2. Student Development in Higher Education
Student Development in Higher Education, CSSA Competency #2, is an area in which I believe knowing myself and understanding how I developed throughout college applies to helping others navigate their own transitions. As I progress towards the termination of my time in my program, I have finally begun articulating which areas of student affairs drive me as a professional. My primary theory-driven motivations stem from Chickering (1969), Astin (1984) and the Involvement Theory, and Schlossberg (Goodman, Schlossberg, & Anderson, 2006) and Transition Theory. Furthermore, my interest in how spirituality fits in with holistic development, especially at public schools, has led me to explore the topic in-depth. It is a topic that is growing in significance, as demonstrated by Astin’s publication, Cultivating the Spirit (Astin, Astin, & Lindholm, 2011). These varying theories and identity explorations intersect in understanding how to best serve students, similar to how multiple identities form our individual students.
It should be no surprise that I want to aid in helping students find meaning in various transitions, especially since I updated my blog title to include the sub-heading, “An Adult in Transition.” I recognize that my own transitions and place in life affects what I do, and that personal understanding drives me to be flexible in how I reach out and help students. Though by no means do I expect students to develop in ways identical to myself, I do anticipate applying my theoretical knowledge to helping lend support to the diverse bases with which I will work.
Working with the University Honors College allowed me the opportunity to work with a wide spectrum of students. Instead of advising students in only one discipline or college, I work with students majoring in STEM fields, liberal arts disciplines, and undecided students. My primary job as the graduate assistantship is to build relationships and function as a liaison between staff and students. Relationship-building is especially important when working with adult learners for several reasons. Students are coming in with very different experiences; they already have over a decade of educational experience. Some students grew up in small private schools, while others learned in large public institutions. The communities in which students have lived also shape their world views, and independent households’ approaches and attitudes influence the starting point students bring to me. Some are independent and very cognizant of where they’re going. Others are still unsure of themselves; they need a teacher or a mentor to guide them towards resources. In other cases, students may have thoughts swirling around in their minds, and the best way for them to process these is to speak to somebody who has gone through many different transitions. I am that person, and being a young adult myself, I have the ability to relate to students in different capacities.
Communication taught me how to become an effective and empathetic educator. As expected, one must be flexible in how he or she interacts with students. Although I live in a residence hall that where the population is primarily first-year students, in another role, I facilitate a course designed specifically for transfer students. These two populations have different needs, and as discussed earlier, they come to me with different sets of experiences. My residents are largely on their own for the first time. My transfer students, on the other hand, have been in college for several years, and they have experienced a college environment that is vastly different than Oregon State University’s. For these students, they may be used to small classes and individual attention; the physical size of the university can also overwhelm them. Whereas first-year students may approach the university with a sort of wide-eyed wonder, transfer students may feel eclipsed and lost. For both populations, I find that listening to them and identifying their specific needs is most important. After all, without developing two-way communication, students would simply become receptacles for information, leaving them feeling devalued. If I were to only tell students “Back in my day” stories of my own experiences, I would surely leave many questions unanswered. Instead, it is essential for me to not impart judgement, and to tailor conversations as much as possible to be as helpful as possible.
Through my career and various internships, I was able to achieve a sampling of the different higher education environments available. My undergraduate institution was a mid-sized, public university with a history as a teacher’s college. Oregon State is a large, public research university, and I interned at the following other institutions: a small private liberal arts college; a community college; and a foreign, multi-campus, British-style university. What I found was that I do very well in settings where there is a large student population, and I feel very comfortable in public institutions. Of course, this is most likely due to my upbringing in the public education system; I have not attended a private institution for any major part of my K-12 or post-secondary education. I often interpret that students at both public universities and community colleges feel inadequate, but as was shared at NASPA Western Regional 2011, “A Toyota will get you the same place a Mercedes will” (Dr. Rick Settersten).
Where do I fit in to help students believe in themselves and make the most of their own educational experience? Most likely, I fit in as a programs advisor or academic counselor. I feel that I have the right personality to help students consider different angles and approaches to reaching their goals; now I’m just hoping that I can find a job at a good institutional fit doing something like this. Although as previously mentioned, my comfort zone is in public education, I am confident that I could function well at a small college where I have the ability to maintain closer relationships with the student population.
Diversity and identity development are also important aspects of student development where I can assist. My own ethnic identity journey speaks to that. I did not have a very thorough grasp on what being Filipino and mixed-race meant as a child. I knew that sometimes, I was the only person of color in my group of friends, and other times, it meant that people spoke to me in languages they assumed I knew. In college, I decided to learn more about my heritage; there were peers in similar boats that did not take the opportunity to learn more about themselves. What was the difference there? What was our difference in motivation? The easy answer would be that those who did not become involved with the Ethnic Student Center or similar organizations just did not care, and they were ignorant. After all, how could someone simply disregard his or her identity? After spending time working through my own identity development–and granted, I am still moving through stages–I now understand that identity development is very complex. When a person looks in the mirror, he or she sees something different than what other people see. I know that for myself, I still wake up to see a brown person, more than I see a young woman. My ethnicity is more salient, and my previous lack of understanding about myself continues to play a part in what I seek out to learn.
For other people, however, their identity can be in a different stage of development. For certain students, it was more important to understand how they fit into newly-formed social circles at college, or how to navigate academic coursework. There is no need to discount the value in building social circles, and strong institutions have multicultural coursework built into their general requirements. It is my hope that having academic affairs and student affairs personnel committed to delivering engaging coursework will reach students at their various stages of development. Practitioners should first recognize that they will be working with diverse student populations, thereby preparing themselves mentally. Tailoring communication and conversations is also necessary; my personal belief is that it is helpful for practitioners to have a basic understanding of interpersonal communication theory, as this type of foundation addresses one-on-one conversations, group conversations, relationship theories, and so forth. However, this recommendation is not always practical given practitioners’ schedules or the availability of courses, so it is at least helpful that practitioners stay informed in regards to effective communication by reading journal articles and other forms of media. The baseline premise is that practitioners keep an open mind and respond to students’ individual needs. For example, the effective advisor will be able to discern how much information and specific guidance a student may initially need (in other words, how much context does the advisor need to relay to the student?), as well as be able to fashion ways to encourage autonomous decision-making at various stages.
It is furthermore essential that dedicated practitioners understand the tenets of racial and ethic identity development. My students that I have interacted with and will interact with are clearly in different stages in their identity development. Furthermore, they are at different stages of identity development within different identity aspects. I read an article in AHE 552 – Theory I related to White Privilege and how that affects poor young White men (Longwell-Grice, 2003). Their socioeconomic status affects them incredibly. It affects them so much, that it is their most salient identity component in many cases. They do not see themselves as the recipients of privileged treatment, or perhaps more accurately, they find it very difficult to see that they carry social advantages in certain regards.
Both sections of AHE 552 allowed me to ground personal inklings in theory. Two theories in particular shape my approach in helping students, as the following theories tie in nearly seamlessly with communication theory. First of all, coming into the CSSA program, I had a feeling that students involved with activities and organizations received a more in-depth experience during college than those that did not. Astin’s (1984) Involvement Theory covers this, directly showing correlation in development stemming from involvement. For example, students involved with clubs have exposure to leadership roles amongst peers, which can be transferred to the working world; lessons learned in club involvement may very well make students more able to navigate conflicts in their professional teams. Additionally, Astin’s recent book, Cultivating the Spirit, discusses the idea that students’ spiritual development is currently insufficient, meaning as educators, we are falling short of providing genuine holistic education. Student affairs practitioners should be able to, at the very least, acknowledge where students stand in terms of their spiritual beliefs or lack thereof. From this basis, administrators may serve in various capacities, perhaps as people who direct students to communities and organizations where the exploration of spiritual practices is welcomed or even as a mentor whom students know welcomes conversations about meaning and purpose and other spiritual tenets.
Schlossberg (2006) and the Transition Theory speak to the idea that students learn lessons through life events, both joyful and painful. As student affairs practitioners, we have the chance to work with students in very difficult times, whether they may be problems with finances, the loss of a loved one, or academic struggles. We cannot pretend “bad things” do not happen in the real world, and we cannot pretend the academic world functions as a buffer for real life.
As an example, and one that is tough to talk about, let me relate an incident that occurred in Hall Council just a few weeks ago. In general, the group of Hall Council executives and wing representatives has been outstanding in putting on events related to diversity awareness, education beyond the classroom, and social events designed to get residents meeting one another and making connections. However, a small population of representatives resigned, stating that they felt alienated from the decision-making processes, that their voices weren’t being heard, and that the events being developed were irrelevant to hall interests. Unfortunately, I can specifically remember one of these members questioning the relevance of supporting “After the Fire,” which was a documentary produced after the deadliest residence hall fire in American history. As the academic partner in residence, I felt it my duty to remind members that education happens in many different places, not just the classroom. I gently and calmly thanked the group for their initiative this past academic year, and stated that education in college comes from making connections and looking beyond textbooks. While it did not stop any resignation, I hope it at least put in perspective to some the value in community and working through differences.
What could have stopped the resignations, though? Perhaps it is again my bias as a communication undergrad, but from what I could interpret, some students were upset with an apparent lack of communication, as well as misinterpreted assumptions on several parties’ ends. As stated earlier, some students need more specific instructions or guidelines regarding roles and expectations, while others are comfortable creating their own roles and exploring their autonomous decision-making right off the bat. I feel that a comprehensive council orientation wherein I was also included would have been helpful for all participants, as well as mid-program or mid-term climate checks. The feedback loop seemed to malfunction somewhere along the line; while reactive actions could have also helped, implementing preventative checks and balances could have served to alleviate the issues before they grew.
I do have to commend the evenness in which the resignations occurred; although there were some complaints aired that I personally would have kept to myself, I think it does show maturity in that there was not name-calling nor the raising of voices. Furthermore, one member spoke, thanking the resigning members for their service. She then followed up by saying something to the effect of, “I wish this had been discussed earlier. If we had known that these tensions existed, maybe we could have worked through them. But this is your decision, and I respect you and thank you again.” If only conflicts could be addressed in this manner all the time, what a world of difference it would make. Although I was disappointed in seeing these fantastic Hall Council members leave, I was impressed with the way all members handled themselves calmly and maturely.
In closing, it should be noted that theory functions as a foundation in this profession. It is not a “magic bullet” for understanding all situations. Although these guidelines provide me with a way to translate experiences, it is more important to realize that individuals continue to be individuals. We must serve to illuminate possibilities they never knew existed. There are extensive variables which affect and influence a student, and as such, no one theory can fully explain a certain snapshot in time.
Astin, A. W. (1984). Student involvement: A developmental theory for higher education. Journal of College Student Personnel, 25, 297-309.
Astin, A. W., Astin, H. S., & Lindholm, J. A. (2011). Cultivating the spirit. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Chickering, A. W. (1969). Education and identity. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Goodman, J., Schlossberg, N. K., & Anderson, M. L. (2006). Counseling adults in transition (3rd ed.). New York, NY: Springer.
Longwell-Grice, R. (2003). Get a job: Working class students discuss the purpose of college. College Student Affairs Journal, 23, 40-53.
Settersten, R. & Ray, B. E. (2010). Not quite adults. New York, NY: Bantam Books.