Building the competencies into graduate study: Translating theory to to practice

naspa professional standards division

Susan Marine

October 30, 2017

Many of us in the field look back on our time in graduate school with intense and enduring fondness. We think of it as a time when we began to solidify our identities as student affairs professionals, made lasting friendships, and began to clarify our professional goals as we embarked upon the adventure of changing higher education with our energies and talents. Guilelessly, our unfettered enthusiasm for the work typically jumped out ahead of us across those tables at TPE, and with some luck, we found ourselves in our first professional position.

While it’s been a few (ahem) years since my own days on the ‘hills’ of Bowling Green, I can attest that it’s truly a privilege to come ‘full circle’ and have responsibility for designing and executing a Master’s program in higher education. When I assumed leadership of the program at Merrimack in 2011, I knew only a few things for sure. One of them was that I ardently wanted to create a program that fully engaged with, and supported students in growing in, the ACPA/NASPA competencies.

Why did I feel strongly about this? Perhaps it’s the Myers-Briggs “J” in me, but I’m inherently attracted to structure, goals, and definable outcomes. I relished the idea of clearly articulating what it is we want new professionals to do and learn, the values we hope they will embrace, and the skills we want them to practice on the way to starting their careers. The competencies provide a straightforward way to scaffold these fundamentals—or do they? Five years in, I’ve gained some important insights on the process of using the competencies to build a framework for graduate student learning. Sitting here today, I can say that it’s both more meaningful and more challenging than I imagined.

What does it mean to use the competencies in a master’s program? Because Merrimack’s program is so new (founded in 2011), many aspects of the program’s construction have lent themselves nicely to experimentation with inclusion of the competencies. Together with my colleagues Elaine Ward and Jaleh Dashti Gibson, we didn’t have a ‘long standing way of doing things’ to weigh us down—and could use that freedom to consider infusing coursework and the co-curriculum with the competencies framework. We’ve seen that due to their depth and breadth, reviewing the competencies can elicit anxiety in new students: Enabling students to focus on skills and knowledge that are realistic to achieve is essential. Thus, students in the Merrimack program are encouraged to approach accomplishment of the competencies through the vehicle of their graduate assistantship, which we call a fellowship.

At the beginning of the semester, students meet with their fellowship site supervisor to determine the primary roles and activities they will undertake. Typically, these tasks are drawn from a pre-existing job description, but as students and their supervisors discuss the specific needs of the site and how they align with the students’ skills and interests, additional projects and activities are often identified. Students then use the finalized job description to identify the specific project areas and skills that will be developed by reviewing each of the ten competency areas and mapping them onto the tasks and projects they will complete. Again, given the relatively compact duration of the Merrimack program, students are encouraged to focus on mapping items listed as foundational competencies, rather than intermediate or advanced, for this exercise.

As each task and project is mapped, students begin to create a picture of the competencies that can be achieved through the fellowship experience, as well as the areas that are conspicuously absent (and there are). After completing the mapping exercise, students meet with their fellowship course instructor to review the mapped tasks and competencies, determine their saliency for the students’ personal and professional goals, and generate additional ideas about ways that students may develop these competencies through additional practica, directed studies, or by participating in volunteer opportunities.

The contract exercise allows for the pursuit of three specific value propositions related to the competencies. First, through the negotiation of projects and responsibilities, students play an active role in defining their learning goals for the semester, rather than simply being delegated work. Second, through the iterative process of identifying tasks and projects, then mapping them on to the competencies and identifying areas where other critical competencies are largely absent in the fellowship experience, the supervisor and student assume joint responsibility for the students’ learning and professional development. Finally, by developing plans for regular and effective assessment of the student’s progress, the importance of designing and conducting meaningful, specific forms of assessment is reinforced.

This all sounds lovely, clear and clean—so what’s the downside? Well, there are several. Students for whom the language is unfamiliar—say, those coming from technical, hard science backgrounds in undergraduate study may struggle with the implied nuance of concepts like ‘engagement,’ ‘diverging philosophies,’ and ‘peer debrief.’ Some students struggle with mapping their daily fellowship tasks onto the competencies—especially when some are more clerical in nature (true of any GA-ship, after all). Others are in the process of learning about concepts like social justice/oppression, responsible use of human and material resources, and understanding the essential but complex nature of networks and mentorship, and thus are far better equipped to craft a meaningful learning contract at the end of the year than at the start. Nonetheless, we continue to believe the competencies provide a shared language and more importantly, a shared ethos for the work of advancing student and institutional development. For that reason, we’ll continue to tweak, hone, and guide our students in seeing the competencies as their roadmap to effectiveness—a meaningful accompaniment to that lovely idealism, coming to a TPE table near you, next year!

Susan Marine, Ph.D.
Professional Standards Division Faculty Liaison
Associate Professor and Program Director, Higher Education Program
Merrimack College

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