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

By Dr. Kathleen Clarke

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

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

1. Defining “Success”

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

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

2. Shared Responsibility

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

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

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

3. Survey Design

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

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

Concluding Thoughts

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

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

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


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

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

How will you co-create with students?

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

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

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

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

1) Co-design with students

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

Understanding student needs and pain points

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

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

Creating spaces for staff and student collaboration

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

Copyright York University. Used with permission.

Potential challenges with co-design

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

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

Copyright Nielsen Norman Group. used with permission from

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

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

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

2) Be agile and responsive to student desires

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

Copyright York University. Used with permission.

Responding to student desires

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

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

Using an agile approach

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

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

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

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

Concluding thoughts about co-creating with students

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks for reading.

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

The Story Behind the College Student Success Innovation Centre at Mohawk College

How broad institutional support, strategic partnerships, and opportunistic student affairs professionals launched the only research centre focused on student success – at a 2-year or 4-year institution – in Canada.

By Tim Fricker, Dean of Students at Mohawk College who also leads the College Student Success Innovation Centre (CSSIC).

To the best of my knowledge, the College Student Success Innovation Centre (CSSIC) at Mohawk College (in Hamilton, Ontario) is one-of-a-kind. We have had a great deal of success in a relatively short period. Since 2015, we have received external funding for 7 research projects totaling 1.7 million, and we were just recently awarded the Program Innovation Award from the Canadian Association of College and University Student Services (CACUSS), which is an association similar to NASPA and ACPA. And, as a community college offering primarily 1-, 2- and 3-year credentials, our graduation rates have steadily risen from 60% to 65% since 2012, a rate of improvement unmatched by our key comparator colleges.

I have been asked many times in recent months how we got to this point, and truthfully, it is difficult to distill our journey down into a couple of key determining factors. There are a few things that I continuously point to including: 1) unbridled institutional support, 2) a host of key partners, and finally, 3) the unique ability of our Student Affairs team to see and respond to potential student success research opportunities. At every single stage of our work over the last seven years, each of these three elements has played a critical role in paving the way for the CSSIC to become a reality.

The purpose of this article, with the invitation from Tricia Seifert, is to share the lessons we have learned that could be useful for others wishing to put more energy into Student Affairs and student success assessment or research. As Student Affairs professionals, our strength is our focus on students and day-to-day practice, which means we also do not naturally celebrate or share our successes publicly. We are humble practitioners by nature. This creates a scenario where our institutions could forget how core Student Affairs work is to the academic mission, which in times of fiscal restraint (such as what is occurring in Ontario right now, which is another story and blog altogether), we risk diminishing resources that could increase barriers and reduce support for our students. With those caveats, here are three foundations of our College Student Success Innovation Centre at Mohawk College.

Broad Institutional Support

I am not entirely sure where this research centre had its true beginnings, but since I joined Mohawk in 2012, a few important things occurred. Perhaps one of those items was the creation of my role at that time – Director of Student Success Initiatives – which was designed to coordinate new campus-wide efforts to improve student outcomes. Around that time, our then President made a public call to action, challenging all faculty and staff to work harder to improve student persistence and graduation rates.

In 2014, we launched our first Student Success Plan to guide our institution on this journey. As part of this work, we committed to more purposeful data capture activities, which was more than just counting participation rates; it was our way of starting on an important assessment, evaluation, and research journey. This included introducing and using new advising software and dedicating a lot of energy toward supporting our staff with training as they evolved their practice and reporting.

Institutional support in these efforts spanned all traditional college silos. We had committees that included membership from academic, student, and corporate services. We had – and still have – a strong relationship with our Mohawk Students’ Association, too. With these close partnerships, requests for data with our corporate partners in the Institutional Research office were easy to navigate, and collaborations with faculty, our Deans, and the Centre for Teaching and Learning also proved to be quite natural, especially when we began our work with HEQCO’s Learning Outcomes Assessment Consortium later in 2017.

In 2016, with a new President, we doubled down on our commitments to students in a few meaningful ways. First, our new Strategic Plan included pillars such as student success and graduate success. Second, our new Strategic Mandate Agreement (a process directed by our provincial government) included a pitch for a new provincial student success innovation and research centre to build off the momentum we had gained over the last few years. Each of these institutional commitments, pillars, and ideas created a strong foundation of support to allow our team to take risks, say yes to new opportunities, and start to build the collective experience in student success research that we have today.

Strategic Partnerships

The first partnership we formed, which is still a critical partnership today, was with Dr. Ross Finnie at the Education Policy Research Initiative (EPRI). Dr. Finnie and his team of researchers helped ‘mine’ some of our data to help us learn more about our students. Seven reports were produced between 2012 and 2014, including the first drafts of a predictive model that would later be critical to our early research efforts.

Many interesting partnership opportunities presented themselves to us during this time, including participating in the Supporting Student Success research, and some additional projects with EPRI. For each, we simply offered our support ‘in-kind’ and received no payments. Much of this work was done off the side of my desk and those of my Institutional Research colleagues. In other words, as new additional work that was not formally planned in annual work plans, we fit it in wherever we could. With Dr. Finnie, for example, he brought in partners from Statistics Canada and Employment and Social Development Canada (both federal government agencies), for what eventually resulted in some fascinating research about the labour market outcomes of Canadian students. We also needed to develop data sharing, transfer, and privacy agreements, and go through the research ethics process. These experiences helped us learn even more about our students, our institution, and how the research process should work at the community college level. Understanding how to structure partnership and data sharing agreements also became an essential element of future collaborative research with other institutions and our local school boards.

Our partnership with EPRI included participation in HEQCO’s first Access and Retention Consortium, and a number of publications, including one on a new approach to proactive advising. As an aside, HEQCO’s approach to funding research through participation in consortiums has been a tremendously productive practice, fostering a network of partnerships across the province. HEQCO has been our largest funder and an enormously supportive partner for many years. Our success would not occur without the funding opportunities or the partners we met through them. For example, we met a number of incredible researchers through HEQCO, who we then joined forces with when HEQCO launched their second Access and Retention Consortium. This resulted in new Online Goal Setting interventions for our students, based on the work of Dr. Patrick Gaudreau at the University of Ottawa, and a new, ‘psychologically attuned’ way to communicate to students on probation implemented with the expertise of Dr. Shannon Brady at Wake Forest University. New publications with both Dr. Gaudreau and Dr. Brady via HEQCO are forthcoming later this summer or early in the fall.

The largest partnership we are a part of today, however, is one that we are leading with funding from the Ministry of Training, Colleges, and Universities in Ontario. With EPRI as a research analytics partner, we are replicating our proactive advising study from 2015 at Humber College, Centennial College, and Fleming College. In doing so, we are trying to support them in their student success research in much the same way that we have received support in the past from HEQCO and so many others.

An Opportunistic Student Affairs Team

Every time an opportunity to participate in research presented itself – one that provided the chance to learn more about student success – we said yes. This would not be possible without broad institutional support, or strong partnerships inside and outside of the college; however, this also required a willingness to work extremely hard (often off the side of our desks) to complete the work. While research was envisioned within the Director role when I started in it, the projects were often not a part of our regular operational work plans. So, I needed to find ways to make it happen.

One of my early approaches was to create a new part-time staff positon in my department to support the operations of the projects. I cobbled together funds from within my budgets, secured small amounts from our Vice President’s contingency fund, and built in staffing dollars into funding proposals. I also pitched this new role as a support for divisional assessment, evaluation, and special projects to have a more current and tangible set of outputs. In many ways, this staff position and the projects themselves were like a set of pilot projects. And, due to the success of the research and the local assessment projects, I was able to propose and secure this as a full-time permanent role. We used a similar approach to create our Learning Outcomes Assessment Consultant role just this past spring.

We have continued to build an incredible research team, for which I am grateful to work with every day. These wonderful people include faculty and Student Affairs professionals alike. Each person and each role contribute to the work of the centre in important ways.


The formal launch of the CSSIC was only a year and a half ago, but we had been on the research path for quite some time before that. This started with the College investing in new and strategic leadership roles. Some of the next critical milestones included the investment in external reports to understand our students better. Then, we invested time and resources into data capture initiatives and staff development. We started to support external researchers who were doing research on student success, and provided them with access to our data and student population. Through all of this, we learned many critical lessons, and forged partnerships that prepared us to apply for research funding. The opportunities continued to present themselves, and we continued to apply (to receive funding) and re-invested in more roles on campus and with more partners. This was the point when the Ministry funded our Centre, and we have continued our momentum since then. Some of it still happens off the side of our desk, too, but we are passionate about understanding ‘what works’ in our student success programming.

There are two final reflections that I think are important. First, while the Centre is led by Student Affairs, the vision was one that was collectively endorsed and has been continuously supported across our institution. Faculty and our partnerships with Ideaworks (our Applied Research department), the Institutional Research Office, and the Centre for Teaching and Learning continue to play an increasingly important role.

Second, there are no shortage of articles and books that express the role of institutional culture on the outcomes of students. Project Deep and the work of George Kuh immediately come to mind. The idea that there is a pervasive student success ideology and approach on campus that everyone understands that ‘this is the way we do things here’ has been shown to be a defining factor of institutions that have strong student outcomes relative to others.

So, on that note, last month when I was cleaning out some old files in my office, I came across a 2007 concept paper from a large committee on campus titled, The Centre of Excellence for Students, Access, and Success. Perhaps our Centre really isn’t so much of a new idea. Leading in student success is part of our ethos at Mohawk – and I suspect it will continue.

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:

Senator Steve Daines:

Representative Greg Gianforte:

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.

Times They are A-Changin’

By Tricia Seifert (@TriciaSeifert)

It has been five months since I posted about the changing political times and their influence on post-secondary education in the United States. In the interim, several courts have ruled against President Trump’s ban on travel for people from six predominantly Muslim nations. But just yesterday, the Supreme Court of the United States allowed for the travel ban to be enforced provided that the travelers from these six nations do not have a “bona fide” relationship to the US. The Court’s ruling has been interpreted as permitting those from Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen to attend a university or deliver a speech as having “a credible claim” of a relationship with a person or entity in the US. Students and scholars from these countries may travel to the US. But in an ever-changing political climate of what constitutes “bona fide”, these students and scholars may feel uncomfortable, unwelcome, or most importantly, unsafe to do so. International students and scholars who are not from the banned countries may also question travel to the US and decide against it.

When the executive order was signed, I was worried that students from one of the six countries who had gone home might not be able to return to their studies. I was concerned that parents who are graduate students from one of the six countries presenting at a conference might not be able to come home to their children. I live fairly close to the Canadian border and could not help but think about the possible grad student from Iran who went to present an academic paper at a conference in Calgary being prevented to cross back into the US. I was thinking especially of their children and the extent to which the student teachers from Montana State University are prepared to support these international kids in their classrooms.

Five months ago, President Trump’s attempt to ban people from predominantly Muslim countries moved me to think about how to bring discussions of diversity and public policy to the forefront in my work with students, staff, and faculty. Today, the Supreme Court’s decision to uphold parts of the travel ban, particularly as it pertains to limiting refugees from war-torn countries, has me thinking about how educators support students to understand different religious, spiritual, and worldview perspectives.

Taking Action

Like so many, I felt and feel a bit paralyzed by what I can do. With everything that calls for my daily attention, what actions can I take? What is within my sphere of influence?

[I want to note that I wrote this blog post on Saturday, June 24. The US government’s enforcement of the executive order travel bans has changed tremendously in the last 24 hours and I have updated to reflect the day-by-day changes that Americans and others from around the world are experiencing with respect to US policy. What I share is what I have done in the five months since the initial executive orders were announced. The US Supreme Court’s actions in the last day have only strengthened my resolve.]

Examining Religious, Spiritual, & Worldview Diversity

Because the travel bans are focused on countries with predominantly Muslim populations, I feel it is important to begin by acknowledging the religious diversity of today’s college campus. I knew I needed to take advantage of the good work that already being done in this arena and not re-invent the wheel.

In February, I tapped into the NASPA live webinar series that focused on supporting Sikh and Hindu students. This was a useful starting point as the series was timely and because it is not uncommon for Sikh and Hindu students to be mistaken for Muslim students. It is noteworthy how few students know the difference between these religious faith traditions, despite the nearly two billion people around the world who practice these traditions.


I was grateful for the insight provided by Dr. Simran Jeet Singh (@SikhProf), Assistant Professor of Religion at Trinity University and senior religion fellow with the Sikh Coalition, a civil rights advocacy group for the Sikh community and Cody Nielsen (@campminmatters) who interviewed Dr. Singh.

Over the course of an hour, Montana State University Department of Education students, staff, and faculty learned about the basic values of the Sikh religion and the outwardly physical characteristics displayed by Sikhs. You probably have seen the long, uncut hair often wore tucked up in a turban. But beyond the outward signs, I was struck by the similarity of Sikh values to Christianity and other world religions.

Dr. Singh spoke about Sikhs service to God, which manifests in serving the world, selflessly inspired by love. He also spoke about remembrance and the pillars of engaging in one’s community, the concept of oneness of God, and the ideal of love. Thinking about the Christian lessons from my childhood, I noted how in the Sikh faith suffering results from failing to recognize the oneness and divinity in each being. To me, this spoke to my Sunday school lesson of loving one another.

I was motivated to provide this opportunity to learn about other religions because so few students, staff, and faculty (outside those in the Religious Studies department) know about the values and principles that guide faith traditions outside their own. Faith, religion, and worldview is a key dimension of our students’ identities; it often shapes students’ behavior and how they interact with others. Think about how people from different faith traditions extend greetings, whether it is appropriate to make eye contact, and how and how often they pray. And yet, it is not uncommon for people to have no knowledge of the principles and values of the religion, faith tradition, or worldview that guide these behaviors and interactions.

Stated simply, if our college and universities are to prepare teachers and leaders to support all students, they need to understand their students’ religious, spiritual, and worldviews.

Yesterday, I shared my interest in creating a Worldviews Passport program with our student government president and Office of Activities & Engagement staff. The program would introduce students to the principles and values of a host of faith communities and invite passport holders to reflect on how understanding that worldview will enable them to interact inclusively in work and community settings. As we talked, the student affairs staff got excited about partnering with student clubs and working together to connect with the community.


Changing Times and Greater Resolve

I was excited with possibility. Then I came back to my computer and learned about the Supreme Court decision.

The need for people to understand different religious, spiritual, and worldview perspectives has never been greater. These actions taken by the US government have only strengthened my resolve that the safety, security, and future of nations lies with educators who invite students into the great wonder that is learning about ideas that differ from your own.

Only once we understand the other can we be understood.

Next week I will share the second small action I took as a result of President Trump’s executive order banning travel from six predominantly Muslim countries. My mantra is “small actions yield small wins.”

I want to hear from you. We are part of a worldwide community of educators. In light of the changing political times, how are you supporting students? As always, I invite you to be part of the conversation by leaving a comment.


Supporting Students in Changing Times

Times they are a-changin’. As a kid, I was enamored with the music of the 1960s. I spent hours listening to my dad’s three-album set from Woodstock. I consumed the liner notes. I read every word and pondered every lyric. Although Dylan didn’t play Woodstock, I wanted to understand what it was about those times that were a-changin’.


Now I live in times that are rapidly changing – changing in ways that make supporting student success ever more essential. President Trump’s Executive Orders ban the issuing of visas to people holding passports from seven predominantly Muslim countries for 90 days, ban refugee entrance into the U.S. for 120 days with the exception of Christian refugees, and fully halts Syrian refugee entrance until further notice. These directives have been issued from the highest office of the United States and send a message to the world.

People in the U.S. disagree with the content of that message. Some argue these directives secure American borders. Others argue they are illegal, unconstitutional, serve as a de-facto ban on Muslims, and are counter to American values. Irrespective of your political position, these Orders have real impacts on students, scholars, and their families.

I grew up in the U.S., lived in Germany during reunification, in Canada during the first Obama presidency and the Maple Spring in Quebec, and currently live in the U.S. Living abroad has provided me with a perspective of my home country that I would not have otherwise. Although I may have a different perspective, I am not alone in my concern for the safety and security of the more than 100,000 students from the Middle East and 17,000 from the banned countries who are studying in the United States, most of whom are Muslim. More than 7,000 U.S. faculty members have signed the petition, Academics Against Immigration Executive Order.

There is strength in the number of individuals who have spoken out. There is strength in national associations taking a stand.

I applaud the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities for their statement:

Our nation’s universities are enriched and strengthened by the talent, insight, and culture that international students, faculty, researchers, and staff bring. . . . We are also concerned that this decision adds great uncertainty to international students, researchers, and others who might consider coming to our campuses.”

I am heartened by Universities Canada’s statement, particularly given the fact that commenting on the executive orders of another country is highly atypical.

The executive order restricting travel into the U.S. affects research partnerships, international studies, academic conference participation, field visits and in some cases family relationships of our university students, faculty and staff. The new order is having an impact on Canadian campuses and communities that is real, immediate and profound. . . . Canada’s universities continue to welcome students, faculty and staff from around the world, including those seeking refuge from violence and hardship.”

I take comfort in these statements. But comfort is just that comfortable. More than anything, I must act.

I must act within my sphere of influence to support our international students, particularly those from the seven banned countries, as they may become targets of discrimination despite possessing a visa to study in the United States.

I must support Muslim students. I fear these Executive Orders may result in xenophobic actions. This is not an unwarranted fear given the number of hate crimes that have been registered since the U.S. Presidential election.

I must support American students of all faiths, religious traditions, and worldviews. Specifically, given my position as Head of the Department of Education and the department’s mandate to educate pre-service teachers, I must provide opportunities for our students to learn about the rich religious and worldview diversity that characterizes America.

I must support the young kids in elementary school whose parent traveled to present at an academic conference and are not permitted back in the U.S. because they hold a passport from one of the seven banned countries. How do we, as educators, support these kids?

I have to start somewhere. I have to give action to my “must support” statements. This is what I have chosen to do.

  1. I will affirm in my weekly communication to the Department’s students, staff, and faculty that we are a Department that values the humanity of each of our students. Part of honoring humanity is by listening to understand. Education is based on the premise that we bring an openness of mind to listen deeply, contribute thoughtfully, and respect unconditionally. I will provide information where to report any acts of discrimination, intimidation, and violence.
  2. I will create opportunities for our faculty, staff, and pre-service teachers to learn about different religious traditions and worldviews. Specifically, I am working to introduce our students to our local Islamic Center only a few blocks from campus. Additionally, there is a series available through NASPA that will focus on Hindu beliefs (live cast January 26 with recording available February 2) and Sikh beliefs (February 15). My goal is that by learning about other religious traditions and worldviews that our pre-service teachers, graduate students who are school and post-secondary leaders, staff, and faculty will be more prepared to support students from a variety of faith traditions.
  3. I will encourage our community to engage civically, not just every four years when there is an election but regularly. As educators, there are policies discussed on a nearly daily basis that affect our work. Educators need to know about and comment on public policy that affects their ability to support every student’s success, like President Trump’s recent seven-country immigration ban and refugee suspension. To that end, I am sharing information about legislative bills and policies currently under discussion and how to contact elected officials to register comment.

I recognize these actions only scratch the surface but I believe small actions can make a difference. To that end, I’d like to learn about the small or large actions you are doing to support international students, Muslim students, and students on your campus who could benefit from learning more about the world’s rich religious and worldview diversity. Please “leave a comment” and share your ideas. We are stronger together.

Tricia Seifert is Associate Professor and Department Head of Education at Montana State University. She also maintains a faculty appointment at the University of Toronto. She is the PI on the Supporting Student Success research study.

Do Faculty Subcultures Affect Campus Culture and Student Success?

Shared Responsibilitypicture1

Student success and learning is a shared responsibility among members of the campus
community. It is too large and too complex to be the purview of one individual or group in postsecondary education. Student affairs/services (SAS) professionals and faculty must work together and understand one another. As Kuh, Kinzie, Schuh and Whitt and Associates (2010) explain:

to achieve a positive organizational culture that supports students as a by-product of a good educational experience, the commitment and effort of all members of the academic community are needed”.

However, it can often be quite difficult to make the time to learn about one another. Luckily, this is where the Supporting Student Success research team comes in. We’re going to share what we’ve recently learned about how faculty members perceive institutional retention and student success efforts on their campuses.

Our goal here is provide a space to discuss how to better support one another. As SAS professionals, we have an opportunity to lead and educate about programs and services, how collaborations work, and the importance of these initiatives for students. In order to do this, we must first understand faculty colleagues’ perspectives and the subcultures that influence these perspectives.

Campus Subcultures


We know various subcultures exist within our institutions depending on the division/area one is working in, job title/position, and daily roles. The subculture(s) we belong to can influence how we make sense of events and actions (Kuh & Whitt, 1988). Kuh and Whitt (1988) note:

academics make up a complex set of subprofessions characterized by fragmentation and specialization”.

The notion of subprofessions, which may be viewed as subcultures, therefore inform this research. The influence that a subculture has on the behaviour of its members is facilitated by departmental and institutional contexts, mission/mandates, communication and leadership styles, and individuals’ experiences.

Subcultures exist for both SAS professionals and faculty members. For faculty members, this typically comes in the form of one’s rank, years employed, broad disciplinary area, and responsibilities. As such, we are interested in how faculty at various academic ranks (tenured/promoted, promotional, and non-promotional) differ in their perceptions of retention and student success. Although past research has examined campus culture and student success broadly, limited empirical research has been conducted on to what extent faculty members’ perceptions of campus culture and institutional retention efforts differ by academic rank.

Faculty Perceptions of Retention and Student Successpicture3

Our findings are based on survey data that was collected at twenty-four postsecondary institutions (seven community colleges and seventeen universities); respondents include both faculty and SAS professionals. Our initial analyses explored the relationship between faculty and staff members’ awareness and engagement with programs and services designed to support retention and student success. This post looks specifically at the faculty sample by academic rank.

Our sample consisted of 977 faculty (full- and part-time) who taught undergraduate students in the 2013/2014 and 2014/2015 academic years. The breakdown below shows the composition of the sample we analyzed by rank, years employed, and broad disciplinary area.


For our first set of analyses, a one-way analysis of variance (ANOVA) was used to compare composite measures by faculty rank. Seven different outcome/composite measures were examined (three at the departmental level and four at the institutional level). Composite measures include the following:

  • Conveying to students that they can succeed and facilitating involvement,
  • Setting goals and objectives to helping students succeed,
  • Dedicating leadership and resources to promoting retention objectives, and
  • Relaying information about academic and personal support services.

These measures are crafted from individual survey items, for which respondents indicated the extent to which they agree or disagree based on declarative statements using a Likert scale. Respondents were required to answer 60% of the questions that made up each composite to be given a score for that outcome.


At the departmental level, the analysis revealed:

  • Tenured/Promoted (3.73) faculty have more positive perceptions of the degree to which their division conveys to students that they can succeed and facilitates involvement than Non-Promotional (3.55) (p<.05).

At the institutional level, the analysis revealed:

  • Promotional (3.05) faculty have more positive perceptions of leadership and resources dedicated to promoting retention objectives than Tenured/Promoted (2.85) (p<.05).
  • Tenured/Promoted (3.37) faculty have more positive perceptions of their institution’s efforts to relay information about academic and personal support services than Non-Promotional (3.13) (p<.01).

For our second set of analyses, we used block regression to examine how differences in the composite measures by academic rank may be explained by other potential explanations, like years employed, broad disciplinary area, respondents’ awareness of student support programs and services, and engagement with these programs and services in inter-divisional partnerships. This approach essentially entails adding different blocks of variables into a regression sequentially to see how the inclusion of those independent variables matter in explaining the dependent variable (the departmental and institutional composites), and how they impact the estimates of the other independent variables.



The analyses revealed several informative findings that can be used to modify policy and practice:

  • Tenured/Promoted faculty appeared to have more positive perceptions of the degree to which their department and institution conveys to students that they can succeed and facilitates involvement than Non-Promotional faculty. Tenured/Promoted faculty also appeared to have more positive perceptions of their institution’s efforts to relay information about academic and personal support services than Non-Promotional faculty. However, both of these differences became insignificant once additional blocks/covariates were added.

There is an opportunity for SAS professionals to connect with those who are in Non-Promotional roles and ensure that in their short- or long-term positions at our institutions they possess an understanding of retention objectives and are encouraged to participate. With the number of Non-Promotional faculty members (sessionals, adjuncts, and lecturers) increasing on our campuses, we need a proactive approach to reaching these critical members of our institution’s instructional team.

  • Faculty employed 0-4 years were found to have more positive perceptions than those employed 11+ years across departmental and institutional success measures (conveying to students that they can succeed and facilitating involvement, setting goals and objectives to helping students succeed, and dedicating leadership and resources to promoting retention objectives). This finding remained in the presence of the additional blocks/covariates.

Working with these younger faculty members is crucial, as they will be leading our institutions in the future and have the energy to transform them. They can function as allies in bridging existing academic and student services silos. Inviting them to be a part of SAS programming, making ourselves known to their students, and increasing two-way communication is imperative. In addition, reaching out to senior faculty by drawing upon their experiences and history at our institutions is valuable. It is time to reinvigorate these individuals! At this stage in their careers, the majority of faculty will have achieved tenure and as such may have more time to sit on committees, champion initiatives, and throw their support behind new innovative ventures.

  • Arts and Humanities faculty were found to have more positive perceptions of the degree to which their department conveys to students that they can succeed and facilitates involvement than Social Sciences/Education and Health Sciences faculty. However, Engineering faculty were found to have more positive perceptions than Arts and Humanities across institutional success measures. These findings remained in the presence of the additional blocks/covariates.

Developing orientation workshops and outreach materials to be dispersed throughout the academic year with regard to the role of SAS and available programming across all departments/disciplines may assist with these inconsistencies.

  • Awareness measures (prior familiarity with and frequency of learning about student support programs and services) were found to have a strong positive effect on perceptions of success. However, this effect became weaker when we added actual use (frequency of referral to services, communication, and collaboration with divisions across campus) of programs and services into the regression model. While knowing about student support services is valuable, it appears that actually using or engaging with student support programs and services is what matters most in positively influencing faculty members’ perceptions of department and institution retention efforts.

SAS professionals’ encouragement of positive faculty interactions with services is therefore of key importance, as when faculty are involved their perceptions of retention and student success are improved.

What’s Next?


We hope these findings are valuable and that we can continue this discussion in the future. Next steps for our research are to examine faculty members’ behaviour toward departmental and institutional retention efforts beyond perceptions.

Written by:

Christine Arnold (@ChristineA_MUN)

Kathleen Moore (@Kathleenmoore_)