Bridging the Divide: A Call to Action

In a post on Inside Higher Ed earlier this week, author Russell Olwell discussed the importance of faculty mentoring for undergraduates. This rang close to home as I think back on my career as an undergraduate; the faculty that I had in my first year helped me hone my skills as a writer and taught me how to think critically; skills incredibly necessary for an undergraduate student in the program in which I was entering.

Yet, the post also had me reflect on the work I do now as a student affairs educator. I work in Housing & Residence Life at Virginia Tech and our department is constantly thinking of ways to bridge the divide between student affairs and academic affairs (literally divided by the Drill Field) by bringing faculty to the residence halls. Virginia Tech is home to two residential colleges (Residential College at West Ambler Johnston and the Honors Residential Commons at East Ambler Johnston) where tenure track faculty live in the residence halls and interact with students in numerous ways outside the classroom. Programs like these (living learning programs) are essential to bridging that divide and strengthening undergraduate education.

In addition to my work in Housing & Residence Life, I also work with our Fraternity & Sorority Life office due to my position overseeing our on campus fraternities and sororities. In this capacity, I often think of how to bring faculty mentors into the fraternity and sorority life community. While residential programs across the country move towards greater and greater faculty-student interaction, it is essential for other functional areas within student affairs (e.g. fraternity and sorority life, leadership programs, identity centers, etc) to bring in faculty to provide more and more opportunities for faculty and undergraduate students to connect and build relationships.

The work of bridging the divide cannot be left to residence life programs. While the majority of students on a traditional residential campus pass through the residence halls, many students do not find community within those halls. Thus, other student affairs functional areas need to rethink their work (as residential programs still need to do too) to bring in more faculty, helping to bridge that divide.

Graduate Learning

Tomorrow I start my comprehensive exam (comps). 30 pages for two questions over 23 days. Needless to say anxious levels in the program are high currently and my cohort and I are all fixated on comps. Yet, as I have been talking with folks throughout both my program and the department where my assistantship is (the Office of Residence Life), I cannot help but appreciate how much I have grown (and how much I have learned) during my time in graduate school.

Two years are a quick time; especially in graduate school when your days and nights are full. The fast paced environment that is graduate school rarely allows for reflection, even though my program integrates quite a bit of reflection. For example, it was not until the summer between my first and second year of graduate work that I realized how much I had learned during my first year. I was confident in my supervision style and knew I was a quality worker. Yet, I was still timid during my ACUHO-i internship at the University of Washington. I knew I knew student development theory, had a good understanding of organizational theory, and knew a bit about assessment. My time at the UW was good and only continued to emphasize what I was good at (e.g. supervision, assessment, administrative tasks).

Yet, it was not until I returned to Oxford and sat through ORL training that I truly found my passion. It was not until a training on Living Learning Communities (LLCs) that I realized that these academic programs were where my passion lied. LLCs offer a giant potential for students to truly integrate their classroom learning with their co-curricular involvements. The potential that LLCs have for supporting student learning was made clear to me during that session, and my passion for LLCs was realized.

So now, as I prepare for my comps in conjunction with the job search, I have that confidence that I know what I am good at. I know I still have learning to do (learning never ends!) but I have a core set of skills that I am good at. I have a passion area that allows me to integrate my desire to support student learning with my passions of working with students, collaboration with faculty and campus partners, and residential living experiences. While the next 23 days are sure to be filled with long days and short nights due to writing comps, the Placement Exchange, a day of the NASPA Annual Conference, and other phone interviews, I know I have a core set of skills that will serve me well as I enter student affairs as a full time student affairs educator.

These are exciting times to be in. I am glad I now realize the amount of learning (and growth) that has occurred during my time in Oxford. I am a fundamentally different person than when I started this program in August 2014. So, I am ready for this new wave of challenges; bring it on!

What’s Student Learning?

The past few weeks have seen me (and the countless other student affairs graduate students) engage in a variety of practice interviews. While these have been incredibly helpful, the one lesson that is sticking out is the consistent piece of feedback which comments on my constant talk about supporting student learning; one practice interviewer even went so far as to say that was the theme of my interview. While I am excited that I have this overarching theme in my interview answers, I still wonder what exactly is student learning and how does student affairs measure that learning.

In George S. Blimling’s new book Student Learning in College Residence Halls: What Works, What Doesn’t and Why they talked about student learning and what it looks like; specifically George Blimling (2015) stated that the principles of student learning are:

(1) engaging students in active learning, (2) helping students develop coherent values and ethical standards, (3) setting and communicating high expectations for student learning, (4) using systemic inquiry to improve student and institutional performance, (5) using resources effectively to achieve institutional missions and goals, (6) forging educational partnerships that advance student learning, and (7) building supportive and inclusive communities (p.18-19)

These principles, as outlined by Blimling, are helpful in conceptualizing how student affairs educators can support student learning; no matter the functional area that the educator works in.

No matter where we work, who our students are, and what our funding structures look like, it is essential that student affairs educators create environments where student learning is at the core of our work. To have this learning focused practice, educators should do the following:

  1. Develop measurable learning outcomes for all programs and initiatives. Being clear on the purpose of the program/initiative will allow the student affairs educator to focus their efforts to support student learning. Using those learning outcomes to guide program development and implementation will strengthen the support for student learning. In addition, these learning outcomes need to be shared with participants to ensure they are aware of what it is they are learning.
  2. Partner with faculty. Student affairs educators are firmly aware that learning can (and should) occur outside the classroom. Thus it is essential that student affairs educators develop meaningful partnerships with faculty to support student learning. Not only do academic affairs normally have more resources to support student learning, invested faculty can increase student involvement and engagement.
  3. Infuse opportunities for reflection for students. Students today are ever more focused on “what’s next” and the “value added” of the experience. Whether or not you are troubled by that, that is where are students are at. Thus, it is imperative that we slow experiences down and provide meaningful reflection opportunities for students to engage in. Reflection is a powerful tool in supporting student learning, and something that needs to be instilled into the practice of student affairs educators more often.
  4. Utilize research and assessment to guide practice. Scholars around the country are developing new ways to better support student learning. Using this new information to guide practice is essential to best support student learning. This is not to say, though, that every single thing published that seems like a good idea will work at your campus; taking pause and reflecting on whether this research makes sense at your campus will allow you to avoid jumping down a rabbit hole of implementing best practices, only to see them fail.

Supporting student learning needs to move beyond simply talking about it. We need to actually support student learning. Changing our practice as educators will be one way we move our field forward to better integrate learning opportunities into our work.

Works Cited

Blimling, G.S. (2015) Student learning in college residence halls: What works, what doesn’t, and

why. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.