Administrative Planning for Student Success during a Pandemic …

By Dr. Krista Vogt

In student services, we often speak of the products of our work – a great workshop, a thoughtful mentoring program, a popular orientation program, etc. In this blog, I’d like to take a look at the administrative side of student success. These last two weeks, I’ve had the privilege to be at the senior leadership table where important decisions needed to be made for the safety, health and continued learning of our students. It’s been a scary roller coaster of a ride, but I am grateful to work at an institution* that is focused on students and kept their needs top of mind as we made our plans. First, a quick timeline of events, and then I’ll walk you through some of the lessons learned.

*I work at a large (17,000 students) Ontario College of Arts and Technology (commonly known in the US as a community college)

Wednesday, March 11

The World Health Organization issues a statement calling the coronavirus outbreak a pandemic. Travel restrictions and social distancing are not yet being discussed.

The president of the college calls his senior leadership council with guests from facilities, security, corporate communications and student services together for discussion. Our largest recruiting event, our Open House, is in three days. Our discussion is about what to do should things get worse; we decide to keep going with the Open House and assume classes will continue, we order extra cleaning of the campus.

Thursday, March 12

Late in the evening, the local school board announces that all public schools will close until April 6.

Friday, March 13

The president reconvenes his council and we decide to post-pone the Open House, but continue with classes and employees are to report to work as usual. I have a planned vacation with my family to ski in Quebec. All night my husband and I consider our options, mostly we speak of our own need for self-care and the need to be with our teenage kids. We decide that he will stay and the kids and I will go.

Sunday, March 15

The large university in our city announces it is cancelling classes for a few days and will resume their semester online mid-week.

The talking between campuses is non-stop. What are you doing? What is your plan?

Monday March 16

Canadian Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau closes the border to non-Canadian citizens and asks Canadians to not travel out of the country.

Employees report to work and students come to class at the college. Parents and students call our Contact Centre furious that we are still open when the university is closed. The decision is made to cancel classes for the week and resume online where possible on March 23. Employees are still to report to work as usual.

Tuesday March 17

The President’s council meets again, it’s time to send “non-essential” employees home. There is a scramble for laptops and staff rush to grab their resource materials and forward their voicemail. They water the plants, thinking they’ll be gone two weeks at most. Our Contact Centre is deemed essential so a schedule is quickly developed to decide which staff will be on campus.

Wednesday March 18

I drive home from Quebec as I experience separation anxiety from my husband and feel the need to support the staff who report to me as well as my fellow managers who are exhausted. It also seems logical to return home since I had spent most of my time in Quebec on conference calls and responding to emails anyway.

Thursday, March 19 and Friday, March 20

I am working from home, but spending three hours a day on conference calls. The new routine is a phone call with the Office of the Registrar managers, a phone call with the college student services managers, and then phone calls with my staff team. Once new decisions are made, the phone calls with each team go around again.

LESSONS FROM WEEK 1 – as we plan for online learning and online service delivery

The main question of Week 1 was: how do we get staff set up from home so they can support students? Technology was paramount. We quickly discovered who didn’t have reliable Internet at home, who didn’t have home computer equipment, and who didn’t have the technological savvy to learn how to set up a remote desktop session using VPN. Our concern was for students, but our focus had to be on staff. If they didn’t have the tools they needed, they would not be able to support the students. Additionally, the staff needed to be in place of strong mental health to be able to support students who needed it.

Illustration by Paru Ramesh

My work during week one was about getting staff comfortable – with new equipment, new software, and new routines at home. Many are struggling finding a balance between work and supporting students while also supporting their family – many have children at home. Our college has kept everyone on the payroll, but for many staff members, their partners are being laid off from work as businesses shut down. My expertise is in project management and operations, but this week called for true transformative leadership. What the staff needed was reassurance, help and understanding while learning new ways of working, and to keep well informed of the ever changing decisions being made by the college.

A distant second to supporting staff as they set up from home was figuring out how student services were to be delivered remotely. Daily meetings of the student services managers team were crucial to help each of us in our planning. Counsellors and advisors were set up with the capacity to do online appointments. The Wellness Centre launched Facebook live streaming of fitness classes that could be done at home. For students who could not go home, residence made a plan for food delivery to rooms. We were ready….

Monday, March 23 and Tuesday, March 24

It is the first day of online class delivery. I go to campus but it is a ghost town. Only one door is open; my entrance is allowed because I am on an essential services staff list. Five staff members of our 86 member staff team are in the office – all sitting six feet apart and all there to help run the Contact Centre. The phones are much quieter than we expected. The daily conference calls with college leaders continue. At noon on Tuesday, the president decides that no one should have to be on campus. The Contact Centre is closed and staff are sent home, but my next task is to find a way to open back up again … with the Contact Centre newly configured to operate remotely. We bring all the plants home, unsure of when we’ll return to our offices.

Wednesday, March 25 to Friday, March 27

Everyone is now working from home. Contact Centre staff are answering the emails that are coming in quickly now that students and parents have no one to phone. IT services staff work 12+ hour days reconfiguring the phone network and assisting staff and professors struggling to move to online delivery. My days are spent on the phone – 5 and 6 hours at a stretch. Student services are being delivered remotely. Our focus shifts to how we are going to complete the semester and what we will do about our next semester, with 3000 new students set to start a new college program on May 4.

How do distance learners connect?
Credit: Adobe Stock: rocketclips

LESSONS FROM WEEK 2 – as students begin their online coursework

There have been two main issues arising for students as they transition to online studies; technological access and money to support themselves. Our college put 2280 classes online last week. We are hearing from a minority of students that they are just not able to get online. The access issue is one of equipment failure; the students may live in place without cable internet or they simply may not own a computer. We have set up a computer lab, close to a college entrance with social distancing and cleaning protocols in place to assist with this access issues. More difficult to solve is an access issue related to students with disabilities or learning challenges that make online learning impossible. We are working with Counselling and Accessibility Services, Indigenous Services, and the Learning Centre to work with each student individually to come up with a success plan. Professors have also been incredible and adapting where possible.

With businesses closing, our students are experiencing layoffs from work. Many rely on this work to provide for their basic needs. Adapting to online learning is taking a back seat to figuring out how rent will be paid and where the next meal is coming from. We are working on a simplified bursary system as well working with our student’s union to distribute food vouchers.

The reality however is many students will not be able to finish, and this will be the focus of week three. We are working to put a withdrawal form online and remove the barrier of insisting on a 1:1 meeting with an advisor before withdrawal (but offering this service for those who choose it). We will then need to develop a recovery plan to help these students find a pathway to credential completion.

In Ontario, the peak of the outbreak is expected in the next two weeks. Public schools are no longer resuming on April 6. Staff supporting students from home may be our new normal for the foreseeable future. We’re focused on access to online learning and financial hardship faced by students. I wonder what new issues will arise for students in the coming months?

For some levity in a tough situation, I leave you with a game you I will be playing at work today….

How are you leading to support student success in your role? Please “leave a reply” as we would love to crowdsource the myriad of ways people from around the world are getting by in this time of vast uncertainty. Please be well and stay safe.

Dr. Krista Vogt is Senior Associate Registrar, Admissions at Fanshawe College and can be reached on Twitter @vogtkris

Building Pathways through a Culturally Responsive Model

By Tanya Weiler, Program Director of Aboriginal Pathways Program and Regions at University of South Australia College.

‘You will go softly with the way you instruct, keeping in mind that the word for thinking and knowing in that [Aboriginal] language is also the word for loving’ – Yunkaporta, 2009

At the beginning of February 2020, 45 eager and nervous students across South Australia commenced the Aboriginal Pathway (AP) Program, a pre-undergraduate enabling program at UniSA College (of the University of South Australia). Completing 9 subjects over 18 months, the UniSA College enabling program develops students’ skills and the confidence to transition into any degree of their choosing, using students’ competitive GPA for entry. The AP program is an academically rigorous 18-month program for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students to engage with university study without leaving their community-based support structures. Piloted in 2015 with an initial 28 students in three locations, the program is now delivered face to face in Adelaide and all four regional UniSA College locations: some students travel >1000 kilometers to attend. South Australia is large (half the size of Alaska, but bigger than Texas!) and sparsely populated (1.7 million people, with 1.34 million in its capital, Adelaide). UniSA College programs are delivered in four regional centres (the furthest 775 km from Adelaide).

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people represent 3.3% of all Australians, but only 1.6% of university students (Universities Australia, 2017). Since the implementation of the AP program at UniSA, participation of Aboriginal students within the university has markedly increased, and the first completers are set to finish their Undergraduate studies this year.

Before creating the AP, consultation with Aboriginal Elders and groups at each delivery site established trust in the program as a partnership with the University, the community, and the students. The program design drew on Indigenous Enabling Education research (Fredericks 2016, Behrendt 2012) which recognizes a barrier in the competing course demands of a traditional semester model. We focused on mitigating this factor, giving students flexibility to study whilst balancing family and cultural responsibilities. Students study a maximum of two simultaneous courses in the first year (completing 6 in total), followed by 3 concurrent courses in the second year to mirror an undergraduate load. Intensive teaching blocks enable students who travel large distances to attend face to face, and the increased class-time supports strong scaffolding of skills. Given a cohort with many young parents, classes fit within school terms/hours.

Course design in the program is grounded in culturally-responsive teaching based on theories of intrinsic motivation (Wlodkowski & Ginsberg, 1995). In designing learning activities for Aboriginal students, understanding of the ‘8 Ways of Learning’ pedagogical framework (Yunkaporta & Kirby, 2011) which emphasizes storytelling and non-linear processes has been fundamental. Extensive discussion and ‘yarning’ (a dialogue circle) is a focus in tutorials and online, fostering trust and open interaction between educators and students. Students’ reflections on the community benefits of new knowledge is a key aspect of the curriculum. To reduce Internet connectivity issues common in remote Australia, all course materials are available in print format as well as online. This allows students to engage with learning materials despite unstable technology, whilst also providing teaching resources for students to use or share with family and communities.

2018 Aboriginal Pathways Program completers

There is always more to learn and ways to further embed Aboriginal perspectives, understanding and knowledges into such a program. We are consistently informed by research on best practice in Indigenous access education (Fredericks et al. 2015; Aseron 2013) and Culturally Responsive pedagogy, but most importantly building relationships and listening to Aboriginal Elders, communities and educators is fundamental and ongoing. Through these relationships and time spent with Aboriginal communities, we have developed detailed understanding of synergies between Aboriginal and Western pedagogies to best support students as they transition into their university experience.

‘If we find the overlap between our best ways of learning and the mainstream’s best ways of learning then we will have an equal balance.’ – Yunkaporta, 2009

How are you using culturally-responsive practices to support students, particularly in the challenging times we find ourselves in presently? Please ‘leave a comment’ so we can learn from you.

REFERENCES

Behrendt, L 2012, Review of higher education access and outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people: Final report, Department of Industry, Innovation, Science, Research and Tertiary Education.

Fredericks, B., Kinnear, S., Daniels, C., Croft, Warcon, P. and Mann, J 2015, Path+Ways: Towards best practice bridging and Indigenous participation through regional dual-sector universities. Report submitted to the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education (NCSEHE), Curtin University: Perth.

Universities Australia 2013, Indigenous Strategy, Universities Australia, viewed 22 March 2018, <https://www.universitiesaustralia.edu.au/ArticleDocuments/212/Indigenous%20Strategy%20Web.pdf.aspx&gt;.

Wlodkowski, RJ & Ginsberg, MB 1995, ‘A framework for culturally responsive teaching’, Educational Leadership, vol. 53 no.1 pp. 17-21.

Yunkaporta, T. (2009). Ways of learning in Aboriginal languages. PhD thesis, James Cook University. https://researchonline.jcu.edu.au/10974/4/04Bookchapter.pdf

Yunkaporta, T & Kirby, M 2011, ‘Yarning up Indigenous pedagogies: A dialogue about eight Aboriginal ways of learning’, in R Bell, G Milgate & N Purdie (eds.) in Two Way Teaching and Learning: Toward culturally reflective and relevant education, ACER Press, Camberwell Victoria

Beyond access: Turning every day engagements into life-changing opportunities for students in transition

By Constance Khupe, PhD, Office of Student Success at the University of the Witwatersrand Johannesburg, South Africa.

I was 16 when I decided I would become a teacher. I was the first in my family, and even in my community to have gone this far with school. I was in my last year of secondary school and registered for Ordinary level examinations, which would lead to a subject-based qualification as part of the General Certificate of Education. My class had been given application forms for Advanced level placement as was standard practice in Zimbabwean schools. Staying on to complete A-level study, would have meant two more years in high school, two more years of tuition and boarding fees which my family could hardly afford. I had heard that no fees were required in teachers’ college, hence the decision to go to college instead of going for A-levels. Students were in fact remunerated in the second and fourth year while on teaching experience. That was it! I was going to become a teacher. Being the most exposed to education in my family, I was the ‘best’ positioned to make the career decision. My family were relieved at the prospect of my imminent income. They sent me off to college with nothing much more than my few clothes. I and those from backgrounds similar to mine were fortunate to have a government (then) that supported higher education institutions to be ready for the kind of student that I was. I only discovered a few days into college that what I thought was free higher education was a government, low-interest loan that enabled me to pay tuition fees, food and accommodation, stationery, and even a stipend. Although the rest is now history, you can probably imagine my first year experience!       

My personal history prepared me well to work as a student advisor at the University of the Witwatersrand (more intimately known as Wits University) in South Africa. Wits University is located in central Johannesburg, the largest city and the country’s economic hub. Johannesburg prides itself as “a world-class African city”, and it is. Wits University draws its student population from all over South Africa.

The University of the Witwatersrand, Campus East. (Photo by Shivan Parushath.)

I am based at the Office of Student Success (OSS) in the Faculty of Health Sciences, providing academic support to undergraduate students. I can relate with the experiences of most of my students. At least a third of Wits Health Sciences students are from low-resourced school either in the townships, in rural areas or informal settlements. About 30% of the students are first in their family to attend university.  More than a third of the students rely on government funding for tuition fees, accommodation and meals (University of the Witwatersrand Summary Report on Student Home and School Background Information, 2019). Wits University has made strides in terms of enabling access to previously disadvantaged population groups, with African students now constituting up to 52% of Health Sciences first year enrolment (University of the Witwatersrand Summary Report on Student Home and School Background Information, 2019). However, retention, progression and completion still favour historical patterns of privilege. It is in this context that the OSS contributes to creating a safe, welcoming, supportive and optimum environment necessary for student learning and success.

Wits first-year student during orientation week. (Photo by Wits University.)

At least 900 first-year students join the Faculty of Health Sciences annually. Academic Advisors work closely with all stakeholders responsible for first year experience programmes. Beginning with a week dedicated for the welcoming of new students to the University and Faculty, orientation continues beyond the first week through much of the first semester and indeed the rest of the year.

Early Needs Identification

Given the diversity of our students, systems have been put in place for early identification and proactive support for the new students. Students’ needs are identified from multiple forms of engagements and sources, and resultant interventions include the students’ voice.

The multiple needs-identification methods have, over the years, pointed to risk factors for students in transition. As academic advisors, we use this information to develop interventions that address risk factors before they become fulfilled in academic failure.

Whole-class Interventions

Many students, regardless of schooling background, come to university with inadequate skills to handle the significantly increased workloads as well as assessment that requires deeper learning than memorisation. We address these challenges through face-to-face and online learning skills sessions. These continue through the first semester. Additional classes are arranged as and when need arises.

Individualised Learning Skills Sessions

Students have access to Advisors for one-to-one consultations either on self-identified learning skills needs or after being referred by a staff member. The sessions are interactive, starting with students sharing their problem and learning experience and reflecting on their strengths and weaknesses, and continue through to planning for the desired change. Agreements are made for follow up and feedback as applicable. The feedback allows both student and Advisor room to re-think their strategy if necessary. The process encourages students to reflect on their engagement and responsibilities in learning situations, and the bigger aim is perspective transformation, to shift responsibility for learning from the teacher to the student.

Although it is resource-intensive, individualised support is most helpful in keeping students accountable and responsible for their learning. 

Peer Tutoring for High-Risk Subjects

Although Wits Health Sciences generally has high pass and progression rates, some subjects have over the years had lower pass rates. We introduced peer tutoring on the understanding that students ‘listen’ to students. We train and recruit senior students to assist junior students in small groups to encourage social learning. The tutor’s role is to clarify concepts and to encourage the tutees to think, identifying their mistakes and correcting them under guidance. The peer tutor programme reaches at least 400 students each year.

Interventions for Students from Low-resourced School Backgrounds

A critical goal that we keep in mind when working with students from less privileged backgrounds is to instill in them a sense of belonging to the university. Many already feel they are on the back foot because of language of teaching, computer literacy, and little familiarity with the city and with campus facilities. Academic Advisors host a day-long learning skills retreat for these first year students. The retreat has to be at a time when students have had at least a month on campus so that they have some experience to learn from, but also early enough for it to contribute to first year success. The retreat programme includes

  • general learning skills including the often taken-for-granted things such as using course documents,
  • a life skills component
  • student-student engagement among the first years and with senior students who come from senior backgrounds. This component includes group conversations and games.

The 2020 retreat will include playing the higher education simulation and transition board game, Success Prints Crash Course®.

Mental Health and Wellness

The OSS is mindful of the diversity of mental health needs. All Health Sciences students have access to psycho-education and psycho-therapy services. Students are trained to take care of themselves and others, while staff are assisted to identify risk factors when they occur among students.

Responding to as Many Needs as are Identified

Students who have to rely on government funding do not always receive enough to cover their food and personal needs. Student societies, staff in the Faculty as well as external stakeholders often donate food and toiletry items to the OSS for distribution to students who have need.  

Some students do not have required textbooks and others would appreciate assistance in basic stationery items: pens pencils, note pads and files. We have raised awareness regarding these needs, and both staff and students donate textbooks to the OSS for lending to students in need. We also welcome stationery donations. For students in need, these donations go a long way in reducing their financial burden.

Learning Through Pay: The Success Prints Crash Course board game

After many conversations with Tricia Seifert, we have introduced gaming to our package of interventions. Our hope is to adapt the board game to the Wits context and hopefully take it to other South African universities.  

Reflection

It is regrettable that more than 30 years after my own experience, there are students (albeit in a different context), who still arrive at university with hardly any information about the processes and resources that support their success. Fortunately, Wits University has progressively developed support structures that respond to students’ needs. How do we get the necessary information across to students in a format that they can relate with, and early enough in their university experience to support retention beyond first year? The answer to that question lies in practices that are responsive to emergent student needs, and plans that allow for student perspectives. In 2020, we are looking to use the Success Prints Crash Course board game as one of those interventions that students can relate better with that class-based information.

Connecting the Supporting Student Success Study to the Graduate Student Experience and Students’ Mental Health

By Dr. Kathleen Clarke

My rationale for wanting to go to University of Toronto for my doctoral work was to understand more about the research on postsecondary context. I was attending a conference in the summer prior to starting my studies and I presented in a session in which Tricia Seifert and Jeff Burrow were sharing recent findings from the Supporting Student Success study. I was able to connect with Tricia and several of the team members throughout the conference and I was fortunate to be invited to begin working on that study in the fall when I started at OISE. I credit Tricia with opening my world to student affairs and services. Prior to this work, I did not know that this was an area people researched nor did I know it was an area within which I could work. I connect this to the study in the sense that, not everyone knows about student affairs and services and what folks in this field do.

My doctoral research focused on understanding the experiences of graduate students with mental health challenges and examining the challenges they face and the supports they use. I used the 2016 Canadian Reference Group data from the National College Health Assessment to obtain an overall understanding of Canadian graduate students’ mental health. I then conducted semi-structured interviews with 38 doctoral students in Ontario who identified as having a mental health challenge or disability. Although the Supporting Student Success study was not the metaphorical “egg” to my dissertation research in the same way that Jacqueline Beaulieu described, I will detail three connections that I do see.

1. Defining “Success”

Seifert, Henry, and Peregrina-Kretz (2014) wrote an article titled “Beyond ‘Completion’: Student Success is a Process” and in it they highlight that degree completion is often considered the sole criteria for determining whether a student is successful. They draw attention to a need for a broader notion of what student success is and cite literature that refers to students’ academic goals and intentions as key pieces of what a definition of student success should have. Part of what I wanted to look at in my study was how mental health conditions impacted students’ performance and progress in their doctoral program.

I began by identifying the year of study and then the stage of program (coursework, comprehensive exam, proposal, dissertation). This was fairly straightforward. Next, I asked participants about the expected time-to-completion. This is where it started to get messy. Some participants referred to what the official timeline was from the Faculty of Graduate Studies, others referred to what their specific faculty identified, and others referred to what they personally expected for their time-to-completion. Questions about participants’ current year in their program and program length were asked to begin a conversation about whether participants were considered “on-track” to finish within the expected time frame. However, in the same way that Seifert et al. (2014) said that there is more to student success than completion of the credential, I learned that determining what would be considered “on-track” was also not straightforward. Participants’ timelines for completing different aspects of the degree varied and some were comfortable with being beyond the ‘expected’ time-to-completion because of their own expectations.

2. Shared Responsibility

One of the key things I learned while working on the Supporting Student Success study was that student success is the responsibility of everyone on campus: It is not the responsibility of student affairs and services professionals alone. There needs to be a broader campus culture that values and encourages collaboration across campus with the purpose of supporting student success. I connect this to my dissertation work because graduate students use support from a variety of sources throughout their experience. When I interviewed doctoral students, I found that many people play a part in supporting graduate students with mental health conditions. Participants sought informal academic and mental-health related support from peer networks and they also talked about a mental health culture within their departments where students are sharing their experiences of seeking mental health support. While peers can encourage others to seek support, they can also unfortunately deter others from seeking support if they had a negative experience. The findings that peers were primary sources of informal support was not surprising, particularly in light of this piece by Peregrina-Kretz, Seifert, Arnold, and Burrow (2018) that used data from the second phase of the Supporting Student Success study to identify peers as connectors, coaches and confidantes, co-constructors, and copycats.

In addition to peers, interview participants also reported that faculty supervisors were also a primary source of support. Of 36 participants, 22 disclosed their mental health challenges to their supervisor. I was reminded of presentations that the Supporting Student Success team did titled “Knowing me, Knowing you – It’s the best I can do” and “Do I know you? Faculty and student affairs and awareness and engagement with the ‘other’” and was prompted to think about the importance of ensuring that faculty are aware of the various mental-health related supports and how to refer students to those services.

Another way that I connect shared responsibility for student success to my dissertation work is by using findings related to the use of professional mental health support. In the NCHA, participants are asked if they had received mental health support from offices at their current college or university. About 45% of the graduate students with a mental health condition reported that they had. However, a limitation of this instrument is that it does not ask about use of off-campus support. In the interviews I conducted, I learned that 35 out of 38 participants reported accessing some form of professional mental health support during their doctoral studies: 13 used on-campus support, 14 used off-campus support, and 8 used both on- and off- campus support. This finding highlights the need for collaboration between on- and off-campus resources to support students’ mental health.   

3. Survey Design

I joined the Supporting Student Success research team when we were starting Phase 3 of the project and developing a survey to send to faculty, student affairs professionals, and senior administrative leaders across Canada. During this time of survey development, I learned how important it is to take a close look at how questions are phrased to ensure that they are clear. Furthermore, I learned about decisions that are made when you develop a survey. After being involved in this survey development, I now examine survey instruments very closely and pay particular attention to how questions concerning graduate students are asked. Connecting this to my dissertation work, the National College Health Assessment could be revised in different ways to capture the graduate student context more effectively. For example, one question asks, “What is your year in school?” and response options are: 1st year undergraduate, 2nd year undergraduate, 3rd year undergraduate, 4th year undergraduate, 5th year or more undergraduate, Graduate or professional, Not seeking a degree, and other. Only one of these response options captures the graduate level and it does not allow for further categorized based on master’s versus doctoral level, or year of study at the graduate level (1st year doctoral versus 6th year doctoral).

I also want to draw your attention to how we ask questions about whether students identify as having a disability or mental health condition. In my dissertation, I examined participants’ responses across the three NCHA questions and found that a large number of respondents who responded affirmatively to “Have you ever been diagnosed with depression?” and/or “Within the last 12 months, have you been diagnosed or treated by a professional for any of the following mental health conditions?” did not identify as having a psychiatric condition. A total of 69% of the 975 participants who had been diagnosed with depression at some point did not identify as having a psychiatric condition. Similarly, of the 1,144 participants who identified as being diagnosed with or treated for a mental health condition in the past year, about 71% did not report having a psychiatric condition. Why might students be comfortable reporting their mental health condition on some questions but not others? What would happen if the question about having a psychiatric condition was not part of the disability demographic question? How are students defining disability?

Concluding Thoughts

The focus of student affairs research, particularly in the area of mental health, is focused primarily on undergraduate students. I therefore challenge you to consider how the needs of graduate students at your institution may differ from those of undergraduates and to reflect on the following questions:

  • How are you working together across the institution and beyond to support graduate students’ mental health specifically?
  • How are peers and faculty supervisors trained to support graduate students’ mental health at your institution?
  • In what ways are you collecting data about graduate students’ mental health?
  • How do the questions you pose in surveys reflect the nuances of graduate-level education (e.g. master’s versus doctoral level, year of study, academic requirements)?

Dr. Kathleen Clarke is a lecturer in the Faculty of Education at Wilfrid Laurier University. Follow her on Twitter @_KathleenClarke.

References

Peregrina-Kretz, D., Seifert, T., Arnold, C., & Burrow, J. (2018). Finding their way in post-secondary education: the power of peers as connectors, coaches, co-constructors and copycats. Higher Education Research & Development37(5), 1076-1090.

Seifert, T., Henry, J., & Peregrina-Kretz, D. (2014, July). Beyond ‘completion’: Student success is a process. SEM Quarterly2(2), 151–163. doi:10.1002/sem3.20042

How will you co-create with students?

At the beginning of 2020, Tricia Seifert, curator of the Supporting Student Success blog, asked: What are you doing in your practice that is interesting, innovative, or ground-breaking? How have you partnered with students? What have you done that missed the mark and you used the set-back to learn and move forward? David Ip Yam, from York University, shares his experience below.


What’s your institution’s innovation strategy and where do you fit? How and with whom will you collaborate? How will you balance students’ needs with the postsecondary systems’ needs and resources? What methods will you use?

These are some of the questions I wrestle with daily in my role as Director, Student Service Excellence at York University in Toronto, Canada. A few months into this job, it became clear that co-creating with students is a no-brainer for my primary initiatives. But in my experience, it’s not been simple.

Read on to learn about some of the practices that seem to be working. I’ll also share some of the challenges encountered and lessons learned about co-creating services with students.

1) Co-design with students

The service excellence program that I’m responsible for is about ensuring that we have the culture, capabilities and systems to deliver the highest level of service to students and the York community. We could attempt to design this program ourselves as a leadership team or as a staff team. Instead, we’re choosing to co-design with students by drawing on human centered design and design thinking methodology.

Understanding student needs and pain points

Early on, we formed a student experience design team to lead a stream of the project and to participate in a diary study. Over a period of three months, one group of students submitted diaries documenting their experiences with various services while the other group interviewed students at large about their service experiences. In the end, we collected about one hundred specific student experiences with our services.

Meanwhile, we formed a staff working group to lead a parallel study across the portfolio of over four hundred student services staff members.

Creating spaces for staff and student collaboration

From there, we invited the same students and staff to interpret the stories, identify themes, and draw out the student needs and pain points. Finally, a student skillfully analyzed the totality of the data collected from students and staff. From the data, the student developed a set of agreed upon principles that characterize the desired future-state student and staff service experience. Service experience principles serve as a foundation for service excellence when they are modeled and embedded. The diary studies and the co-creative spaces proved to be effective data collection mechanisms for developing the student and staff experience principles. Continuing the collaboration, these same students are engaged in reflecting our principles into actual service enhancements.

Copyright York University. Used with permission.

Potential challenges with co-design

Human-centered design may fly in the face of established bureaucratic and organizational norms. Many professionals are familiar with design workshops. They think of post-its, sharpies, and collaborative ideation alongside users (e.g. students). The ideas and energy generated from these workshops are seductive but only represent a fraction of the work involved in a co-creative process. Trust me, I wish that’s all there was to it!

As you can see from this design-thinking framework from the Nielsen Norman Group, the flow is meant to be iterative, cyclical and user-centered (e.g. students).

Copyright Nielsen Norman Group. used with permission from https://www.nngroup.com/articles/design-thinking/

Design thinking is used to innovate and transform, is done over time, and requires a balance between adopting the perspective of the user and the postsecondary system as a whole. In Design at Work, Dunne calls these the tensions of inclusion, disruption and perspective.

The implementation of such “design thinking” is rarely accomplished in a day.

It’s essential that your user-group (e.g. students) see the value in being involved and are offered multiple avenues to engage. It’s equally important that your senior leadership team chooses to champion and invest in long-term resources to sustain such a program and shift in work. Thankfully, mine have been supportive.

2) Be agile and responsive to student desires

The other initiative I’m responsible for is to work with a brilliant team at York and at IBM to build and launch a student virtual assistant. The potential to elevate student satisfaction, engagement and outcomes through a smart virtual assistant is exciting…and daunting. From the beginning, we’ve tried to implement a project plan that is structured, yet agile, and responsive to student desires.

Copyright York University. Used with permission.

Responding to student desires

Before it was a student virtual assistant, it was just an idea. The hope was to leverage artificial intelligence to enhance student experiences and outcomes. Instead of jumping to the solution, we sought to understand the problem from students’ perspectives.

We asked students to tell us what they needed through design thinking sessions. Based on their desires and our feasibility and viability analysis, it was determined that we would start by creating a student virtual assistant. Throughout our rapid building period, we periodically went back to students to test whether we “got it right”. Sometimes we didn’t, but in a responsive environment, we want to ensure that we aren’t building based on our assumptions of students’ desires.

Using an agile approach

After the testing period, we launched a proof of concept in which we engaged 100+ students for 12 weeks to help the student virtual assistant get better and better at responding to inquiries. Through incremental and iterative sequences (known as sprints), our team made daily tweaks, changes and improvements to the virtual assistant.

After a successful proof-of-concept, we launched the student virtual assistant to a wider segment of the undergraduate population. Yet again, in an effort to be responsive and enable a degree of agility and responsiveness, we launched it in BETA mode with built-in mechanisms for students to give feedback about the content. Students are showing us where to take their virtual assistant next.

Potential challenges with an agile and responsive (student) service design approach

In my experience, agile and responsive service design is resource intensive. I’ve found that it’s important for the project team and senior leadership to clearly articulate the problem to solved, the opportunity to be had, the scope of the proposed solution, and the resources required (including from

Concluding thoughts about co-creating with students

While co-creating doesn’t guarantee that you will be able to meet everyone’s expectations, our student participants have voiced that they feel more connected to the institution. Moreover, they’re demonstrating leadership, communication, information management, thinking and problem solving skills. In time, we’ll all benefit from the ultimate outcomes of this co-creative journey. For now, here are some student impressions of co-creating WITH us:

  • “It’s so rare to be asked what WE want, beyond a survey here and there. This [initiative] goes even further and asks us to literally be a part of designing the solutions from the ground up.” – Student involved in the service excellence initiative
  • “Opportunities like this support students as they become leaders and guide students to think beyond their own experience to the experiences of those who will attend York in the years ahead.” – Student involved in the service excellence initiative
  • “Being able to be a part of a group that is shaping something that will be so integral to the student experience is such an amazing opportunity.” – Student involved in the student virtual assistant proof of concept

Personally, I think the only thing that co-creation guarantees is learning (for individuals and for the organization). In my case, learning has been about being able to plan, act, and learn all at the same time, to embrace failure and ambiguity, and to use/encourage adaptive forms of leadership. I think this is helping me to be a better higher education contributor.

Now it’s your turn to share, how will you (or do you) co-create with students?

I’d love to hear from you @DavidIpYam on Twitter, LinkedIn or Instagram. If you’re interested in student success, check out my podcast, the Student Success Exchange.

Thanks for reading.

David Ip Yam is a higher education professional and leadership educator. You can learn more about David and his work at davidipyam.com

Studying Shared Governance Approaches to Managing Student Services

By Jacqueline Beaulieu

Spoiler Alert: This blog post shares details pertaining to my dissertation research (in progress) that examines the outcomes and implications of an Ontario provincial government policy that requires publicly assisted universities to negotiate compulsory non-tuition-related ancillary fees with students. I discuss how this research connects to the Supporting Student Success project and how my prior work on the latter supports my ability to undertake my dissertation research.

Would you like to learn about opportunities to participate in the forthcoming phase of this research? If so, keep on reading!


If you are connected to student affairs and services and/or student governments in Canada, you are likely familiar with recent headlines concerning the Divisional Court of Ontario’s November decision to quash the Ontario Provincial Government’s newly implemented Student Choice Initiative. Announced in January, 2019 as taking effect beginning in the 2019-2020 academic year, the initiative allowed individual postsecondary students to opt out of certain formerly compulsory non-tuition-related ancillary fees newly categorized by the Provincial Government as “non-essential”. For folks from outside of Ontario: “compulsory non-tuition-related ancillary fees” is a term used to describe fees typically (but not exclusively) levied above and in addition to tuition for the purposes of recovering costs of student services not normally eligible to be funded via capital or operating revenue (MTCU, 2019). These fees specifically recover costs of student services provided by postsecondary institutions.

The Student Choice Initiative also permits individual students to opt out of certain formerly compulsory student society fees categorized as “non-essential”. These incidental fees are collected by postsecondary institutions on behalf of the corresponding student governments, typically to support the governance function and services they provide to students. The fees are approved by students according to agreed upon policies and procedures of the respective student government(s).

The Province described their aim as providing individual students the opportunity to determine which services, groups, and initiatives they would like to use and/or support. Under the terms of the initiative, students would continue to pay compulsory fees for services categorized as “essential” which included:

  • Athletics and recreation,
  • Academic supports*
  • Career services,
  • Health and counselling,
  • Student buildings,
  • Travel/walk safe programs,
  • Discounted transportation passes,
  • Health and dental plans (where students did not have alternate coverage),
  • Student ID cards
  • Transcripts and graduation

*Institutions cannot levy additional compulsory fees in addition to tuition for items and services connected to classroom learning unless exempted by policy. Examples of exemptions include: fees for in-province field trips, learning materials retained by students, and placement services for work terms.

Note that the following types of services are not included in the above list of essential services:

  • Most services (other than those listed above) provided by student governments
  • Student newspapers, media, and other communications
  • Services specific to supporting students from diverse and/or marginalized backgrounds
  • Leadership education programming (offered as co-curricular learning),
  • Community-based learning and outreach (offered as co-curricular learning),
  • Mentoring programs

The initiative was met with controversy, with several student organizations pushing back for reasons that included a perceived lack of consultation, a shared belief that the Province was overstepping its authority, and some speculation that student organizations were being targeted. At the same time, some conservative student groups and the B’nai Brith of Canada League for Human Rights supported the initiative, citing that not all students supported their student organizations.

The initiative was subsequently challenged in court by the Canadian Federation of Students-Ontario (one of the province’s student associations) and the York Federation of Students (a student representative body serving undergraduate students at York University in Toronto). The University of Toronto Graduate Students Union and B’nai Brith of Canada League for Human Rights served as intervenors.

The Divisional Court of Ontario decided to quash the initiative on the basis that the Province lacked the legal authority to govern agreements between postsecondary institutions and student governments concerning student fees. You can read more about the Divisional Court’s decision here. The Province is currently appealing this decision.

While the introduction and subsequent quashing of the Student Choice Initiative appears to have garnered some attention from members of the broader public, those who are less familiar with this topic might not realize that students attending Ontario’s publicly assisted colleges and universities have held a collective right to democratically approve compulsory non-tuition-related ancillary fees for almost 26 years. Prior to 1994, universities could unilaterally implement “discretionary fees” (the term used for what would later be called “compulsory non-tuition-related ancillary fees”) to recover costs associated with student services. Growing discretionary fees and a corresponding financial burden for students sparked public debate; the Provincial Government subsequently implemented a policy on compulsory non-tuition-related ancillary fees on March 23, 1994.

According to this policy, compulsory non-tuition-related ancillary fees can only be introduced or increased if approved via procedures outlined in a protocol agreed to by a college or university’s administration and student government(s) (MTCU, 2019). Should a college or university implement a new fee or fee increase that contradicts the provisions outlined in the policy and/or the institution’s corresponding protocol(s) and no resolution is achieved among a protocol’s signatories, the Provincial Government may reduce the institution’s operating grant by an amount up to the equivalent of the revenue raised by the new fee or fee increase (MTCU, 2019). Institutions’ protocols can be renegotiated or adjusted at any time upon mutual agreement of the relevant parties.

My dissertation research (in progress) examines the outcomes and implications of this policy for stakeholders connected to the province’s publicly assisted universities. The study responds to growing demand for such research (e.g., Aitchison et al., 2016; Evans et al., 2019) and will expand to include stakeholders situated at Ontario’s publicly assisted colleges upon the completion of my dissertation.

I am fascinated by this policy as it represents an interesting and rare example of a scenario where students are not only included in institutional decision-making (e.g., where they are included in small numbers as members of Boards of Governors, Senates, departmental committees, etc.), but their approval is required for decisions to advance.


History of Student Participation in Shared Governance

Canadian universities have received international attention in the past for the ways in which students were involved in institutional governance and decision-making, departmental committees, and other aspects of campus life (e.g., McGrath, 1970; Jones & Skolnik, 1997; Zuo & Ratsoy, 1999). Anecdotally, my sense is that these types of involvement opportunities are often valued by administrators, practitioners, and students. There can be considerable responsibility attached to these roles, however, they are commonly viewed as providing students with valuable learning and experiences. Many share my view that institutions also stand to benefit from regularly engaging with students’ ideas and perspectives. At the same time, we find ourselves increasingly hearing about growing pressures that present-day students are facing (e.g., accessing majors; obtaining acceptance to graduate and professional programs; rising costs of attendance; managing family-related responsibilities; preparing for competitive job markets). These pressures can be viewed as being at odds in some ways with the messaging students often receive about the importance of getting involved in their campus communities. Which begs a question: what are related implications for shared governance? For student services? For student learning?

I am eager to learn more about the opportunities and/or challenges that can arise from this type of policy arrangement and whether or not (and if so, how) related opportunities and challenges have changed over time. My hope is that the study’s findings will inform and support the important continued work of policy stakeholders. Lastly, I hope the findings might provide inspiration as we grapple with the question below:

What should student participation in shared governance and institutional decision-making “look like” in modern-day postsecondary institutions?

Connection to the Supporting Student Success study

Not too long ago, I joked the Supporting Student Success Study could be viewed as the metaphorical “egg” to my dissertation research, the figurative “chicken” in this case. That is, the Supporting Student Success Study examined how student services at Ontario’s publicly assisted universities organize to support student success. My subsequent project examines the outcomes and implications of a policy that “lays” (pun intended) parameters for negotiating substantial portions of student affairs and services’ budgets. How the policy and the universities’ corresponding protocols’ outcomes influence student services practitioners’ efforts to support student success is of key interest to me as a researcher and practitioner.

This represents one of many reasons why I am grateful to have had the experience of working with Tricia and colleagues on the Supporting Student Success study. In doing so, I gained a host of relevant knowledge and skills that are supporting my ability to undertake the data collection and analyze and interpret this study’s findings. One lesson that I learned was the importance of deeply engaging the knowledge, perspectives, and expertise of the fullest spectrum of stakeholders possible. Doing so requires substantial investments of time and resources; however, tends to result in findings that better capture the essence of what is occurring at our campuses. This leads to well-informed findings that are detailed, nuanced, and ultimately useful for practice and policymaking.

I am equally thankful that Tricia is contributing her expertise and mentorship as a member of my dissertation committee, which is being chaired by Professor Emeritus Dan Lang- one of our country’s leading scholars in the area of postsecondary finance and administration.


Want to learn more about opportunities to participate in the forthcoming phase of research?

Over the next few months, several opportunities will be available to those interested in contributing relevant information, thoughts, and perspectives to this ongoing research.

Are you a senior student affairs and services administrator working at one of Ontario’s publicly assisted universities or federated institutions?

If so, you will be invited to participate in an online survey designed to engage your knowledge, perspectives, and expertise relevant to the research topic.

Keep an eye on your inbox for an important email containing further information and an invitation to participate.

Are you a university administrator or student affairs and services staff member working at one of Ontario’s publicly assisted universities or federated institutions?

Are you a student government executive or student member of the board of governors (or equivalent governing body) at one of these institutions?   

Stay tuned to find out if I will be visiting your campus in the coming months!

I am conducting interviews and focus groups at several “case study” universities designed to engage the relevant knowledge, perspectives, and expertise of diverse policy stakeholders.

Please note that every effort will be made to ensure that individual participants and their organizations are not identifiable in the reporting of the study’s findings.

Finally… what were you up to in the mid-1990s? Were you involved in or consulted regarding the policy’s development and implementation? A protocol’s development and implementation?

If your answer is “yes” to one or more of these questions, please consider contacting me via email if you would like to learn more about an opportunity to participate in an interview on the topic of the policy’s origins and past.

You may be interested to know… that individuals affiliated with the Provincial Government, Council of Ontario Universities, and provincial student associations are also being invited to participate in this research.

Concluding Thoughts

My hope is that my research related efforts will support many of you in the good work that you do with students. For those working at Ontario’s publicly assisted colleges and in other policy contexts where comparable policies are in place or being considered, my hope is that you will be able to glean all kinds of relevant learning from the insights provided by this study’s participants. By enabling us to develop a more comprehensive understanding of this policy’s outcomes- from initial implementation to present- this study’s findings could be used to support good policymaking… if and when stakeholders decide it is time to revisit the policy.


Jacqueline Beaulieu is a PhD Candidate studying Higher Education at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto. Her scholarly work is located at the nexus of higher education governance, finance, administration, and student success. Prior to pursuing full-time studies, she worked in student affairs and services at universities in British Columbia, Ontario, and Michigan (USA). Examples of her past professional responsibilities include the design and implementation of a new first-year experience program and providing oversight for a portfolio of campus life services.

She is also a digital content creator on the rise: her YouTube videos on academic skills and graduate student success have been viewed 4000+ times in less than one year. You are encouraged to stay connected with her via email (jacqueline.beaulieu@mail.utoronto.ca), by subscribing to her YouTube Channel, and following her on Twitter (@jacquiebeaulieu) and Instagram (@phdessentials).

References (Non-Hyperlinked)

Aitchison, C., Brockie, L., Oliver, B., & MacDonald, R. (2016). Policy paper: Ancillary fees. Retrieved from https://d3n8a8pro7vhmx.cloudfront.net/ousa/pages/86/attachments/original/1479404004/Ancillary_Fees_document.pdf?1479404004

Evans, E., Gerrits, M., Ibrahim, F., and Sethumadhavan, N. (2019). Policy paper: Ancillary and incidental fees. Retrieved from https://d3n8a8pro7vhmx.cloudfront.net/ousa/pages/1900/attachments/original/1575857033/Ancillary___Incidental_Fees_document.pdf?1575857033

Jones, G. A., & Skolnik, M. L. (1997). Governing boards in Canadian universities. The Review of Higher Education, 20(3), 277-295.

McGrath, E. J. (1970). Should students share the power? A study of their role in college and university governance. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities (2019). Tuition fee framework and ancillary fee guidelines: Publicly-assisted universities. Retrieved from http://www.tcu.gov.on.ca/pepg/mtcu-university-tuition-framework-guidelines-mar2019-en.pdf

Zuo, B., & Ratsoy, E. W. (1999). Student participation in university governance. Canadian Journal of Higher Education, 29(1), 1-26.

2020 – Time to Reflect and Grow

There is something powerful about not only starting a new year but a new decade. At times like these, it seems important to pause and reflect over the past 10 years, knowing it will likely bring up a full range of emotions. There were invariably times when you hit it out of the park this decade but there has certainly been a couple of times when you missed the mark. It’s okay; this is true of everyone. Reflection provides a space to see the decade in rear view and a vantage point to glimpse the future.  

Reflecting on the Supporting Student Success project

2010 was the year that the Supporting Student Success project began. Phase 1 of the project was a multi-institutional study located in Ontario, Canada in which we drove thousands of kilometers talking to student affairs and services staff members from 9 universities and 5 colleges about their perceptions of how their campus support student success. Like any good research study, we learned we had as many questions at the conclusion as we had at the start.

From 2010-2015, the project expanded from focus groups and interviews with students, staff and faculty (Phase 2), to a mixed-methods data collection with a large scale survey component, with versions in English and French (Phase 3). We expanded our sample from 1 province to 17 universities and 7 colleges across 7 provinces. You can learn more about the project’s progression here.  

At the end of the day, three points stand out as central to the project’s findings. These are:

  1. You can’t refer to what you don’t know. People refer students to campus resources only when they are aware of these programs and services themselves. Breaking down silos creates awareness which is necessary for supporting student success.
  2. The message matters! If faculty and staff hear consistently that supporting student success is their responsibility and they are encouraged to communicate, cooperate, and collaborate with student success in mind, they are far more likely to do so.
  3. Students are our partners. They are the ‘go-to’ for their peers when needing someone them to coach them through a tough course or someone in whom they can confide. Moreover, students have some of the hands-down BEST ideas for supporting student success and they often construct these services either on their own or co-construct with staff and faculty.

In the last decade, this team has seen 5 PhDs and 3 master’s students graduate (one has returned to pursue doctoral study) with another doctoral candidate actively dissertating. From the desert of California to the rocky shore of St. John’s, Newfoundland, in the coming year these team members will share how their experience on the research project continues to inform their work.

Launching “Blueprints for Student Success”

Throughout the project, we wanted to share what we learned directly with students. We coined the outreach part of the project “Blueprints for Student Success” as we had heard countless students comment that they wanted to draft their unique blueprint to be successful in higher education but did not always know how to do so. Under the leadership and creative vision of Christine Arnold, we launched the www.blueprintsforstudentsuccess.com website in 2014. But websites are only useful if they are used. So we partnered with the Pathways to Education program in Toronto and led interactive workshops with high school students involved in their summer programming. We developed a scavenger hunt game to help students learn how to navigate higher education’s hidden curriculum.

This was the team’s first foray into using games to familiarize students with situations that often arise during the first year in college or university. When students were turned loose with a bit of competition in the air, we saw something magical take place. Students engaged; they raced against the other teams to be the first to complete the scavenger hunt. They wanted to win but were keen to share how they resolved the challenge and what they learned in the process.

We knew we were onto something. Not another lecture with a talking head or even a panel of animated presenters, games are where it’s at in preparing students for the transition to post-secondary education. Game development has continued and in October 2019, we launched Success Prints Crash Course®, the higher education simulation board game.

Looking to the Future

We have presented annually at the Canadian Association of College and University Student Services (CACUSS) and often at other conferences in Canada and internationally. We have published peer-reviewed journal articles and practitioner-focused magazine pieces. Learn more about our published work here.

From the beginning, this research was about informing and improving institutional practice. We couldn’t achieve that goal if the findings and their implications for our everyday work was hidden behind a paywall of expensive journals or at a conference where only those with professional development funds could attend. We launched this blog and started using social media (check us out on Facebook (Supporting Student Success) or Twitter (@CdnStdntSuccess) to ensure that the research was accessible, easily searchable and useable for anyone from anywhere. Across these channels, over 5000 people from around the world follow the project.

What began as a means to share findings from a single research project has become a virtual space in which we highlight the great work of people worldwide who are helping students realize their academic and personal goals. We’ve shared lessons from a ‘one-stop shop’ in Mexico and widening participation work with secondary students in England and Australia. We’ve published posts on innovative ways campuses have engaged with issues of obtaining consent and preventing sexual violence and indigenizing their approaches to student success. We are excited to bring this kind of learning from the field to your feed or inbox. 

Looking to 2020 and beyond, we will continue to share findings from the Supporting Student Success research project, but the blog is pivoting to become THE space where folks from around the world share what worked really well and was a ‘hit’ as well as what missed the mark. In either situation, we want to learn from each other’s experience — together. 

We know there is a need for such a space in the international student affairs and services community. People, worldwide, are innovating in how they support students to realize personal and academic goals. This work doesn’t always conform to the requirements of an academic research journal article. Sometimes it is best conveyed as a short blog post, an infographic, or a video. Or something else entirely.

The Supporting Student Success blog is the place to share, leave a comment, ask a question, and most importantly learn in our global community of practice.  With that in mind, do you have something you would like to share? If so, please contact Tricia.Seifert@montana.edu to discuss your idea and the process for publication. We look forward to hearing from you.

Tricia Seifert is a student success innovator, researcher, writer, and speaker. She is Principal Investigator on the Supporting Student Success project and curates this blog. She is on the Adult & Higher Education faculty at Montana State University and collaborates with students and colleagues in Canada and around the world on student success initiatives and research.