A Personal Reflection: Student Development and Student Affairs

By Kimberly Elias

Is understanding student development theory integral to the work of student affairs and services?

As a master’s student in Higher Education and a new professional working in student life, “student development” is a phrase thrown around frequently and defined as the core theory of the work we do in student affairs and services (SAS). While SAS professionals acknowledge the importance of student development theory as the foundation of the practice, I question how many of us working in SAS truly understand what student development theory is, and how we are using student development theory in the creation of the programs and services that are offered.

Student development offers critical and important theories that describe a student’s development—intellectual, emotional, and social—throughout their postsecondary experience. This holistic understanding of a student’s development acknowledges both the intellectual development within the classroom, with the experiences and knowledge gained outside of the classroom. It is these theories, rooted in empirical evidence, which demonstrates that SAS is a developing profession. I describe it as a developing profession, because while some individuals acknowledge the professionalism of the field, others perceive themselves as staff, and not as professionals. A profession acknowledges that there is a body of knowledge inherent in the work, and while student development theory is encapsulated in that body of knowledge for SAS, there are many individuals working in SAS that see their role as more transactional rather than transformational.

This brings me to the point of intentionality, and often the lack thereof. Whenever I ask someone working in SAS how they ended up there, most often the answer was, “I just fell into it. This opportunity came up, I took it, and I’ve been there ever since.” Through further discussion I often find that many of these individuals were heavily involved in student life, either in student government, residence, or clubs and organizations. So if many of these people were student leaders who have worked closely with SAS professionals, why the lack of intentionality? Reflecting on my own experience, I realize that the field of student affairs is developing, and I am on the cusp of that development. As a recent undergraduate student, I was encouraged by SAS professionals in the Office of Student Life to explore the Higher Education program at OISE. Looking for any program more interesting than my previous goal of law school, I decided to apply. Little did I know that a whole world would open up to me, and I would find the profession that I am passionate about. Yet, in university it was only in my last year through conversing with the Dean of Students and other student life professionals that I realized I could do this—this is an area I can work in.

In sum, my definition of student development theory extends well beyond the theories themselves. A theory is only as useful as it is acknowledged and applied. While the theories themselves have been characterized as the foundation of student affairs and services, it is the growing acknowledgment of SAS as a profession that has given meaning and importance to the theories themselves. This notion of intentionality is at the forefront of developing SAS as a profession, where individuals are recognizing the valuable theories and knowledge that foreground their work, and are advocating for a professional community. While our American counterparts have long surpassed us in this respect, Canadian institutions are beginning to develop academic programs to reflect the need of a stream related to student affairs. With this, professional associations such as the Canadian Association of College and University Student Services (CACUSS), are growing and striving to define their identity in the higher education sector. The challenge is to help those working in student affairs and services see that it is a profession rooted in a body of knowledge, and advocate the importance of understanding student development theories in order to provide meaningful programs and services to students.

I leave this thought with a few questions to my colleagues:

1)       Do you use student development theory in your work? If so, how?

2)       Do you consider your work in student affairs and services as being connected to a broader profession?


2 thoughts on “A Personal Reflection: Student Development and Student Affairs

  1. Great points, Kim! I think that part of the challenge is that a lot of the professionals in our field don’t have graduate degrees in Higher Education and aren’t required to have them to advance in their careers. Our colleagues in the US are working in a much more “professionalized” profession, where candidates even for entry level positions are required to have an SA degree.

    One solution (although it’s a temporary solution) would be to incorporate some student development theory PD into our already-existing PD. At U of T, for example, we could have a one- or two-day intenstive course on theories that are applicable to student life professionals. I’m sure many staff who do not have an SA or Higher Ed educational background would jump at the chance to develop their knowledge in this area.

  2. I remember seeing at ACPA a lot of schools talk about doing 1-day or 1/2 day teach-ins on theory not just for staff but for faculty too. They said the sessions with the faculty were really helpful in building bridges.

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