“A friend is one that knows you as you are, understands where you have been, accepts what you have become, and still, gently encourages you to grow.” ~ William Shakespeare
My undergraduate degree is in secondary education. Family and friends understood my passion for teaching from a young age, and there was little doubt that teaching was my calling. So when I told these same friends and family that I was going to graduate school to work in college administration, they were a little confused. I had spent four years and thousands of dollars on a degree and license to teach high school mathematics – what changed? The answer is simple; I obtained a Resident Assistant position at my undergraduate institution and came to realize that some of the most important lessons are not taught only by high school teachers. I learned that some of the greatest opportunities for growth exists in the academic, social, and ethical lessons learned in the university setting.
Although the primary purpose of college or university is academic instruction at the direction of faculty, how students synthesize information exists within the broader context of their experience at an institution. For instance, not only do students learn about ethical theory, formal logic, and writing techniques – they go home and reflect upon their own ethical values, use logic to engage in political discourse, and use their writing skills in personal communications. As ACPA and NASPA have noted in Learning Reconsidered, learning occurs in the context of a student’s entire life (including the co-curriculum), not just from the material in a syllabus. This co-curricular academic growth can be facilitated through student affairs staff. Team-building activities in the residence halls can hone problem-solving skills developed in class. Career services staff can reinforce the importance of good writing in professional communications. The list goes on. Student affairs staff take students’ coursework and integrate it into students’ lives, reinforcing the learning that takes place every day.
In much the same way that it is not only faculty involved in intellectual development, academic learning is not the only type of learning that takes place on a college campus. The college years are formative, and students learn social skills required of an individual, a member of a group, and a member of a community. As students adjust to college life, many struggle with issues of alcohol abuse, relationships, work-life balance, and others that they may not have struggled with under the close watch of parents and teachers. Student affairs professionals have the obligation to ease this transition and to encourage students to develop the tools necessary to be both independent and interdependent. Students need to be encouraged to resolve conflict, become aware of issues around diversity and multiculturalism, and to learn what it means to function in a global society. Residential life often deals with conversations around alcohol; career and health services can offer workshops on balancing work and personal commitments; student programs can be focused around diversity and multicultural sensitivity. Again, the roles that student affairs staff can play in this education can be comprehensive and holistic.
Perhaps more important than both the academic and social development of students is the ethical, moral, or spiritual development of students. Coursework provides knowledge, but the experiences out of the classroom – in the halls, at events, working within the community – serve to provide a compass to guide its application. Student conduct officers can have conversations around whether students’ behaviors reflect core values; RAs and residential life staff can facilitate conversations around how being disrespectful influences not just oneself but the entire community. The formative years of the college experience can instill the values of morality, life-long learning, and striving for continuous personal (not just financial) growth – a mission of the American university since its inception.
So how is this accomplished — How does one foster the academic, social, and ethical development of young adult students? These are important questions, and to me the primary method to effect change is simply to offer conversation. Borrowing from Mezirow, I believe that education is the process of meaning-making clarified through awareness, reflection, and conversation. For many students, these issues are left unquestioned and unaddressed. Students have expectations of college – whether that is straight ‘A’s and medical school (vis-à-vis the “American Dream”), or wild nights filled with alcohol and risky behavior (as in Animal House) – and come in without having questioned these norms. Some even graduate never having considered the real purpose of college and end up perpetuating these stereotypical aspects of the college experience. Here is where student affairs professionals must challenge students to reexamine their expectations. I quite regularly tell my students: “At the end of the day, I am not talking to you so that you agree with my values – I just want you to question assumptions and ensure that you agree with your values.”
To me, this is education: to constantly evaluate ourselves in relation to others in our family, peer group, friends, community, and society. Student affairs professionals throughout an institution are in a unique position to encourage students to do just this. For as much as teachers teach, the obligation is on the learners to learn and to see the value in learning. In my opinion, there is no greater teacher than the one who can instill in a student the understanding that learning happens inside and outside the classroom, in subjects both academic and nonacademic, and that all learning is valuable. We learn through both our successes and (arguably more) from our failures. We learn from our joys and from our sorrows. As NASPA and ACPA articulated in Learning Reconsidered, learning and development are intrinsically linked. To instill in students an appreciation of this is the role of student affairs professionals across disciplines, and I hope to play my role in that as a practitioner.