Addressing New Professional Learning and Retention using the Professional Competencies

naspa professional standards division

Courtney Pelfrey and Carson Lonett

June 27, 2019

Why are all our friends leaving? I love this place, and I want others to love it too. What can I do?

Many new student affairs professionals have wondered this, and many seasoned professionals have asked the same question about why new professionals feel this way. Restrictions imposed by supervisors, the job itself, and even the institution may cause new student affairs professionals to feel isolated and, oftentimes, stuck with only one place to go - out. What we’ve learned about this isolation is that it often leads to turnover and burnout in the position; individuals leave the field, there are empty seats in professional development sessions, and there are strained working relationships due to lack of intentionality around the student affairs professional experience.

So, what can we do about it? That is the very question that our colleague wanted to answer for herself and others at JMU. She recruited two more student affairs peers - each with different areas of interest, working in different departments, all “new” to the field - to help her figure it out. One person’s unfortunate question transformed into an idea and division-wide program that would work to retain new student affairs professionals by using intentional, competencies-based programming.

One of these colleagues brought to her first professional role an interest in new professional retention that stemmed from her master’s project research in graduate school. She’d asked the question: Are student affairs graduate assistants being socialized to and utilizing the values and competencies of student affairs in their roles? Her research led her to believe that high levels of attrition among new student affairs practitioners is impacted by a lack of values congruence or personal philosophy around the underlying competencies and values of the field (Renn & Jessup-Anger, 2008). In the field of student affairs, within higher education, there is great concern about the high level of attrition, especially found amongst the youngest, most recent graduates of student affairs preparation programs (Renn & Jessup-Anger, 2008). Studies have shown that master’s level new professionals, “new” being defined as first-time, full-time professional staff members with five or less years of experience, make up between 15% to 20% of the entire student affairs workforce and enter the field directly from student affairs, higher education, or college student personnel preparation programs (Cilente, Henning, Skinner Jackson, Kennedy, & Sloan, 2006). Of these new professionals, 32% leave the field within the first five years and 61% leave within six years (Lorden, 1998). Throughout the literature, reasons for these startling numbers include feelings of being inadequately prepared for the challenging realities of student affairs work, isolation after graduate school, and lack of room for advancement, to name a few.

For these reasons, the New SAPs (New Student Affairs Professionals) initiative was born. Three ‘branches’ were identified as targeted areas for the group to focus its programming: social connections, professional development, and self-care. While there is a great deal of crossover between the NASPA/ACPA Competencies in each of these pillars, they were designed to focus on specific aspects of the professional competencies in the hopes that introducing a methodical, intentional support framework to the programming and resources would better support new student affairs folks.

  • New SAPs’ social branch is closely tied to the competencies of Personal and Ethical Foundations and Social Justice and Inclusion. They want members to feel that they can be their true, authentic selves in the New SAPs and in their roles as well as to connect genuinely with others in this way. This begins within their first month on campus. New SAPs Leadership Team reaches out to each new staff member to welcome them to the university and provide information on an upcoming New SAPs Orientation. As a part of the Orientation, new professionals meet face-to-face with senior leadership, which includes associate vice presidents, directors, and associate directors in the division. They then spend three hours learning about opportunities across campus and in the surrounding area. Each Orientation has four or more new professionals in attendance. This allows for new professionals to connect with each other while also learning about the institution. From Orientation on, New SAPs provides spaces for individuals to come as they are, to be inquisitive about their environment, and to share their experiences. Most of all, there is space to connect with other individuals like them and their identities. Social programs and activities have included Bring-Your-Own-Lunches to connect with unfamiliar faces, coffee meet-ups, a community happy hour with other, local student affairs professionals, and others.
  • The professional development branch encompasses many forms of ongoing learning and growth that supports our work as student affairs practitioners. For this reason, New SAPs focus on the competencies of Leadership and Student Learning and Development most frequently. In the coming years, they aspire to bring in more speakers who can share wisdom on Assessment, Evaluation, and Research; Law, Policy, and Governance; and Technology as well. Examples of offerings in this branch have included webinars on leadership from NASPA, a refresher on common student development theories, a session on DISC profiles, and a ‘JMU 101’ to learn about institutional history.
  • The self-care branch allows New SAPs to focus on best practices for nurturing their physical, emotional, and mental selves, as well as to support and be accountable for the well-being of their students and colleagues. They rely on the competencies of Advising and Supporting, Personal and Ethical Foundations, and Social Justice and Inclusion most frequently. Examples of offerings in this area have included a ‘Mindfulness Paint & Snack,’ ‘Developing a Self-Care Plan,’ and others such as group yoga or meditation.  

The program launched in August of 2017 at the annual student affairs divisional meeting. The New SAPs Leadership Team presented self-identified New SAPs (folks who have been in the division five or fewer years) with “welcome wagons” that contained school spirit gear, resources from departments, a welcome letter, and a list of planned programming. The student affairs community quickly gravitated toward this unique opportunity. This academic year there were a total of 40 New SAPs sponsored or organized programs; 16 in the fall semester and 24 in the spring semester. These programs ranged from in-house facilitators from the New SAPs leadership team to presentations and workshops involving senior leadership in student affairs. The team worked hard to make sure that programming in each of the three main areas was being offered on at least a monthly basis.

Support from student affairs senior leadership and department directors was crucial to the implementation and initial success of the program. Their buy-in allowed the program to flourish and take off in ways the New SAPs Leadership Team could not have expected. By the end of the year, they successfully applied for another innovation grant to continue this work. At the same time, JMU’s VPSA was transitioning out and a new VPSA was gearing up to take over for the upcoming academic year. Fortunately, the new VPSA was not only supportive, but very appreciative of the work that had been started. He encouraged expansion of the New SAPs Leadership Team and of the program itself through avenues like more consistent funding, visibility at senior leadership meetings, involvement in the hiring and orientation of new student affairs staff, and an opportunity to work on projects like exit interviews for new professionals leaving the field.

The New SAPs Leadership Team grew from three to six individuals in its second year and these new ‘committee chair’ positions in each of the three branches were created to spread the workload and allow for more frequent programming. The collaboration and representation between departments increased attendance and knowledge of the program across the division.

As the team looks forward to their third year, they are already thinking not only about ways to improve their programmatic offerings, but about other helpful resources like opt-in mentoring, community events with other local colleges and universities, and more strategic program objectives. New SAPs leadership sat down this year to create a mission and vision for the group, and they’d like to take it a step further by beginning to map each aspect of the programming to the NASPA/ACPA professional competencies, knowing that a stronger emphasis on those competencies may help new professionals in a variety of ways. A foundation set on the competencies may assist New SAPs in building a stronger identity in student affairs, targeting their professional development goals, and increasing buy-in from departmental directors. For each program or resource offered by the New SAPs in its third year of operation, applicable NASPA/ACPA competencies will be listed in the program descriptions and marketing and all New SAPs will have an opportunity to make suggestions for programming based on the competencies they’d like to learn about more.

Future work of the organization includes an intentional plan for a change in leadership in the next year or so as the current New SAPs leaders plan to turn over the group to the next ‘generation’ of New SAPs. The leaders will leave one at a time so that a seamless transition is possible. Applications for the three different committee chairs will ideally continue to encourage a diverse representation of new professionals in leadership roles from across the division. To truly model the values of the group, members who take on leadership roles as committee heads or committee chairs will be expected to model strong self-care and wellness as well as a commitment to professional development and relationship building for their peers. In addition, the New SAPs will have more visibility at the university than ever before. In collaboration with efforts of the university’s Access and Inclusion Office, the New SAPs team, programming and resources will be embedded in the search, hiring, and interview process for incoming professionals. From this, the support of the New SAPs will be known to incoming professionals as early as their first steps on campus.

The mission of New SAPs is to retain new student affairs professionals through monthly program offerings in the categories of social connections, wellness, and professional development. Within each of these branches, we seek to make targeted connections to the ACPA/NASPA competencies and market events and resources according to the branch as well as the competencies that it supports. The framework of the competencies provides a road map for accomplishing the New SAPs mission by developing new professionals, keeping them connected to the profession, and hopefully, retaining their talents in the field.

New SAPs’ challenge in the coming year is to find direct ways to program in each of the ten professional competency areas. They find it easiest to offer support in competencies such as Leadership; Social Justice and Inclusion; Student Learning and Development; and Advising and Supporting as seen previously. However, they would like to better introduce or reinforce connections to competencies that to date have been underutilized in New SAPs such as Values, Philosophy, and History; Law, Policy, and Governance; and Organizational and Human Resource. Examples of programs they plan to implement to address these competencies include a webinar on “Religious Freedom, the Law, and Higher Education” and a refresher on some key points in the history of higher education.

Courtney Pelfrey
Career & Academic Advisor
James Madison University

Carson Lonett
Coordinator for Leader Development Experiences
James Madison University

Cilente, K., Henning, G., Skinner Jackson, J., Kennedy, D., & Sloan, T. (2006). Report on the new professional needs study. Washington, DC.: American College Personnel Association.
Retrieved December 11, 2006, from
Lorden, L. P.  (1998) Attrition in the Student Affairs Profession, NASPA Journal, 35:3, 207-216, DOI: 10.2202/1949-6605.1049
Renn, K. A., & Jessup-Anger, E. R. (2008). Preparing new professionals: Lessons for graduate preparation programs from the National Study of New Professionals in Student Affairs. Journal of College Student Development, 49(4), 319-335.

Opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of NASPA. If you agree or disagree with the content of this post, we encourage you to dialogue in the comment section below. NASPA reserves the right to remove any blog that is inaccurate or offensive.

To comment, you can login to your preferred social network. Comments are lightly moderated and we do provide the option for users to flag a comment as inappropriate.

Get in Touch with NASPA