Professional Competencies for Student Affairs Educators: Reflections During a Pandemic–Ann M. Gansemer-Topf, Terah J. Stewart, Rachel A. Smith, Michael G. Brown, and Robert D. Reason

Ann M. Gansemer-Topf, Terah J. Stewart, Rachel A. Smith, Michael G. Brown, and Robert D. Reason

Iowa State University

Author Note

We want to thank the Iowa State University Student Affairs Classes of 2020, 2021, and 2022 for showing grace, resiliency, and a sense of humor as we navigated COVID-19 and heightened racial injustices. Your commitments to social justice, community, and learning are impressive and inspiring. We value you!


Professional Competencies for Student Affairs Educators (ACPA/NASPA, 2015) outline “essential knowledge, skills, and dispositions expected of all student affairs educators” (ACPA/NASPA,  2015, p.7). These 10 competencies can inform and guide the direction and scope of professional organizations, graduate curricula, and professional development, regardless of position, level, or institutional type. Despite this broad applicability, new contexts warrant a meditation on the meaning of and potentialities for the competencies. COVID-19 is one such context. It has transformed how student affairs practitioners approach their work – the impact and disruption caused by the pandemic coupled with recent and ongoing horrific acts of white supremacy cannot be understated.

The purpose of our writing is to reflect on the salience and our understandings of the ACPA/NASPA competencies within these new contexts. As student affairs program faculty members at Iowa State University, we have engaged in ongoing conversations with students and colleagues about the critical imperative to teach, research, and practice differently as a result of the pandemic. Our discussions also led us to consider how the competencies and skills needed to be effective practitioners might change or be differently interpreted.

What follows is a reflection on each competency based on our conversations, observations, teaching, and engaging in the work of student affairs during COVID-19. At the end of each competency section we offer reflective prompts as an invitation for student affairs graduate students, researchers, and practitioners to think and meditate with us on the limits, possibilities, and future directions of the competencies including and especially during and after a global pandemic.

Personal and Ethical Foundations (PEF)

The personal and ethical foundations competency calls upon practitioners and practitioner educators to foster the development of thoughtful critique, adhering to a “holistic and comprehensive standard of ethics and commitment to one’s own wellness and growth” (ACPA/NASPA, 2015, p. 12). Although some competencies are the focus of individual courses, students cultivate their personal ethical perspectives throughout curricular and fieldwork experiences. Our program (and students) rely upon practice-based learning to complement the in-class reflection that fosters self-authorship and personal ethical development.

The pandemic prompted an abrupt transition to online learning in Spring 2020 and rapidly shifted the contexts in which graduate students engaged in professional practice. Most graduate students were meeting with undergraduates and supervisors virtually, many were away from campus for extended periods of time, and the expectations for their work were unclear. A number of students expressed concern about doing enough while trying to take care of themselves and their families. The shifting context prevented students and their supervisors from engaging in the kind of emergent and incidental mentorship that was part of a ‘typical’ assistantship or practicum.

The rapid transition wrought by the pandemic and the renewed focus on law enforcement and policing raised important questions about the responsibility of the institution to its students, staff, and faculty. The pandemic illustrated the varied ways institutions, departments, programs, and individuals engaged a communal ethic of care and the key interpersonal ways in which much of our personal ethical foundations are expressed were disrupted.

      • Where are the intersections and boundaries around our personal and professional lives if our homes become our workplaces?
      • What does mutuality look like during social distancing?
      • How do we demonstrate awareness of wellness of others in our workplace when we feel disconnected?

Values, Philosophy, and History (VPH)

The VPH competency “embodies the foundations of the profession from which current and future research, scholarship, and practice will change and grow” (ACPA/NASPA, 2015, p. 12).  With students and colleagues, we grappled with issues that were not new, but rather were brought to light via changing policies and practices. We examined who determines the nature and purpose of higher education in the context of a global and local health crisis. We acknowledged the ways student affairs practices were built on interpersonal and systemic care and creative generativity, and wrestled with ways practices were built on something unstable or harmful. We sought ways student affairs folks demonstrate care for self, colleagues, and students, in the short and the long term. We explored how the nature of what student affairs educators do changed when interaction is impossible in the physical spaces they have spent decades (de/re)constructing. We have always learned within the context of history and philosophy, but it was clear to us and to students and colleagues that history is now.

For example, COVID-19 had our institutional archivists digging up long forgotten 1918 influenza photographs showing rows of patients on cots as a reminder that we had previously experienced a pandemic. In courses, we discussed the racist and white supremacist histories embedded in campus building names, space ownership, and speech that had previously not been questioned.  Through its clouding and disrupting of daily life, the pandemic provided one of the clearest current examples we have seen related to the potential clash of personal, professional, and institutional values and histories—what we espouse and what we enact. If students, colleagues, friends, family, and we ourselves may fall ill tomorrow, how do we make meaning of what we are doing today? As we tell students and as our field’s research shows, these questions about why and for whom higher education exists are enduring, set in philosophical and historical contexts, and worth consistently reexamining.

      • What have you learned about the history of your institution and how that shapes approaches to defining and dealing with current challenges?
      • How do you define the values and philosophies of student affairs, and to what extent has 2020 led to their redefinitions, renegotiations, or de/re-centering?

Assessment, Evaluation, and Research (AER)

Of all the competencies, the skills and criteria that describe AER may be the least directly influenced by the pandemic. The pandemic changed how we do AER: our face-to-face interviews were replaced by video-conferencing, direct observations were not feasible, and working from home may have limited our access to campus resources and data, but the processes of engaging in assessment and research remain the same. What the pandemic has heightened, however, is the tension between the importance and reality of engaging in this competency.

Student affairs practitioners often cite “lack of time” as one of the primary reasons for not engaging in assessment. Reflection seems a luxury when there are so many crises demanding our attention. Creating a pivot table (i.e., Microsoft Excel) in the midst of pivoting is overwhelming. As a faculty we have explored  the role and priority of AER during the pandemic and how we ask for feedback in ways that do not overtax students and community members.

As noted in other competencies, campuses were forced to change quickly, and few (if any) students choose student affairs because they want to do AER. Nevertheless assessment and research are more critical than ever as they can help us make sense of our world, provide feedback on our effectiveness, and highlight the questions we should be asking. AER can help us decide what worked well, what are our priorities, and what may need to stop.  How does one prioritize time for reflection and engaging in assessment and research (as students, faculty, and practitioners) in the midst of chaos?  The recommendation we highlight in our assessment courses is even more applicable here: there is no perfect assessment, so strive for “good enough” (Upcraft & Schuh, 1996).  In a pandemic “good enough” can do enough good.

      • What changes have you made or encountered during COVID that are worth assessing and researching?
      • What are small, feasible assessments that you can engage in that are critical and provide “good enough” information? 

Law, Policy, and Governance (LPG)

Students often view the law, policy, and governance competency as important, but LPG is often not students’ primary motivation to enter student affairs as compared to other competencies. COVID-19 has underscored the inseparability of higher education institutions from community and socio-political contexts. It has become even more obvious than in the past that student affairs professionals’ day-to-day work is directly affected by local, state, and national policy, as well as through the ways institutions enact that policy through their governance structures.

Conversely, institutional policy had direct ramifications for the surrounding community’s health in recent months. Students analyzed institutional policy related to COVID-19 mitigation, racial justice, international students, and student protest and speech, examining the constraints and affordances of student affairs work within different types of institutions. While recognizing ethical dilemmas, students also took advantage of opportunities to collaborate across the institution to respond to issues of public health, transform campus policy, and advocate for justice.

COVID-19 further highlighted the power-based processes that shape higher education laws, policies, and structures. These processes can produce ethical dilemmas and decision-making that unjustly prioritizes the well-being of some over others.Work remains to be done on critical issues of law and policy. Among these issues are financing of higher education, student access and learning, and the thriving of faculty, staff, and student affairs educators as part of institutional success.

      • What role have student affairs educators played in institutional governance related to COVID decision-making?
      • How does student affairs work operate to support students in a context of rapidly changing and uncertain laws and policies?

Organizational and Human Resource (OHR) 

The OHR competency area “includes knowledge, skills, and dispositions used in the management of institutional human capital, financial, and physical resources” (ACPA/NASPA,  2015, p.13). Like the LPG competency area, OHR can feel distant from both why students enter the profession and from their day-to-day work as graduate students and early career professionals. The consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic, specifically closing campus residence halls and sending students home in the spring of 2020, raised questions about refunds for unused portions of housing and dining contracts, layoffs of personnel, and how to quickly and safely close facilities. Fall 2020, with limited in-person coursework and limited on-campus capacity, similarly raised questions about how to keep residence halls and dining centers open with limited income, how to keep students and staff safe on campus, and whether to keep some facilities closed.

All student affairs professionals and graduate students, were forced to grapple with organizational and human resource decisions that had serious ramifications for the physical and financial health of people and institutions. These decisions intersected with other competency areas, especially Social Justice and Inclusion (SJI), when issues of power and privilege were considered. Often the staff who were laid off first were the lowest paid and those who could not work from home (e.g., custodial staff). Staff on the front lines were most at risk of being infected with COVID-19 and were most financially at risk if they were not able to work. Housing and food insecure students were deeply affected by decisions to close residence and dining facilities.

In critiquing higher education’s broad response to COVID-19 Stewart (2020) offered, If within our collective imagination we [higher education] understood and believed the organization to be the people, then there is no way that the loss of infrastructure (either temporarily or permanently) would trump our ability to center that ethic in this moment; deliberately and unapologetically… We owe each other the honesty of naming who has been and will be harmed as a result of the actions of our collective responses [to COVID-19] and lack of response – and how we would/will try to reconcile that harm (p.5).

Organizational, human resources, and financial challenges are predicted to continue beyond the pandemic. Decisions regarding the availability of graduate student assistantships and student affairs positions, and adjustments to salary, retirement, and job security will need to be made – often by those who will not be directly impacted. This competency requires considerations about how we prepare for a potentially unstable future and how we advocate and communicate for ourselves and colleagues.

      • How do student affairs professionals make decisions about organizational and human resources that both positively affect the institution and uphold values of social justice?
      • What does it mean to effectively prepare and advocate for yourself and your colleagues?

Leadership (LEAD)

The LEAD competency “involves both the individual role of a leader and the leadership process of individuals working together to envision, plan, and affect change in organizations” (ACPA/NASPA,  2015, p. 27). Most decisions that resulted from the COVID-19 pandemic impacted most student affairs students but were made well “above” those affected in the organizational hierarchy. This year, especially in spring 2020, we watched higher education leaders make drastic changes–recalling students studying abroad, closing residence halls, moving courses online. It is often said that making change in higher education institutions is like turning the Titanic; in spring 2020, the Titanic turned around overnight.

Perhaps the greatest leadership lesson from this pandemic is that change can occur in higher education if those in power want that change. Teams and task forces can be quickly assembled and can actually be action-oriented when the stakes are high enough. The leadership of student affairs professionals was highlighted when we served on these task forces and were able to elevate our core personal and professional values, advocating for others regardless of the expense to the institution. Student affairs professionals must be prepared to engage in these leadership roles, to engage in university-level discussions about how to adapt quickly to changing circumstances, while still keeping the students’ experiences primary in our decision making.

      • What did you learn from your institutional responses to the pandemic, particularly as it relates to how decisions were made that affected students’ experiences?
      • What changes were made that should be maintained, even after the pandemic? What changes should be reversed?

Social Justice and Inclusion (SJI)

The SJI competency is defined as both a process and goal (ACPA/NASPA, 2015) and is complex, messy, and difficult endeavor. The pandemic revealed such complexity by creating both difficult conditions for all and providing opportunities for equitable access to some who had been previously denied it. For example, safety restrictions created some work-from-home opportunities. Further, many programs, events, and courses were taken to online/virtual formats. Disabled people, including those who are immunocompromised, have been asking for options like these for years, on campus and in society broadly (Keegan, 2020). Students, through their assistantships and full-time work, have been integral in creating accessible opportunities while recognizing that the opportunities were only made available because of the risk to abled people.

Relatedly, it would be irresponsible if we did not name the reality of racial injustice which has marched along and predates the pandemic. The murder of George Floyd reminded some and reasserted for others the reality of anti-black racism, white supremacy, and police brutality. Those realities taken together with a contentious election season promulgated incredibly difficult contexts in the sphere of equity and justice.

A common narrative echoed in social discourse is that COVID-19 and white supremacy are twin pandemics but “To call them ‘twins’ suggests a similar origin, and doing so inadvertently erases centuries of struggle for Black people” (Patton, 2020 para 5). Indeed, COVID-19 and white supremacy are not twin pandemics but they remind us that educators must acknowledge and work within the reality that what happens in the world – not just on our campuses – impacts and should inform our work. This reality runs counter to the competency in that we must focus not just on the harm to campuses and surrounding communities,  but on broad, global, and historically harms.

      • What would it mean for student affairs to retain aspects of our newly more accessible praxis, post pandemic? How might we do this? How might we teach toward this end?
      • What are the ways that we (un)intentionally create and sustain borders between our campuses and the world along SJI? How might we tear them down so that the next pandemic we understand our place in global ecosystems?

Student Learning and Development (SLD)          

The SLD competency asserts that practitioners should possess a “critical understanding of learning and development theories and their use in constructing learning outcomes” (ACPA/NASPA, 2015, p. 14). This means constructing effective programs, lesson plans, and syllabi. We spent the first quarter of the semester developing individual assignment plans, and connecting learning outcomes to assessment activities.

Six weeks into the semester, every plan we had created as a learning community had to be re-envisioned. The careful planning that allowed students to direct their own learning, now – based on student feedback – felt overwhelming. We learned as a community the need for flexible lesson planning and syllabi. The way to balance encroaching ambiguity was to provide students a balance of structure and agency. In other words, this quick shift during COVID-19, mirrored effective approaches in applying student development theory: identify goals/outcomes, develop a strong foundational knowledge, be flexible, and appreciate ambiguity within the structure.

      • In what ways has COVID altered your understanding of student development?
      • What are ways in which you provided or sought structure and flexibility within the pandemic? How might this change post pandemic?

Technology (TECH)

In the first publication of professional standards, aspects of technology use were embedded in each area, but technology has since become a “stand alone” competency. Access and proliferation of the use of technology during the pandemic raises the question again: should technology be a stand-alone competency or embedded in each area? Technology has affected our understanding and practice of each of the competencies.

The professional standards do not identify “communication” or “flexibility” as stand-alone competencies. These skills are critical qualities needed to carry out all the competencies. The pandemic has proven that successful proficiency in all competencies relies on our use and application of technology. Students’ past reflections tended to focus on the opportunities and possibilities that technology affords. We saw many examples of this as courses, academic advising, and counseling sessions went online. Even coffee breaks and social hours became virtual.

Most striking, however, is that there was also a recognition of the limits of technology. Community building, engaging in difficult discussions, and getting students connected – reasons why many of us have chosen student affairs – are more difficult when we are not in the same physical space as students. Campuses can be hostile environments for minoritized populations. Does a more diffused campus community create safer spaces or exacerbate feelings of isolation and otherness? The pandemic has forced us to engage and embrace technology in new and more frequent ways. Post pandemic practice will require us to examine how we balance access and use technology, the benefits and limitations, and the implications for our field and ourselves.

      • How has your competency in technology influenced your development of other competencies?
      • How has COVID-19 highlighted the strengths and limitations of technology use in student affairs?

Advising and Supporting (A/S)

Prior to the pandemic, scholars had already identified critical gaps in graduate preparation for student affairs professionals from an advising and supporting perspective including, supervision/mentoring, crisis management/emergency preparedness, and student mental health concerns (Reynolds & Altabef, 2015). When COVID-19 swept the globe these skills converged and collapsed on each other all at once: exacerbating how and to what degree students would need advising and support.

We engaged with graduate students about the complexities of advising and supporting, including the imperative of taking care of self while taking care of others. At the same time, we focused on how higher education professionals might need to have a stronger systems analysis and praxis related to advising and supporting. To be clear, we understand that the competencies operate in concert with one another and there may be “systems” focus articulated in other competences – such as in the OHR, LPG, and LEAD –  but, with advising and supporting specifically how might support materialize beyond advising? To this end, what it means to advise and help might need to expand to include not simply assisting students to navigate violent conditions but rather, dismantling them. Graduate students have recognized these realities and have shifted their focus to responding to crises, addressing the mental health of students, and getting at the root of confounding issues.

      • How can advising and supporting be focused on structural interventions?
        • An example of an advanced outcome on this competency includes “Provide effective post-traumatic response to campus events/situations, collaborating with other campus departments” (ACPA/NASPA, 2015 p. 37).  What if the campus is creating the stress or responding to it in ways that exacerbate it?
      • What might it mean to advise within violence? Or to support within structures that do not adequately center the humanity of students or professionals?


Professional standards provide guidelines on the skills and knowledge needed for student affairs practice. In 2020, COVID-19 and high profile examples of racial injustice significantly changed the landscapes in which we work. As a collective, we reflected on the overlay of these significant events within the 10 competencies. Our reflections brought us new insights, uncomfortable realizations of the difficulty of our work, and additional questions that can guide our future work.  And so it was for 2020.


ACPA-College Student Educators International & NASPA – Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education (2015). Professional competency areas for student affairs educators.

Keegan, M. (2020, May 13).  Why coronavirus may make the world more accessible. British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC).

Patton, L. (2020, October 7).  We are NOT enduring “twin” pandemics.

Reynolds, A. L. & Altabef, D. (2015). Addressing helping competencies in student affairs: Analysis of helping skills course syllabi. Journal of Student Affairs Research and Practice. 57(2), 220-231.

Stewart, T. J. (2020) Capitalism and the (il)logics of Higher Education’s COVID-19 response: A Black feminist critique. Leisure Sciences. DOI: 10.1080/01490400.2020.1774011

Upcraft, M. L., & Schuh, J. H. (1996). Assessment in student affairs: A guide for practitioners. Jossey-Bass.


About the Authors

Ann M. Gansemer-Topf is an Associate Professor in Higher Education and Student Affairs at Iowa State University.

Terah J. Stewart is an Assistant Professor in Higher Education and Student Affairs at Iowa State University.
Rachel A. Smith is an Assistant Professor in Higher Education and Student Affairs at Iowa State University.

Michael G. Brown is an Assistant Professor in Higher Education and Student Affairs at Iowa State University.

Robert D. Reason is a Professor of Higher Education and Student Affairs and Associate Dean for Undergraduate Academic Affairs in the College of Human Sciences at Iowa State University.