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Theory in Practice: A Successful and Professional Advising Environment

posted on 3:20 AM, January 12, 2017

by Julie Foran Team Lead, Enrolment Services Professional, University of British Columbia & Heather Mitchell, Team Lead, Enrolment Services Professional, University of British Columbia

How did you end up becoming a student affairs professional? Did you follow the typical arc of graduating high school, then receiving training in student development, then gaining employment in higher education?

Okay, we know this last question is a reality for nearly no one, but the question remains of how we learn our jobs and what gives us the knowledge and experience to effectively support students.  

January’s theme for Connecting Our Country is centered on the use of educational theory in student affairs practices. This post will use the example of an advising team at the University of British Columbia (UBC) to examine how practitioners with diverse experiences and educational backgrounds can come together to create a successful and professional advising environment.

Case Study – UBC

UBC employs 45 Enrolment Services Professionals and Associate Enrolment Services Professionals (ESPs and AESPs) who advise students on a range of issues. Each ESP has an assigned cohort of approximately 1000 undergraduate students who work with the same ESP from the point of admission to graduation. ESPs and AESPs also staff front facing service points to assist students with Enrolment Services-related matters.

Advising interactions with students range from recruitment and admissions advising, student loans and bursaries, to budgeting and financial planning conversations, to assisting students in deep financial distress. Students not only depend on staff to be knowledgeable but also to be skilled at using this knowledge to guide them through planning and decision-making.

Introducing Theory into Our Practices

On this team, there are 45 different stories of how each person began advising students and how advising practices were learned and incorporated into individual practices. For some, student development theory and advising practices are engrossing topics to be studied, shared and implemented. Others have little connection to these concepts but are truly empathic and engaged practitioners.

To address the diversity of skill and learning styles within our team, we have created intentional spaces to learn from each other and to value the learning styles of all advisors. The primary arena for this engagement is our staff development meeting held on a bi-weekly basis. This offers an opportunity for interested staff to lead workshops for the entire team on topics related to advising. We have found that using a mix of theory with practical scenarios is an effective balance of information.

Creating an information repository of advising resources can encourage staff to learn at their own pace.  Our team has created a team-specific intranet to showcase key advising practices and how these link to our work. As well, a module on student development theory (eg. Chickering’s Theory of Identity Development, Schlossberg’s Transition Theory) and popular advising practices (eg. student-centred, pro-active, developmental advising) has been introduced as part of our online orientation program. Newly hired team members may have an advising background or may have been hired for diversity of skill in other areas. This online orientation module offers the opportunity for new team members to learn at their own pace and to explore theories and advising practices at different levels of depth depending on existing expertise.

Despite the availability of resources, in our experience introducing and discussing student development and advising theory with colleagues, it seems that people broadly fall within one of two categories – (a) people who get excited by how they use theory and often look for opportunities to incorporate theory into practice on future projects and in their own advising contexts; and (b) people who find conversations around theory to be a bit too generalized, unpractical and/or amorphous despite understanding the concepts presented and the more tangible aspects of exploring how theory translates to practice.

Theory in Developing Student Supports

While we use theory to inform the development of important student supports offered within our unit, it does not always have the same buy-in for everyone on our team. For instance, UBC offers a transitional bursary to students who have failed to meet the requirements of their major renewable scholarship. Educational theories help us to understand some of the reasons why previously successful students sometimes fail and help to justify why students might deserve a second chance through the transitional bursary. However, student affairs practitioners might also see this final result as practical or making common sense without needing to understand the theory behind it.

The reality is that there are competent and high performing practitioners to be found on both ends of this theory spectrum. Of these colleagues who are a bit more resistant to training, professional development, and discussions centered on student development and advising theory, we are posed with an obvious and perhaps threatening question of the value of theory at all. That is to say—in the presence of practitioners who are highly capable and competent but have no interest in theory, are we to assume that theory does not have value in the field of higher education? If you can be an excellent practitioner and be resistant to theory, does theory matter?

What does this mean for Theory and Advising Approaches?

We would suggest that the presence of these high performing colleagues who do not connect with theory actually use and incorporate many of the principles found in theory. This may be the result of innately picking up some of these practices or perhaps these practices have been modeled to them by others in the field. Despite not claiming theory, they are very much using it, thus further validating student development and advising theory.

For example, we have several colleagues who are highly competent and respected as advisors on the team. They consistently give compassionate and sound advising and others frequently seek out their opinions on how to address complex student issues. These colleagues would categorize themselves as being resistant to theory, but regularly pose questions to students that prompt self-reflection that help students move from a place of having others, often parents, make decisions about their life and finances, to a place where the student becomes the key decision-maker of their life and finances. While this pulls from Baxter-Magolda’s Theory of Self-Authorship (2001), these colleagues would not articulate their questions that way.

Given the diverse backgrounds of professionals within Student Affairs and the varying degrees to which they connect with theory, it is certainly important to incorporate theory training into our work and we could probably do more to foster “theory to practice” dialogue to create a better connection to how theory can be used in our day to day work. However, let us too be mindful of ways in which our colleagues, especially our theory-resistant colleagues, are already using theory in their work. By naming these instances when we see them, we may be able to create an environment in which discussion and training centered on theory see less resistance and more reception by all of our coworkers.   


Connecting Our Country: Further Readings

posted on 4:00 AM, October 28, 2016

by Lucas Gobert

This month, Connecting Our Country kicked off with the monthly theme: “What is ‘student affairs / services’?” It’s an important question to begin with because it gives us a shared understanding of our identity with which we can move forward—at least that’s the idea. When we’re tackling an idea like “student affairs” in Canada, however, one month and a few digital conversations are not enough to properly establish this baseline. In fact, the entire Connecting Our Country project is really about understanding this, the identity of who we are as professionals, so when a family member asks, “What do you do?” not only do we have an answer ready, but our passion for that work carries through to them in a way they’ll understand and remember. Lofty goals, I know.

Which left this past month’s theme really being about what has come before and already been established—the history of Student Affairs in Canada. Jennifer Hamilton shared a brief look at that history through the formation of CACUSS earlier in the month, and as we gear up to move into November—with it’s theme, “Looking For the Corner Piece: How do you fit into the established Canadian SA identity?”—it becomes even more important to understand the ground upon which we stand and the great work that has already been done in our “profession versus field”. (More on that topic next month!)

Jennifer wrote a great primer, but to be ready to look at your own role and position in the context of Student Affairs, you really do need to understand the work that has come before. That’s why to close off this month, we have a list of recommended readings to prime your pump for next month’s conversations. I’ve been working in Student Affairs for almost 6 years now, but I still consider myself a “new” SA professional, and as a new pro, understanding that these documents exist and engaging with the knowledge, experience, and questing they contain has been a huge boon to my growth as a professional.

If you’re new to the field, as many of my colleagues at Ryerson are, or even if you’ve been around since the beginning as these very documents were discussed and crafted, I encourage you to read, think, and talk about them with your colleagues. Learn about the twists and turns of this maze that have already been documented, so that as Connecting Our Country moves forward into unchartered territory, we are truly ready to unpack the nebulous mysteries ahead.

Below you’ll find a list of recommended readings, along with why they are important, and how we see them fitting into the direction CACUSS, Student Affairs, and our professional selves are going.

The Mission of Student Services

by Canadian Association of College & University Student Services

Every hero needs their origin story, and this paper is Student Affairs in Canada’s. It was the first guiding document ever written on the topic of student services in Canada, and it was from this that all others grew. As the paper says itself, it “...presents a philosophical and practical base for enhancing the experience of students in postsecondary institutions.”

Think of this document as our past, that Big Bang of exploding light that triggered forward movement through time & space.

Leaders in Learning: Student Affairs in Canada in the 21st Century & Implications for CACUSS (the Identity Project)

by Canadian Association of College & University Student Services

After establishing an identity with the Mission, student services in Canada continued to tick forward into the future, but like all things, it continued to grow and evolve as the world around it did. In 2016 we are not the same as we were in 1989, which is why “Leaders in Learning” was written in 2011. It was a chance to revisit our identity after growing up a bit, and engage in that ever so important method of growth—review. People from across the country gathered to reflect and “...attempt to position the field of student the context of 21st century transformation.”

This Identity Project represents our present selves, the who we are now within our field and profession.

Canadian Competencies Model & PD Framework

by Canadian Association of College & University Student Services

(Some login required.)

Review is great, but it is only one half of assessment; an empty exercise without a plan to execute. Enter CACUSS’ Competencies Model. This list of competencies is a way for individuals to assess their current skill levels, and look to ways to advance the skills determined not only necessary but valued by our professional organization.

The Competency Model is our future, that piece that speaks to what comes next. It’s the who we want to become as professional individuals, as well as an organization, profession, and field.

Achieving Student Success: Effective Student Services in Canadian Higher Education

Edited by Donna Hardy Cox and C. Carney Strange

When all the readings, research, and data you have to work with are American, it’s pretty difficult to feel like you have an identity all your own. Achieving Student Success offered the first comprehensive look at professional student services in Canada—written by Canadian authors! For the first time, Canadian SA pros saw themselves reflected in the perspectives and knowledge advancing our profession.

This book has existed as long as I’ve been an SA pro, so it’s hard for me to understand the void that existed before its printing. This was an important moment of growth for our profession, one I’m not sure we’ve seen the full effect of yet, nor will we for years to come. But that impact is, even now, trickling down through new and old professionals alike...

Serving Diverse Students in Canadian Higher Education

Edited by C. Carney Strange and Donna Hardy Cox

One of the most important values in Canada is equity, diversity, and inclusion, and that is no different for Student Affairs in Canada. Serving Diverse Students, the follow-up to Achieving Student Success and printed just a few months ago, focuses on the best programs and practices across the country that are improving the educational experiences of Canada’s many, diverse student populations.

Another link in the chain, exploring the evolution of student services in Canada through the values that matter to Canadian SA pros.

Truth & Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s Final Report

by the Truth & Reconciliation Commission of Canada

From the TRC website: “Collective efforts from all peoples are necessary to revitalize the relationship between Aboriginal peoples and Canadian society—reconciliation is the goal. It is a goal that will take the commitment of multiple generations but when it is achieved, when we have reconciliation—it will make for a better, stronger Canada.” Positioned as we are as educators supporting academics and the growth of the whole person in young people, we have a duty to be a leading ally in reconciliation.

As Student Affairs continues to grow in Canada, this document is key to finding ways we can integrate support and understanding of Indigenous peoples into our work from the foundation up. (Join us on RyersonSA as one of our members, Deena Shaffer, engages with her own experience reading the report and searching for ways to integrate its recommendations.)

CACUSS connections over the years

posted on 2:17 AM, October 14, 2016

by Jennifer Hamilton

In thinking about “Connecting our Country”, I paused to think about the theme for the upcoming 2017 CACUSS conference, “Our past, our future”.

As we think about the ways in which digital communication is impacting our ability to share information and connect with one another as a profession now and in the future, it is also interesting to look back at our past as an association to how CACUSS shaped the development of our field.

CACUSS came together in the beginning as a bit of a federation of different groups. (For a decent history of CACUSS in this time period, we recommend the book “Achieving Student Success: Effective Student Services in Canadian Higher Education”). This coming together was the realization that those who worked in different departments on college and university campuses shared values and approaches to supporting student success. The joining together annually at the annual conference was an attempt for us to “connect” across the country. It began in the late 1960s as mostly Deans of Students sharing ideas and issues, and grew from there.

CACUSS has always communicated to its members. In the beginning, it was 3-4 times per year in our quarterly publication the “Bulletin”. The “Bulletin” provided updates mostly from the senior leadership of CACUSS but it also contained thought provoking pieces regarding who we are as a profession. Some pieces in the 1980’s challenged our “silos” of how we worked on our campuses. The “Bulletin” became “Communiqué” in the 1990s, and it began to invite submissions to the newsletter of promising practices and commentary about important issues impacting our work. “Communiqué” then became a magazine in the late 1990’s reflecting our maturation as an association, and focused less on CACUSS communicating association business to the members and became a vehicle for member writing, research dissemination and sharing of new ideas and approaches.

CACUSS has also connected our country by publishing important documents that established a common purpose and understanding. In the late 1980’s several leaders in our field met and developed a seminal document of who we are as a profession and as an association. The 1989 “Mission of Student Services” still serves as a relevant touch point for understanding our work in Canada. Later in the 1990s, CACUSS, under the leadership of key volunteers developed the “Canadian Leaders and Pioneers in Student Services” video series. This important historical series shares stories of key leaders who shaped who we are today.

In 2010-2012 CACUSS connected the country by joining in conversations about the CACUSS Identity Project. Over 400 professionals participated in conversations online, on campus, and at the conference which shaped the Identity Project Document “Leaders in Learning” and the follow up document “What we have Learned”.

Most recently, CACUSS joined the country together to focus on the relevant skills and knowledge that we all require to excel in our work and subsequently published the Canadian Competencies document. It connects the various roles we have and campuses we work at and serves as a basis for us to connect through future professional development. We will be launching an online member engagement platform in 2017 in order for us to continue some of this conversation now and in the future.

CACUSS has always been a member driven organization, one whose grassroots nature has shaped who we are today and how we will connect in the future. What are you doing to reach out and connect? Not only on social media and in the “twitterverse”, but across your campus, your province, and with other professionals who do similar work? How can you contribute to more of the conversation connecting our work? Another question to ask is who is not included in our conversations in digital spaces? Are they accessible to all? How do we include those who cannot or chose not to be in those spaces? We look forward to continued connections.


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