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Three Tips for Surviving and Thriving in a Fast-Paced Student Affairs Climate

Supporting the Profession Wellness and Health Promotion
January 15, 2020 Sara Ackerson NASPA

Higher education institutions continue to experience a consistent rise in student success initiatives that cover a variety of student-focused topics such as basic needs, mental health, advising, developmental education, and more. These topics, coupled with other trends, such as changing student demographics and an increased need for more robust student services and management,  leave student affairs professionals working in a fast-paced environment where no two days are predictable. Expectations of professionals continue to shift, as individuals are balancing not only their functional roles but also responsibilities related to recruitment, retention, and completion of students, which enforces the fact that student affairs professionals provide critical interventions and opportunities for student success. Some professionals may also navigate difficult experiences such as microaggressions and systemic inequities within their daily work. 

Student affairs professionals need to incorporate creativity, critical thinking, problem-solving, cultural competency, and understanding into their daily work. As institutions address cultural shifts, imbalances in budgeting, competing priorities and complex operating structures, the field also needs to make adjustments. 

Here are three ways that the field can help student affairs professionals not only get through each day but thrive while doing so.

  1. Continued learning. Student affairs professionals can engage in training and professional development to continue learning new skills and approaches. Learning implies personal and professional growth, rather than simply completing the training. Professional development topics are most effective when they go beyond training on how to use a system or understand a new campus policy and focus on communication skills and other core competencies. Scenarios offering different possible outcomes, opportunities for group discussions on ways to approach a situation, and offering different perspectives aid in this continuous learning. Campuses can utilize their counseling services professionals to provide learning opportunities for staff. Through these opportunities, student affairs professionals can learn how to work through challenging conversations, de-escalate situations, and provide concrete next steps for students.

  2. On-Campus Collaboration. Professionals can create purposeful gatherings across functional areas to discuss the theories behind and implications of new topics, such as “15 to Finish” and other popular initiatives. Bringing together student and academic affairs units allow for a deeper, more holistic understanding of the student and staff experience. When these events, held regularly, are intentional and meaningful, they begin to break down the natural silos that exist on campuses. 

  3. Cultivating A Culture of Self-Care. Student affairs professionals in all functional areas work hard to help students meet their personal, academic, and career goals and this can be taxing on both our minds and our bodies. To help cultivate a culture of self-care,  supervisors can seek to understand the impact of continuous stressful conversations on staff. When staff feels supported to take the time they need to reflect and care for themselves, they are in a better position to continue to face challenging conversations and support students with their clearest thinking. This culture of care impacts the entire community, creating a place for support and growth, both professionally and personally. 

These ideas are not new nor are they particularly innovative, but they are important to call out. The Society for Human Resource Management also highlights ways to address employee burnout in response to what they call “record-levels” of burnout. Take some time to think outside of the box when it comes to self-care and wellness. Just like when working with students, one solution doesn’t fit all.