By Brandon R. Smith, M.Ed.
Higher education research focused on Student Affairs & Services (SAS) is broad globally (see Osfield and colleagues, 2016) with the greatest volume of literature examining the American experience. To date, little research has been conducted regarding SAS in the Canadian context (Fricker, 2017, pp. 27-28). Furthermore, the documented experiences of Canadian SAS professionals and/or practitioners also is limited. With significantly fewer higher education institutions by comparison than the United States, Canada is the second largest country in the world and ranks within the top five countries with universities topping international rankings (QS University Rankings, 2018; Times Higher Education, 2018). While there is contention with how post-secondary education rankings are viewed or perceived, it’s interesting to note that there is a lack of research supporting Canadian SAS: research, evaluation of programs, experiences of our students – and those of the lived experiences of SAS practitioners.
As a Master’s level, two-credit qualifying research project supervised by Dr. Stephanie Waterman, I decided to explore the experiences of Canadian SAS professionals; specifically, that related to how their personal values connect to their work. While an ethically approved research project was necessary for me to earn my Master’s degree from the leadership cohort at The University of Toronto – Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE), my hope was that research on this topic may bring greater meaning to the work we do in SAS from the Canadian perspective, and perhaps be a beginning of new research. I also want to acknowledge that this project stemmed from Dr. Nona Robinson’s work on values of student affairs practitioners (2011), and Dr. Kyle Massey also provided a ‘sneak peek’ of his doctoral research on professional identity in Canadian SAS (2018), which contributes to a chapter in the forthcoming book Preparing Students for Life and Work (2019). Both studies supported the goals of my research project.
From my position as a SAS Practitioner, I wanted to explore themes related to people working in SAS; specifically, how their values, assumptions, and knowledge influences their work and practice. Weighing the current state of the world, with provincial context, and how this fits within a broader SAS perspective outside of Canada, it’s interesting to explore how Canadian SAS practitioners’ knowledge, assumptions, and values work together, or ‘rub’ or conflict depending on different factors. These influences may include, but aren’t limited to general characteristics (i.e. age, experience, education) or more complex, deeper qualities regarding identity (i.e. gender and sex, race and ethnicity, privilege, socio-economics) which is just the beginning. In all, I argue that our personal values are the root to our practice as a SAS practitioner, and our knowledge and assumptions connect to this which ultimately influences how we approach and view our work.
Purpose and Significance of the Study
I feel research on this topic could provide greater meaning to the work we do in SAS in Canada. By bringing preeminent attention to needs related to individuals’ values, assumptions, and knowledge about SAS work in higher education, practitioners could have an opportunity to ‘make meaning’ of their own experience. I wanted to deconstruct notions of ‘professionalism’ and ‘practice’ and explore themes related to SAS Practitioners; particularly how our values, assumptions, and knowledge influences our work and practice.
While there is a myriad of information, data and research focused on this topic, it is focused on specific or broad populations by age and demographic focusing mostly on the United States as a whole. Without comparison, how can we use current research to develop, or perhaps understand our own identity? Who are we as Canadian SAS professionals and practitioners? How do we actually bring our ‘whole selves’ to work? Do we feel like we can? What does this mean and why does this matter? Does it matter? Each are important questions not only for individuals, but insofar as these questions shape our professional identity; particularly considering how we engage within our institutions and how the field and higher education is viewed from a governmental policy perspective.
This image represents my argument: one’s values ground their work, and connect equally to one’s knowledge and assumptions. In essence, these connect to inform a SAS professional’s practice, which is at their core as a SAS practitioner. All of the elements noted above connect to the notion of intersectionality, which is an important lens of this study.
Intersectionality and Qualitative Inquiry (QI)
Scholar and advocate Dr. Kimberlé Crenshaw familiarized this term (2016) from the idea of social structures and cultural discourse, and how this influences intersectionality. Intersectionality in educational research is “descriptive representation” (p. 93) and all connects to qualitative inquiry (QI).
My research is grounded in Davis and colleagues’ research (2016) defining intersectionality as “…interrelations among gender, sex, race, class, ethnicity, and sexuality.” (pp. 93-95). While there are several appropriately broad, and many finite definitions of intersectionality in the social sciences and specifically higher education, I felt this definition connects most to ‘self’.
QI welcomes a researcher’s experience and in-depth understanding of an issue or phenomenon, and “…allows the researcher to approach the inherent complexity of social interaction and to honour the complexity, to respect it in its own right to do justice to the complexity, researchers avoid simplifying social phenomenon and instead explore the range of behaviour” (Glesne, 1999, p.6). QI research needs to include: (i) naturalistic settings, (ii) researcher as the instrument, (iii) inductive data analysis, (iv) participants’ meaning-making, (v) emergent design, (vi) interpretive inquiry, and, (vii) holistic accounts (Davis, et al., 2016).
For this project, QI related to my lens as a practitioner in SAS. Specifically for this research project, I used my own experiences to influence and execute the research (i; ii), my processing of information was structured and limited despite bias (iii), the analysis wasn’t documented specifically from the practitioner context in Canada (iv; v) aside from macro research with a Canadian lens of SAS practitioners perspective of values (Robinson, 2010), and questions the understanding of SAS practitioners/professionals on a national level (vi), while integrating Phase 1 of the study (survey) and Phase 2 (interviews) (vii).
Both the United States and Canada have professional associations that developed specific competencies which are nearly identical by label, but but are specific to their respective context in how the competency is described . Perspectives on competency development can be contentious (Jamil, 2015). Competencies in the field provide individuals a foundation of understanding of the values, skills, attitudes, and behaviours SAS Practitioners are required to possess at a minimum level through to advanced proficiency. Both models are evolving; however, while the ACPA/NASPA competencies have been reviewed, assessed, and edited over nearly a decade, the CACUSS competencies were only launched a few years ago and plan to be assessed over time.
Competencies provide individuals a common language to communicate their skill, personal, and professional development. The Canadian Association of College and University Student Services (CACUSS) competency model was developed in 2016 long after the American College Personnel Association (ACPA) and Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education (NASPA) competencies in 2010. The CACUSS competencies are indicated below, with asterisk indicating competencies that do not share a similar label/category than the current American models:
- Emotional and Interpersonal Intelligence
- Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion
- Indigenous Cultural Awareness*
- Intercultural Fluency*
- Leadership, Management, and Administration
- Post-secondary Acumen
- Strategic Planning, Research, and Assessment
- Student Advising, Support, and Advocacy
- Student Learning & Development
- Technology and Digital Engagement
While there are similarities among labels, each competency model is unique to their association through description and outcomes associated with application, intersections, and proficiency.
I was curious to explore how this contributes to meaning making for SAS Practitioners; specifically, related to Intersectionality and identity development. Competencies are skills and particular qualities that are desirable for a practitioner to possess. While the CACUSS Competencies are not necessarily ‘values’ of everyone, I want to explore if or how practitioners consider these areas/definitions to be a value to them – while considering their intersectionality.
This project was not intended to assess or evaluate benefits or challenges regarding competencies specifically; however, I decided to use the CACUSS competencies, or ‘labels’, as a common language to define specific values regarding our professional work and practice.
Research Design and Methodology
Of the survey’s design, QI influenced the open-ended questions asked in the instrument and interviews for the research. The methodology of this study was mixed-methods in nature. This was reinforced with my worldview being transformative and pragmatic (Creswell, 2014), as I looked to examine an issue related to understanding behaviour that is connected to an on-going issue where there is a lack of data; specifically, Canadian SAS. Data consisted of survey results and interviews, all related to practitioners connected to SAS (i.e. Student Learning Support, Career Education, Housing & Residence Life, Student Health & Wellness, Student Life Programs). Consenting, anonymous participants were invited to share their views related to values through the survey and could opt in to be randomly selected to interview. Of the sample, more than 75% of the participants volunteered to be interviewed. Data collection for this project was carried out in two phases: first, a survey targeted to Canadian Student Affairs and Services (SAS) practitioners, and second, interviews with consenting participants who have completed the survey.
Phase 1 –Survey
The survey allowed participants to rate – not rank – values that are generally associated with SAS from a broad description of SAS specific competencies. Using a 5-point Likert Scale, participants rated the specific value and their importance to the participant. This scale was also influenced by Alwin’s work (2004) on ratings over rankings, which replicates O’Brien’s work (1979) assessing values through ratings. Values were assessed as being (i) not at all important, (ii) not too important, (iii) fairly important, (iv) very important, (v) extremely important (p. 540).
Regarding the measurement and assessment of values in surveys/interviews, ‘ratings’ are scientifically less rigorous and stressful for a participant, as opposed to ‘rankings’ (Alwin, 2004). Further, rating allows participants to be more decisive and is generally three-times faster for a respondent to complete ratings over rankings. Last, my goal was to permit epidemiological factors and bias, which is better achieved through rating and further embraced QI.
Phase 2 – Interviews
QI shaped the interview questions involving a random selection of consenting participants which registered through the CACUSS list-serve. Interviews were transcribed and coded to connect and bridge themes, commonalities, and understanding discrepancies through integration of this data with survey results. Using a random sub-sample through Microsoft Excel, I planned to interview ~10% of survey participants with varying levels of professional experience.
Sample and Results
Using the CACUSS list-serve and Twitter to invite participants to participate in the study, the survey was open for 10 days. Participants were categorized using the CACUSS definitions for level of experience:
new professionals (0-5 year of experience), mid-level (5+-15), and senior professionals with 15+ years.
Sample (n=72) for Phase 1 – Survey consisted of:
- New Professional: 18
- Mid-level Professional: 30
- Senior Professional: 24
Sample (n=7) for Phase 2 – Interviews was a random group selected from Phase 1, including:
- New Professional: 2
- Mid-level Professional: 3
- Senior-level Professional: 2
In order to assess any variance among survey results (ANOVA), I conducted a one-way Kruskal-Wallis analysis. This method allowed me to test differences to survey responses between each of the experience levels; for example, comparing results of new professionals to mid-level, and then again separately with senior-level. More information regarding these statistics and this analysis is available upon request.
There was no statistical difference among groups for most of the competencies; specifically:
- Communication (p=0.558)
- Intercultural Awareness (p=0.574)
- Postsecondary Acumen (p=0.519)
- Leadership Management (p=0.178)
- Strategic Development (p=0.590)
- Advising (p=0.139)
- Technology (p=0.729)
There were, however, statistically significant differences among treatment groups for:
- Emotional and Interpersonal Intelligence (H=6.48, d.f.=2, p=0.039): new professionals assigned more importance to EI than senior professionals (p=0.036), while there was no difference in EI importance between junior and mid-level professionals (p=0.290), or between mid-level and senior professionals (p=0.257).
- Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion: similar results to Emotional and Interpersonal Intelligence (H=6.52, d.f.=2, p=0.028).
- Indigenous Cultural Awareness (H=7.62, d.f.=2, p=0.022): new professionals assigned more value to the Inidgenous Cultural Awareness competency than mid-level professionals (p=0.028), while there was no difference between juniors and seniors (p=0.599) or mid-levels and seniors for this competency (p=0.327).
- Student Learning & Development (H=7.79, d.f.=2, p=0.020): for the SLD competency, senior professionals assigned less importance both new (p=0.017) or mid-level professionals (p=0.038) did.
Raw data results are available upon request.
I conducted interviews following the survey in January 2018. As a limitation, it’s important to note that these interviews are captured in a specific moment in time. There could be certain factors that can influence responses to a survey or in an interview setting, including but not limited to: time of year, change (i.e. local/institutional level, government), etc.
Using a random sub-sample through Microsoft Excel, I interviewed seven participants with varying levels of professional experience: two new professionals, three mid-level professionals, and two senior-level professionals. Participants included representation from Ontario (2), Alberta (2), British Columbia (1), and east-coast representation from New Brunswick (1) and Prince Edward Island (1). The seven participants had experience in any/all of the following areas of SAS: Student Learning Support, Housing & Residence Life, and Student Life Programs. Therefore, there was no representation from Career Education, nor Student Health & Wellness.
Interviews lasted between 45-90 minutes and the following questions were provided to participants in advance for discussion:
1. How do you, as a SAS Professional or Practitioner, value your work, personally and professionally?
2. What intersectional aspects add to your lenses as a SAS practitioner/professional?
3. What influences and motivates you as a SAS practitioner?
There were clear themes from the interviews among all experience levels, which are described in the table below through coding; specifically, open (labeling concepts; categories), axial (core themes), and selective coding (core of overarching theme). Codes were synthesized at each phase by integrating my own lens as a SAS practitioner.
All individuals interviewed described identities that connect to Crenshaw’s definition of intersectionality, particularly regarding how participants value their work both personally and professionally. Values seem to be regarded highly at both the individual level and how they connect or conflict with an institution. Among the new professionals in the study, intersectionality seems to have played some role these participants’ decisions to choose this line of work; however, both mid-level and senior participants noted this work connecting more to helping students succeed out of the formal classroom setting. A notable quote from one individual that generally encompassed all participants’ responses: “I wouldn’t be in this field if my values conflicted with this work.” It could be argued that intersectional identities play a different role for new professionals than those with more experience. There are many possibilities for why this happens: direct-entry from post-secondary to first career placement, institutional history and differentiation, priorities, generational perspective, etc. However, we are working toward the same goal so a shared perspective is important. In all, this would be an interesting area of research as representation of individuals working within a SAS divisional varies and can be quite broad. This could impact expectations, communication of vision and goals, understanding of ‘wants’ versus ‘needs’, and perhaps enhance and overall understanding and connection to our work holistically despite years of experience.
How values motivate and influence the interview participants were quite individual. New professional participants’ discussions were more exploratory with connections to self-authorship (Baxter Magolda, 2004). However, discussions with mid and senior-level participants broached challenges regarding adapting to change, how this can impact SAS mission and vision at an institution, and needing to adapt to this change in order to communicate needs. One notable quote from a participant was “…there is a difference between value and approach. Values will influence approach. This could be different from the person and the campus.”
From all participants, there was discussion regarding changing climate to higher education in Canada and in some cases abroad, describing change to the work in SAS and responsibilities in response to emerging needs, such as mental health/illness, sexual health and violence, new and changing policy, performance indicators, and emergent need defined by institutional leadership. One participant noted “…our work is changing and moving beyond [Council for the Advancement of Standards in Higher Education].”, yet no participant described wavering from their commitment to their work in SAS.
It’s important to note that while there is statistically significant variance among some professional levels, all participants rated all values highly. However, those that had no variance have been ‘day-to-day’ in our work in a clear way (i.e. CAS Standards, training and development, and/or skill preparation), where most of the four that presented variance – specifically Emotional and Interpersonal Intelligence; Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion; Indigenous Cultural Awareness – have also always been day-to-day, but less privileged and talked about until recent years. It’s clear these are important values to practitioners, but perhaps newer professionals are seeing this differently or more clearly due to their day-to-day.
As this was a Master’s level research project already beyond necessary scope, a deeper analysis, opportunity for follow-up interviews, etc., did not occur at this time.
Implications & Conclusion
Integrating results from the survey with interview responses, I’m curious to learn more about preparation among professional levels, and how we can better connect perspectives between new and senior professionals, but also better support the broad group of mid-level professionals – also broad with more than five to fifteen years of experience. While we are all supporting student success outside of the classroom, all experience levels have different needs and priorities depending on responsibility level. This is fair; however, how can we better illuminate needs regarding these professional levels but also create a better, equitable understanding of their professional priorities? What are feedback loops that can be developed to connect ideas and perspectives of front-line staff to inform senior members of SAS without completely depending on ‘those in the middle’, meaning the mid-level practitioner? Last, while there are clear supports in place to introduce and support a new professional to our work in SAS (i.e. new professional training institutes, mentorship programs), what supports are in place to help and advance mid-level and especially senior-level administrators who are leading and advocating our work at our campuses?
Though this project was not intended to assess the current competency model, there is a differentiation among values that are also competencies regarding out work. Naming competencies and developing a path for levels of skills, knowledge and attitudes is an important step, but how can we support practitioners at all levels to self-assess an accurate understanding and ability of essential skills and understanding regarding our work.
From the survey and interviews, it’s clear there is ‘heart’ connected to our work but conflict with changing needs of students, our priorities, and responsibilities of SAS. For those who prioritize personal values as high, it is important to consider how you are positioned to do your best work and bring your best self, but also what are limitations or rubbing of personal ethics. This is particularly timely with shifts in government, challenges to access and funding, while all priorities need to connect to supporting the needs of our changing students.
This research project barely begins to explore issues, needs, successes, challenges, and ‘meaning-making’ associated with the Canadian SAS practitioner. Our values matter and will always influence our lens, work, and approach. While a gap is anticipated among what new and senior professionals may expect or value, my hope is this project opens a door to new opportunities to explore issues regarding not only the values of SAS practitioners, but their needs as well in order to support the students we are here to serve.
Brandon is a first-generation student with 11 years of professional experience in Student Affairs & Services from Ontario and Alberta, Canada. Specifically, Brandon has worked in progressive leadership roles within Housing & Residence Life and Student Affairs; collaborating with students, faculty, administration, and the local community to enhance the student experience and engagement outside of the classroom. Currently the Associate Director, Residence Life & Education at Ryerson University, Brandon will be leaving Canada to begin the Ph.D. in Higher, Adult, and Lifelong Education full-time at Michigan State University in fall 2019 to ‘make meaning’ of his own experience as an emerging scholar-practitioner. You can contact Brandon on LinkedIn or on Twitter @brandonrgsmith.
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