BUILDing Well-being

By Crystal Hutchinson, Health Promotion Specialist, Simon Fraser University

While attending Supporting Student Success research team’s (@CdnStdntSuccess) presentation on “Principles for Creating Student Focused Postsecondary Organizations” at CACUSS this summer, I was thrilled to see physical space emerge as a key area influencing organizational culture in higher education. My excitement was due to my role at Simon Fraser University (SFU), where I lead the Well-being through Physical Spaces project on behalf of the Health Promotion team (@SFUhealth_promo). This project aims to improve the well-being of SFU students by enhancing the physical campus environment. There is a growing body of literature that demonstrates a connection between built environments and mental, social and physical health. As a result, physical environments within higher education settings present a strategic opportunity for us to impact student learning, engagement and well-being.


SFU’s focus on well-being through physical spaces is innovative and leading within Canada. Although it was developed prior to the release of the WELL Building Standard (Delos Living LLC, 2015), it similarly focuses on considering psychosocial well-being in the design of built environments. Physical Spaces is one of six areas for action to impact student well-being in SFU’s Healthy Campus Community initiative which is informed by health promotion theory (World Health Organization, 2010; Ottawa Charter for Health Promotion, 1986). The project also aligns with the Okanagan Charter for Health Promoting Universities and Colleges (2015) that identifies creating supportive campus environments and working cross-departmentally to enhance student well-being.

About the Well-being through Physical Spaces Project

The Well-being through Physical Spaces Project was developed in 2013 through a literature review that indicated the quality of physical learning environments has a significant and measurable impact on student achievement, productivity, satisfaction and well-being (Earthman, 2002; Hill & Epps, 2010; Lippman, 2010; Whiteside, Brooks & Walker, 2010; Young, Green, Roehrich-Patrick, Joseph & Gibson, 2003). However, most research has been within corporate and health care sectors as well as in education at the elementary and secondary school level, suggesting that the interplay between the built environment, student well-being and learning within post-secondary settings is emergent. Data collected from focus groups and existing undergraduate surveys at SFU was also analyzed to inform the project and to explore how students perceived various physical spaces on campus in relation to their well-being.

SFU Health Promotion Physical Spaces Infographic_Page_1 Continue reading

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.

Engaging Student Staff in Professional Development

Posted by Leah McCormack-Smith

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


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


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

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

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

Seeing the Connections: 3 Perspectives on How Residence Life Staff Support New Students

The Research Team Perspective

A few months ago, we were invited to participate in residence don training at the University of Toronto. In thinking about what we wanted to share, we reflected on the dozens of hours of transcripts we have read this summer. Something we saw over and over again were examples of how peers help their fellow students navigate their college or university. Students create study groups, introduce their peers to a program or service on campus, and are really there for each other when the academic, personal and social pressures become overwhelming.  We heard powerful stories of peers being informal “guides on the side.” But there are even more examples of the role of formal peers; from those who lead academic and social clubs, upper year students in peer mentorship programs and of course residence life assistant and dons that help their fellow students connect the dots.

In a theoretical sense, this fits Bronfenbrenner’s (1993) Person-Process-Context-Time (PPCT) model quite well. The model says that an individual’s development occurs and it is shaped by the interactions between the person and their environment.  The model has four levels with the student in the middle.


Microsystem: The programs, services, people (including them and the student) in a situation.

Mesosystem: The interactions between the microsystems such as how your course load impacts your part-time job.

Exosystem: The institutional policies, procedures, broader post-secondary and political system at hand

Macrosystem: The latent, non-observable elements like societal norms, cultural expectations and social forces.

As those who work in residence life know, the work is rewarding and incredibly challenging. It is almost impossible to underestimate the number of issues, situations and predicaments that can land at your door. Knowing this, we developed three different scenarios for the residence dons/RAs which described a student in a situation coming to their residence advisor for some counsel. What we didn’t want was for the groups of dons to jump immediately problem-solving action mode. Instead, we asked them first to think and reflect on the different programs, services, people, policies, and social/historical forces present in these scenarios. Essentially, we wanted them to think about all of the components that make up the ecological system in the scenario. Most importantly, we wanted the groups to think about how the residence don can play a vital connecting support role in helping new students think about how these different parts of the ecosystem connect. At this point we turned it over to the dons.

– Jeff Burrow, Phd Student/Research Assistant

 The Residence Don Perspective

As a residence don, I have experienced what it is like to be on the supportive end for students during the really good, the really bad, and the really complicated times. Just when you think you have all the details about a situation and you are about to suggest a resource –BOOM- ten more details emerge and you can feel like you are back at step one. This is a common trope for all dons; new and experienced. The activity we did allowed groups of dons to work together to discuss the layers in each situation. We brainstormed the external systems that might be influencing the student. It was specifically stressed to the entire audience that coming up with a solid answer as to how to resolve the conflict was not necessary. I’m sure to many Dons in the room found this request unnatural as Dons are practically conditioned to mediate and resolve conflict with our eyes closed. This request allowed for a more organic flow to the conversation rather than stressing the need to reach a ‘correct’ answer.

In the weeks after training, I started to think of the relationship between conflicts and external factors/resources in a different way then before. First, conflicts tend to come in the shape of an iceberg. There is a small bright instigating moment on top, and a whole dark and complicated mess underneath. Secondly, a student’s external factors/resources are also shaped like an iceberg. There are a few known resources that a student is comfortable with and knowledgeable of, on top, and many underneath that seem unattainable. Sometimes it is a Don’s job to unveil and detangle the dark bottom layer of a conflict shaped iceberg. Other times, it is our job to support a student in their journey to discovering what lies beneath the surface of a resource shaped iceberg.  I had never thought of the detailed complexity of the web of external systems until this presentation. It is a new perspective into the lives of my students and my co-workers and I am glad to be a part of a team that wants to think about these bigger picture concerns.

– Stephenie Murphy, Victoria College Senior Don, (English and History Major)

The Residence Life Staff Perspective

As a research assistant on the Supporting Student Success project, and as a residence life staff member, I was very excited to bring some of our research to the students I work so closely with. I really liked the plan for how the session would bring information to our dons to help them understand the connections of support at the University of Toronto.  It helped them think methodically through how weaving these supports together can best support our students and was a good fit for the last part of our central training (which largely focuses on understanding the centralized resources of a decentralized university).

Our staff got a new tool in their residence life tool kit – a new way to think through some of the complex challenges they face when supporting students. Students who come seeking support may come initially asking for one thing, but typically as you dig a bit deeper, you find out the problem is more complex that just simply academic or personal – all of these elements weave together, and so students need support from multiple departments to get the most well-rounded support. In the weeks after training I’ve seen my own staff sit down with Bronfenbrenner’s PPCT model to think through how to support a student, and what resources may not be coming to the top of their mind, but would be helpful connections for students. This workshop gave our residence staff a new understanding of the complexity of the University of Toronto, and an understanding that these decentralized resources do not operate in a silo when supporting our students.

– From Leah McCormack – Assistant to the Dean, Residence Life, University College

 Summary. Universities and colleges invest a significant amount of time, resources and trust in their residence life staff. Over the course of an academic year, the Dons will likely face issues and situations they like never even considered during their training. We hoped that our session was another chance to see the power and knowledge within their residence teams. And we hoped that the session would let dons see the complexity in any single student issue and the vital role that they can play in helping students in residence make connections to the myriads of people, programs and services on campus that can help them be successful.