That’s Not! What We Do Here

The generative power of utilizing consultation, collaboration and persistence when navigating change at a research-intensive university

By: Stephanie Hayne Beatty – Director, Careers & Experience and Heather Wakely – Team Lead, Experiential Learning at Western University

“This sounds to me suspiciously like neo-liberal corporate thinking.”

When we asked for honest feedback about a newly-developed campus framework for experiential learning (EL), our students, staff, and faculty didn’t hold back. Recent interest in EL – both from students and the Ontario government—has generated spirited discussion on Western University’s campus (and at many other higher education institutions across the province) about the value, positioning, and best practices for EL.  

At Western, EL is defined as: an approach that educators use to intentionally connect learners with practical experiences that include guided reflection. EL allows learners to: increase and apply disciplinary knowledge, develop transferable skills, clarify interests and values, strengthen career engagement and employability, and collaborate meaningfully with communities.

The question we needed to answer was clear: how do we make more room for EL at a research-intensive university where there exists some healthy skepticism about its fit? For us, the answer lay in three key practices: consultation, collaboration, and persistence.


In November 2017, Western’s Vice-Provost (Academic Programs) struck a campus-wide taskforce to create a typology of curricular and co-curricular EL activities. While we had the benefit of learning from the University of Victoria and Brock University, who were some of the first institutions in Canada to develop their own institutional typologies, it was important that we grapple with questions that mattered most to us as an institution. We asked:

  • Are all lab courses, by their very nature, considered experiential learning? What about music performance courses?
  • What if the EL component takes place entirely within the classroom, and doesn’t extend to industry or community?
  • Should the EL component represent a minimum percentage of the students’ grade in order to count?

To explore the answers to these questions, the taskforce met regularly and facilitated 20 months of extensive consultation with the campus community – by online survey, Faculty/department meetings, students’ council meetings, and Town Halls. In June 2019, when the typology was passed by Senate, we were thrilled. We can’t contend everyone across campus is satisfied with every category, definition, or comma placement, but the taskforce is satisfied that we heard from a broad spectrum of voices and did our best to represent the interests of those from different disciplines, positions, and viewpoints.

Group of stakeholders reflect upon and celebrate experiential learning at Western University.
Students, staff, faculty, and community partners gather to reflect upon and celebrate EL at Western.


Because Western is a large a complex ecosystem with multiple nodes that a student interfaces with, collaboration is essential to all of our work in Student Affairs – from welcoming new students during Orientation Week to preparing them for life and career beyond graduation. Over the last few years, we have created several mechanisms through which meaningful collaboration on EL activities can occur: an employer-facing marketing campaign (hirewesternu), a Work Integrated Learning working group, and a campus-wide employer information tracking system. On your campuses, you are not strangers to this type of collaborative work.  As Student Affairs professionals, we collaborate across our institutions through working groups, communities of practice, marketing campaigns, and the use of shared systems. It takes big effort, but with this effort comes big rewards. We can co-create policies, processes, and programs that are more beneficial for ALL students, allowing them to better navigate the complex ecosystems of our institutions .

When the Ontario government invested in colleges and universities through its 2018 Career Ready Funds, we anticipated a different type of collaboration was needed in order to maximize the impact of EL on Western’s campus. We focused on developing new programs in areas where students did not historically have access to EL: a paid, credit-bearing internship program for students in Liberal Arts Faculties, and a paid, supervisor-approved internship program for students in research-based graduate programs. Like so many of you who are supporting student success, we collaborated to begin to address some of the inherent barriers to participating in EL – for first generation students, students with disabilities, and Indigenous students, among others.

One of the most inspiring collaborations to emerge from Western’s Career Ready project was a partnership between Impact Experience, the Indigenous Student Centre and Amizade, a long-standing international community partner. In May 2019, five indigenous students and two campus leaders traveled to Pine Ridge, South Dakota to learn from Elders who are dedicated to a sustainable future for the health and well-being of the Oglala Lakota people. We were able to provide financial support to the student participants, who noted the availability of an Indigenous program – where they could openly share their histories and experiences – was deeply valued.

Western students and team leaders participate in a week-long EL opportunity with a community partner in Pine Ridge, South Dakota, USA.
Western students and team leaders participate in a week-long EL opportunity with a community partner in Pine Ridge, South Dakota, USA.


For many years, EL has existed in various places and program at Western, but in the absence of a collective vision or voice. Many staff and faculty have dedicated years, and sometimes careers, to ensuring students can access high-quality internships, practicums, field experiences, and community engaged learning courses. They have advocated for resources, done the difficult task of partnership building, and defended their work against those who believe hands-on learning has no place in the academy. They are our passionate colleagues and fiercest allies – and their persistence has paid off.

As we kicked off the 2019-20 academic year, we are excited about many of the recent developments in our collective EL story. We have reorganized a new department called Careers & Experience, whose vision is for all Western graduates to have the skills and confidence to thoughtfully engage in communities, and build a meaningful life and career. We launched a user-focused, one-stop website for EL. We have worked closely with our Recruitment Office to thoughtfully engage with prospective students about the various ways to gain career experience. Finally, we have started a multi-year research project that will investigate the skills, competencies, and imagined futures of students who participate in internship versus community engaged learning, with the goal of better understanding the types of skills students develop across the variety of EL opportunities that we support and nurture at Western with our community partners.

The Path Forward

Do we have it all figured out? If we did, we’d tell you! What we can share are some critical lessons that continue to shape the way we think about what’s next for EL at Western:

  1. Build it and…you still need to convince them to come. When we launched internship programs in Liberal Arts, and posted 400+ paid internship opportunities, we thought students would come flocking and they didn’t. But, it’s not their fault.  Most students in these faculties have not historically had access to paid internships and weren’t actively planning to participate.  We are shifting a culture and that takes time.
  2. Find the common denominator. Working across disciplines, perspectives, and experiences, it can be difficult to reach consensus. When you peel back the layers, there is usually something everyone can agree on. Focus on that and build from there.
  3. Experiential Learning is a wellness issue. When students engage in EL they deepen their understanding, form connections, and develop confidence in their learning and their futures.  Our focus is on student thriving and we know that access to EL is a critical factor to student success.

We would love to hear about your own experiences and the lessons learned at your institutions. Please take a moment and leave a comment. Or feel free to tweet directly @westernuSE

Communities of Practice and the Ecology of Supporting Student Success

Posted by Tricia Seifert

I had the great opportunity the other week to speak to the residence life and housing professionals at #NWACUHO14 (Northwest Association of College and University Housing Officers) about communities of practices and how they can be instrumental in developing relationships, sharing practices through a variety of means (listservs, twitter chats, webinars, websites to name a few), and creating new knowledge to inform one’s practice. A few days later, I spoke at the Ontario University Registrars Association’s sold-out conference about the ecology of student success. The two presentations are clearly connected. Communities of practice increase the linkages between students’ microsystems, thereby supporting student success.

Okay, let’s take a step back to sketch out the basic tenets of Urie Bronfenbrenner’s theory of ecological human development. The Person-Process-Context-Time model presents individual development as a result of a person interacting with a host of processes within a specific context and time. Bronfenbrenner also states that development is individualized because how one interacts with these processes within the environment depends on that person’s characteristics.

Intuitively, that makes sense. We all know twins who approach the world in vastly different ways despite sharing the same DNA and growing up side-by-side. Bronfenbrenner asserts the twins’ unique characteristics influence how they interact with processes that comprise their immediate environment. Each process within a person’s environment is a microsystem in Bronfenbrenner’s theory.

Imagine these twins are first year students at your university. Their microsystems may consist of friends, family, classmates, job, faculty members, staff in the Registrar’s office, and staff and peers in their residence. Bronfenbrenner argues that the mesosystem is the space in which these microsystems link or connect. Although other systems comprise the full ecological model, I am going to keep the discussion to microsystems linking within the mesosystem. The figure below represents this ecology for a hypothetical situation involving one of the twins, Julia.


In the case of our twins, Julia is not doing well in several of her courses and fears she will be placed on academic suspension. She has mentioned her struggles to her Residence Don but has not confided in her twin sister. Her Residence Don, Mark, knows that he doesn’t have answers to all of Julia’s questions so he takes her confidential inquiry to his Residence Director.

Recently, the Registrar’s Office initiated an early alert system on campus and convened a community of practice across campus to discuss issues related to academic success. Along with staff from the Academic Skills Centre, Accessibility/Disability Services and Counselling, the Residence Life staff have attended community gatherings to learn about the early alert system and how thy can support students who have been identified as experiencing academic difficulty. Because of her engagement with the “academic success” community of practice, the Residence Director provides Mark with information on the programs and services designed for students who have been identified through the early alert system.

In this example, staff from Residence Life, the Registrar’s Office, and the Academic Skills Centre (all members of the community of practice and individual microsystems) interacted in Julia’s mesosystem in way that supported her success. From our data, we found positive linkages across microsystems that support student success like that of this fictional community of practice appear to exist more often at institutions where faculty and staff from across the campus recognize they have an important contribution to make in supporting student success.

What communities of practice exist on your campus? What microsystems do they connect? How has your institution used the relationships and knowledge from this community of practice to support student success?

We want to learn from you. Please leave a comment so that others can learn from the communities of practice you have on your campus.


Communities of practice Step-by-Step Guide

Wenger, Etienne. (1998). Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning, and Identity. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Wenger, Etienne; McDermott, Richard; Snyder, William M. (2002). Cultivating Communities of Practice. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Business Press.

Bronfenbrenner, Urie. (1979). The Ecology of Human Development: Experiments by Nature and Design. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Bronfenbrenner, Urie. (1993). The ecology of cognitive development: Research models and fugitive findings. In R. H. Wozniak & K. W. Fischer (Eds.), Development in context: Acting and thinking in specific environments (pp. 3–44). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

For a great application of Bronfenbrenner’s theory within higher education, I recommend Kris Renn and Karen Arnold’s 2003 article, Reconceptualizing research on college student peer culture. The Journal of Higher Education, 74(3), 261-291.

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.

There is One House, not Two: Student Life Professionals’ Intentional Search for Inclusion and Understanding.

 In earlier posts, we discussed our findings of Faculty Perceptions of Student Affairs which focused partly on the varying levels of knowledge and understanding faculty have of student affairs and services. Today, I argue that we—as student affairs professionals—need to explore and better understand the culture of our faculty counterparts. We often preach the importance of a holistic student experience, and the value of engagement in curricular and co-curricular opportunities. Students live in one house, and so should we.

So how can we go about this?

As student affairs professionals, we can be intentional about our collaborations with faculty members and have a sense of agency to better understand institutional priorities and faculty culture. Below is a snippet of and initiative from the University of Toronto.

The Student Life Professionals (SLP) Group is a network of professionals across the three campuses, whose vision includes: to create a broad sense of community, to integrate academic and co-curricular facets of the student experience, to share resources and expertise across divisions, and to act as a communication vehicle. The SLP Group organizes monthly meetings and a retreat throughout the fall and winter semesters, and increases collaboration and communication between divisions through a listserv with over 300 staff.SLP_Wordle

Over the years, the SLP has reached out to different faculties in attempts to broaden our networks, and reach into the so-called academic side of the house”. We’ve invited faculty to present research results and be a part of panel discussions. This year, the SLP Group has invited Professor Gertler, 16th President of the University of Toronto in January 2014, to speak to the SLP Group about his vision and strategies for the university. This will also provide Professor Gertler an opportunity to learn about the SLP Group, and for us to engage in a Question and Answer session with the President.

Then in February, Professor Glen A. Jones will present on trends in higher education to the SLP.

While these are small steps, the coming together of student life professionals has advanced the values and vision of student services and affairs, while exploring our role within the institution. Through the Supporting Student Success research study, we heard of institutions whose senior leaders brought together student affairs staff and faculty in intentional ways, whether it was through large town halls or focused Strategic Enrolment Management committees. The keyword in all of this is intentional. Whether it is from a senior leadership approach or a more grassroots initiative like the SLP Group, or even better both, there are ways that we can navigate our role in the institution and learn how to better understand the ways we can work together to support student success.

How have you and your student affairs and services colleagues reached out and engaged with faculty? How has your senior leadership brought together staff and faculty to learn from one another? We invite you to leave a comment and share the great ways your campus has sought to live in “one house,” not two. 

– Kim Elias

Research Findings Part 2: Faculty Perceptions of Student Affairs

Last week we shared a presentation delivered at #csshe2013 on “What Defines Student Success? A Multiple Choice Question.” The slides can be viewed in our post and downloaded here.

Today, we share slides from presentations which focused on Faculty/Student Affairs interaction – a seemingly hot topic at the #acpa2013 and #cacuss2013 conferences. Our presentation is called “Faculty Perceptions of Student Affairs and Services.” It is based on interviews with faculty about their understanding of the work of student affairs and services. We share quotes, pictures and a video (uploaded later) that highlight how faculty (sometimes called the ‘other side of the house’) perceive and what they know about the work of student affairs and services. The slides and the full notes can be downloaded here  from the “Presentations and Publications” tab.

As always, we hope this blog can be used as a place for dialogue. We are curious to know where you have found success in educating faculty about the work that you do and how you have learned about faculty culture and rewards structure.

– Jeff Burrow

ACPA 2013 Overview

We have the ACPA blues – it was difficult to return to Toronto after a wonderful conference and a wonderful time (and weather) in Las Vegas. While at ACPA we had amazing opportunities to connect with student affairs practitioners and scholars from the U.S. and Canada, and attended an array of interesting and inspiring presentations. We were thrilled that so many of you joined us on the last day of the conference to hear our presentation: Are There Really Two Sides of the House? Faculty Perceptions of Student Affairs. This presentation was based on the findings from Phase II of the Supporting Student Success research study in which we asked faculty members from 9 universities and 5 colleges in Ontario about their perceptions of their organizational structure and the role that student affairs plays in supporting student success. While our study focuses on institutions in Ontario, it was fascinating to see how our findings resonate within U.S. and other Canadian contexts. During the presentation we shared for the first time visual representations of faculty perceptions of student affairs at their institutions. We were very excited to share these drawings using YouTube. The short video (created by Kim Elias) portrays how faculty with varying understanding and involvement with their student affairs colleagues perceive the role of student affairs. We hope our conversations about this topic continues through discussions on our various social media forums and we hope to hear your about own experiences.

There were a multitude of great presentations highlighting the most current trends in the field. With each day starting at 7:30AM and ending at 4:30 PM we crammed as many presentations into our days.  Here is a just a brief highlight of some of the sessions we attended:

Jeff’s Pick

Critical Discourse: The culture of faculty and student affairs practitioners

This year at the 2013 ACPA Inspiring Communities of Wellbeing conference there was a special category for sessions on Faculty-Student Affairs Interactions. One of the most interesting ones in that group was one in particular Critical Discourse: The culture of faculty and student affairs practitioners hosted by Susan Jones, Kristen Renn, Juan Guardia and John Hernandez. It was a very critical look at the values of both faculty and student affairs staff and more specifically some of the myths surrounding those values.  Two provided the student affairs perspective and two the faculty perspective. Both groups highlighted that the lack of cooperation and the sometimes competing perspectives partially originates from well-meaning, but often misinformed, stereotypes about the groups.

Just as not all student affairs staff is focused on in-the-moment programming planning, or working in large teams, not all faculty members were orientated towards the individual, highly autonomous and theoretical development. Accordingly, these values or approaches to work exist in both groups and vary greatly. The session highlighted the importance of meeting faculty, as we do with students, as individuals, where they are at and begin building a relationship from there.

Kim’s Pick

Promising Practice: The Students Have Left the Building: Viva Las E-Student Affairs

Students are increasingly flocking towards online courses to receive a postsecondary education, whether it is one course or an entire degree. Yet, the structure of these institutions are often focused on the face-to-face experience. While the use of technology has become embedded in our culture, how are postsecondary institutions adapting to the increasing numbers of online students, and are we neglecting to an entire population?

Texas Woman’s University has started to develop co-curricular activities online—a new concept that is still in its infancy stages. The presenters described their efforts at reaching their online student population, by creating an Online Epsilon Omega Epsilon Student Honor Society, and a Total Health Challenge. These activities focus on drawing participation and increasing a sense of connectedness and community. Through these activities, students participate in discussions, challenges, and activities. The presenters noted that the uptake has been positive, and they are pleased with the feedback.

In Canada, a number of colleges and universities are developing a Co-Curricular Record (CCR). The CCR allows students to search for opportunities beyond the classroom, links those experiences to competencies, and provides students with an official validated record of their involvement. However, one of the key pieces of success for the CCR is to acknowledge that there are barriers to engagement, and to use the CCR as a mechanism to help students find meaningful opportunities that suit their lifestyle. Thinking about this notion of online co-curricular activities, is there a space for these opportunities to be included on the CCR? What would online co-curricular activities look like, and would that address student barriers to engagement? I pose this question as a thought—one that I will sit with and pose to my colleagues.

Tricia’s Pick

Transforming Student Affairs in China: The Macau Student Affairs Institute

I’m interested in how student affairs and services work is practiced outside of North America. I was intrigued by the session presented by Susan Komives and colleagues titled, “Transforming Student Affairs in China: The Macau Student Affairs Institute.” The University of Macau is growing and is in the process of opening several residential colleges for their students. The idea of living learning environments is a new model for the university. To achieve the desired outcomes of the model, senior leaders recognized there was a need to provide professional development for the staff so that the design highlights student learning and development with a mind toward assessment. The ACPA session described the multi-day institute which sounded like a professional preparation master’s program on steroids with days dedicated to the field of student affairs’ history, philosophy, ethics and competencies; student development theory; and assessment and evaluation. It was fascinating to hear about the presenters’ experiences bringing Western concepts of the field to another context. This was a session that I wish would have had 90 minutes; there was just not enough time to fully appreciate the development of the institute, the presenters’ experiences sharing the curriculum, and the participants’ experiences.  I can only hope the presentation team collaborates with the participants and shares their reflections in a journal article. I have no doubt that many readers would enjoy learning from their experiences.

Diliana’s Pick

A Double Shot of Leadership: Lessons Learned from Starbucks

There is something to be learned from one of the largest and most successful companies in the world: Starbucks. While I had never thought about the company that delivers my daily cup of joe as a model to serve students, I must admit that I was impressed with how the presenters made these connections. There are five key tenets that Starbucks has utilized to grow their company and to maintain happy and loyal customers. These are:

  1.  Make it your own: Be welcoming; be genuine; be considerate; be knowledgeable; and be involved
  2. Everything Matters – Retail is Detail: Create an environment and make the experience a bigger stop
  3. Encourage a Felt Sense –  Everyone Matters: Surprise and Delight Your Customers (your students)
  4. Embrace Resistance: Profit From Praise and Value Criticism
  5. Leave Your Mark: Invest in People and Encourage Volunteerism

If we think of each of these tenets and apply them in the work that we do with students we can create an environment for them that is supportive and welcoming – one where their voices matter and where they are included in the process as partners. For me, the second principle, “Everything Matters,” really resonated with my own work with students. You just never know what small or large action, conversation, comment, etc. will impact the students that you serve. If we keep this principle in mind we are in better shape to develop intentional mechanisms that support students.

We would love to hear about your favorite sessions at ACPA – please share these in the comments section.