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Relational practice: The currency of student affairs

Supporting the Profession
February 20, 2017 Harriet L. Schwartz

One student is arguing with his roommate and struggling to pass his classes. Another student is coming to see herself as a campus leader and exploring career options well beyond her initial dreams. The role of student affairs practitioners in the lives of these and other students can be profound and the essence of this work is relational practice, engaging in growth-fostering interactions and relationships.

Relational practice is the currency of student affairs. While student affairs practitioners are educators and teach everything from conflict resolution to resume writing, the essence of student affairs work is far more than practical content and that its real power resides in meaningful interactions and longer-term developmental relationships. More than ever, students access information 24/7 online and yet they still choose to connect with student affairs practitioners. I believe this desire for connection indicates that students get more from these interactions and relationships than information. Something vital happens in this relational space and Relational Cultural Theory (RCT) helps us understand this phenomenon.

Developed in the 1980s by Jean Baker Miller and her colleagues, RCT centers on growth-in-relation, the premise that human development is a relational endeavor. RCT suggests that relationships promote growth and flourishing throughout the lifespan and that isolation (which is often engendered by a western culture that prizes the image of self-reliance) is detrimental to wellbeing. RCT does not promote dependency, but rather engaging in meaningful connections and relationships, with authenticity, mutuality, and differentiation (simply stated, the ability to understand where I stop and you start. For example, I may empathize with and provide support for a student who is struggling. At the same time, it is neither healthy nor helpful for me to take on her experience and emotions as if they were my own). In addition, RCT provides a framework to understand power and the essential role of cultural context in relationships. These three elements – growth-in-relation, power, and cultural context, situate RCT as an informative and effective theory for student affairs practice.


Describing the essence and outcomes of growth-fostering relationships, Miller identified The Five Good Things: energy, self-esteem, understanding, movement, and desire for more connection.  Consider a meaningful exchange with a student. For both people, the experience of the other’s presence and attention and the exchange of ideas often provide a slight boost in energy. Students sense they are worthy of our time and attention and we sense they see us as having something to offer and we both get an affirmation of our self-worth. The act of asking or explaining and the ensuing dialogue often helps the student gain clarity and may even provide us with understanding that we can use in future interactions with students. These elements position students to move forward in their quests. Likewise, for the student who is “stuck” in the midst of a difficult personal, academic, or leadership situation, the increased energy, self-esteem, and awareness promote movement. And the positive outcomes or elements of the interaction (whether the topic at hand was pleasant or difficult), on some level affirm the importance of connection for the student and confirm for us that our work is meaningful. These elements are present not only in growth-fostering relationships, but can also emerge from single interactions, according to mentoring scholars Joyce Fletcher and Belle Rose Ragins.

While RCT promotes the benefits of connection, the theory also acknowledges complexity and conflict in relationships. RCT recommends that we learn to engage in good conflict in which we remain authentic and address differences without completely disconnecting from the relationship. A further exploration of good conflict, though beyond the scope of this article, may be particularly useful for student affairs professionals dealing with student disputes, judicial affairs, and other potentially contentious areas.


Relational Cultural Theory looks beyond the power-over paradigm that dominates our culture and suggests power-with as a healthier and more just approach in helping relationships. RCT-influenced educators who choose a power-with approach seek to reduce the hierarchy between student and practitioner. This is not to say that students and professionals are on equal footing, each has a different role in the relationship and different responsibilities.  Given that student affairs often lacks the evaluative component inherent in faculty roles, RCT provides a useful framework for assuming a power-with stance while retaining necessary authority and awareness of role boundaries and responsibilities. Deeper explorations of mutuality, role boundaries, and differentiation provide student affairs practitioners with frameworks to self-articulate their role with students, this may be particularly important for emerging professionals who are often not much older (or may even be younger) than the students they serve.

Cultural Context

Finally, RCT requires us to remain cognizant of the cultural context in which we operate and the influence of this context on all levels, from our dyadic interactions with students to our educational programming, administrative decision-making, and policy creation. Our students bring with them a lifetime of living their intersectional identities and all that means in terms of how they have been in the world and how they have been treated, implicitly and explicitly, by people and systems. We bring the same.

To pretend that race, gender, social class, sexual orientation and other aspects of identity are not in the room when we meet with students, set policy, and otherwise do the work of student affairs, is to disregard an essential contextual element of our relationships and the lives of our institutions. Increasing our awareness of cultural context, including privilege and marginalization and the ways in which these experiences shape power in relationships, even among well-meaning people, will help us be better educators both in our direct work with students and as we influence educational communities.


RCT aligns with student affairs values (altruism, equality, aesthetics, freedom, human dignity, justice, and truth) and connects with the profession’s core theories including holistic and psychosocial development, critical, and environmental theories. Further, RCT is a powerful addition to the human development theories typically taught in counseling courses and deepens our understanding of the helping relationship and application of related skills.

RCT was originally developed primarily to understand and guide therapeutic practice. However even in her earliest work, Miller saw potential application of the theory in education, organizations, and other relationships and systems. In discussing her work with clients, Judith V. Jordan, who worked with Miller as a founding scholar of RCT, describes therapy as “a dance of responsiveness” in which each person in the relationship is moved by and learns from the other while holding onto role boundaries and awareness of power and contextual forces. This idea artfully describes the vibrancy and developmental potential of our work with students. Relational Cultural Theory offers emerging and seasoned practitioners with a valuable theoretical framework to understand the essence of the work and to approach this work with greater intention.

Harriet L. Schwartz, PhD, is chair of the MA in Student Affairs program at Carlow University and is Lead Scholar for Education as Relational Practice for the Jean Baker Miller Training Institute. She worked in student affairs for 18 years. Dr. Schwartz can be reached at hlschwartz@carlow.edu

Recommended reading:

Fletcher, J. K., & Ragins, B. R. (2007). Stone Center relational cultural theory: A window on relational mentoring. In B. R. Ragins & K. E. Kram (Eds.), The handbook of mentoring at work: Theory, research, and practice (pp. 373–399). Los Angeles, CA: Sage Publications, Inc.

Jordan, J. V. (2010). Relational-cultural therapy (1st ed.). Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association.

Miller, J. B., & Stiver, I. P. (1997). The healing connection: How women form relationships in therapy and in life. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.

Walker, M. (2002). Power and effectiveness: Envisioning an alternate paradigm (Vol. 94). Wellesley, MA: Stone Center, Wellesley Centers for Women, Wellesley College.