the-box ideas. This mindset shift has encouraged experimentation and risk-taking, which has already resulted in successful initiatives that might not have been pursued under a more traditional mindset.

Overall, the insights and learnings from FOSAS have proven to be instrumental in enhancing my approach to leadership, problem-solving, and relationship-building. I am excited to continue applying and expanding upon these strategies for the betterment of my home institution and the individuals I serve. While FOSAS was transformational, engaging in proactive professional development and incorporating innovative thinking outside of formal summits is crucial for continuous growth and success. Here are some recommendations to foster ongoing learning, engagement, and creativity:

  1. Become a member of relevant professional associations, such as SACSA. Attend regional meetups, webinars, and conferences. Engage in online communities and forums to discuss industry trends, share knowledge, and connect with other professionals.
  2. Read widely and often. Make reading a daily habit. Explore books, academic journals, industry publications, and reputable online blogs. Stay informed about the latest research, trends, and thought leadership.
  3. Collaborate on projects outside the regular work environment. Get involved with interdisciplinary collaborations or community service projects for exposure to new experiences and varied ways of thinking.
  4. Seek mentors or coaches who can provide guidance, advice, and constructive feedback. Establish a mentor relationship to accelerate learning and provide valuable insights into effective career navigation.
  5. Define clear learning objectives and set achievable goals for professional growth. Track progress, celebrate milestones, and adjust goals based on evolving interests and ambitions.

In conclusion, attending FOSAS was an enriching experience that left a lasting impact on both my professional journey and personal growth. FOSAS expanded my understanding of student affairs and provided valuable insights into my own capabilities and potential. FOSAS allowed me to establish meaningful relationships with fellow professionals, fostering a network of support and collaboration. FOSAS encouraged me to challenge myself. I stepped outside my comfort zone and embraced discomfort as a catalyst for growth. These lessons have been transformative, and I was excited to translate them back into my work life. I am genuinely grateful for this opportunity and excited about the positive changes for my career and beyond. Remember, the key is to stay curious, open-minded, and proactive in seeking opportunities for growth and development. Embrace lifelong learning as an essential part of your professional journey.

About the Author

Melanie Graham (she, her, hers)

Melanie Graham serves as the Director of Special Projects in Student Engagement & Enrollment Services at Old Dominion University. Melanie served in Peace Corps Ukraine as a university instructor teaching English as a foreign language and was then awarded a Fulbright Public Policy Fellowship to work at the Ukrainian Ministry of Culture, Youth, and Sports on national reforms for youth and education policies. She holds a Bachelor of Arts and Master of Arts in English from Radford University and is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in Higher Education Administration from Old Dominion University.

The Myth-Making Literature of Student Affairs Attrition | Surrett

written by: Myles Surrett


In this literature review, I examined student affairs attrition. I also reviewed the progression of attrition as a source of inquiry in student affairs from its origin in the 1980s. I themed these initial efforts as assumptive studies, as they investigated attrition through the assumed lens of a problem for the profession. I then presented the attrition-related scholarship in the 2000s. I classified these as solving studies built on the assumed issues of the 1980s and focused on resolving the “problem” of student affairs attrition. I subsequently discuss counterpoint scholarship to the narrative assumption that attrition is a problem in student affairs. Finally, I situate the problem of attrition from student affairs as a myth. To this end, I relied on the lack of evidence for attrition as a problem and demonstrated a communal belief in the narrative. These form the core components of myth-making (Martimianakis et al., 2018).

Development of the Student Affairs Attrition Myth

From conference presentations to daily conversations to dedicated social media pages, the assumed problem of professionals departing student affairs is a regular part of life in the field. This reality developed over decades of scholarship and practice in the field. The concern over departure was an indictment of what was considered a non-professional field in the 1970s and its residue lingers into practice today. The myth of student affairs attrition evolved over the past four decades into a long research line of assumed problems, elusive solutions, and intermittent counter points. Understanding the full arc of this literature offers a contemporary possibility of professional wisdom and research redirection.

Assumptive Studies

In the 1970s, scholars began applying the idea of burnout to professional fields (Freudenberger, 1974; Maslach, 1978). Originally used to describe the effects of drug addiction among Vietnam War Veterans, Freudenberger (1974) applied the concept to other work. Burnout in the professional sense was working passionately to the point of seemingly unrecoverable exhaustion (Stewart & Serwint, 2019). Lepore (2021) asserted the notion of burnout spread rapidly as a professional hazard, and “by the nineteen-eighties, everyone was burned out” (para. 1).

In this context, Bender (1980) first applied the concept of burnout to student affairs. She initiated the study of student affairs attrition through a widely-cited investigation of job satisfaction. She narrowed the satisfaction inquiry to student affairs professionals after Solomon and Tierney (1977) engaged in a broader examination of satisfaction among college administrators. Bender (1980) found 66% of respondents expressed job satisfaction, and 36% indicated they planned to do student affairs work for their entire career. Bender (1980) did not present her findings as a crisis for the profession but began the attrition conversation.

Burns (1982) then surveyed graduates of student affairs programs at two unnamed institutions. There were 182 responses and 61% of participants were still working in student affairs. However, Burns (1982) did not control for years in the profession. A later research group noted this rate “has limited usefulness because it does not indicate the level of retention at different points in time” (Holmes et al., 1983, p. 439).

Subsequently, Holmes et al. (1983) investigated more precisely the actual attrition from the field of student affairs. With a sample of 131 respondents drawn from the graduating classes of 1971-1981 at one university, Holmes et al. (1983) found 66% of respondents still worked as student affairs professionals. For the subsequent discourse of attrition in student affairs, the researchers also determined 25 of the 41 (61%) respondents with more than five years of experience were no longer in the field.

Shortly afterward, Wood et al. (1985) conducted an early attrition solving study, justified the work through an assumption of attrition as a problem, and also established an attrition rate. In the attrition inquiry, they found 68% of respondents still worked in student affairs. The researchers also used five years of experience in the profession as the benchmark for their documented attrition rate.

Richmond and Sherman (1991) published a longitudinal research project which began in 1983 looking at career intentions of student affairs graduate students. They found higher intentions to work in student affairs rates with later cohorts. The researchers also observed an overall 78% satisfaction rate. Approximately 20% of the sample no longer worked in student affairs a year after graduation.

Assumptive Studies Methodology

The scholars who labored to establish an attrition rate from student affairs in the 1980s shared several methodological commonalities. They exclusively used the mail to conduct their research (Bender, 1980; Burns, 1982; Holmes et al., 1983; Wood et al., 1985). These research groups relied on regional and institutional networks to derive their sample. Additionally, they all conducted survey methods research and quantitative design and analysis. The number of responses in their studies ranged from 104 (Wood et al., 1985) to 217 (Richmond & Sherman, 1981).

Student Affairs Attrition Studies

Figure 1.1

Article Sample Size Participant Setting Findings
Bender (1980) 145 NASPA Region II in the late 1970s 31% did not intend to stay in student affairs
Burns (1982) 182 Alumni between 1970-1979 of two graduate programs 61% still working in student affairs
Holmes et al. (1983) 131 Alumni between 1971-1981 of one graduate program 66% still working in student affairs; 39% with more than five years of experience still working in student affairs
Wood et al., (1985) 104 Class of 1978 of four graduate programs 68% still working in student affairs five years after graduation
Richmond & Sherman (1991) 217 Master’s students enrolled in 1983 of 48 graduate programs 20% no longer working in student affairs one year after graduation


Attrition Solving Studies

The earlier generation of scholars attempted to ascertain the scale and scope of attrition from student affairs. The next set of researchers built their scholarship based on what they perceived to be the reliability and generalizability of their predecessors. As evidence of this, the new generation devoted time and resources to determine how to solve the problem of attrition from student affairs.

Wood et al. (1985) researched professional development models as possible attrition solutions. As a result, they suggested more intentional professional development would reduce attrition. This group also found professionals in student affairs who could not move to different locations were more likely to leave the field (Wood et al., 1985).

After those findings in the 1980s, attrition-solving attempts slowed for 20 years. During this time, Berwick (1992) noted a correlation between job satisfaction and decreased burnout. Ward (1995) later found role ambiguity to contribute to attrition. Lorden (1998) also suggested increased student interaction and advancement opportunities as possible solutions. Rosser and Javinar (2003) then examined the intentions to leave and morale around mid-managers in student affairs. They found length of tenure and salary were inversely related to morale, but salary was positively correlated with retention. However, given the lower morale, the findings were unclear about whether or not retention is positive for organizations and students.

Then, Tull (2006) published his dissertation findings. He found positive outcomes through the application of synergistic supervision to reduce attrition. Following that attrition-solving article, a flurry of research groups offered new solutions to the alleged problem in student affairs. Renn and Jessup-Anger (2008) found new professionals needed more essential skills such as budgeting, supervision, assessment, and political navigation. Silver and Jakeman (2014) looked at the differences between graduate students intending to work in student affairs and those that did not. They found five themes among those departing student affairs, including the perceived inferior position of student affairs in the academy and financial concerns. Buchanan and Shupp (2016) discovered the lack of professional development, inadequate supervision and mentorship, and discomfort with higher education politics as risk factors for attrition. Marshall et al. (2016) noted work/life imbalance and lack of advancement opportunities as causes for departure. Dinise-Halter (2017) found seven types of challenge and support necessary for sustained employment in student affairs. Mullen et al. (2018) found a relationship between job burnout and turnover intention. Artale (2020) noted a relationship between work-life balance, satisfaction, and turnover.

In practitioner and scholarly terms, this series of results lacks coherence. Any emerging professional or those supporting their development may struggle to discern a data-driven path forward to develop, empower, and retain staff. As a profession we lack data and our work is built on the assumptive foundation of attrition as a problem in student affairs scholarship. If a problem does not actually exist, it is challenging to solve. The scholars in the following section warned about the foundational instability of attrition solving.

Attrition Solving Studies Methodology

The solving studies contained more methodological variation than their assumptive predecessors. Several researchers chose to study practitioners who already departed the field. Of this group, Frank (2013) and Buchanan and Schupp (2016) used qualitative research methods and sampled directly from former student affairs professionals. Marshall et al. (2016) quantitatively studied student affairs expatriates.

Scholars used different sampling techniques in attrition-solving studies. Mullen et al. (2018) surveyed staff based on role stress, burnout, and job dissatisfaction using institutional websites to gather their sample. Silver and Jakeman’s (2014) qualitative study sampled from within their institution-affiliated cohort . Dinise-Halter (2017) utilized case study methodology and convenience sampling with four emerging professionals. Artale (2020) partnered with a professional association to access a national sample for their survey.

Counterpoints to the Assumption of Student Affairs Attrition as a Problem.

Shortly after the attrition establishment movement in the 1980s, Evans (1988) conducted a literature review of the findings. She acknowledged possible consequences for the field related to attrition. She also offered lack of advancement opportunities as the most common reason for departure.

However, she critiqued the reliability of the findings to that point: “research I reviewed has some serious limitations that make drawing conclusions difficult” (Evans, 1988, p. 23). Since Evans (1988) provided that assessment, no one has attempted to verify if student affairs attrition is a problem. Similarly, Lorden (1988) expressed similar skepticism about attrition as a problem to be solved. Lorden (1998) asked, “Are those who leave student affairs disappointed with their experiences or simply ready to move onto to something else?” (p. 210). During that time, at least 12 studies have tried to solve a possibly non-existent problem (Artale, 2020; Berwick, 1992; Buchanan & Schupp; 2016; Dinise-Halter, 2017; Frank, 2013; Marshall et al., 2016; Mullen et al., 2018; Renn & Jessup-Anger, 2008; Rosser & Javinar, 2003; Silver & Jakeman, 2014; Tull, 2006; Ward, 1995).

Despite skepticism about attrition as problem and the lack of scholarly findings in her work, many scholars cited Lorden (1998) as the source of a documented attrition rate (Frank, 2013; Marshall et al., 2016; Renn & Jessup-Anger, 2008; Silver & Jakeman, 2014). Using her work in this way is a misrepresentation – contrary to Lorden’s (1998) actual perspective and her article is an essay not empirical evidence. The use of the literature in this way provides additional evidence of the shaky foundation of attrition solving efforts.

Taub and McEwen (2006) provided another counter example to the understanding of attrition as a pressing student affairs issue. These authors engaged 300 students enrolled in student affairs graduate programs about their plans to enter the profession. One finding from their study was that a significant majority intended to be in student affairs for over 10 years. While this is not conclusive regarding an attrition rate, it is a more recent finding compared to the 1980s data points. Despite this indicator, several research efforts continued afterward to try and solve the problem of student affairs attrition (Artale, 2020; Buchanan & Shupp, 2016; Dinise-Halter, 2014; Marshall et al., 2016; Mullen et al., 2018; Silver & Jakeman, 2014).

In addition to the work of Evans (1988), Lorden (1998), and Taub and McEwen (2006) which challenged the myth, some attrition solving scholars also noted gaps in the logic of the mythology. More than 20 years ago, Blackhurst (2000) challenged the findings of Bender (1980), Burns (1982), and Holmes et al. (1983) as being outdated. They are even less relevant to student affairs today – 40 years later.

Problems with the Foundation of Student Affairs Attrition Literature

Attrition Rate: Dated and Dissonant

Basing contemporary work on outdated information poses a problem as the composition of student affairs today is markedly different from late 1970s and early 1980s. As evidence of changes in the profession, consider gender composition in the field. Van Alstyne et al. (1977) and Tinsley (1986) found 18% and 20% of student affairs professionals were women. More current research has found nearly 80% of student affairs professionals are women (Marshall et al., 2016; Taub & McEwen, 2006; Wiese & Cawthon, 2009), and gender impacts experience in this field (Berwick, 1992; Blackhurst, 2000; Richmond & Sherman, 1991). As a result of the age of attrition studies and changes in the field, the current understanding of student affairs attrition warrants further research.

Different research design choices also prove part of the challenge to understand this topic. The variability of focus and audience made conclusions from the literature difficult. To illustrate how the target of the research kept moving, consider Bender (1980) who looked at intention to leave not actual departure from the field. Burns (1982) then took a different approach by documenting the  employment rate for their sample. On the other hand, Holmes et al. (1983) and Wood et al. (1985) investigated variance in attrition rate based on number of years of student affairs employment. Richmond and Sherman (1991) provided even more variability by conducting a longitudinal study with their sample. Despite all being generally about attrition, these research groups took different approaches to their research; thus, concluding with a reliable narrative about attrition was complex and problematic.

As a result, making conclusions about student affairs attrition was challenging during the 1980s, despite great interest in the topic. Depending on research design and pre-existing bias, researchers and research consumers draw very different conclusions about attrition from the field. This was true in the 1980s and 40 years later the topic is even less clear. Since Richmond and Sherman’s (1991) work, no study has documented the student affairs attrition rate. Subsequently, the knowledge of attrition is summarily dated.

Issues with Secondary Citations

Secondary citations are a particularly troublesome trend in student affairs attrition literature. For example, Buchanan and Shupp (2016) identified the outdated nature of the data and noted that no researchers had documented an attrition rate since the 1980s. However, they then cited Renn and Hodges (2007) study as evidence of attrition as a problem. However, Renn and Hodges (2007) conducted a study with a sample size of 10. This sample cannot be generalized to the all student affairs professionals. Buchanan and Shupp (2016) acknowledged generalizability as a limitation in their study involving five participants. Renn and Hodges (2007) offered a similar caution about their own findings due to a limited sample.

Renn and Hodges (2007) also issued this claim about emerging professionals in student affairs without a citation attached to it at all: “Statistically, only about half will still be in the field in 2010” (2007, p. 388). Either due to assumed findings validating anecdotal observations or a lack of rigor in research, this sort of process is the exact kind of justification that perpetuates myths (Martimianakis et al., 2020).

Frank (2013) and Silver and Jakeman (2014) provided another example of an issue with secondary citations. Those scholars cited Lorden (1998) and Tull (2006) as establishing an attrition rate. However, Tull (2006) conducted an attrition-solving study and Lorden (1998) wrote an essay with no actual research findings. Neither study established a student affairs attrition rate.

Understanding Student Affairs Attrition Myth as Problem

To understand student affairs attrition as a myth, we need understand myth-making and mythology. The two core components of myths are (1) myths must be unproven and commonly believed to be true (Martimianakis et al., 2018), and (2) myths do not have to be objectively false but do fundamentally mislead (Loughlin et al., 2012). A myth expands beyond positivist ideas of concrete right and wrong into perceptions, visions of reality, and lived experience (Martimianakis et al., 2018). A myth contains “ideas and beliefs that we inherit as part of our shared intellectual culture” (Loughlin et al., 2012, p. 135). For us to understand the problem of student affairs attrition as a myth, we must document a lack of evidence for the myth and a wide scope of belief despite the dearth of empirical support.

In the case of this review, the “shared intellectual culture” (Loughlin et al., 2012, p. 135) is student affairs. The unproven and believed to be true myth is that more than 50% of student affairs professionals leave the field in the first five years which is misleading since we lack any evidence that this is true. I documented the lack of evidence in previous sections. Next, I focus on the belief within the student affairs community in attrition as a problem.

Practitioner Belief

Evidence of student affairs’ belief in attrition as a problem in the field are widespread. In July 2019, ACPA distributed a call for programs with a participation justification centered on the prevalence of attrition in student affairs (Artale, 2019). NASPA asserted in a 2022 report “more early and mid-level professionals are leaving the field for other pursuits” (p. 6) and later in the report a focus group member stated “The first 5 [sic] years is a make or break for student affairs professionals. You’re either in it or leave,” (NASPA, 2022, p. 20). Nowhere in the report is there evidence of the student affairs attrition problem this report explored.

We likely all can think of times when the student affairs attrition myth has come up in our own contexts. For me, recently a staff member mentioned most professionals leaving the field within five years as something to monitor in our practice. I also work with a podcast, and a recent episode focused on jobs outside of student affairs. The conversation eventually centered a need to solve the problem of student affairs attrition (Aguiar et al., 2021). I share these observations not as a critique but as evidence of the prevalence of the attrition as problem thinking myth among student affairs professionals.

Scholarly Belief

As outlined above, scholars have also demonstrated a belief in the myth of student affairs attrition. The most concrete evidence are the many studies which offer solutions to the “problem” of student affairs attrition (Artale, 2020; Buchanan & Schupp, 2016; Dinise-Halter, 2017; Frank, 2013; Jo, 2008; Lawling et al., 1982; Lorden, 1998; Marshall et al., 2016; Mullen et al., 2018; Renn & Jessup-Anger, 2008; Rosser & Javinar, 2003; Silver & Jakeman, 2014; Tull, 2006; Ward, 1995; Wood et al., 1985). An additional concern is the lacking investigation of the student affairs attrition rate despite issues with reliability in the outdated literature frequently cited by those who seek to address the student affairs attrition problem. The scholarly belief in the myth of student affairs attrition persists. Artale (2020) recently completed a dissertation offering a new solution to departure from student affairs. Another scholar is pursuing research on institutional context and its relationship to attrition (Gill-Jacobson, 2021).

Attempting to solve the student affairs attrition problem clearly shows a commitment to the myth. If researchers questioned the validity of the problem, they would have looked further into documenting attrition. Because the myth of attrition as problem aligned with personal experience and socialization, we have skipped a step in the documentation process.


Implications: Impact on Additional Attrition

Myths distort perceptions and potentially leads to meaningful consequences (Loughlin et al., 2012). One possible function of the student affairs attrition myth is additional attrition from student affairs. This potential consequence is derived from turnover contagion theory. Turnover contagion theorists posit the choice to leave a position is influenced by relationships within an organization (Felps et al., 2009). Studies have shown as colleagues leave organizations, remaining staff become more likely to depart (Bakker & Schaufeli, 2000; Krackhardt & Porter, 1985; Jo, 2008; Takawira et al., 2014). This contagious effect may be centered on perceptions of turnover (Kline & Hsieh, 2007; Krackhardt & Porter, 1985). Consequently, if the attrition rate in student affairs is unknown, but people believe attrition to be high, this may increase subsequent departures from the field.

Mythology, and people’s use of it, can also shift accountability. In terms of attrition, if we assume half of all student affairs practitioners will leave in the first five years of their career, we may simply accept that. The myth can create a sense powerlessness. Instead of creating an active plan to support, develop, and retain emerging professionals, we may see departure as inevitable and not dedicate energy, time, or other resources to support new staff. As a result, staff may leave. This inaction is another way the myth of student affairs attrition may have a cascading effect.

Even the idea that student affairs attrition is a problem can impact staff morale. Being a part of a career that we perceive people are running from does not feel good. Such a perception can inspire staff to focus on the negative aspects of the work because we assume people are leaving because of those negative parts of the job. There are significant implications for the myths we perpetuate.


Given the lack of scholarly evidence related to student affairs attrition, the power of the attrition myth, and the dated and problematic scholarship on attrition, consider the following recommendations for practice and future research on this topic.

Research Recommendations

  • We must stop citing research and second-hand research as evidence of an attrition issue in student affairs.
  • It is imperative that researchers study attrition broadly to ascertain what student affairs attrition rates actually are.
  • What is the reality of attrition in the post-COVID-19 context?
  • Additionally, not every new professional can be retained unless many of them remain in entry-level positions. There are not as many opportunities for promotion as there are opportunities for entry into student affairs. We do not want and cannot support a 100% retention rate, so what is the goal?

Recommendation for Practice

  • Supervisors, advisors, mentors, and faculty must refrain from perpetuating the myth of student affairs attrition.
  • Emotional contagion is a documented phenomenon. For all those in student affairs, work to build relationships based on meaning.
  • Practitioners cannot use the attrition myth as an excuse not to provide support and a focus on staff retention and morale.
  • Student affairs professionals and the faculty members that train them would do well to avoid stigmatizing departure from the field. In doing so, we may limit the boomerang of good professionals back into the field if leaving in the first place was deemed a failure.


We do not know how many student affairs professionals leave the field in the first five years. Until we determine what the actual attrition rate is, we must refrain from perpetuating the attrition myth. It is my hope that this work inspires future researchers to take on this task with the support of our professional organizations and others. Understanding our current context can help each of us as individuals, team members, institutions and the profession as a whole allocate the right resources to the right initiatives to sustain the important work we do.


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About the Author

Myles Surrett (he/him) currently serves as the Associate Vice President for Career Experiential Learning, and Transitions at James Madison University. Previously, Myles has worked at Clemson University, the George Washington University, Greater Birmingham Habitat for Humanity, and the Close-Up Foundation. Myles is the proud dad of Forest and Thea, and the partner of Erin.

Fostering Critical Hope (Part 3 of 3) Moving Forward with Hope & Love | Shea

written by: Heather D. Shea, Ph.D., 2023–2024 ACPA President

TW: mentions gun violence

This is the final installment in the three-part series for Developments exploring the concepts and application of critical hope from my presidential address at the ACPA 2023 convention. In the first part of this series, I discussed the mobilization of resources and care in the aftermath of the February 13th tragedy at Michigan State University. In the second part, I wrote about how we might foster critical hope. Today, I am revisiting both themes one year after the tragedy at MSU. In the final installment of this series on critical hope, I reflect on the journey from the aftermath of tragedy to the path forward with love and hope.

As a student affairs educator, I’ve witnessed the varied responses to crisis on campus, understanding that individuals cope differently. Yet, amidst the tension between current reality and our aspirations lies the essence of hope. It’s not about ignoring challenges but rather embracing them as opportunities for transformation. As bell hooks expressed, hope arises from witnessing positive transformations amid struggle. We must not merely admire hope from afar but inhabit it fully, living within it. In the face of crisis, we have a collective responsibility to assess reality and be adaptable, iterative, and non-linear as we explore possibilities for a better future filled with love.

There is clearly tension between our current reality and what we see as possible in our world. That isn’t an argument against hope. That IS hope. As a creative non-linear thinker, I have hope and can imagine those possibilities from here, even if the path to get there is unclear. We’ll need to create those paths together.  I’m not naïve, I know in today’s reality we are in a different place, and that reality informs our collective work toward a shared vision—as bell hooks said in her 2013 book Teaching Community: A Pedagogy of Hope, “my hope emerges from those places of struggle where I witnessed individuals positively transforming their lives and the world around them.”

Barbara Kingsolver, one of my favorite authors, says in her book, Animal Dreams, “The very least you can do in your life is to figure out what you hope for. And the most you can do is live inside that hope. Not admire it from a distance but live right in it, under its roof.  What I want is so simple I almost can’t say it: elementary kindness. Enough to eat, enough to go around. The possibility that kids might one day grow up to be neither the destroyers nor the destroyed. That’s about it. Right now, I’m living in that hope, running down its hallway and touching the walls on both sides.”

Drawing inspiration from Kingsolver’s words, I find solace in the simplicity of hope rooted in kindness and sustainability. As I conclude my term as your ACPA president, I am committed to continually nurturing critical hope within our student affairs and higher education community. Along with the continuing and incoming leadership we are living in our critical hope. Our hope that we will overcome this despair and fear from outside attacks, our hope that we will create more sustainable futures in our field, and our hope that ACPA will be a hope others can live in as well. We work to transcend despair and fear, envisioning a future where ACPA, especially as we celebrate our 100th anniversary—serves as a reminder of our resilience and dedication to transformative change over time.  I invite you, dear reader, to contemplate what ACPA must evolve into to embody this critical hope for you and those around you. Together, let us forge a path forward, guided by love and empowered by hope, towards a brighter tomorrow.

review part 1 | review part 2

Message from the Editor | Boettcher

Hello, ACPA!

In just a few days, many of us will meet in Chicago to learn, (re)connect, and celebrate with friends and colleagues. Here at Developments, we have something to celebrate as well. In addition to a great set of articles, I am very excited to welcome our new Editorial Board Members! Associate Editor Samantha Babb is the Associate Director for Community Engagement at Washington University in St. Louis. Ricardo (Ric) Montelongo is an Associate Professor in Educational Leadership at Sam Houston State University. Ric has agreed to serve as both Associate Editor and Reviewer for Developments. And Mary Dueñas is an Assistant Professor at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville and will be joining Developments as a Reviewer. While Developments has a reputation for quick responses and helpful feedback, our new additions to the team will provide additional perspectives as we support authors in sharing their work.

This issue of Developments includes articles about student affairs attrition (myth or fact?), the importance of boundaries and the future of student affairs. There are articles about student-centered programming, rural students, and students’ transitions into FT practitioner roles. There is an article about accreditation and a wonderful profile with Kathleen Deignan in which she reflects on nearly 50 years in student affairs. We know you will find something to think about, talk about, and share as you move through the spring term.

If you have ideas you’d like to develop into an article, a case study you’d like help preparing for the next case study issue in December, or any questions, please reach out to me at your convenience. Enjoy this issue and safe travels during the spring conference season.

Michelle L. Boettcher
Editor, Developments