Mentorship, Career and Professional Development for Student Affairs and Services Staff

This summer marks the second full year of the Supporting Student Success research project. Since we began in the the summer of 2010, we have made 34 campus visits to our participating institutions. One unexpected surprise of these repeat visits has been to see some of the individuals we met during our first visit now work in new positions. For some, this has meant moving from part-time or contract positions to full-time employment. Some have moved from a college to a university (or vice-versa). And we have seen several people promoted from front-line to coordinator positions, and from coordinating roles to manager or directors; some with significant supervisory oversight.

Thinking about all these changes, I went back and reviewed some ACPA (formerly the American College Personnel Association) programs looking for sessions about career development, planning and mentorship for student affairs and services staff. At ACPA 2012, there was a large number of sessions focused on the new professional to student affairs and services. Some of these sessions looked at moving from being a student employee to full-time staff while others looked at moving from a graduate preparation program into full-time work. There were also a large number of sessions targeted at mid-career or mid-level staff. These included sessions on moving into a mid-level position, being successful while in one, or moving eventually into a senior student affairs position. Finally, ACPA featured some sessions targeted at specific staff populations (women with children and LGBTQ are two examples) or for staff working within different types of post-secondary institution.

What these sessions had in common was a focus on assisting SAS staff to socialize into their new roles and help prepare them for some of the challenges and opportunities they are likely to face. They discussed areas like defining your role, managing relationships with those more senior and junior in the organization and how these things change as people progress in their careers. The annual CACUSS conference is much smaller than ACPA and understandably had fewer sessions focused on these topics. But the 2012 did feature a few sessions on career and professional development for staff.

Irrespective of the number of conference sessions on these topics, they are surely important for staff and their supervisors. No matter how large or small the SAS division you work in, a large percentage of the divisional budget is made up of salaries and benefits. Thus, hiring, retention and promotion of staff have significant long-term budget impacts. The costs of replacing staff who leave the division, or transfer to other institutions is significant not just monetarily, but also in training, the loss of institutional memory, continuity of program and service delivery.

There is an often cited statistic, that more than 50% of those who received a teaching degree leave the profession within five years. As it happens, some research in the US (Evans, 1988; Tull, 2006; 2009) suggests that the figures in student affairs and services may actually be quite similar.

In our interviews and focus groups, we have heard a lot about how important it is for staff–front-line or managers–to feel supported by their supervisors. This support allows them to take risks, experiment and develop new or adapt existing programs. But these same staff also discussed a desire for this support to extend into their own personal and professional development. Many wanted to advance in the division and develop their own competencies further. Most often this takes the form of periodic performance reviews, opportunities to attend workshops, seminars, conferences, or possibly enroll in graduate programs.

But supervisors can also enable personal and professional development of their staff by facilitating interaction among staff and broader campus community, developing specific skills and competencies, focusing on staff renewal or rejuvenation, and sharing their own knowledge and learning of best practices, research in theory.

Staff described situations where their direct supervisor or even the Senior Student Affairs and Services Officer (SSASO) made significant and intentional efforts to develop the professional and personal skills of their staff. We also heard some SSASOs and managers comment that they see part of their job as helping their employees develop and advance in their own careers; whether that is in the division, in other parts of the organizational or even outside the field. Staff appreciated the interest and involvement of their supervisors and SSASOs in their own career development.

Overall, we do not know a lot about the approaches SSASOs in Canada take in developing their staff. Currently, CACUSS is in the process of interviewing several SSASOs across Canada. This project is modeled on previous work by Dr Donna Hardy-Cox in the late 1990s that featured interviews with 8 Pioneers of SAS in Canada. Those interviews provided a fascinating look at the history and development of the field, their own careers and student services and affairs at their institutions. The new CACUSS project will be similar but with an intentional focus on practices and philosophies of staff development and mentorship. CACUSS hopes to learn more about the people that supported and mentored some of the current SSAOSs in advancing to the senior roles they currently have and some of their advice for new and mid-career professionals about progressing in their own careers. A format for sharing these interviews has not been decided yet, but they will hopefully be featured in Communique, via webinars, conference presentations and potentially some other formats too. We look forward to learning more about some of the unique approaches leaders inside and outside of Ontario are taking to develop their staff.

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