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


We’re All in This Together: A Community Commitment to Student Success

It’s August and you can feel a change in the air. There is a bit more buzz on campus. School is just around the corner.

This was brought into sharp focus this morning as I stood in line for coffee in our campus library. Two women in front of me commented that the “students are coming.” After a moment discussing how parking gets tight when the students return, the barista behind the counter, who has been here for 20 years, replied that she couldn’t wait for the students to come back. “They’re the reason we’re here,” she said emphatically. She went on to say how much she enjoyed watching graduates go out into the world and make it a better place. One of the women waiting for her latte commented about how much it has meant to receive notes years later from students whose life she touched in some way.

None of the people I observed this morning teach students in the classroom. They teach students in a multitude of ways outside the formal classroom. As co-workers at the coffee shop, they educate students about customer service, punctuality, and doing a job well. They educate in the value of being involved on campus and contributing to one’s community. Watching this conversation unfold, I thought about my colleague and fellow University of Iowa alum, Jeremy Reed’s research on the campus custodian. Staff members across campus interact with students in ways that nurture students’ holistic development and success.

MONSTWH001Classroom instructors, guidance counselors, student affairs and services staff, custodians, baristas, and coaches – we’re all in this together. It takes an entire community’s commitment to foster student success. Great research and innovative practice is taking place all over the world in this respect. I invite you to share at the upcoming International Conference on Learning, Teaching, and Student Success this November 3-5 in Bozeman, Montana on the campus of Montana State University. Proposals are accepted through September 30 and the early bird registration rate is available through September 11, 2016.

Come be part of the community taking action to support student success!

Exploring the Muddy Waters and Blue Skies of Supporting Student Success

By Jacqueline Beaulieu

Last week, I had the wonderful opportunity of presenting alongside Tricia Seifert at the Canadian Association of College and University Student Services’ (CACUSS) Annual Conference in Winnipeg, Manitoba (June 19-22, 2016). The theme of the conference, Muddy Waters, Blue Skies, supported conversations on the many challenges encountered when aiming to support student success as well as the blue skies of opportunity and possibilities of what could be for students, staff, faculty, and community members. In our presentation titled Principles for Creating Student Focused Postsecondary Organizations, we examined how communication, resource allocation, and institutional culture are perceived as shaping the development of student-focused organizational approaches.

The current study was initially undertaken as part of a case study research methods course. Data from two institutions were analyzed as part of the class project; data from two additional institutions have since been analyzed to develop the broader set of findings presented at the CACUSS Conference. Data from an additional 1-2 institutions will be analyzed prior to presenting overall findings at an upcoming scholarly conference (to be determined). If you attended Tricia Seifert’s recent CACUSS presentation on publishing in student affairs, you likely recall her encouragement to “never let a good class paper go unpublished”. This blog post represents one of many ways to disseminate findings and concepts developed during course and work-related projects.

The purpose of this blog is to provide an overview of the study, current findings, and a working set of principles for creating student-focused postsecondary organizations derived from the findings. It will explore some of the “muddy waters” (challenges) of supporting student success as well as how communication, resource allocation, and institutional culture can come together and create “blue skies” (opportunities and possibilities) for all students.

About the Current Study

The findings in this study were derived from an analysis of data collected during the first phase of the Supporting Student Success study. During this phase, qualitative interviews and focus groups were conducted with nearly 300 student affairs and services staff from 9 universities and 5 colleges across Ontario. The purpose of the original study was to develop a more complete description of how Ontario’s post-secondary institutions are formally and informally structured as well as how staff perceive these structures as supporting and/or creating challenges for their ability to support student success.

This research focused on the larger research-intensive universities included in the broader sample given the range of centralized to decentralized organizational structures within this subsample and the range of stakeholders groups within each of the institutions and complexity of relationships between the many constituents.

Several theoretical frameworks including resource dependency theory (eg. Hillman, Withers, & Collins, 2009; Leslie & Slaughter, 1997; Tolbert, 1985), organizational ecology (eg. Carroll, 1984), and institutional logics informed the current study (eg. Thornton & Ocasio, 2008; Thornton, Ocasio, & Lounsbury, 2012). The current study tested propositions stemming from these frameworks as advanced by Pitcher, Cantwell, and Renn (2015).

Research Questions and Design

Central research question:

How do student affairs and services staff perceive their institution’s organizational structure and culture with respect to the development of a student-focused approach for program and service delivery?


  1. How are communication and resource allocation perceived as interacting with the development of student-focused organizational approaches?
  2. How do perceptions of communication, resource allocation, and institutional culture compare between more centralized and more decentralized organizational structures?

In terms of analysis, NVivo software was utilized to analyze interview and focus group transcripts as well as strategic planning documents. Open coding was utilized (Corbin & Strauss, 2014) followed by a theory-driven approach to collapse codes into categories. Themes within cases were identified by the researchers and then analyzed across cases. Pattern matching techniques (Yin, 2014) were utilized to examine if findings reflected perceived opportunities and challenges of centralized and decentralized organizational models as identified in the literature.

Institutions were placed along a continuum of organizational structures, ranging from more decentralized to more centralized, for the purposes of comparing findings across the institutions. Two of the institutions were categorized as highly centralized (Centralized University A and B) in which nearly all of the student affairs and service areas reported to the senior student affairs and services officer. An additional two institutions were identified as having a combination of centralized and decentralized features (Federated University A and B). Decentralized features may include units like career services that exist at both a university-wide and faculty-specific level. The number and nature of reporting lines as well as the distribution of student services determined degree of centralization.


Building Relationships and Communicating

At all of the institutions, participants perceived relationship building and communication as critical to one’s ability to support students. That being said, how informal networks developed varied in terms of:

Inward versus outward facing focus:

  • At the Centralized Universities and within centralized units at the Federated Universities, participants focused on internal communications with fellow centralized staff
  • At the Federated Universities, more examples were provided regarding relationship building and communication that was outward facing (eg. cross unit; with faculties)

Role of physical spaces and proximity of services:

  • Participants at the Centralized Universities as well as participants working in centralized units at the Federated Universities spoke of the importance of physical placements of services and how location influenced the development of relationships

Strategies utilized to foster positive relationships:

  • Participants at the Centralized Universities and Federated University A commented on the importance of forums, town halls, and socials
  • Participants at Federated University B described fewer campus-level initiatives, however, mentioned many meetings amongst staff working in the centralized unit

Interpreting the Relative Value of Resources

At all of the institutions, concerns were expressed regarding perceived declines in fiscal and human resources as well as subsequent impacts for students and staff.

Impact on relationship building and communication:

  • At Centralized University A and B as well as Federated University A, human resources were viewed as influencing the amount of available time for communicating with stakeholders and participating in socials

Impact of space and proximity of services on students and staff

  • At Centralized University A and Federated University A, participants discussed the appropriateness of types of spaces for programs/services offered, whether spaces were viewed as welcoming, and if proximity of locations supported informal relationship building

Viewing Students and the Role of Student Affairs and Services

At all of the institutions, providing the best possible support to students was considered a top priority. Yet, the focus of support varied. At Federated University B, students were often described as clients and customers and educating students regarding why and how to get involved was considered a strong emphasis of student affairs and services’ work. At Centralized University A and B and Federated University A, students were often described as co-facilitators and co-decision makers and students’ holistic development was prioritized.

Utilizing Strategic Planning to Offset Organizational Weaknesses

At Centralized University A, Federated University A, and Federated University B, strategic plans were described as providing clarity and direction regarding how the unit and institution would navigate critical issues. Strategic planning was also described as helping to mitigate tensions over resources by conveying priorities and creating fewer unknowns. At Centralized University B, participants referred less to strategic planning, however, staff members engaged in comparable levels of discussion related to departmental and institutional values as conveyed and fostered by senior leaders.


On that note, we have attempted to summarize our learning thus far in a working set of principles for student-focused postsecondary organizations.

Principles for Creating Student-Focused Postsecondary Organizations

As a student affairs unit,

  1. Strive towards achieving “optimal” balances of inward versus outward facing communication
  2. Enable and empower stakeholders to develop ongoing communication and relationships that support student success… and themselves! Support stakeholders towards feeling comfortable and confident in reaching out to one another.
  3. Consider how current space allocations and proximity of services influence communication, organizational culture, and student success.
  4. Use strategic planning processes and outcomes to augment organizational strengths and offset organizational weaknesses or gaps. Unify stakeholders, create conversations, bring clarity to change and in doing so, reduce tension and competition.
  5. Work as a community to define and co-create the learning environment that you aspire to become.
  6. Invite, listen to, and engage with the perspectives of faculty, students, and other community members.
  7. Foster individual and organizational resilience so that “when the going gets tough”, student success and learning remain paramount as organizational values and overall objectives.

Navigating the Muddy Waters, Blue Skies of Creating Student-Focused Postsecondary Organizations

Organizational shifts, not to mention organizational change, can be downright difficult. During the conference presentation, attendees discussed how to employ the principles outlined above in hypothetical case studies. When immersed in our own institutions, it may be challenging to see the possibility of the principles at work. Sometimes it is easier to think about organizational shift at a distance, which is precisely what case studies offer. We share the case studies, one situated at Centralized University and the other at Decentralized University here. With staff retreats just around the corner, we invite you to use these case studies with your staff. Having discussed the principles in the safety of a case study, it may open up the possibility to imagine applying these principles to your daily work and organization.

During the closing session of the conference, our Conference Weavers, Tricia Seifert and Neil Buddel provided an analysis of overall themes within conversations that unfolded during the week. Tricia and Neil encouraged conference participants to commit and take responsibility for creating change on our campuses and asked what we would commit ourselves to doing post-conference. In a similar spirit, I would like to close this blog post with a simple question:

What can you commit to doing to shift your postsecondary institution towards an increasingly student-focused approach?

One of my post-CACUSS commitments: writing this blog post with the hope that our findings will support colleagues in their efforts to support student success ☺. If you are willing, share your commitment(s) by “leaving a reply” in the space below or tweeting us @CdnStdntSuccess; we look forward to retweeting as many of these as possible!




Carroll, G. R. (1984). Organizational ecology. Annual Review of Sociology, 10(1), 71–93.

Corbin, J., & Strauss, A. (2014). Basics of qualitative research: Techniques and procedures for developing grounded theory. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Hillman, A. J., Withers, M. C., & Collins, B. J. (2009). Resource dependence theory: A review. Journal of Management, 35(6), 1404-1427.

Leslie, L. L., & Slaughter, S. A. (1997). The development and current status of market mechanisms in United States postsecondary education. Higher Education Policy, 10(3-4), 239-252.

Pitcher, E. N., Cantwell, B. J., & Renn, K. A. (2015, November). Inside access: Examining the promotion of student success through organizational perspectives. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Association for the Study of Higher Education, Denver, CO.

Thornton, P. H., & Ocasio, W. (2008). Institutional logics. In R. Greenwood, C. Oliver, R. Suddaby, & K. Sahlin-Andersson (Eds.), The SAGE handbook of organizational institutionalism (pp. 99–129). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.

Thornton, P. H., Ocasio, W., & Lounsbury, M. (2012). The institutional logics perspective. San Francisco: John Wiley & Sons, Inc..

Tolbert, P. S. (1985). Institutional environments and resource dependence: Sources of administrative structure in institutions of higher education. Administrative Science Quarterly, 30(1) 1-13.

Yin, R. K. (2014). Case study research: Design and methods (5th ed.). Los Angeles: Sage Publications.

So You Think You Can Write?

So you think you can write? I never thought the title would attract such a CACUSS (@cacusstweets) crowd! If someone told me that 50+ people would attend the session, I would have thought they were telling tales out of school. A HUGE thank you to those who came to the session, shared their writing ideas with a partner, asked great questions, and tweeted about developing a CACUSS Community of Practice to support those who are committed to telling the story about our work.

Below is a link to the slides I used which were updated from the ones Carney Strange developed for our first CACUSS presentation on this topic several years ago. The interest in getting a hold of this slide deck was a clear indication to me that people are hungry to write. They feel a need to share what we do with others in the field, with students, with faculty, with parents and community members.

So You Think You Can Write?  – CACUSS 2016

I find writing is a difficult thing to do in isolation. It’s so much better to write as part of a community. So in that spirit of community, leave a reply sharing your writing idea. Leave a reply stating the support you need to move from “wanting to write” to actually writing. Leave a reply to celebrate actually putting word to page.

Let this be the time where writing intentions translate into written articles. Let us fill the upcoming Communiqué with the excellent work of this field. I’m sure that Mitchell Miller (@McGillMitchell) would love to hear from you. My hope is that in ten years, no one laments,

“We simply don’t have the research or literature on that topic from the Canadian context.”


#CACUSS16 – Lights, Camera, Action!

The Supporting Student Success research team is excited to share findings from the study at the upcoming #CACUSS16 conference in Winnipeg, June 19-22.

Findings from the research study inspired us to develop a set of principles for fostering a student-focused approach. If you have been discussing practical ways to be more student-centered in your everyday work, this is a session you will not want to miss!

Join Jacqueline Beaulieu and Tricia Seifert for an exploration of the study’s findings and an opportunity to apply proposed principles to fictional case studies inspired by the real-life experiences of participants. Wednesday, June 22 from 11:45-1:15 in Meeting Room 9.

Not attending CACUSS? Check back Wednesday, June 29 when we post the slides and invite audience members to reflect on key take-away points from the presentation.


Almost daily someone in the media questions the value of higher education. Having reviewed thousands of studies examining the impact of attending college or university on learning, development, and graduates’ quality of life, authors of the forthcoming book, How College Affects Students (volume 3) #HCASv3 conclude definitively that higher education works for students and society.

Tricia Seifert, one of the book authors, will present and discuss key findings Wednesday, June 22 from 10:45-11:30 in Meeting Room 3.

Book Jacket

Are you on the bus? Examining perspectives of supporting student success


In the book, Good to Great, Jim Collins uses the metaphor of the bus for discussing the importance of having committed people in order for a company to move from being “good” to “great.”

Recognizing that the people who work with students can be some of the most important assets of any college or university, it may be worth inquiring who’s on your institution’s bus? Are new staff members more optimistic than their colleagues in terms of how they perceive their area’s efforts to support student success? Does it matter in what functional area of student affairs and services a person works? How does your college or university go from being good to great?

The Supporting Student Success research team is excited to be part of the “Research in Student Affairs” webinar series being sponsored by CACUSS. Using data from staff members representing 24 institutions across Canada, we will examine these questions and discuss their implications for student affairs and services practice.

The webinar titled “An Investigation of Student Affairs Professionals’ Perceptions of their Department’s Undergraduate Student Retention Effort “will take place Monday, March 21 at 1:00 pm (EST). You can register for the webinar here. We hope you join us.

The Force Awakens Between Faculty, Staff & Student Affairs Professionals: Reflections on Fostering Meaningful Connections

By: Kristina Minnella (Coordinator, Co-Curricular Learning; @kriminnella) and Emzhei Chen (Manager, Student Life & Leadership Programs, @emzheichen)

Nearly 85,000 students across three campuses; more than 13,000 faculty and almost 6500 staff – that’s a whole lot of people to bring together. The Student Life Professionals Network at the University of Toronto enriches the lives of students and aims to make a very big university feel a little smaller.


In a new initiative called SLP Reads, student affairs educators explore and discuss ideas in higher education literature. The piece selected for the first SLP Reads was “The More We Work Together The Happier We’ll Be!(?): Faculty and Staff Partnerships on Campus” – a blog post from the Supporting Student Success research study headed by Dr. Tricia Seifert (@CdnStdntSuccess; @TriciaSeifert).

Colleagues from 16 different offices were present. Areas that were present included: Housing and Residence Life, Student Transition, Health & Counselling, Academic Advising, Career Services, International Experience, Community-Engaged Learning and Academic Even with our diverse communities and varied academic ecosystems across the three campuses, it was fascinating to see many of our ideas coalesce under a number of themes.

Validation. Many of our colleagues indicated that they were not surprised at the findings. The reading contains statistics that cite that just over 60% of faculty have never partnered with Community Outreach, Specific Populations (International Students, First Nations students or First Generation.) Many seemed to appreciate that there were now statistics and data to acknowledge what they knew anecdotally, that it is hard to connect with faculty.

Relationship Building. So yes, our feelings were validated. We spent much of our discussion focussing on the question “Now what?” Unanimously, discussions from our tri-campus discussions show that student affairs professionals are keen on forming connections and relationships.

Findings in the reading show that there are areas (Personal Well-Being, Alumni) where faculty are more likely to have been in a prior partnership versus an ongoing one, which made us ponder the patterns that must exist in order to maintain a relationship. We talked about the importance of taking the time to seek out faculty members that have research and interests that align with your area of work before establishing communication.

A great suggestion that came up was rethinking how we ask to collaborate with faculty. Instead of simply inviting faculty to collaborate, someone suggested the importance of recognizing the experience of Faculty and seeking feedback for improvement of programming and initiatives, then actually using those suggestions for program improvement. Another suggestion was to clearly define the purpose, programs and types of roles where faculty can get involved and taking the time to examine our own programming to highlight potential areas of engagement that could lead to meaningful ongoing relationships

Communication. Thinking about the way we communicate with faculty was something that was highlighted for us. The reading speaks to having a high rate of faculty (67%) who had not participated in a partnership with the area of Personal Well-Being (Counselling & Health Services), even in light of campuses championing a holistic view of students. It is noteworthy, but not entirely surprising as faculty may not understand what we actually do for students, hence the lack of collaboration even though the work accomplished is of the utmost importance. Therefore, communication is key in establishing fruitful working relationships.

Another thought is that student affairs may be viewed as one unified entity from the faculty point of view, even though we might be distinct units with not a lot of contact. As units, it may be beneficial to tighten up the language that we use as professionals. Terminology that is common across departments would lend some consistency and cohesiveness to the work that we are doing.

Perhaps as practitioners we should be grounding our work in theory, and reflecting it in the way we talk about our activities and programs. We know that our work is not all about board games and baked goods! Through this focus, the language being utilized better reveals the relevance of what work is being done.

One of the most revealing lessons from our discussions is that we all have students as our common denominator. They can be great communication vehicles to share programming with faculty, especially on initiatives in which they are actively engaged in. Student events and organizations that you work with may already have existing relationships with faculty. Your work with student leaders could be what fosters these connections.

At the end of the day, we are all partners for student success on campus. Therefore, greater discussion is encouraged- within Student Affairs professionals, connecting with faculty has been on our radar for quite some time! It was a great opportunity for us to use this reading as a starting point for a great discussion across all three campuses.