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Recommendations for Partnering with Student Affairs Professionals


Recommendations for Partnering with Student Affairs Professionals

Although student affairs and academic affairs share the same goal of educating students and preparing them for success after college, the two divisions don’t always collaborate as effectively or as frequently as they might. With changing expectations from students, parents, and society in general, perhaps it’s time to be more deliberate in forming partnerships across these divisions.

“I think more and more what we’re seeing is that an effective and successful college experience—a holistic college experience—is what society is asking of higher education today. It’s what our students want, and it’s what parents and business people want from higher education today,” says Eva Frey Johnson, dean for student development and director of student involvement and leadership at Pacific Lutheran University. “No longer can a student just come to a college campus and say, ‘I’m just going to get a degree. I’m just going to pick an academic major, take the classes I have to take, and be done.’ I think more and more the cost of higher education requires our students to ask, ‘What can I get both in and outside the classroom that makes this the most effective for me today as well as for my future?’”

One of the goals of partnering across divisions is to remove the barrier between the two complementary aspects of the learning experience, because much of what students learn occurs outside class, and student don’t compartmentalize their learning experiences. However, the traditional divide between academic affairs and student affairs perpetuates a sense of compartmentalization.

A recognized need for collaboration isn’t always enough to make it happen. Differences in workplace cultures, organizational structures, and work styles can be obstacles to collaboration. However, these differences can be complementary. By recognizing what each partner can bring to the learning experience, sharing capital, and understanding the partner’s perspective, one can create experiences that are beneficial to the student and the partners.

There are many areas in which student affairs and academic affairs intersect, such as academic integrity, first-year experience, common readings, student mental health, and supporting specific student populations such as veterans and international and minority students.

Building a relationship with another professional, particularly with someone who operates in a different organizational culture, takes time. Partnerships often begin when people are asked to work on an institutional priority together. This is not always the case. Partnerships can also be initiated by individuals—usually student affairs staff members because they tend to have more flexibility than faculty. (Faculty work within more constraints, such as degree requirements and policies and procedures that exist to help students achieve their degrees.)

These partnership can begin informally. For example, a student affairs staff member might ask for faculty input on an issue over coffee, and the relationship can grow from there.

For faculty, particularly those who have not yet earned tenure, working with student affairs can be difficult to fit into an already busy schedule with other priorities. Any partnership has to benefit them professionally.

Johnson has found that younger faculty tend to have a greater affinity for student affairs because they attended school in an era in which student affairs played a more direct role in educating students. However, as dean, she wouldn’t seek to partner with a new faculty member, preferring instead to work with an academic affairs colleague at a similar level in the university’s hierarchy.

Johnson found a partner in Wendy Shore, a psychology professor at the university who has served as chair and vice president of the faculty. The two have collaborated for about 10 years on research (both applied and scholarly) on student development and the role of persistence and resiliency in students’ ability to earn their degrees.

Based on this experience, Johnson offers the following advice:

  • Be patient. “[Partnerships across divisions] take patience because we’re trained differently. It’s a lot like learning a new language. You’ve got two different types of cultures that are coming together, and you have to give each other a lot of grace because there are words, phrases, and concepts in academic affairs that mean absolutely nothing in student affairs,” Johnson says.
  • Understand each other’s rhythms and priorities. “We share the goal of student success, but the manner in which we come to support students isn’t always the same. One is not better than the other, but together they’re incredibly powerful. When student affairs and academic affairs people come together, they need to suspend judgment. Always seek opportunities for clarification, because what I think I understand and what a faculty member may understand can be two very different things,” Johnson says.
  • Develop a personal relationship. “You have to like each other. … It’s really one of the core values. If you don’t like the people you’re working with and you’re already doing work that is outside the mainstream, it’s very hard to sustain it,” Johnson says.
  • Be willing to share your capital. Each partner has abilities and knowledge that can benefit the partnership. For example, Johnson has more experience with the granting agencies that provide funding on student affairs research than her partner, and her partner brings an analytical lens from her cognitive psychology background. “Look at how your strengths match and support each other’s weaknesses,” Johnson says.

These partnerships across divisions are “incredibly worthwhile,” Johnson says. “If you work in partnership authentically, it’s always a win-win. It will make both the faculty member and the student affairs professional stronger in who they are and what they do on the college campus and how they serve the students.”

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