Teaching Student Affairs Administration Online via a Simulated Institution and a Pandemic

Becki Elkins
University of Wisconsin-La Crosse

Garrett Denning
University of Wisconsin-La Crosse

Beck Hawkins
University of Wisconsin-La Crosse

I (Becki) left class at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse (UWL) on March 10th feeling both exhilarated and concerned. I was excited the class simulation had gone well, covering the broad range of intended content and, I hoped, achieving the essential learning outcomes. The students, however, looked a bit haggard as they departed class. And, why wouldn’t they? They had just spent the past two and half hours wrestling with problems seemingly beyond their experience, knowledge, and skills. Their simulated institution, Chapin University, was experiencing an epidemic and, serving as the Division of Student Affairs, they were tasked with responding.

The “firepox lab,” as it has come to be called by students, was written over a year before the COVID-19 pandemic emerged. It was one of a series of situations the second-year master’s degree students in my Administration of Human and Organizational Resources course faced over the duration of a semester-long simulation. When developing this course, I struggled to conceptualize how to present the content in a way that would engage learners. Through conversations with my partner, who worked with medical students, I began to consider the possibilities offered through simulation and problem-based learning.

Simulations present “rich learning opportunities where all participating [students] practice, reflect on, and build from…experiences that closely approximate realistic problems of practice” (Dotger, 2013, p. 9). De Coninck, Valcke, Ophalvens, and Vanderlinde (2018) argued that simulation, when well-designed and situated in a supportive context, could present ethically-challenging scenarios; allow students to consider multiple vantage points and make mistakes without fear of harming others; and afford opportunities to practice applying theory, knowledge and skills to solve problems. Distinct from simulation, problem-based learning (PBL) is a learner-centered approach to curricular education that grants students opportunities to integrate theory with practice and apply their knowledge and skills to a viable problem (Savery, 2015). Essential to the success of this method is the selection of appropriate ill-structured problems – those lacking simple solutions – as well as opportunities for students to reflect on and debrief their experiences (Savery, 2015). Both simulation and PBL have been used extensively in health and helping professions education for years (Cant & Cooper, 2010; Dodds, Heslop, & Meredith, 2018; Neville, 2009). I incorporated both in the Administration course.

I developed a simulated university, drawing on data, organizational structures, mission statements, and strategic plans from actual institutions to craft Chapin University. The syllabus was presented as the “staff handbook” for the Division of Student Affairs. Before the semester began, students were given descriptions of a series of unit director positions as well as senior leadership positions (e.g., VPSA, dean of students). They were asked to consider their own strengths and interests, along with those of their peers.

During the first class, I entered as Chapin’s president, presented my hopes and expectations for student affairs, and then left the group to make collective decisions about who would assume what role for the semester. With position decisions made, we discussed the parameters for the course – (a) we would enter every class in our assumed roles, and (b) at the end of each class, we would have a “balcony” moment, where we stepped out of role to debrief. The division was organized into staff teams as well as committees on staff selection, budget oversight, and critical incident preparation and response. Each individual was presented with their unit’s organizational chart and budget.

Students were paired with a mentor with extensive student affairs leadership experience. Staff meetings and division meetings were facilitated by the students in senior leadership roles. Committees were responsible for developing and presenting professional development sessions on relevant topics. Three “lab” sessions were held over the span of the semester – touching on supervision, budgeting, and crisis planning/response. The group was presented with an ill-structured problem to which they had to respond.

In the Spring 2019 course, the “firepox” epidemic served as the crisis planning and response lab scenario. For the Spring 2020 course, I had intended to use it simply as the backdrop to a practice session focused on interpersonal conflict, to give students an idea of what to expect from a lab session. The students, however, focused their response solely on the crisis situation and refused to engage with any of the interpersonal conflict dimensions. At our March 10th balcony session, we discussed the many challenges associated with crisis incidents, including the need for, and occasional lack of, institutional plans for preventing, mitigating, and responding to crises. On Wednesday, March 11th, the UWL administration made the first of several announcements concerning the spring semester, ultimately deciding to move all courses online for the duration.

As I began to settle into the reality that I would not sit in a classroom with these students again, I also thought about just ending the simulation and holding asynchronous discussions for the remaining six weeks. As I watched my student affairs colleagues across the globe move to “working from home” scenarios, however, I decided that we would continue our Chapin University simulation – that our “firepox” epidemic would turn out to be part of the COVID-19 pandemic and that we, too, would be working from home. We moved all of our “meetings” online, held our committee-presented professional development sessions online, used the pandemic and the effects on higher education as our “ill-structured problems,” and spent our balcony moments debriefing, reflecting, and supporting one another.

Experiencing Class

The first day of class, I (Beck) walked into a room of my cohort members filled with apprehension and anxiety. In our last semester of graduate school, we thought we knew what to expect: lecture, notetaking, and discussion. Our Administration course would not give us the same comfort to which we had become accustomed. That day, we stepped into our roles at Chapin University, leaving our graduate student identities at the door. I was surprised at how quickly our university became real; by our second day, we were “seasoned” professionals navigating complex institutional situations.

“We are literally dealing with situations that happen in student affairs before we ACTUALLY have to deal with [them],” Jasmin, Chapin Vice President for Student Affairs, said. “I don’t know where else you would get that ever in your student affairs career.” The Division of Student Affairs at Chapin dealt with situations we have witnessed at institutions throughout our college career: pervasive relationship conflicts, rumors, budget cuts, student protests, etc. Yet, as graduate students, it felt difficult to truly understand the decisions happening behind closed doors.

Working at Chapin allowed us to experience making such decisions first-hand. “It’s really helpful to have an opportunity to test out what it’s like to operate within the constraints of our individual roles and positions in a classroom context with the ability to ask questions and discuss with peers, before moving into a purely professional role,” Laura, Chapin’s Assistant Vice President of Student Affairs, shared.  This simulation gave us a glimpse into leadership roles we otherwise would not know much about until later in our careers. As Jasmin said, “It’s not every day you get hired for a Vice President of Student Affairs position with only 2…years of student affairs experience.”

Midway through the course, Chapin University faced a campus epidemic of “firepox.” The day started like any other. A few division stakeholders excused themselves from our typical division meeting to respond to various situations; students were exhibiting firepox symptoms at a rapid pace. We desperately tried to contain a situation that seemed insurmountable. We quickly learned “the importance of communication and having an emergency plan.” A student emphasized how “each person had their own version of information—something slightly different from everyone else,” which ultimately led to clumsy miscommunications and overall disarray. Laura described the simulation as “messy [and] stressful,” but noted “as a class we were able to joke about it in the moment.” We left Chapin feeling emotional and exhausted, thinking of how we could have changed our response and saved more lives.

Moving Online

There was not much time for my classmates and me (Garrett) to process the firepox lab, as the next day we discovered our classes would be moving online under the cloud of COVID-19.  Our places of sleep, relaxation, and rejuvenation soon also became our classrooms and graduate assistant work environments. The transition was stressful.  As Paula, Chapin’s Director of Student Conduct, stated, “It’s been harder to convince myself to sit and do the readings for sure. Time management is hard because of the balance of this supposed ‘overabundance of free time’ and the need to find those times where I can actually focus and do effective work and retain what I’m reading.” 

Becki changed some of the assignments due, but continued our class times and the simulation virtually, which some, like Paula, described as extremely helpful.  For others, the loss of in-person class was difficult, but moving online had unintended benefits.  “While in-person class makes the simulation feel more real, I do like how the online format has improved my technology skills and perception of online learning,” they said.  “I didn’t think we would be able to present to the class at the same level as an in-person presentation, but I was wrong. We were still able to have small group discussions and activities without much difficulty. There is way more that can be done with online learning than discussion boards and quizzes.” 

There was no level of normalcy to what we experienced. The move online affected us greatly. Paula explained,

I feel like the hardest part is that we’re all experiencing anxiety and this weird limbo-weightless-weighted-nonsensical feeling that impacts how we show up to class. When we were in person and experiencing our ‘normal’ levels of anxiety and feelings, there were still more nonverbals and different cues we could give and read and receive, and that’s not really a thing in class anymore because we’re as present as we’re able, but sometimes we’re only able to bring 10% of our energy to class so we’re either not giving those cues or able to read them as well as normal.

Trusting Ourselves and One Another

We shared a bond of trust throughout the experience. We had come far from the young graduate students we once were, having entered Becki’s History and Philosophy class as one of the most diverse SAA on-campus cohorts.  We had overcome strife and interpersonal conflict throughout our first three semesters, becoming stronger as individuals and as a cohort.  Our first encounter with Chapin demonstrated this growth, as we nominated one another for positions by opining what we admired about them and how they fit the role.

The trust in one another extended from a trust in ourselves and our ability to do this work. I (Garrett) worried that I was not what my peers thought I could be. Despite that fear, I knew the importance of my work as a Director of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion and to rely on my peers and my mentors who trusted my abilities. I also knew to trust my intentionality in what I did. Others also experienced this self-trust. An anonymous student stated, “It pushed me to be a leader when I was so reluctant to ever take on that role. I feel a thousand times more confident in my abilities than I ever have before.”  Jasmin concurred:

I was apprehensive that I would not do justice in my position, but I actually was able to pull from a lot of my graduate experiences and felt qualified at times. Often times, I felt it was my job to make sure other cohort members felt just as comfortable as I became to be in my role….

This trust and dedication to each other continued throughout the class and came to its peak at the end of a presentation by our Crisis Response Team (CRT).  Knowing that leading and hearing a presentation on crisis response was weighing deeply on all of us, given the pandemic, the CRT turned to Becki’s “balcony moment,” allowing us to share how we were doing overall.  We shared tears, comfort, and encouragement in a way many of us would not be comfortable doing in any other class or with any other professor.  This was a moment of love and appreciation, likely informed by a pandemic and impending graduation, but nonetheless facilitated by each other in the hands of a professor we had come to trust. It felt real, as though we were truly a division of student affairs working from home and finding our way together through an unknown landscape.

Lessons Learned

Tuesday, May 5th, nearly two months after the “firepox” lab, we held our last class and our final balcony session. I (Becki) posed two questions to the students, asking them to consider what they had learned and what might have further enhanced that learning. From this conversation, I drew three conclusions. First, while students described the course as “definitely unique” and “difficult,” most of them saw it as a significant learning experience. They indicated that it forced them to address their own issues with imposter syndrome, helped them learn how to work under pressure, expanded their understanding of student affairs administration, nudged them to think more institutionally, and offered opportunities to question and critique institutional power, cultures, and politics. Second, students expressed a desire for additional balcony time to process what was happening and more coherently apply what they were learning from their readings and mentors. Nearly all of them echoed a need for more time to “talk about” what they were experiencing.

Finally, trust was essential to the success of the simulation. While they expressed trust for me – both as an instructor and in helping them navigate the online transition – they entered this course somewhat wary of one another. Having experienced many of the inevitable conflicts student affairs master’s cohorts face, they remained somewhat skeptical of one another even as they entered their last courses. Over the span of the semester, however, the students found themselves dependent upon one another to address problems facing Chapin University and, as noted earlier, increasingly grew to listen to and trust one another.

The face-to-face version of this course requires a great deal of work on the part of the instructor and the students. The transition to an online format required even more work as problems and logistics became more complex. Because of this work, each time I have taught the course, I have questioned whether to teach it again as a simulation with problem-based learning. With the transition to an online format and the “clunkiness” of the last half of the semester, I anticipated the students would agree that the simulation was too much. Instead, they told me they learned a great deal from their time at Chapin University, even working online in the midst of a global pandemic that was shaking the foundation of their futures in higher education. In turn, I am placing my trust in them and will begin preparing for next year’s labs.


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De Coninck, K., Valcke, M., Ophalvens, I., & Vanderlinde, R. (2019). Bridging the theory-practice gap in teacher education: The design and construction of simulation-based learning environments. In K. Hellmann, J. Kreutz, M. Schwichow, & K. Zaki (Eds.), Kohärenz in der Lehrerbildung. Wiesbaden, Germany: Springer VS. DOI: 10.1007/978-3-658-23940-4_17

Dodds, C., Heslop, P., & Meredith, C. (2018). Using simulation-based education to help social work students prepare for practice. Social Work Education: The International Journal, 37(5), 597-602.

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Savery, J. R. (2015). Overview of problem-based learning: Definitions and distinctions. In A. E. Walker, H. Leary, C. E. Hmelo-Silver, & P. A. Ertmer (Eds.), Essential readings in problem-based learning: Exploring and extending the legacy of Howard S. Barrows. West Lafayette, IN: Purdue University Press.

Author Bios

Becki Elkins is assistant professor of Student Affairs Administration and director of the Student Affairs Administration and Leadership Ed.D. program at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. She teaches courses in student affairs administration, organization, governance, history, and law and policy.

Garrett Denning (he/him | they/theirs) is a second-year master’s degree student in Student Affairs Administration at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. He is interested in services for LGBTQ students and equity, diversity, and inclusion.

Beck Hawkins (he/him | they/theirs) is a second-year master’s degree student in Student Affairs Administration at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. He is interested in case management, student success support, college students in recovery, and equity, diversity, and inclusion.

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