You Say You Need An Evolution

Last night and this morning on Twitter – a group of Student Affairs/Higher Educational professionals entered into an intense conversation about CSP/SA graduate programs.

Many opinions were expressed, challenge questions were posed, and new ideas brought forward. People shared frustrations, offered counter points of view, and kindly agreed to disagree on what is a very personal and important subject to many SA professionals. People discussed masters degrees, technology in SA graduate programs, whether graduate assistantships in SA should or should not be offered to those who are not members of a CSP/SA masters program, if student development theories are relevant, and ultimately whether CSP/SA masters programs should exist at all.

The conversation was insightful, fascinating, and direct. However, as I sit here on this plane heading from Houston to Chicago, I find myself focusing on three key issues I will not be able to communicate in 140 characters or less (thank goodness for blogs). Here they are:

1. Masters degree programs are critical to Student Affairs/Student Personnel work, but they must be updated to include more relevant courses and experiences.

In the past twenty years, Student Affairs has become far more complicated than our predecessors could have imagined. Crisis situations, legal requirements, mental health issues, aging facilities and budgetary implications have become far more prevalent in our work. Add to this the continual reorganization (and sometimes elimination) of Student Affairs divisions, outsourcing key components of traditional SA programs, advances in technology and addition of social media, and the way we do our work shifts like sand beneath our feet. However, very few of our graduate programs or faculty have analyzed the course requirements for programs and matched them to the current and future needs of our work. How are we equipping our graduate students with the skills necessary to work in an ever-changing environment? Where is the exposure to SA experiences beyond simply the programmatic, conduct, leadership and academic parts of our work? Where is the intentional exposure to and training on navigating the politics of a campus? How are we weaving technology into classroom and GA experiences, so our new professionals have a good grasp of these things before they enter into the SA workforce? By not re-examining and redesigning our programs, we are failing our students and perpetuating problems within our own field.

2. Student development theory is one of the cornerstones of our field, and must be taught as part of the curriculum.

I get it – I really do. The traditional theories in our work were developed primarily using affluent white males. How on earth can these possibly be relevant today? Maybe we should simply count them as history, acknowledge their presence, and then move on to those that are more relevant, or better yet – scrap teaching theory completely and simply focus on practice.

Sorry folks, I disagree. These “irrelevant” theories are the foundations of our work with students. These theories also launched the more current, modern and inclusive theories, and as such need to be taught and understood. Teaching students how to critically analyze theoretical frameworks is an essential skill, as it supports their ability to critically analyze all sorts of other things – like traditional policies on campus – and helps underscore an appreciation of inclusion in all facets of our work. Our challenge as educators is to help these theories become real for our students, so they can understand the “why” behind our work and apply the use of these theories appropriately. Furthermore, any research conducted by our graduate students should have some basis in a theoretical framework in order to better connect it to the relevancy and credibility of our profession. Theoretical foundations exist and are taught in all areas of academia, why should Student Affairs be any different?

3. We in Student Affairs must do a better job finding and creating graduate assistantships and internships in related fields for our graduate students.

It’s no secret that direct experience in student affairs as a graduate assistant and/or intern is one of the absolute best ways to help prepare future young professionals in our field. However, all too often budgetary constraints cause two things to happen in CSP/SA graduate programs – additional students are admitted to the program, and graduate assistantships in key areas get cut. To that end, and to address the changes mentioned above, Student Affairs programs and professionals must develop a network of graduate assistantship and internship opportunities within Student Affairs departments, outside of SA in other areas of campus, and in related off-campus areas. Many campuses have student services or enrollment management functions that are not part of their student affairs/student life division, but that are part of this type of division at other universities. How about collaborating with other nearby universities/colleges/community colleges, or with corporate partners? What about developing a hybrid graduate assistantship that helps with facility work order systems, with budget development, with IT, with transportation services, or with advancement? These are all critical skills, and when balanced with programmatic and development internships, can help create a well-rounded new professional. The challenge for graduate programs is that we as faculty and administrators need to take more time with our graduate students to help them best plan out a GA/internship path that will lead them to success.

You may view these words simply as the ramblings of a long-time veteran in the field (“get off my lawn!”), or maybe something that sparks additional conversations about how we best prepare our future SA leaders and teachers. Perhaps it is time that key people from our professional associations have honest conversations about overarching competences and how – both curricularly and co-curricularly – our universities and colleges are teaching graduate students about the value, dimension and intricacies of our profession.

I hold true to the conviction that we need to evolve our graduate programs into ones that work for the betterment of our grads, our field and the students we serve. I get that there are challenges with this – faculty involvement, academic freedom, in some area limited expertise as the issues are so new – but we cannot be afraid to move forward. It’s time – and it’s worth the heavy lifting.