About Supporting Student Success

Tricia Seifert is an associate professor in the Adult & Higher Education program at Montana State University and maintains a faculty appointment the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto. She uses sociological theories and principles to examine issues related to postsecondary student learning and success. Her interest in understanding the organizational structure of student affairs and services divisions stems largely from her administrative background working in residence life, student leadership programs, and fraternity/sorority life. Having worked at both large and small postsecondary institutions, Tricia witnessed the interplay between formal and informal organizational structures and their influence on staff’s ability to support student success.

Finding their Way: Power of Peers

It’s summer on college campuses and there is a different energy in the air. New students are registering for classes and orientation leaders are showing them the ropes. Next month, many of these first-year students will move into their residence hall rooms and meet their resident advisor. In both cases, peers, serving as orientation leaders and resident advisors, are paraprofessionals who are key to supporting student success.

summerPhoto credit: Boston University

The Supporting Student Success team found that peers are coaches, confidantes, and co-constructors of learning opportunities for new students. Their actions inspire those they are helping to do the same, copycatting kindness and welcome, for the class of students who will come behind them. Importantly, it wasn’t just peers in formal leadership roles that make a difference in supporting their fellow students but informal role models as well.

As student affairs professionals prepare to train students as resident advisors, tutors, Supplemental Instruction leaders, peer health & wellness ambassadors, and much more, we invite you to learn more about the power of peers to support student success in our new publication in Higher Education Research & Development.

It’s the perfect summer read whether on the pool deck or curled up in the library.


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Our Journey is Our Story

You know a conference has left an impact when you find yourself itching to write while on the early morning flight home. On my 16-hour travel, I continue to think about and process the experience at the first joint conference of CACUSS and ARUCC.

I blogged on Day 1 of my professional learning journey, sharing how much I valued and was humbled by the opportunity to connect with the ancestral, unceded land of the Mi’kmaq people as I walked a part of the Confederation Trail. The walk centered my mind and provided me with a clear intention for the conference.

Stated simply, I was blown away by the depth of learning, vulnerability, and authenticity that was shared at this week’s CACUSS-ARUCC conference in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island. On a more personal note, going into the conference with a very clear intention, I am humbled by the peaks and valleys that I know I will encounter on my personal learning journey to examine my settler/colonial assumptions and biases.

Sitting in Circle

My conference journey began literally on the road. I drove 1000 km from my home to Thompson Rivers University where I learned with the wonderful Faculty of Student Development team. In circle, I shared my name and where I’m from. We were a large group and it took almost an hour to go around the circle one time. I felt myself getting a little antsy and my western/colonial mind wondered if this was a good use of time. I had to quiet my mind and commit to being in the present moment in which Paul Michel, Executive Director of the Office of Aboriginal Affairs, shared the importance of beginning in a good way. By acknowledging our ancestry first, we communicate our connection to the land and our relations. As we went around the circle, we not only learned about each other but new connections were discovered.

I found that two others in the circle have family whose last name is Gunn. They are from the Clan Gunn of Scotland. I thought my grandmother’s family was from the Gunn’s in Wales. Maybe they migrated from Scotland? Spending time in circle in this way, I’m motivated to learn more about the land in which I come and my relations. Irrespective, I feel a new closeness to these colleagues.

Lesson 1

Paul shared that our stories stand on the shoulders of our ancestors. It is what connects us to our ancestors’ journey. All journey is story and our story is our journey.

Skiing, Struggling, Steeling Resolve

From TRU to Charlottetown via Calgary, my conference journey began with story and continued with story front and center at the CACUSS-ARUCC conference.

Candy Palmater took the stage and enthralled the audience with her story. There were moments that were hilarious and others that were heartbreaking. I would hunch that parts of her story resonated differently with each person in the audience. This is the power of story; it invites people to connect with whatever chapter compels a response.

I am a skier and I was mesmerized by Candy recounting when her brother taught her to ski. I know firsthand it is no fun to fall when skiing. It hurts and it’s hard to get up with long planks strapped to your feet. But falling is part of skiing and having to get up is inevitable. If you fear falling, then you ski with fear. If you learn first how to get up, you can ski without fear.

Lesson 2

These were two key lessons that I gained while on my conference journey but I have to confess that I struggled throughout. The US policy of separating children from their parents who were seeking asylum at the border weighed so heavy on my heart. Throughout the conference, I was angry. I was communicating with my Congressional delegation daily through social media. I am still angry and still tweeting, Facebook posting, and calling.

I acutely felt my privilege to be at a conference in which the opening statement acknowledged that the conference attendees were occupying and visiting the ancestral and unceded land of the Mi’kmaq people. The Europeans who came to this land committed horrible atrocities and a taking of the land.

It was not lost on me that at in the same minutes that Pat Pardo, CACUSS President uttered those words, border agents of my home country were forcibly taking small children from their families. Not unlike the forcible taking of Indigenous children from their families and placing them in boarding schools in Carlisle, Pennsylvania and Haskell, Kansas to “kill the Indian, save the man.”

The notion of truth and reconciliation, as painfully imperfect as it is in Canada, feels unattainable in the United States in which the truth is denied, distorted, and dismissed. With truth questioned at every turn, I wonder if we may ever engage a process of reconciliation.

There are moments that I feel helpless and hopeless. But thankfully, most moments are fueled by a passion and persistence to RESIST! I gain strength from my Indigenous colleagues who have resisted and survived in the face of broken treaties and cultural genocide. One of my colleagues shared that he is the first in his family not to go to residential school. His generation and the two previous, if allowed to participate in post-secondary education at all, became lawyers and teachers and social workers. His daughter, the fourth generation, wants to be a rock star.

I do not share this glibly. I share this story because it gives me hope. I am deeply grateful for my CACUSS family who have shared their stories with me. This story and the many others told this past week steel my resolve to examine the colonial assumptions and biases that pervade our post-secondary program. To expose these assumptions and biases in plain light. To name them for the colonial privilege and power that they provide to some and the oppression they impose on others.

I don’t have the map for decolonizing the programs over which I have influence at my institution. But I am on the journey and looking for some good company. Let me know if I you will be on the trail.

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I invite you to “leave a comment” about your learning journey. There’s great value in having friends to share with along the way.

— Tricia Seifert is associate professor of Adult & Higher Education and department head of Education at Montana State University. She is also the principal investigator of the Supporting Student Success research project.

Walking as Professional Development

#SeaChange2018 – Charlottetown, PEI – The first joint conference between CACUSS and ARUCC, two professional associations supporting student success in the Canadian post-secondary context. Over the course of the next five days, I’ll be blogging about my insights and learning from the conference. You can follow me @CdnStdntSuccess or @TriciaSeifert on Twitter for in-the-moment take-aways from individual sessions.

Day 1 – It’s Sunday and the day is full with pre-conference sessions for keeners. Yep, I’m one of them but instead of seeing the inside of a conference room, I’m out with 12 others enjoying the scenery on the Confederation Trail. This is the second annual “The Way is Made by Walking” pre-conference session, inspired by Arthur Boers’ book and several CACUSS members’ pilgrimage on the Camino de Santiago trail in May 2016.


Sometimes it is difficult to explain to colleagues that my professional development begins with an 18 kilometer walk. People wonder what there is to be gained from just walking. They ask questions like:

  • How can walking count as PD?
  • What are the learning outcomes in a walk?
  • And perhaps, more importantly, how are they measured?

Pre-conference walking allows people to find their place, their rhythm, in a new location. I find it grounds me and provides a connection with the land on which we visit. I am grateful to walk the unceded terrritory of the Mi’kmaq people. Knowing that the bustle of the conference is yet to come, the walk affords me the space and time to reflect on my intention for the conference.

Why am I here? What do I want to learn?

I’m on a personal journey to examine my practice from a new perspective. I’m learning about Indigenous ways of knowing and doing. I’m reflecting on how my settler/colonial assumptions limit what I see and how I respond.

#SeaChange2018 conference organizers developed an entire stream of concurrent sessions focusing on indigenizing and decolonizing student affairs and services work (look for the IC notation in the conference program or app). I’ve marked a host of sessions in my conference program and I’m excited for Dr. Sheila Cote-Meek’s keynote on Wednesday. I picked up her book Colonized Classrooms: Racism, Trauma, and Resistance in Post-Secondary Education just the other week. There is much to learn, to think about, to reflect on, to ponder.

My intention for this conference began with the first steps on the trail this morning. The PD was in the moments of quiet reflection, noting the dairy cows in the field. The PD was in the community of sharing at the end.


Some may ask how is going for a walk PD. What are the milestones? Where is the destination? My answer is simple; the way is made by walking. The point is to walk; the walk is the destination.


What Heats You? Finding the Thermodynamic Within

At the end of 2017, I tasked myself with thinking intentionally about why I do what I do. Why do I study student experiences in college? Why am I interested in how colleges and universities structure their support services and communicate their availability to students? Quite honestly, why do I care?

WHY? Such a big word. I remember peppering my parents with questions, ‘why’?

Simon Sinek asks what’s your why? It’s an existential question that essentially asks about purpose. I have come to think of the word ‘why’ as a question: What Heats You?


It’s the thermodynamic property of curiosity, creativity, and commitment coming together that heats us. It is the vocation of which Frederick Buechner defines as “the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”

Working in colleges and universities for 20 years, I’ve observed that staff and faculty typically focus their attention externally. They prepare for the next big event or the next lecture. Rarely, do we take time to ask what is our why? What heats us to do our work?

I’ve wrestled with this question and I’m excited to share my ‘why’ as part of Montana State University Provost’s Distinguished Lecturer Series, Tuesday February 20 at 7 pm (MST) at the Museum of the Rockies. For those who want to attend at a distance, I will also Facebook Live the event from my Facebook profile page, Tricia Seifert.

I invite you to listen in, ask a question, or leave a comment through Facebook (Tricia Seifert), Twitter (@TriciaSeifert or @CdnStdntSuccess), or LinkedIn (Tricia Seifert).

I look forward to exploring our ‘why’ together. In asking this critical question, I believe we will find untapped opportunities to further support student success.

Tricia Seifert is principal investigator of the Supporting Student Success research study and associate professor of Adult & Higher Education at Montana State University.

How will the #TaxBill affect me?

Since learning about the US House of Representatives proposal to tax tuition benefits as earned income, I have been worried about graduate students. And I’m not alone.

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Taxing tuition benefits is one of the most profound ways I can think to disincentivize smart, ambitious, motivated students from pursuing graduate study. Amanda Grannas, Associate Vice Provost for Research at Villanova University, calls this a “death blow to graduate education.”

I predict this policy will have long term consequences for our nation in terms of future scientists, engineers, nurses, educators, historians, to name a few. The proposed tax policy will result in a missing generation of research and development; a missing generation of social, scientific, and economic advancement.

When the House-led GOP bill passed, I immediately printed two 1040EZs and began filling them out under the current and the newly passed House tax proposal. On the face of it, the new tax brackets may appear a boon to graduate students. For those graduate students attending the few state institutions that have maintained tuition at a relatively low cost ($4500-7000 annually), their marginal income will be taxed at 12% rather than 15%. But then we must remember that graduate students’ taxable income may double (and in some cases triple) AND the students will not have seen one cent of that income for even one minute. For a student earning $20,000 as a graduate assistant and $40,000 in tuition benefits, their income will be taxed at $60,000. Quite simply, this is more “earned income” that yields far less “take home” pay.

Using the University of Washington as a case study, this graphic from the Council of Graduate Schools Tax Reform Resource website tells the story. UoW_example

Soon after the Senate Tax Bill passed in the hours of Saturday, I began receiving questions from graduate students who I employ. They wanted to know how this will affect them directly and what they can do.

This pressed me in new ways as a leader. Although I know how to help students deal with interpersonal conflicts and feel comfortable discussing the benefits of major and career exploration, I have far less training in supporting students to navigate and advocate on issues concerning politics-saturated public policy. And let’s be honest, this is political. The GOP-led House and GOP-led Senate bill passed without a single Democrat voting for the measures.

I looked to my Twitter feed (@TriciaSeifert) for advice and counsel. During the #COLLEGESTRIKE that left nearly half a million college students in Ontario, Canada out of class for over five weeks this fall, I persistently asked how folks were supporting students during this difficult time. I figured I could draw from their lessons learned to guide me. One of the most important pieces of advice was to communicate with students openly and transparently in as many forums as possible.

So that’s what I did.

Open and transparent communication with students is not rocket science. This tip isn’t novel but is often easier said than done. I took the call to action to heart and responded. First, I got on social media and posted to our graduate club on Facebook:

“I think it may be of value for a group of graduate students to work together in preparing their tax documents under the 2016 tax plan and how these change under the new tax plan. Gathering folks together to work on this might be an opportunity for DEGS [Department of Education Graduate Student group].

The House and Senate bills have yet to be reconciled. It may be useful for our state’s elected officials (Rep. Greg Gianforte, Senator Jon Tester, and Senator Steve Daines) to know the implications of the new tax plan on actual tax filings of graduate students who are their constituents.”

Yesterday was my weekly email communication that goes to all departmental students, staff, and faculty. This is what I shared.

Policy Update: Opportunities for civic engagement – VERY TIME SENSITIVE! 

Part of being an educator and professional is to be aware and engaged with public policy relevant to your work and daily practice. This section of the Monday Minutes is designed to share public policy and legislation that pertains to our work as educators.

From a National perspective:

The US Senate passed a separate version of the Tax Bill this past Saturday morning. It differs from the House bill in that it does not tax tuition benefits. Like the House bill, it eliminates the ability for people to deduct student loan interest. You can learn more about how the bills compare here.

The two bills now begin the process of reconciliation through committee. At this point, it is unclear which portions of which bill will make the final tax proposal that will be voted on in an “up or down” vote by Congress. What we do know is that Congress will likely act quickly in advancing a tax bill to President Trump for signature.

Few students will not be impacted by the higher education-related provisions in the proposed tax bill. I invite you to share your support or opposition with our Congressional delegation. You can reach the Montana delegation at:

Senator Jon Tester: https://www.tester.senate.gov/contact/

Senator Steve Daines: https://www.daines.senate.gov/connect/email-steve

Representative Greg Gianforte: https://gianforte.house.gov/contact

Or if you are from a state other than Montana, please look up your Congressional representatives at:



My goal was not to tell students what to think or how to respond but rather provide information from a news source that included hyperlinks to the text of both bills. Please feel free to copy/paste and edit in sharing with your students and colleagues.

I believe it is important for academic leaders to focus our efforts on inviting people to engage as concerned citizens. Civic engagement is what distinguishes a democracy from an autocracy.

Open, transparent, and timely – that was my communication. It was from a desire to make public policy known. However, for knowledge to truly be power, it must also spur action. Now is the time to act!

Contact your elected leaders today . . . and tomorrow . . . and the next day. Share your position on matters influencing your country. Canvass for those running for political office whose positions you support. Run for elected office. VOTE! #MakeYourVoiceHeard

Authored by @TriciaSeifert, PI of the Supporting Student Success research project.

More than a Degree

The school year is starting and students are thinking about what it means to be successful. For the most part, our society defines college success as degree completion. Drawing from conversations that took place as part of the Supporting Student Success research study, Dr. Tricia Seifert offers a definition that moves beyond completion and captures higher education’s value and promise. Check out the 1:45 minute audio clip as part of Inside Higher Ed’s “Academic Minute” series.
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Times They are A-Changin’ – Part II

By Tricia Seifert (@TriciaSeifert)

In the last week, two countries in North America have celebrated birthdays. On July 1, Canada celebrated 150 years of Confederation, which many have reclaimed as 150+ years in recognition of the centuries of indigenous people inhabiting that land. The United States celebrated 241 years of the signing of the #DeclarationOfIndependence, which was read aloud and tweeted by @NPR on the 4th of July.

Education has long been heralded as key to a thriving democracy. The historical trauma that residential boarding schools inflicted on indigenous people in both Canada and the US, however, has sullied the promise of education. Yet, “facing the truth,” as Suzanne Stewart (@SuzanneLStewart) and Charles Pascal suggest in their editorial in the Toronto Star, is indeed worthy of celebration.

Many institutions including my own, Montana State University, purport to “to improve the human prospect through excellence in education, research, creativity and civic responsibility.” With celebrations this past week north and south of the 49th parallel, I have been thinking a great deal about how educators engage students to enact their civic responsibility such that education’s promise can be fully realized in these two countries and beyond their borders in the next 150 years.

I believe part of civic responsibility is engaging in the political and public policy process. Today I share a small action I took to bring public policy discussions, particularly as they pertain to education policy, to the forefront in the MSU Department of Education.

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Engaging in the Policy Conversation

Every week I send an email communication, the Monday Minutes, to students, staff, and faculty in the Department of Education. With the start of a new year, a new President taking office in the US, and new legislative session beginning in our state capital, it seemed timely to begin including information about various public policy proposals at the local, state, and federal level in addition to the usual announcements, opportunities, and event information.

Recognizing that this was an addition to the previous semester’s weekly communication, I prefaced the section titled, Policy Update – Opportunities for Civic Engagement with the following statement,

Part of being an educator and professional is to be aware of and engage with public policy relevant to your work and daily practice. This section of the Monday Minutes is designed to share public policy and legislation that pertains to our work as educators.

In each week’s communication, I aimed to include information about policies at the national/federal, state, and local level. I wanted people to recognize that public policy discussions, pertinent to their professional practice, happen all around them and at every level of governance. Over the course of the second semester, I shared information about a:

  • Local bond issue to fund a second high school in our community
  • State legislation that would provide less operating funds to the Montana University System, resulting in a tuition increase for students
  • President Trump’s federal budget proposal

In each case, I provided links to learn more about the issue and how to contact directly one’s elected and appointed public officials (US Congress, state legislators, school district personnel).

In the heat of these political times, many may wonder how to engage students, staff, and faculty in a way that is non-partisan. The text below is taken verbatim from how I introduced the federal budget proposal.

From a National perspective:

If you have not reviewed President Trump’s budget proposal, I encourage you to do so here. The proposal has SIGNIFICANT implications for public schooling and higher education accessibility. Please voice your support or opposition to our federal legislators. It¹s easy to do, simply click on this link: https://www.senate.gov/senators/contact/

I was clear to frame the civic action in response to the policy proposal in terms of one’s “support or opposition.” This is crucial; I am more than aware of the public discourse that purports faculty members seek to indoctrinate students. The US Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, drew much attention in February stating,

“The fight against the education establishment extends to you too. The faculty, from adjunct professors to deans, tell you what to do, what to say, and more ominously, what to think.”

My intention with this small action with the Monday Minutes Policy Update – Opportunities for Civic Engagement is not to influence students, staff, or faculty members’ policy perspectives but to invite them to engage in public policy discussions as a matter of professional and civic obligation. To me, education that encourages and invites the community to engage in matters of public policy debate, development, and implementation is central to a healthy democracy.

Although I need to assess to what extent Department of Education students, staff, and faculty acted on this information, a number of people stopped by my office this semester to thank me for making this information easily accessible. Sometimes all you need is an accessible link to inform yourself in order to take action and make your voice heard.

Two Small Wins

So what’s my take-away from the two small actions discussed in the last blog posts?

I think what hits home is that providing an opportunity for people to interact with new ideas (whether those ideas are advanced by people in a discussion or a policy document) is simply what educators do. It’s not flashy; it’s part and parcel of what education is — interacting with new ideas. I didn’t do anything big in either of my actions but people came out of the experience with more information. They encountered new things to think about, questions to ponder, and possibilities for action. As David Kolb stated years ago, “learning is a process.” The small actions I took gave a chance for folks to further engage in that process.

I’m curious what others have done to discuss religious, spiritual and worldview diversity with students. I’m also interested in how you have invited students, staff, and faculty to engage in the public policy conversation.

What have been your successes? What challenges have you experienced? Please take a moment to “leave a reply” and be part of this critical conversation as we navigate these changing times.