Conference: Student Affairs Personnel Are Critical to College Success Programs

BALTIMORE – With the growing emphasis being placed on getting more students to earn degrees, university leaders must remember to make sure their campus environments help facilitate the kind of self-discovery that enables students to develop a strong sense of self.

This was just one of the nuggets of professional advice offered here on Tuesday at the annual convention of the American College Personnel Association (ACPA). The convention drew some 3,500 attendees from across the nation, from graduate assistants and directors of student life to psychologists and senior campus administrators who specialize in diversity and multicultural affairs.

Consistent with the theme of “B’More”—a double entendre meant to connote both the purpose of the convention and the abbreviated name of its host city—speakers at an all-female panel discussion that mimicked “The View” urged attendees to focus on developing their identities, not just earn degrees.

“What are we looking for as the outcome? What do we hope college students will be when they’re done?” asked Dr. Sherry Watt, associate professor in the College of Education at the University of Iowa, speaking at the panel discussion titled “The Role of Identity in Student Success.”

“Success, in my view, is they would be intellectually competent and have thought very intentionally about a particular topic, be ready to go out in the world, and do some type of work and, at the same time, have a very strong sense of who they are as they know where they stand and can do their work more effectively.”

For campus administrators, Watt said, that means looking at student development not on an individual basis, which she said leads to “segmented thinking,” but rather at how the campus as an institution is shaping students.

“To me, that creates a successful college environment,” Watt said. “What we want is these great conversations taking place between everybody and not just segmented groups of students.”

But that goal is neither an easy one to achieve nor is there just one way to achieve it, particularly given the wide range of campus institution types and campus climates that exist on the landscape of higher education, from what some convention attendees referred to as the “family” atmosphere of some HBCUs to the rugged individualism espoused by many predominantly White institutions, or so-called PWIs.

Based on an informal survey, the ACPA convention drew both a fair share of praise and criticism that largely followed along the lines of job status, position and purpose.

Some, however, saw the conference as simply a menu of topics—from the underrepresentation of minority males in graduate school on how to combat high-risk drinking cultures on campus—that could be explored more in-depth at a later point.

“I think one of the appealing aspects of this is the size of the convention,” said Josiah Litant, Assistant Dean of Students at Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass.

“There’s a large diversity in the type of workshops and subjects being covered,” Litant said. “To me, that’s an advantage over some of the more focused conferences, because you can get a snippet here and a snippet there.”

“The flip side,” he added, “is you aren’t able to go into (great) depth on some of the issues.”

For the dozens of grad students who were looking to land their first job, or for current employees looking for a higher position, better salary, or a better place to ply their trade, the gathering provided an abundance of opportunities to hand out resumes and exchange business cards.