Engaging Student Staff in Professional Development

Posted by Leah McCormack-Smith

I was lucky enough to attend my first Ontario Association of Colleges & Universities Housing Officers (@OACUHO) Residence Life Conference in 2003 at the University of Windsor. I was a resident assistant at Humber College, and was lucky enough to be presenting on accessibility with a few of my coworkers.

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More than a decade later, I can still remember the experience of walking through the doors of the conference entrance to register. Dressed in a rainbow of school clothing, people were cheering and for the first time I really understood that residence life was a vibrant community outside of my own school. Rather than just an RA at Humber College, I was part of a large network of para-professional student staff, and there was theory and best practice within our work. I spent a weekend learning, networking, and rejuvenating for a second semester of work. I felt connected.

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This year I was lucky enough to send six of my staff to the Residence Life Conference at the University of Toronto Mississauga, and watch them experience some of the same things I got to be a part of in 2003. The excitement of making new friends, and learning about interesting ideas and solutions to shared challenges in residence life. Best of all, for professionals it offers an opportunity for us to reevaluate the processes and pedagogy we use in our home institutions and adopt new and innovative ideas that excite our staff.

 Thinking to some of the data we’ve seen through the Supporting Student Success research, I think conferences like the Residence Life Conference highlight how important communication and information sharing is for the field of student affairs and services. In Canada in particular, we are in the thick of examining our approach and the pedagogy of our profession. A common theme we heard throughout the focus groups and interviews was the importance of sharing our goals, our understanding of our students, and how student life affected academics for students in university and college. Conferences not only allow staff to engage with each other to discuss problems and possible solutions, but also allow us to understand ourselves as members of the wider profession.

For this reason, I believe it is important for institutions to send our staff to conferences like the Residence Life Conference – we should engage our student staff in discussion about professional issues and encourage them to form their networks. Not all of our student staff will end up becoming student affairs and services staff – the vast majority won’t – but for those who do, us as their supervisors should help to stoke the passion and help them find their place within our ranks.

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