KC Spotlight - Administrators in Graduate and Professional Student Services

Danielle Bristow, NASPA IV-W Administrators in Graduate and Professional Student Services Representative

June 28, 2017

Hiring Student Affairs Administrators in Graduate and Professional Schools is a growing trend as colleges and universities recognize that increased support for this population is vital for persistence, retention and graduation of these students.   These administrators work in Medical Schools, Pharmacy Schools, Law, PhD programs, Social Work programs, just to name a few and do the work that supports students inside and outside of the classroom.  Job responsibilities may include planning orientation programs, providing academic advising, guiding students to campus resources, intervening when a student is in crisis, planning commencement activities, developing and enforcing policies and so much more.  

NASPA’s Knowledge Community AGAPSS – Administrators in Graduate and Professional Student Services serves a network for these student affairs professionals who are working in graduate and professional schools to share best practices when serving this student population.

And although working in a graduate or professional school might be outside the world of “traditional Student Affairs”, student affairs professionals are the perfect fit for these responsibilities and these types of positions as they have the skills and expertise in program management and student learning and support.  Often these administrators are able to make a tremendous impact on the lives of students, much in the same way “traditional” student affairs staff do with undergraduate students.  Below is the story of one such student:

“On May 19, 2017, I graduated with my Masters in Social Work from Washington University in St. Louis’s Brown School of Social Work, one of the top social work schools in the world. I’m still shocked -- not only did I graduate with honors, I was the Student Marshal of my program. The thing is, I started graduate school convinced I didn’t belong there; that they had made a mistake in admitting me. I felt that I was out of my league academically, and that it was only a matter of time before the school realized this and either they kicked me out, or I flunked out. For these feelings to make sense, it’s important to understand my background…

I never would have been able to afford college if it weren’t for the GI Bill. So when I returned from combat in Iraq in 2004, I immediately enrolled in the Sociology program at Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville. In retrospect, I believe that I thought that college would give me a fresh start. I hoped it would be the jolt back to normalcy that would help shake loose so much of the horrors I saw in active combat. Unfortunately, my plan did not work.

Instead of focusing on school work, I ached to get back to the Marines and finish the mission in Iraq. Finishing my degree was the only thing standing between me and that mission, so I hurried through it, trampling on my GPA during the transition. I eventually did another tour and then spent five years in Iraq and Afghanistan working as a private contractor. It wasn’t until many years later that I realized I had been suffering from PTSD as I transitioned between military and civilian life.

Getting counseling through the VA was life-altering for me. It took a year of weekly cognitive behavioral therapy to work around some of the nightmares which had plagued me for so many years. But I was reshaped. Though I had valued my time as a Marine and a private contractor, I needed to find a way to live with the scars. As it turned out, I became inspired to help others do the same.

This sense of purpose is what drew me towards a graduate degree in social work. I knew I wanted to help other veterans like me; I just didn’t think I had what it took to get through one of the most rigorous graduate programs in the country.

It turns out I did have what it takes. But, truthfully, I owe a lot my success to the school’s administrative staff. Their proactive support and unwavering faith gave me the tools and confidence I needed to flourish. They convinced me that I belonged there. Look – it’s difficult enough being a non-traditional student. It’s even more difficult to go from the battlefield to an academic environment. A year and a half before I walked into my first WashU classroom, I was in the mountains of Afghanistan. That’s a tough transition. When Danielle Bristow, assistant dean for academic affairs at the Brown School of Social Work, countered that I absolutely did belong there (after I made some off-the-cuff quip about failing out of grad school, shortly after my first day), I thought, “Of course you’re going to tell me that…but I’m actually right -- I don’t belong here among these other elite students. I’m out of my league.”  She not only proved me wrong, she gave me what I needed to succeed. She connected me to the other veterans on campus, knowing that connecting me to students with similar backgrounds would benefit me. Student veterans perform better academically when connected with other veterans, which is something I didn’t even realize at the time. Had she not taken the time to proactively take an interest in me and reach out to me, my graduate school story may have had a very different ending.

I began graduate school convinced that I had somehow fooled them into admitting me. I ended as the honor graduate, a member of the Phi Alpha Honor Society, and several incredible job offers. Having administrative staff who took a personal interest in me and proactively supported me has made all the difference.” James Petersen, MSW

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