Competency #1: Reflection

1. Knowledge of Higher Education and Student Affairs

Have you heard the popular quote, “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants,” attributed to Sir Isaac Newton? For me, that is what “Knowledge of Higher Education and Student Affairs” means. Competency #1 is the foundation on which an emerging professional should build his or her career upon. I was lucky to come in surrounded by folks that are passionate about the field and care about looking forward. Without knowing where the field came from and how far it’s gone (and how far it has yet to go), a student affairs professional will have to dig for context–taking away energy from the actual job duties and functions. For instance, understanding the culture and mission of land-grant colleges and universities can be tied back to understanding the development of science as a legitimate program. I remember being surprised at finding out that science was so heavily discounted by our predecessors, seeing that STEM fields are incredibly invaluable nowadays.

American higher education began with Harvard in 1636 (Rudolph, 1990). The American colonies modeled their colleges after the English schools of Oxford and Cambridge, with the primary purpose of cultivating new generations of pious religious leaders (Rudolph, 1990). Throughout the following centuries, education would expand to meet the needs of a young nation which was itself expanding from coast-to-coast. The American Civil War would ultimately lead to reformation of the college and university system. As Rudolph (1990) noted, the new institutions and their leaders responded “to a more democratic philosophy which recognized the right to learning and character-training of women, farmers, mechanics, and the great, aspiring middle class. They recognized that a new society needed new agencies of instruction, cohesion, and control” (p. 245).

Of course, student affairs continues to constantly change as the field responds to internal and external needs. Higher education is more globally-connected than ever before. That is partially why I chose to pursue this field instead of staying in the corporate world; I thought only businesspersons had the opportunity to work internationally. That has proven not to be true at all, and if anything, our ties to other cultures and other countries through student affairs are some of the strongest around.

One way of understanding how higher education has evolved is by examining the experiences of various student populations. For instance, female students make up the majority of college students nowadays. However, when higher education developed in the United States, women were excluded due to social norms and other factors. Thelin (2004) notes that statutes existed to keep women out of colleges. Some colleges would acknowledge that high-achieving women were capable and worth of admission to their schools–save for the fact that they had been born female (Thelin, 2004). My Women in Higher Education term paper in AHE 548- History of American Higher Education explores how the education of women evolved throughout time. As gender roles morphed and expectations shifted, it became more acceptable–even encouraged–for women to become educated.

That said, it is also crucial to understand that virtually no issue in higher education is “resolved.” Women may comprise the majority of college students, but the challenges they face still exist. Concerns about job inequality and gaps in salary are still current problems concerning women. Knowing the achievements made in the past, we as professionals can utilize previous lessons to continue making change and progress.

Another valuable opportunity for me to build upon my knowledge of higher education and student affairs was my participation in NASPA. NASPA (Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education–and yes, you’re seeing that right; the acronym no longer matches the organization’s full name) is one of two (the other being ACPA) major student affairs professional organizations. Being a member in one or both allows professionals from all levels to distribute knowledge through various means. One method is by becoming an active member in Knowledge Communities, smaller interest groups with a focus on one specific area within student affairs and higher education. I am personally very involved with the International Education Knowledge Community (IEKC), serving as the Technology Chair, which allows me to work closely with professionals in the field who have much more experience than myself in the field of international education. I have learned about opportunities specific to the IEKC, such as exchange trips, both inbound and outbound, where professionals from other countries have the chance to tour a series of host institutions. Additionally, the IEKC produces the annual International Symposium which precedes the annual NASPA conference. The International Symposium, as I recently told some classmates, is a pre-conference conference. It’s a smaller venue, with fewer than 100 attendees–as opposed to the national conferences several thousand–with people representing institutions from all over the globe. Instead of simply seeing someone with an “INTERNATIONAL ATTENDEE” badge, participants in the International Symposium interact closely with one another, disseminating perspectives and information that might otherwise not have been discovered by a conference attendee.

In March 2012, I was able to once again attend the International Symposium. I was also, luckily, healthy this time around, allowing me to fully engage with professionals from around the world. I helped plan an opening dinner for our VIPs, including keynote speakers and one of the original persons behind the first International Symposium. At dinner, I sat between a Pakistani colleague who is in the process of building a new university and the Director of Student Services from the University of Sheffield. Across from me was a head administrator from the Australian National University. There I was, a second-year graduate student, on the cusp of beginning her first student affairs job in advising! In informal conversation, I was able to learn about these people and their pathways and interests. I was able to learn about the different systems and challenges facing student populations. I was also able to see how enthusiastic these folks are about young professionals and the differences we will make in the world. If that does not speak to the power of foundation and building from there, I do not know what does!

I find that the most valuable resource NASPA’s provided for me is that of the regional conference. NASPA is divided up by region, and Oregon is part of Region V. Region V and Region VI (comprised of Hawaii and California) usually hold their regional conference together, with the final product being the NASPA Western Regional Conference. Although 2010’s conference was held in Portland, OR, I was unable to attend. I resolved to attend the 2011 conference for several reasons. For one, it was being held in San Diego, CA, a city I had not previously visited; this could be viewed as somewhat of a trivial reason, but personal growth comes in many forms, and for me, it often manifests from traveling. Second, colleagues from around the field shared that the regional conferences often fostered a more intimate feel, resulting in more quality connections and learning opportunities. Workshops are often smaller, allowing for more active engagement. The venues are more compact, minimizing intimidation.

Overall, I found the claims to be true that regional conferences are more conducive to learning and development. I attended several sessions on social media and technology, as well as a session on CSU-Fullerton’s innovative transfer student and STEM advising program. Working with transfer students is one of my biggest interests in student affairs; as an instructor for a transfer student orientation course, I was delighted with hearing about what other institutions are doing to help their students succeed at both the community college and university level.

How does innovation occur in higher education? It comes from understanding where higher education has been, along with recognizing that higher education should challenge the status quo. Just because the systems that have been developed, especially in recent decades, work well enough, it does not mean that there is not room for improvement. If there ever came a time where higher education proclaimed that it could no longer innovate to serve its communities, that would be the time at which I would leave the field. After all, the business world is constantly shifting in response to market demand; why would the world of higher education ignore changing world-wide dynamics?

One great example of innovation comes from CSUF. It seems that there is a long-standing thought, at least in some circles, that says transfer students will have a harder time transitioning into a four-year university than students that traditionally enter a school as a first-year. It is my fear that this has been taken as fact in some areas; however, CSUF decided to implement changes that would positively affect two-year college students’ pathways. CSUF saw an area of opportunity in which community college students were struggling to find their way into STEM majors and successfully transfer into four-year universities. They examined the factors surrounding why the challenges persisted, and they implemented programs that tackled issues from multiple angles. In one approach, they bolstered the offerings of STEM information sessions, recruiting individuals who had completed certain courses in good standing to serve as peer mentors. This served several purposes, in that it allowed peers to exchange information about STEM fields, as well as engaging the continuing college students in leadership roles. Another example which impressed me was a position created to advise students at both the community colleges and the university. This particular advisor was not only well-versed in transfer policies and course equivalencies, when she worked physically at the university, transfer students recognized her as a resource. They may have not known any other person at the university, but they at least had one familiar, helpful face they could go to.

CSUF is only one example in innovation. Innovators are the type of people who look for information from many different sources. They are listeners who may take note of a student’s passing gripe. They are explorers, testing out new technology and adapting it to their department’s needs in one way or another. Innovators do not accept that the work we have already done is where the journey ends.

Sometimes, all it takes is one person to make that impact in students’ lives. That’s one of the biggest takeaways from foundations I can share. From day to day, I may not always feel like my work is the most valued, but it is necessary that I remind myself there is a reason that student affairs exists. There is a reason that it is not just a job, but a profession. The professionals in this field–myself included–continually adapt to the changing needs of student populations; today’s students aren’t the same as the students in the 1960s. Even so, I do not suggest we disregard the work of those that came before us; instead, I believe firmly in paying homage to the past, living in the present, and looking to the future to continue to push the field of student affairs forward.

By doing so, I will eventually become one of the giants of which Newton spoke.


Rudolph, F. (1990). The American college & university. Athens, Georgia: The University of Georgia Press.

Thelin, J. R. (2004). A history of American higher education. Baltimore, Maryland: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

3 thoughts on “Competency #1: Reflection

  1. Melissa Yamamoto says:

    You state that innovation comes from understanding where higher education has been. Although I think that is important, there has to be more to it. What else is necessary for innovation to occur?

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