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

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Working Smarter not Harder: Communities of Practice and Organizational Learning

If there was ever a time in which higher education administrators were asked to work smarter and not harder, it is now. One need look no further than to the numerous examples of institutions involved in some form of prioritization planning process (PPP) to see that efficiency and accountability to institutional mission and mandate rule the day.

Postsecondary institutions are in the midst of substantial organizational change, in large part as a result of financial constraints. Administrators are looking for ways to serve more students (I’m unaware of any institution recruiting fewer students) and typically students with more diverse backgrounds (first generation students, international students, mature learners, Aboriginal students, students with disabilities) but often with a budget that isn’t any larger than the previous year.

How to support a more diverse student body in achieving their personal and academic goals on a reduced budget (whether that reduction is in real or proportionate terms) while doing so in a way that is efficient and aligns with the institutional mission and mandate. These are challenging questions and ones that the Supporting Student Success research team heard at a number of institutions during our site visits.

It’s interesting how postsecondary institutions and postsecondary professional associations face related challenges in terms of meeting needs and expectations in ways that are flexible and nimble. Like many colleges and universities in the Supporting Student Success study, the Canadian Association of College and University Student Services (CACUSS) is in the midst of organizational change. From six divisions affiliated under a broad umbrella, CACUSS is responding to member interests and needs through the organic development of Communities of Practice (CoPs).

Etienne Wenger and colleagues (2002) define CoPs as “groups of people who share a concern, a set of problems, or a passion about a topic, and who deepen their knowledge and expertise in this area by interacting on an ongoing basis” (p. 4). They can connect people, provide a shared context, enable dialogue, capture and diffuse existing knowledge, stimulate learning, and generate new knowledge (Cambridge, Kaplan & Suter, 2005).

I had the opportunity to facilitate a dialogue at #CACUSS2014 about CoPs and how they can be effective in both meeting members’ professional development needs and advancing CACUSS’ goals. Similar to postsecondary institutions where an issue like supporting student paraprofessionals spans across functional areas like orientation, residence life and health promotion (to name a few), interest in this and similar issues spans across CACUSS divisions. Rather than duplicate the conversation across multiple divisions, the CoP model allows members from across the association to find one another, share practices and develop resources that inform and advance one’s practice.

The Supporting Student Success team heard about the power of CoPs during phase 1 and 2 data collection. At one institution, a respondent shared about the value of bringing people from across the division together to discuss student leadership development. The perspectives varied and from learning together the staff were able to work efficiently and synergistically to strengthen the support they provided student leaders.

At another institution, we experienced the potential forming of a CoP as a result of the focus group. In this situation, focus group participants learned that they both were involved in developing peer mentoring programs but didn’t know of the other person’s work. At the end of the focus group, they exchanged information and set a time to meet to discuss developing joint training materials.

I’m a big advocate of finding ways to work smarter rather than harder. For me, this naturally means looking for opportunities to partner, collaborate, share resources, and look for synergies of what I’m doing with what others are doing. I see Communities of Practice as a means for community members to learn from one another in ways that inform and improve practice. From a higher education administrator perspective, CoPs may provide additional knowledge and ability to leverage resources to best support a more diverse student body. From a CACUSS member’s perspective, engaging in a CoP (or several CoPs) may allow one to seek professional development and contribute to the professional development of others along the multiple facets of one’s professional identity.

I think we are in for many more days of fiscal restraint. In the current political climate, the pressure toward efficiency and accountability is likely to grow stronger. This has implications for both higher education administrators and the professional associations that aim to meet the professional development needs of those administrators. As Cambridge, Kaplan and Suter note, CoPs have the potential to help people organize, introduce collaborative processes, share existing knowledge and generate new knowledge — all important aspects in today’s world.

I want to hear from you! Please share your experience as a member of a CoP in the comments section below.

By Tricia Seifert, Primary Investigator for Supporting Student Success research study.

In Search of the Silver Bullet: Communication and Our Students

Posted by Leah McCormack-Smith

Of the biggest challenges facing the relationship between post-secondary institutions and their students, communication seems to be one at the forefront. Do students know what resources are available? Do they understand the system and supports? Do they know when classes and exams start? How do we tell them so they will actually hear what we are saying, and listen?


When I think back to my first foray into post-secondary education at Humber College, things were “simpler”. All communication was done by paper and sent through the mail. I was given an institutional email, but it wasn’t used for anything official. There were no smart phones, Facebook or Twitter, and the website had some information about services, but if you wanted to know something you needed to ask a faculty or staff member or go to an office. Things were much more face-to-face transactional in nature, but answers sometimes came slow and there wasn’t the ease and immediacy of information that is expected now (by faculty, staff and students). This experience was not 25 years ago. This was 2001.

By my second experience into post-secondary education, the landscape had changed immensely. In 2005 when I entered University of Toronto, knowing how to use CCNet (the precursor to Blackboard) was a must. Emails were used by faculty and departments to communicate information, and websites were more thorough. However, information about start dates for classes, fees, and course selection were still sent by mail, and this was when Facebook was in its infancy, and there was still no Twitter. Communication still happened mostly face-to-face or by phone, and email was still a hit or miss way to connect with certain staff and faculty based on their comfort with the technology.

As an undergraduate student at U of T, I saw this change dramatically in 4 years. Now as a staff member (and not that far removed from the generation of students just entering post-secondary study) I feel the gap in their needs and expectations of communication, and my understanding of how the institution “does” it. This is where the challenge, I believe, lies. Understanding how communication happens for a generation that doesn’t really remember a time before computers, has been on Facebook since elementary school, and has been using smart phones for years is different from my youth experience, and as a staff member I feel it is now up to me to figure out how to bridge that gap and how to communicate effectively with this group of students. I need them to know what I need them to know.

U of T started the process of hearing the voices of our students through NSSE and other focus groups and surveys. On May 16, using the previous work and knowledge to inform the conversation, U of T held a Communication Summit to bring together the different areas of the university along with its students to strategize the best ways to communicate with them – meeting both their needs, and the institutions.

At the recent Student Life Professionals retreat held at U of T, some of the results of this were discussed. Not surprisingly, students are looking for information to be as streamlined as possible, and want that information somewhat tailored to them. There are a few people who are more likely to have their emails looked at (such as the registrar’s office) and students are wary of being “spammed” by information from the university. They are also looking frequently to Facebook and Twitter for information.

From the conversations at the session, along with some of the data we’ve seen through the Supporting Student Success study, the one thing that is clear is that there is no silver bullet for communication. Students are all getting information from a variety of sources, and all have preferred methods, which are probably far less uniform than they were years ago. Methods and means of communication are also changing rapidly, and institutions, staff and faculty need to be adaptable enough to meet new needs and incorporate new means of communication in accessible and meaningful ways. Students need to continue being a part of the conversation on how they are communicated with, because the solutions of today may not be solutions a year from now.

One of the pieces of the conversation that really stuck with me, however, is that one of the best allies in all of this is other staff. We need to be cognizant of how we are communicating with each other, and that we are being responsive to each other’s needs in regards to communicating with students. Do you have a cool event you want your colleagues to promote? Make sure you know their deadlines and distribution dates for e-newsletters and their listserv policies. Do they accept posters or only want text and links? Can the tweet the information or post it on Facebook for you? These are all helpful things to consider so that institutionally we try to cut down as much spam mail as we can, but also help each other out to be as responsive to student needs as possible.

We want them to hear us, and I think they want to listen. We just need to try to make sure that we are speaking the same language, and include them in the conversation so that we as professionals can stay in touch with new methods of communication, and how they are using them. It’s a changing landscape, and flexibility will be the thing that probably serves us best in the long term.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Communique Article on Communication in Student Affairs and Services Divisions

The Fall issue of Communiqué, published by the Canadian Association of College and University Student Services (CACUSS), contains a short piece from our team about forms of communication in SAS divisions. This comes from our larger study of how formal and informal organizational structures support, and in some cases hinder, student success. We encourage everyone to check out the printed version, which should be in your offices now, or the online version of our article on page starting on page 12.

Five Forms of Communication.

1. Functional: The daily back and forth between people online, over the phone, in line for coffee, or while passing each other on campus that is vital to accomplishing your daily work.

2. Intentional: These are usually planned, face-to-face meetings with agendas designed for information sharing and relationship building and planning.

3. Town Halls: Like intentional communication, town halls are intentionally planned, but much less frequent. They were often used at the start of strategic planning exercises or to discuss significant changes or critical incidents in the division.

4. Underground Networks: These are communications between individual across the institution that occur without/despite no formal connection in the organizational chart. These networks help to obtain from individuals you have an “in” with quickly.

5. Little to None. This obviously is not a style, but at many institutions, we heard many instances of very poor, or a complete lack of communication. This could be between levels of a SAS division, across the division or with other parts of the institution. From the data, we recommend that individuals look at their “to-do” list and make intentional plans to meet with that individual or group of individuals you have been meaning too, but have not yet. Seek out working groups and committees within or outside your division to expand your underground network and to expand the awareness of your own departments work on campus. Finally, we encourage divisions and departments that have not used large-scale town halls to investigate them. The comments from the campuses and individuals who did participate were almost uniformly positive.

This is just a short summary of the longer article. We encourage you to seek out our article, as well as some of the other excellent pieces in the current issue of Communiqué. If you are not a CACUSS member, or are not sure if you have institutional membership, this is a chance to expand your network. Ask some of your colleagues and talk to someone in one of the student services or student affairs offices at your institution. Also, if you are interested in reading the full report, you can download it for free from the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario website.