Student Affairs: What Worries Higher Ed’s Hardest Working Leaders?

By Sheila Murphy and Jen Meyers Pickard, Ph.D.

A recent Chronicle of Higher Education feature, “They’re Called #TeamNoSleep“, called student affairs professionals “the backbone of an institution” who are working themselves to their limits to support student success in all its forms in the midst of a now year-long pandemic. The scope of student affairs was vast even in pre-pandemic times, encompassing everything from student conduct, mental health and crisis response to advancing equity and inclusion initiatives, cultivating belonging and community engagement and shepherding student activism on campus all while maintaining oversight of enrollment management, retention efforts and massive auxiliary operations.

As Sheila wrote a few years ago, student affairs is not a career for the faint of heart. “Even the most seasoned student affairs officers can struggle to make meaning out of their daily toil,” she observed. The pandemic turned up the pressure on student affairs leadership by situating them in lead pandemic response, testing and management roles. Simultaneously, the “student experience” at every institution was turned on its head, flipping to mostly online formats or significantly reduced in size due to social distancing. For the limited number of students who are able to live on campus, they are frequently confined to routine dorm life, take-out dining hall food and very limited opportunities for spontaneous and informal gatherings.

Amid these challenges, we recently convened a webinar with five inspirational and forward-looking student affairs officers, from the George Washington University, Pomona College, San Jose State University, University of Delaware and University of Maryland. This “Brunch with Friends” discussion, to which hundreds of viewers tuned in, elicited rare insights into the trials that senior student affairs leadership and their constituents now face, and how despite the mounting exhaustion and burnout, they are pressing on in difficult times.

Allow us to share some of the lessons learned from that session:

1. Students are struggling, even more than before.

From student loan debt and food insecurity to stressors around sociopolitical events, today’s students face immense burdens. In addition, as Patricia Perillo, Vice President for Student Affairs at the University of Maryland, noted, this is the “loneliest generation of students we’ve seen.” That the pandemic has removed many of the opportunities for students to connect and socialize only exacerbates this problem.

2. We need more opportunity for “collisions”.

Students are managing the academic, online-class experience fairly well, the group noted. What they truly miss are the hugs, high-fives and hanging out that come with co-curricular activities across campus. “We try to create opportunities where students collide with learning and growth opportunities,” said José-Luis Riera, Vice President for Student Life at the University of Delaware. “It’s hard to make these environments happen in a virtual world!” Students don’t feel a part of something that’s vibrant and full of energy if they’re not walking down campus corridors or strolling across the quad, he noted.

3. COVID-19 has taught us more than we ever knew about students.

The pandemic has provided a window into students’ lives that didn’t exist previously—individuals may be on a Zoom class sitting at their kitchen table, only to have their brother or sister milling in the background, or mother or father jump in to ask a question. When all students are together on campus and taking in-person classes, home lives are often absent from view. For all its challenges, the pandemic is providing greater context about students’ lives and their challenges. “That’s making us better practitioners,” said Avis Hinkson, Vice President for Student Affairs and Dean of Students at Pomona College.

4. The stakes have been raised for student affairs leaders.

Patrick Day, Vice President for Student Affairs at San José State University, posited that COVID-19’s ultimate impact on higher education will be “tectonic”, especially in regards to on-campus enrollment. Many students, he said, will welcome the opportunity to have more of their college experience done virtually. Student affairs leaders will have to work harder to create dynamic co-curricular experiences and address the disparate developmental needs of student in many different formats and on very different schedules. Further, there will be no excuses when another crisis hits. “There’s the expectation that we learned from the pandemic and next time we will act and act quickly,” he said.

5. COVID-19 has caused an existential reckoning.

As Hinkson put it, “There’s a struggle with the type of institution we are and how we are able to engage with students who were attracted to us for the picture of everybody sitting on the lawn together. Our sense of self has been tinkered with.”

6. Student affairs leaders must take heart and take care of themselves.

There’s the temptation for student affairs leaders to feel they haven’t done enough to aid students during the pandemic. Fight this feeling, said M.L. (Cissy) Petty, Vice President of Student Affairs and Dean of Students at George Washington University: “This is a time when everybody is doing the best that they can, so there can’t be a judgment that ‘my best is better than yours’.”

Self-care is critical for student affairs leaders to survive. “Our student affairs colleagues are high-achieving people, amazing leaders, but we are often caught in the busy-ness,” said Patty Perillo. “There’s so much to do! If we’re constantly caught in the business of doing then we’re not modeling the being . . . we need to create time and space to listen to our own voice.”

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