Looking at Student Affairs Through a New Collaborative Lens

by Max Koskoff, MS

Students walking on campus

Leigh Trail/Shutterstock

Reflecting on Careers in Student Affairs Month (CSAM), I want to take a moment and present a different approach to student affairs. Perhaps this approach has to do with how my mind, position, maybe even values, have changed over time while in the field. I want all of us to rethink how we look at the field of student affairs. I want us to look at how we are showing up for students and making them successful.

Doubling Down on Student Success
Now is the time we need to double down on being solution-oriented for student success and reflecting on CSAM may be just the time to investigate, or even reinvigorate, your potential change into a new path in student affairs. When I first thought of student affairs, I thought of student activities because it was what I knew, and I think each person who has had that same conversation, comes at it from a different lens. However, rarely, do we think of the other lenses that are out there and how to get there. Even more rarely do we showcase the other people that support student success because we, as an industry, usually like the limelight on our own department because of a resource-based view, this is flawed thinking. We need to flip it and rethink what will best support student success and, as professionals, how we best support those efforts.

Differing Departments That All Matter
As a director of residence life, I work with a lot of departments, but I was recently given a project to work with our advancement office on a substantial project which I had never done before. I supported various initiatives prior but never anything of this significance. The initiative was focused on saying thank you to two massive donors and trustees and creating a plan to thank them for their generous gift in funding a renovation to a residence hall. Now, here is where most people may say, ‘Well that’s not the job of student affairs’ and here is where I believe that is an old school mindset. My position is to support current and future students. If me working with, and educating, advancement about the renovations of a residence hall, and getting groups of people to take photos and write thank you notes, supports the overall mission for students to be successful then that is my job that day.

We need to move past the idea that student affairs is residence life and student activities. It is disability services, it is academic advising, study abroad, it is admissions, it is advancement, it is the wellness center. All of these different departments and offices work towards the continued support of our students. I mean we can even more broadly say athletics, human resources, payroll, physical plant, and public safety may be considered student affairs. So, I go back to the notion that we need to change how we phrase the answer to the question “Who is student affairs?” To provide a more respectful answer, in my opinion, it is anyone who actively seeks the engagement of a student entering, persisting, and graduating from an institution.

Changing the Paradigm
I believe we can do this as a community in a few different ways. Each way is as important as the others. Depending on where you sit, whether you are a job seeker, already in a position, a hiring manager, or even on a cabinet, we can each actively support the paradigm shift to support student success.

As a candidate, when you are interviewing for a position, ask big questions, and ask everyone the same question. That question should be about the values ​​and culture of the institution and how they are represented. Other questions to ask may include system questions and questions about COVID-19. Ask these questions in the first-round interview because they are make-or-break questions, if a place doesn’t match your values, even at the right salary, you probably don’t want to be a part of the organization.

If you are already in a position, and have the opportunity to attend professional development conferences, try to create true connections with people. I’m great at small talk, but can’t stand it, I really am interested in getting to know people’s stories, not for any particular reason, but just so there are connections and networks. When you get back from conferences, share other’s experiences, inform your colleagues who are impacted by what you learned, if you went to a great session on academic advising tell the academic advising staff, ‘Hey I went to a session where they talked about X , and here is why I think it could work here.’

Once inside the organization, you can start working towards changing the paradigm and aligning it towards student success by collaborating with different stakeholders. Pick up the phone, hop on a Zoom call, reach out to your advancement office, your disability services office, or your admissions office. I’m not asking you to take on more work, I’m simply saying how you can harmonize your strengths towards student success. Almost row the boat in the same direction.

If you sit in an executive position, I encourage you to do some of the following, engage with individuals who are based in systems and operations and ask them what they need for on-the-ground support. Encourage conversations and outside-of-the-box thinking about what technologies, staffing, and resources are needed to support student success. Learn from new employees about what brought them to the institution and how they see themselves as supporting student success in their role. To create that sense of belonging we all love to see, be engaged in the involvement and vibrancy of student life around campus,

Allowing Yourself to Leave the Position
We’ve come to the end. You can’t change everything about an institution’s culture. You can’t solve every problem that is thrown at you, and you need to give yourself grace, even if others won’t. Your well-being is more important than all of it. This was one of the hardest things for me to learn and accept as a mid-level person, and something I still struggle with.

You may indeed need to leave your current role to find balance and a better lifestyle. There are many opportunities in student affairs, and many of those have normal 9-5 hours. Your skillset that you learned in your graduate work, or your first 1-2 years in your entry-level role is valuable, don’t dismiss it, don’t think it was a waste of time, you just need to re-harness it into your passion area and find where it can make the most impact in the mission of redefining our new paradigm of affecting student success.

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