What is the Role of Students in Student Affairs and Services Work?

– Submitted by Christine H. Arnold

What is the role of students in Student Affairs and Services (SAS)? Do staff consider students simply to be beneficiaries of programs and services? Do staff perceive students to be collaborators and connectors in their daily work? How do staff support student agency in the learning process? These are questions that the Supporting Student Success research team asked in a recent HEQCO report. The report details our findings from the Supporting Student Success research study in which we investigated how student affairs and services staff perceived the role of students in their everyday programming and service interactions. The questions listed above are of great importance given SAS staff’s challenge to serve and educate an ever-growing student population ranging in both diversity and need. With high service demands and an intensified emphasis on resources, it is important to consider that students themselves are resources. Many institutions have developed an awareness that students can be true partners and collaborators in service and program delivery. Students are orientation leaders and peer helpers, paraprofessional residence dons and peer tutors. We heard examples of students developing workshops, counseling students, and assisting in the evaluation of service delivery and programs. If students are invited to partner and collaborate with SAS staff in meaningful ways, it can benefit both students and SAS staff. Partnering and collaborating with students enlarges SAS programs and services’ influence and connections across campus and provides students with the opportunity to develop and apply skills learned in and out of the classroom.

Overall, it became evident that SAS initiatives must not only reach student audiences but involve them. The following research findings and discussion may be useful in reflecting on the role(s) students have within your own unit and or division.

Three Defined Roles

In our study we found the role of students in SAS work to be threefold: students were seen to be 1) beneficiaries of the services offered 2) collaborators in the development, delivery and evaluation of services and 3) connectors bringing units within and outside of SAS divisions together.  The first role, students as beneficiaries of services, is comparable to a “customer-service perspective”. Whereas, the following two roles place student learning and development at the forefront; this was seen by participants to be more of a “student development perspective”.  The first perspective is self-explanatory, but I want to discuss the latter two in more detail; these roles require work and a conscious effort to develop.

The Collaborators

Numerous SAS staff described situations in which students were the beneficiaries of a program or service, which is rightly the case in many situations, and this work should not be discounted. However, at some institutions, students were also regarded as collaborators and staff described interactions and meaningful discussions with various student groups. Examples of the student groups commonly mentioned as collaborators are located in Figure 1.

Figure 1.

Student collaborators are encouraged to influence and shape their own learning in these instances. Giving students ownership and responsibility for tasks makes them a part of the SAS division. Students are able to shape not only their education, but that of their peers. They are able to improve and be involved in services with the expectation that they will succeed and have useful skills to offer. For example, students were cited as assisting in the development of online platforms and surveys, delivering services via peer mentorship and taking on various employment opportunities throughout the division.

The Connectors

In some cases, SAS staff identified students as helping connect units to other resources and departments on campus. While students “as connectors” is not as common as students “as collaborators”, participants were able to cite specific examples where students helped develop the partnerships they were engaged in currently. If we imagine each institution as a map with a multitude of possible interactions a student could make in one day, it becomes evident that students possess a multi-faceted perspective of their campus. Students move throughout the day through this map connecting with various touch points around campus from which they internalize information and processes. This multi-perspective view allows students to connect SAS units with one another and with faculty. SAS staff stated that students shared information about projects that other SAS units were undertaking. Students also shared what was occurring in their classrooms, the gossip they overheard from fellow students and the functions they wish SAS services and programs would serve.

Most importantly, students make connections between faculty and SAS staff in ways not before possible. Making these connections can be challenging and we can use all the help we can get! We heard one example where a residence unit relied heavily on students to recruit faculty for a capstone project, due to the bonds students already had with these faculty members. Unlike the cold calls SAS staff make to faculty, students know these members of the institution and are able to appeal to them in original ways. We commonly heard the sentiment that faculty are less likely to say “no” to a student.

What Allows Staff to Support Student Agency in the Learning Process?

While the notion of having students as collaborators and connectors is attractive, we discovered that these practices are not as common as they could be. This causes us to ask the question: What support structures encourage SAS staff to partner and learn from students? Overwhelmingly, we heard that when staff felt supported by their supervisor in the process and product of collaboration they were able to view students as partners. Staff who had a supervisor who fully supported the process and product of collaboration were more likely to see students as partners in co-constructing the learning environment. Collaborations targeted toward the improvement of a specific service, program or feedback mechanism were all possible in such settings. Staff were not afraid to experiment with both the content and delivery of services for fear the outcome may not be exactly what they had imagined.

An example of the innovation that can occur when SAS staff trust multiple partners (including students) was exemplified in a peer instruction program based out of residence halls at one institution we visited. The initiative included high achieving upper-year students and facilitators, the registrar’s office to group first year students into similar classes, residence life and faculty members to develop the study sessions.

This example highlights the four essential elements of collaboration necessary for successful arrangements. Whether partnering with students, staff or faculty the following elements should be considered (see Figure 2).

Figure 2.

First, “intentionality” is required in selecting partners with which to work and believing that they each can contribute meaningfully to the task at hand. Second, SAS staff must be ready to go “beyond their comfort zone”, and take on new challenges in their work. A “reconsideration of current practices” may be necessary to envision a more seamless or effective process or program. Last, the use of “increased campus partners” is often beneficial for the sharing of funding, time, ideas and space.


Most SAS staff we spoke with agreed that they assist or wish to assist in student learning and development. If this is your intention, I leave you with a handful of questions you might ask yourself:

  • Where and in what roles are students currently involved in SAS?
  • How might I involve students in evaluating the effectiveness of the programs I offer?
  • How can students provide resource rich assistance for events occurring on campus?
  • What level of authority and control am I willing to give to students?
  • What untapped partners do I still have on campus that I may seek to work with?



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