In the AFA Membership Report, Goodman and McKeown (2020) noted that graduate membership in the Association decreased by 39% from 2010 to 2020. While it is unknown if a similar percentage of decreases occurred within student affairs more broadly, a recent NASPA (2022) report suggested “the harsh reality is that more early and mid-level [student affairs] professionals are leaving the field for other pursuits” (p. 6). We write this piece for both campus-based practitioners and faculty in order to increase engagement in sorority and fraternity life (SFL) graduate students in future years; such advice considers the importance of sense-making and workplace accountability. This perspective is especially important as campus-based practitioners and faculty should work as partners in the process(es) of development for graduate students while in class and at work.
Throughout the pandemic, a large number of student affairs professionals transitioned into new roles or left the field (ACPA Presidential Task Force on 21st Century Employment in Higher Education, 2022; NASPA, 2022), often resulting in graduate students not receiving adequate supervision and support. Because supervisors play a vital role in the professional socialization of graduate students (Perez & Haley, 2021), this volatility in supervision was likely detrimental to the preparation of these emerging student affairs professionals. These challenges were compounded in remote work settings, where graduate students struggled to understand organizational cultures or build networks, and lacked opportunities to casually discuss their experiences with supervisors, faculty, or other professionals. The lack of support and supervision led to frustration, disappointment, and even anger among graduate students, but further compounded the demands placed on supervisors to serve as organizational translators or facilitate sensemaking (Bazner, 2022). The absence of these early conversations can elongate the socialization process of new professionals and lead to questions about their decisions to enter the field altogether (Perez et al., 2020). SFL encompasses the work of many functional areas within student affairs (e.g., orientation, leadership, health and safety, housing, counseling), yet when graduate students feel pressure to please practicum supervisors or faculty for grades without opportunities for reflection and sensemaking, it can impact their motivation, competencies, and developmental capacities (Perez et al., 2020). Perhaps, then, this compounds retention issues in a functional area known for burnout and high turnover (e.g., Koepsell & Stillman  suggested that many SFL professionals do not sustain in their career beyond five years).
As former-practitioners-turned-professors, we write from an insider/outsider vantage point. We each understand the experiences of campus-based practitioners supporting graduate students, and assisting with sense-making of student affairs concepts learned in class and applied in practice. As faculty members, we are often aware of those students either working in or studying SFL, and engage frequently in discussions and support toward those students and their holistic experience. As such, we offer recommendations for improved practice. Considering these ideas, and our positionality working with graduate students in the academic setting, we illuminate possible new and existing considerations for campus-based practitioners and faculty who support graduate students interested in or working in SFL.
Staff turnover has a profound impact on the effectiveness of student affairs practitioners to deliver upon the mission of the field, but also on the future of the field to be properly socialized and acclimated to the work of student affairs professionals. Fieldwork and assistantship experiences often eclipse what is learned in the classroom (Renn & Jessup-Anger, 2008). Supervision occurring during the fieldwork (e.g., assistantships) or practicum experiences of graduate students is often one of the most meaningful attributesLast year, a survey administered by CUPA-HR noted that nearly one-third of supervisors who responded to their retention survey stated they will look for other employment opportunities in the next 12-months (Fuesting & Schneider, 2023). The impact of departure may be even more significant for colleges and universities where there is a department of one, or when graduate students take a heavier load of advising responsibilities. As part of their advising and support, administrators and supervisors can help graduate students reconcile differences in personal values and motivations to enter the field with any dissonance they may experience during their fieldwork.
Recognize the Importance of Sensemaking
Specifically, supervisors of graduate students have a responsibility to recognize the importance of sensemaking with students. This requires more attention to processing decision-making and discussing perceptions graduate students are having. To facilitate sensemaking, it is helpful to ask questions that encourage reflection, such as “How did you come to that decision?” or “What is informing your perceptions?” Supervisors should be intentional in asking students what they are learning in class, how that learning translates to their practice, and what conflicts occur (e.g., dissonance) within that sensemaking. The ultimate goal is for graduate students to recognize that their decisions should not be based solely on pleasing others or personal experiences. Instead, their decisions should be grounded in the application of concepts based on research and guided by the context of particular situations.
The higher education/student affairs classroom can serve as a space for graduate students to learn the ins and outs of work with college students and college and university life. Faculty typically have great latitude in what they teach and what articles, activities, and examples are used in class to increase learning. One question we sit with is around how faculty incorporate elements of SFL into their curriculum, and in what ways are students–interested in SFL and not–exposed to, reading about, and engaging in this form of student life on campus. For example, faculty who enlist case studies may use books like Case Studies for Student Development Theory: Advancing Social Justice and Inclusion in Higher Education (Garvey et al., 2020), and specifically a case by Irwin and Lange (2020) which explores complicity and racism in racially-themed parties. Resources like this can be used to make connections to elements of student involvement, identity development, and more. Further, connections can be made specifically for SFL students in class who might be grappling labor issues in their assistantships, responding in real time to incidents, feeling overwhelmed by responsibilities, and experiencing burnout in their graduate positions (e.g., see NASPA, 2020).
Hold Fieldwork/Practicum Sites Accountable
Faculty members of graduate preparation programs and senior leadership in student affairs need to pay closer attention to the effectiveness of assistantships. Administrators and supervisors should acknowledge that graduate students are not simply cheap or free labor, and that their experiences should incorporate reflective practices that facilitate greater meaning-making opportunities. Time should be allocated for the need to help graduate students connect their classroom knowledge with their practical experiences. Faculty have a role in understanding how this is/not happening, in checking in with students, and at the same time, checking in with fieldwork/practicum sites. Faculty members must identify quality fieldwork experiences and partner with fieldwork supervisors to address any dissonance or developmental concerns of graduate students. If necessary, faculty members or senior administrators should consider removing certain fieldwork experiences if they are not contributing to the holistic development of graduate students. This should not be viewed as punitive but as a necessary step in ensuring that the future of the field is built on good practitioners and that graduate students have positive, non-toxic fieldwork experiences that contribute to their overall growth and development.
Dissonance and departure do not exist in a SFL vacuum. In student affairs more broadly, salaries/compensation, the level of stress and crisis management responsiveness required, and feeling underappreciated/undervalued are among the key factors that could contribute to professionals leaving the field (NASPA, 2022). As a result, there is a rich opportunity for campus-based professionals and faculty to dually support graduate students in their SFL journey.
ACPA Presidential Task Force on 21st Century Employment in Higher Education. (2022). Report on 21st century employment in higher education. ACPA. https://drive.google.com/file/d/1Ij5YNqi5Nqiu-bSUmnDfqiYiOKlj3C2o/view
Bazner, K. J. (2022). Views from the middle: Racialized experiences of midlevel student affairs administrators. Journal of Diversity in Higher Education, 15(5), 572–582. https://doi.org/10.1037/dhe0000384
Fuesting, M., & Schneider, J. (2023, January). The CUPA-HR 2022 higher education employee retention survey: Focus on supervisors. CUPA-HR. https://www.cupahr.org/surveys/research-briefs/higher-ed-employee-retention-survey-focus-on-supervisors-january-2023/
Garvey, J. C., Harris, J. C., Means, D. R., Perez, R. J., & Porter, C. J. (2020). Case studies for student development theory: Advancing social justice and inclusion in higher education. Routledge.
Goodman, M. A., & McKeown, K. (2020). AFA in 2020: The Association of Fraternity/Sorority Advisors Membership Report. The Association of Fraternity/Sorority Advisors.
Koepsell, M., & Stillman, A. (2016). The Association of Fraternity/Sorority Advisors Membership: What We Know About Our Members and Why It Matters. The Association of Fraternity/Sorority Advisors.
Irwin, L., & Lange, A. C. (2020). Case study one. Challenging complicity: (Not) confronting racism in racially themed parties. In J. C. Garvey, J. C. Harris, D. R. Means, R. J. Perez, & C. J. Porter (Eds.), Case studies for student development theory: Advancing social justice and inclusion in higher education (pp. 27-29). Routledge.
NASPA – Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education. (2022). The compass report: Charting the future of student affairs. https://5721802.fs1.hubspotusercontent-na1.net/hubfs/5721802/Download%20Files/The_Compass_Report_2022_Web.pdf
Perez, R. J., & Haley, J. D. (2021). The power of supervision in (re)socializing student affairs educators. New Directions for Student Services,175, 31–39. https://doi-org/10.1002/ss.20394
Perez, R. J., Robbins, C. K., Harris Jr, L., & Montgomery, C. (2020). Exploring graduate students’ socialization to equity, diversity, and inclusion. Journal of Diversity in Higher Education, 13(2), 133. https://doi.org/10.1037/dhe0000115
Renn, K. A., & Jessup-Anger, E. R. (2008). Preparing new professionals: Lessons for graduate preparation programs from the National Study of New Professionals in Student Affairs. Journal of College Student Development 49(4), 319-335. http://doi.org/10.1353/csd.0.0022
About the authors
Dr. Michael A. Goodman (he/him) is an assistant professor of practice in Educational Leadership and Policy and a co-coordinator of the Program in Higher Education Leadership at The University of Texas at Austin. Goodman is a former campus-based student affairs professional, and his research agenda centers college student governance and involvement; specifically looking at student government, the student body presidency, and sorority/fraternity life.
Dr. Kevin J. Bazner (he/him) is an assistant professor of educational leadership and higher education administration program coordinator at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi. He teaches graduate courses in leadership theory, professional development, and higher education administration. Prior to entering his faculty role, he spent a decade working as a campus- and organizational-based professional in sorority and fraternity life.
Dr. Adam M. McCready is an assistant professor-in-residence of Higher Education and Student Affairs in the Department of Educational Leadership in the Neag School of Education at the University of Connecticut. He served as a sorority and fraternity life professional for over a decade prior to his doctoral work. Dr. McCready’s research critically examines the college student experience, and he teaches graduate courses on student affairs assessment, leadership and administration, and college student development.