Role of a Graduate Student Honor Society in Encouraging Professional Identity Development

written by Christopher Giroir and Christine Austin

Author Note

Christopher Giroir and Christine E. Austin are both faculty members in higher education administration graduate programs. Dr. Austin is currently employed at Arkansas Tech University as a Professor, while Dr. Giroir is at The University of Louisiana, Lafayette, where he serves as an Associate Professor.

Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Christopher Giroir, Educational Foundations and Leadership, PO Box 43643, Lafayette, LA 70504

Contact: [email protected]

Role of a Graduate Student Honor Society in Encouraging Professional Identity Development

Student affairs professionals know the benefits associated with undergraduate campus involvement in student groups, but little study has been done on how involvement in student groups might impact graduate students (Foubert & Grainger, 2006). An examination of the role and benefits associated with honor societies provides a worthy argument as to why there is a need for more among student affairs/higher education graduate preparation programs.   Involvement within an honorary contributes to the graduate student socialization process, aids in the development of a professional identity, provides opportunities for self-authorship, and provides examples of how to apply the professional competencies for the student affairs profession.

Involvement in co-curricular activities has long been considered essential to the holistic development of undergraduate students (Astin, 1999; Kuh, 1995). It is this focus on undergraduate student development that makes up the theoretical base of the student affairs profession (Evans, Forney, Guido, Patton, & Renn, 2010). Graduate education socialization, while not a specific focus of many student development theorists, incorporates many concepts of psychosocial and cognitive development to students seeking advanced education (Gansemer-Topf, Ewing Ross, & Johnson, 2006). The graduate years begin a student’s socialization into the culture and values of their chosen profession and thus create an opportunity to positively impact a student’s continuing development and path into the profession (Perez, 2016).

Classroom learning is devoted to the history, culture, and theoretical background of the field. Practicums and internships common to most graduate preparation programs are useful for applying new skills (CAS, 2012), but engagement outside of the curriculum is limited at the graduate level. A graduate student honor society offers the opportunity to add co-curricular involvement to the formal degree plan and allows students to gain and develop the competencies that will make them successful student affairs professionals.

Honor Societies

Involvement as an undergraduate student has been shown to correlate positively with increased success by offering opportunities for skill building and networking with people influential in their future careers (Astin, 1999). While graduate students, particularly those in student affairs professional preparation, have had the opportunity for involvement as undergraduates (Taub & McEwen, 2006), many have increased responsibilities and roles that hinder such involvement at the graduate level. Graduate students’ needs are more varied and dependent upon a student’s particular characteristics, including but not limited to: age, marital status, being a parent, or full-time employment status (Baker, 1992). These obstacles do not mean that socialization, support for identity and professional development, or opportunities for career development are unnecessary (Magolda, 1998); in fact, all of these items might even be more critical once a student makes the decision to enroll in professional studies. The time, energy, and money required for further education demand well-considered opportunities for students to practice and hone their professional competencies and make critical contacts before they embark on a job search (Simon, 2012).

Unfortunately, graduate students encounter a major obstacle through the lack of opportunities for engaging with graduate organizations. Austin (2002) posits that graduate education relies on the department to provide support to graduate students. Departmental support is often primarily academic with little in the way of psychosocial and professional development. Research on student organizations in student affairs graduate preparation programs is lacking and research on graduate honorary organizations in student affairs even more so.

Studies conducted on the membership of the national honor society, Psi Chi, examined the benefits of undergraduate honor society membership in psychology (Ferrari & Appleby, 2006; Ferrari, Athey, Moriarty, & Appleby, 2006). The research pointed towards a positive impact on skill acquisition and future career goals for its members. Participation in an honor society positively impacted the students selected by promoting association with other successful students and allows for crucial network building. While the research was performed on undergraduate student members, it is conceivable that just as student development theory can be extended to encompass the further development of graduate students, the benefits of membership and leadership in an honor society can also extend to advanced study.

The student affairs discipline has its own honor society, Chi Sigma Alpha (n.d.) that could easily offer similar value to the student affairs graduate student experience. Chi Sigma Alpha is built on the tenets of academics, research, and service to the profession, and offers opportunities for a deeper engagement with the field similar to those for members of Psi Chi (Ferrari et al., 2006).

Benefits from Participation in a Graduate Honor Society

In a study conducted by Abrahamowicz (1988), participants in student organizations had positive perceptions of relationships with faculty, administration, and their fellow students. Positive relationships with faculty can lead to opportunities for joint research and writing in the field that can add new literature to the student affairs’ body of knowledge. The Chi Sigma Alpha pillar of research encourages such cooperation, and positive relationships with faculty and administrators can lead to employment recommendations for students (Duberstein, 2009).

Not only does involvement in campus organizations have positive effects while the student is actively pursuing their degree, but studies have shown long term benefits (Schuh & Laverty, 1983). Schuh and Laverty (1983), explored long-term effects of involvement from campus organizations. The study showed a correlation to student organization membership with continued organizational involvement and continued interactions with a variety of peers beyond graduation. Graduates can be connected and involved with their honorary by serving as mentors and practitioner-scholars to current student members. These graduates provide first-hand knowledge from the field on current challenges facing student affairs administrators and how to address these situations. In addition, members may be more likely to get involved with national associations to stay connected with current issues and possibly take on leadership roles within the associations (Ferrari et al., 2006).

Pascarella and Terenzini (1991) determined college graduates perceived their co-curricular involvement as “having a substantial impact on the development of interpersonal and leadership skills important to general occupational success” (p. 478). By providing activities and professional development workshops for members in an honorary, graduate faculty are equipping their students with the tools they need to be successful in a competitive job market. Mackes (2017) reports, “More than 70 percent of employers have consistently identified leadership, teamwork, written communication ability, problem solving, and work ethic as key résumé attributes. Teamwork, verbal communication skills, and problem solving are the skills employers consider important for success” (p. 8).  Today’s college student is focused on securing employment upon completion of their academic studies and one of our roles as advisors to student groups or faculty is to create opportunities for them to gain the skills most desired among employers.

Lastly, the use of graduate honorary organizations offers the opportunity to connect academic and student affairs in partnership. Graduate education has been identified as “fragmented and isolating” (Guentzel & Nesheim, 2006). Through participation of graduate students, faculty, and administrators with this student organization, this partnership can be modelled to stakeholders. The inclusion of student affairs administrators in the honorary organization can offer students the in training professional socialization they need for their development.

Honor Societies Role in Graduate Student Socialization

Socialization. Weidman-Twale-Stein’s graduate student socialization model (2001) states entering graduate students often experience a process where they learn how to balance not only the new demands of their academic program, but they must also be aware of a new set of norms, values, and attitudes practiced by their new faculty and peers to successfully navigate their graduate experience. Socialization is a process that consists of the integration of cultural (one’s preconceived values, thoughts, etc.) and social capital (interactions with peers, faculty, and others) while making adjustments as necessary to meet personal goals (Weidman, 2015). The integration of inter-personal (peer, faculty, mentor) and intra-personal (studying, reflection, learning) interactions helps accumulate social capital for the graduate student through their involvement in a student group/honorary. For many new students they believe their focus should be on improving the intra-personal by acquiring “the values, norms, attitudes, and beliefs associated with their discipline and with the profession at large” (Tierney & Rhoads, 1993, p. 23). The inter-personal interaction is equally important and can be provided by a graduate student organization such as an honor society. By offering mentor/mentee socials, mock interviews, case study competitions, and developmental workshops on topics such as professional ethics, current issues, and trends in higher education, graduate preparation programs are helping future administrators embrace their field and are contributing to what Tierney (1991) identifies as professional anchoring to the profession for their student members.

Professional Identity. Student affairs graduate preparation programs present information to their students regarding how to develop a professional identity in the student affairs profession.   Carpenter (2003) has derived a model that describes three stages toward a professional identity – formative, application, and additive. While each stage contributes to the growth of a professional identity, it is during the third stage—additive, where organizational membership might be most effective. The additive stage occurs when an individual takes on a more contributory role to the profession. Individuals at this stage actively engage in the field through scholarly productivity, mentoring, policy formation, and top leadership roles in national associations. According to Carpenter, a professional can be identified as someone who is learning, doing, and contributing to the work of student affairs. These constructs can be correlated back to the basic principles of academics, research, and service which are the foundational pillars of the honorary student organization of Chi Sigma Alpha (n.d.).

Some examples demonstrating professional identity growth through Chi Sigma Alpha may include learning more about the profession through their course work, attending workshops where professionals in the field of student affairs speak to them on relevant current issues, or developing mentor relationships with current student affairs professionals. Students are engaged in scholarly activities ranging from reading current research in the field, developing presentations on various topics for their practicums/internships/graduate assistantships, or by attending/presenting at conferences on relevant research impacting the field of student affairs. Lastly, the honorary encourages members to give back to the student affairs profession by presenting informational workshops about the field or engaging in service projects designed to benefit the university, local, or national community.

Self-Authorship. Graduate preparation faculty work to empower their students to explore who they are as both individuals and who they would like to be as future student affairs practitioners. Faculty and student affairs professionals are steering graduate students to take and shape their intellectual identity while in graduate school. Magolda’s (2001) work on self-authorship can be used as a foundational framework for helping graduate students in student affairs preparation programs, but in particular in an honor society, to identify who they truly are as student affairs professionals. As Perez noted in her work (2016), self-authorship has been underutilized when it comes to adult development, in particular the intrapersonal and interpersonal growth of student affairs professionals. Participation in a graduate honorary may provide opportunities that will challenge members to identify their thought process and demonstrate their development and movement toward self-authorship by providing case studies centering on complex issues impacting student affairs.

Graduate honor societies can use the self-authorship theory to empower their members to use the professional competencies of the profession. Members in a graduate honorary can apply and use the ten competency areas in their work and service in some form. Applying skills listed under the leadership competency area will help build effective and confident student affairs administrators. In each of the competency areas there are three skill sets (basic, intermediate, and advanced) that explain the suggested competencies professionals should meet. These competency levels can be compared to the different stages of Magolda’s self-authorship theory (2001). As new members of the honorary, students are not confident in their roles and have a good grasp of what they need to do as members of the organization. They follow the formula (stage one) of gaining an understanding of the basic competencies listed for the leadership competency. For instance, they may begin to see how teamwork and teambuilding works with their fellow members (ACPA/NASPA, 2010). As members of the honorary continue their involvement with the organization, they may gain more confidence in their leadership skills and contemplate whether they want to take on more responsibilities with the organization. Magolda would classify these individuals at the crossroads and self-authorship stages of the theory as they begin to take on more responsibilities and become actively engaged in making decisions for the student organization (2008). It is at this point, where graduate students in an honorary may begin applying the skills listed under the intermediate and advanced levels of the competency area very clearly. They assume leadership roles with the organization and begin to take ownership for decisions and practices with the organization (NASPA, 2010). Lastly, members of the honorary are invited to be engaged with the organization, even after graduation. As alumni of the organization they can serve as role models or mentors for new members to the organization and help them identify the type of student affairs leader they want to be.

Professional Competencies. When exploring the professional competencies associated with the profession, involvement in a graduate honorary organization is supported by several areas; however, the leadership competency area has the most obvious connection. Faculty encourage students to use basic and intermediate leadership skills and practices by taking on roles to help with the management and oversight of the student organization. For instance, student leaders may be asked to facilitate consensus building for decisions impacting the student organization. Involvement in the organization also sets the stage for students to feel they can have the potential to make positive contributions to their campus and the overall student affairs profession. Another competency area which can be impacted through a graduate honorary is Social Justice and Inclusion. Educating student members about ways to embrace and become advocates for diversity and inclusion can be made available through programming for the graduate honorary. For example, inviting in a presenter to give a presentation on intersectionality within disability support services could spur conversations among members about interpersonal development along race, class, and ability, thus demonstrating a practical way to implement the social justice and inclusion competency area. Finding ways to include graduate students in professional development opportunities exclusive for staff and faculty can increase awareness and advocacy for underrepresented populations. Programs such as Safe Zone or Ally Training while beneficial for all participants is very synergistic for graduate students as it allows them to interact and grow as rising professionals, but also strengthen their prowess and understanding of marginalized populations. Overall, encouraging involvement and leadership within a graduate honorary devoted to the student affairs profession is an easy way for students to put into practice all the professional competencies.

Conclusions/Future Directions

The opportunity to test their own abilities through membership and leadership in a graduate student honor society will allow students another avenue for exploring their professional identity (Ferrari et. al., 2006). Currently there are less than 30 active chapters of Chi Sigma Alpha in the United States (n.d.). Expansion of this honor society and other social organizations geared toward graduate student involvement is encouraged. It is important to note there are differences in membership requirements between an honorary organization verses a social club/group. Most honor societies will have certain academic requirements for members (i.e. specific GPA), service requirements, and in some instances other specific requirements are found with honorary groups such as research expectations. In addition, some honor societies will require membership dues, which may not be the case for some social clubs/organizations. Future research also needs to be performed on the impact of an honor society to a student’s future success, and specifically on the impact to graduate students in the area of engagement in student organizations. A graduate education is an investment and every effort to make students successful upon completion of their degree is worthwhile.

Reflection Questions

  • In what ways are graduate preparation programs encouraging their students to get involved with co-curricular organizations on their campuses?
  • How can participation in a graduate honor society in student affairs differ from involvement in other co-curricular activities? 


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