Volume 76 | Issue 6
November 2008

Connecting Academics to Practice: The perspectives from graduate student to practitioner to faculty

Tamara Yakaboski & TJ Willis

As graduate students, practitioners, and faculty wrap up another semester, all are trying to make meaning of their experiences. Thoughts about how to identify ways to connect the classroom experience (theory) to the practical aspect (graduate assistantship or full-time job) come to mind and may look like parallel roads without a bridge connecting them. This dilemma not only applies to faculty and students in the classroom, but also practitioners who supervise individuals enrolled in a graduate program. connections112008

In their book “Beginning Your Journey: A Guide for New Professionals in Student Affairs,” Marilyn J. Amey and Lori M. Reesor explain that new professionals, those straight out of graduate school, might understand what they are learning in the classroom but struggle to apply this theory to their job experience. It is this transition from the classroom to the workplace that needs to be improved. How often do we as practitioners see theory in real situations but fail to point out these examples to our graduate students? Theory surrounds us in student programs, at staff meetings, and at professional conferences. Supervisors have the opportunity to help and mentor those who are coming into the profession and conversely, students can help practitioners stay informed of current theories, readings, and teachings through the interaction.

According to the Council for the Advancement of Standards in Higher Education (CAS), the “mission of professional preparation programs shall be to prepare persons through graduate education for professional positions in students affairs in schools, colleges, and universities.” Graduate programs in student affairs have a dual purpose of providing theoretical knowledge regarding student affairs and students as well as providing practical experiential learning. As a professional preparation graduate degree, theory and practice should be naturally connected.

In a 2003 article [pdf] from the Journal of Student Affairs, Linda Kuk and Blanche Hughes state that one of the most important issues facing student affairs now and in the future is finding those individuals who will be competent (and remain competent) to join the professional ranks. The idea of remaining competent throughout one’s career is something many understand and support as is evidenced through attendance at conferences, webinars, professional development activities, and volunteer experiences with ACUI or other associations.

Many of us may identify more as a “scholar-practitioner” whether formally or informally in attempt to better understand and serve the student and professional populations. In this article, the personalized experiences of individuals who have at times been students, practitioners, or faculty are highlighted to demonstrate further the complex roles that exist within this field. Additionally, recommendations are provided for the college union field and for graduate programs to form more intentional and effective alliances and connections between theory and practice.



From practice to faculty and back

The path I have taken toward a faculty career may not have been a “traditional” one, but the journey has been such an important process that I cannot imagine any other road. During the years when I worked full time and went to graduate school, I felt like I had dual roles. My night job was my graduate program where I was being socialized to be a researcher. In my day job, I was immersed into the unpredictable, challenging (and exciting) world of college union administration and programming. My drive for writing this article stems partially from the disconnect that occurred for me many days and nights. Getting involved with ACUI’s Education Councils during those years helped show me the bigger picture. I learned how we can be intentional in creating learning outcomes for our student leaders and employees. I understood the importance of considering environmental theory before we construct or renovate unions and spaces. I realized how to employ theoretical development concepts in helping student leaders learn and problem solve. connect1112008

Fast forward from those experiences and graduation to this semester, and I am on the other side of the classroom teaching student affairs administration. As soon as I was given this course to teach, I knew what my most important objective was: Bridge theory and practice. I carefully selected theoretical readings to be complimented by applied or practical research articles. I invited guest speakers who are practitioners in the field. We have a class pizza social planned for students to network with the whole student affairs division. We have diversity training. We are studying the ACUI core competencies to compliment our readings in “Student Services: A Handbook for the Profession.” Yet, I ask myself: Is this enough? I step back and look holistically at the learning experience, and I realize, it’s not. Faculty and practitioners can do more; we can:

  • Purposefully recruit and connect. ACUI recognized the need to increase recruitment into the field when it created the Growing the Profession Task Force. Practitioners and faculty alike can do their part to intentionally recruit and recommend undergraduate student leaders and volunteers to pursue a graduate degree related to student affairs and thereby an assistantship in college unions. The most effective recruitment strategies are: (1) Personal contact, (2) Program-specific publications, and (3) Promise and commitment of financial assistance, explains Christine E. Phelps Tobin in “The State of the Art of Preparation and Practice in Student Affairs.” With this in mind, practitioners and faculty can provide students with information about the field, graduate programs, and career options.
  • Reach out. Faculty need to do a better job of educating the non-student affairs fields about the important role that student affairs and college unions play on college campuses. One of Tobin’s suggestions is to contact the career center or co-present a session with a practitioner about the college union as a career choice. Once campus leaders become advocates for student affairs, then financial assistance can be addressed by budgeting for more graduate assistantships to increase the number of students exposed to the field.
  • Create a network. Faculty-practitioner partnerships are critical to the future of the field, and there are numerous ways to forge these relationships. For example, create a network of current college union professionals who have graduated from a higher education program and can help champion the degree as a route to advancement in the field. In “The State of the Art of Preparation and Practice in Student Affairs,” Susan Komives suggests practitioners not only recommend their alma mater but stay connected to the program after graduation to serve as a role model or mentor.
  • Address content and curriculum. Faculty can use current real case studies from practitioners in class that allow students to identify theories and how they come into play. Practitioners can help facilitate these opportunities by teaching a course in the student affairs program or at the undergraduate level, being a guest speaker for a class, offering a brown-bag lunch for the graduate assistants, working one-on-one with someone as a supervisor, or writing an article to be shared with the larger union and activities community.
  • Formalize practitioner-facultyrelationships. Faculty and practitioners need to formalize relationships and partnerships because both are in a field that is constantly changing and responding to new forces and dynamics. With the help of practitioners, faculty can stay better informed of the current trends seen in the student population. Practitioners can be guest speakers in classes or provide tours of their space within the college union. Komives recommends that faculty get to know assistantship and internship supervisors because “informed supervisors can become true partners to help the student have a good experience.”
  • Volunteer and stay current. One of the best ways to stay current in trends is to volunteer for ACUI at the regional or international level. From the perspective of a graduate student or newer professional, this provides an opportunity to network and learn from more seasoned professionals. Conversely, mid- and senior-level practitioners can be proactive in seizing opportunities to have discussions on connecting theory to practice when volunteering with students and new professionals.
  • Research to inform practice. Practitioners can connect with faculty and form partnerships for conducting practice-based research. This joint venture would benefit all involved. It would help the faculty member conduct new research and publish articles and provide practitioners the opportunity to inform or create policy and help practice.



Back to school

The path of my doctoral graduate work is fairly typical. I sought my master’s degree straight out of my undergraduate schooling. Through my assistantship at the University of Arizona, I was thrilled to be able to work with a renovation and construction project that drew on the education I received as an undergraduate studying civil engineering. Therefore, it is no surprise that I spent many nights at work trying to gain the professional skills that would help me in the long run. This practical experience relates to Mark Kretovics’s research [pdf] published in the Journal of College Student Development in 2002. Kretovics found that the assistantship experience was the only criterion that ranked higher than a master’s degree in college student personnel in the decision-making process for hiring new entry-level staff.

connect2112008However, I often wondered how to connect the theory I was learning in my student affairs classes to my work environment, which required the practical skills of supervision, advising, management, and negotiating the political landscape. During this time, I was learning these on-the-job skills from a practical standpoint, not one grounded in theory.

I found myself seeking more out-of-class experiences to learn these practical skills but struggled to connect them to theory. This is not a unique dilemma; in the ASHE Reader on College Student Affairs Administration, Amey describes various areas in which new professionals do not have the adequate skill level expected. These areas include management theory, assessment skills, and the overall ability to apply theory in daily work. An additional area in which Amey says new professionals need growth is the exact situation I was trying to decipher: how political processes work and how change occurs.

After graduating with my master’s degree, I decided to take a few years to immerse myself in the profession as a full-time practitioner before I jumped into my doctoral degree. I wanted to be able to connect the coursework I’d learned to the professional competencies expected of me. I realize now that this desire and dilemma is not unusual; in their 1998 book, “The Bases of Competence: Skills for Lifelong Learning and Employability,” Frederick T. Evers, James C. Rush, and Iris Berdrow state that the success of new professionals depends on the difference between what was learned in the classroom and what the employer expects.

It was through professional development experiences, writing for The Bulletin, and discussing various issues with upper-level administrators and doctoral students that I decided to go back to get my Ph.D. Having now started my curriculum, I do not want to make the same mistakes I made during my master’s degree coursework. I am trying to make the most of my in-class experiences to tie the teachings, readings, and theories to my “day job.” Here are just some of the potential ways in which one can link theory to practice:

  • Explore workplace issues. By using class assignments to explore issues related to workplace skills (assessment, advising, budgeting, etc.), graduate students can help professors stay in touch with current on-the-job issues. Additionally, assignments enable faculty to gather feedback on how to connect student affairs theory to practitioner expertise.
  • Delve into identities. Coursework is an excellent opportunity to explore identities other than one’s own personal identities. The book “Multicultural Competence in Student Affairs” outlines another area in which new professionals lack adequate skills (one that is currently a hot topic on many campuses): how to work in a diverse and multicultural environment and to be sure that multiculturalism is incorporated into all aspects of student affairs.
  • Taking classes that focus on a specific area. For example, at North Carolina State University, the director of student affairs planning, research, assessment, and retention teaches a class that walks through the process of writing outcomes and objectives that fit with a department’s mission. She also shows students how to develop assessment tools based on those objectives and use those tools in decision-making. Practitioners and graduate students enrolled in the class could use its teachings to illustrate accountability measures to stakeholders.
  • Read, read, read. Students and practitioners can talk to professors about additional readings that may or may not be assigned/recommended. Among these added texts might be information about big-picture issues (such as financing, retention, etc.) in an attempt to become informed on how larger institution policies and practices impact individual units and departments. Additionally, The Chronicle of Higher EducationThe BulletinInsideHigherEd.com, and other publications are great sources of information to stay on top of current issues affecting higher education.
  • Teach others. Practitioners can lend expertise by presenting a brown-bag session or class lecture on ACUI and college unions. This could be a session proposal already submitted or it could be a topic from which peers and colleagues could benefit. Many practitioners have a specific area of expertise and often learning about an application of a theory is all it takes to make a connection.
  • Take time as a doctoral student to mentor master’s students. Most student affairs graduate programs have classes with students from both levels, master’s and doctorate. This provides unique opportunities for group work and collaboration. (On a personal note, my coauthor was my supervisor while she was getting her doctorate and I was getting my master’s degree. This provided for many conversations surrounding the concepts of class and how they played out in the workplace. I now have this same opportunity with my graduate assistants.)
  • Converse with the faculty. Just as staff might take the time to catch up and learn from colleagues over coffee, ice cream, or lunch, take the time to talk with faculty about their interests and the current issues of the day. Both practitioners and faculty read The Chronicle of Higher Education (see “Read, read, read”) and other sources of news in the field, so that is just one thing we have in common; find others.

Final thoughtsconnect3112008

No matter where you fall in the student-practitiner-faculty continuum, these recommendations provide a starting point of how to connect theory to practice. While these lists are by no means exhaustive, they might spark other ways in which partnerships can be created and developed in an effort to build a stronger profession and association membership. Additionally, there is not an implicit need to have a student affairs program to incorporate these concepts. There might be other academic departments on campus with which to collaborate. The business school might make sense for assistantship positions or training related to auxiliaries, management, marketing, human resources, and budgeting. Science or engineering faculty could assist with building and maintenance issues. Fine arts professors could offer suggestions on historical preservation techniques and decor or provide student interns to create brand identities, signage, and gallery artwork. The possibilities are endless.