Posted June 23, 2016 by Daniel Maxwell 

I Challenge You to Become a Scholar-Practitioner

As I reflect on my doctoral journey, the last eight-and-a-half years have been both very frustrating and rewarding. I always knew earning my terminal degree would be part of my education narrative; I just was not certain on when it would take place.

After completing my master’s program, I was eager to begin my professional career. Before I knew it, I had arrived at my fourth institution, progressed from a residence hall director at my alma mater to a campus center director, and served as the Association president for two terms, 2004-06. Where did those 15 years go? There were many lessons learned along the way, and the biggest one was yet to come.

As a practitioner, my experiences in residence life, fraternity and sorority life, student activities, and student unions provided me with many opportunities to advise student leaders and supervise student employees, graduate assistants, and both clerical and programming staff. I learned the art of supervision required me to understand both university policies and the complexities that come with staff members at various levels of their own professional development. You can’t treat everyone the same, but you must have clear and consistent expectations for everyone.

As my portfolio expanded over the years, it was critical for me to develop a working knowledge of each program and unit I was ultimately responsible for in my role. I could not be an expert in every area, but I needed to know best practices and trust my team members to do the right thing. Lessons learned over this period in my career include:

  • Face-to-face communication is always the most effective.
  • Don’t allow yourself to get in an email argument with back and forth messages.
  • Work-life balance is not defined by the hours of the day, but by what you do with your time on and off the work-clock.
  • Hold yourself accountable and be willing to do the same for your peers and team members.
  • You can always learn something if you accept you don’t know it all.
  • The art of listening is underrated.
  • Don’t create the drama, be the solution architect.
  • It’s okay to ask for help.
  • Ethical behavior keeps you true to yourself and our profession.

ACUI Core Competencies: Communication, Facilities Management, Fiscal Management, Human Resource Development, Intercultural Proficiency, Leadership, Management, Marketing, Planning, Student Learning, TechnologyThe ACUI Core Competencies are more than a list of skills to master. Although the Core Competencies did not exist early on in my career, I had many role models showing me how to be successful in our profession and in my work. The Core Competencies provide context for the work we do in student activities and college unions. In reflecting on the Core Competencies, I recognize that each competency requires professionals to explore its depth as its role on campus evolves. Regardless of one’s year of service, a professional can always evolve their skills with new opportunities and challenges in their role on campus and as a volunteer for a professional association.

As a student activities director and then as a campus center director, I had many transferable skills that served me well. I also came to realize that the competencies I developed in one role would need to be further advanced each time I changed jobs or institutions. Regardless of the change in role or institution, I learned the importance in having confidence in what I knew and respecting what was needed to be learned if I was to be successful.

In 2007, I took my first graduate level course since completing my master’s degree. I had been out of the classroom room for a long time. I had self-doubt, which I think is typical when starting a doctoral program, but was resilient in my aspirations to earn my terminal degree. By this time in my career, I was a confident writer when it came to reports, memorandums, performance evaluations, and project summaries. I accumulated knowledge from working at a variety of institutions and with many different student populations. I had experienced crises at the campus and national levels, managed student protests and developing policies, and had been involved in creating a department from scratch. Yet, I had not drilled into a student development theory or explored research articles in almost two decades.

As my course work progressed, I began to understand the need to become a scholar and a practitioner. The two concepts were not mutually exclusive, and I could not continue being one or the other. Each course experience brought new knowledge, updated concepts, and the challenge of engaging in research and writing. Although I learned you cannot write the perfect paper in the first draft, I struggled with and then accepted the benefits of having others read my academic work. The peer review of my writing made me feel vulnerable, but with each engagement I grew to appreciate how I was evolving in my own writing and critical thinking. I began to look at my day-to-day work differently, think more like an inquisitive scholar, and ground my decisions in scholarship, best practices, and my learned experiences as a student affairs professional.

I am a better practitioner due to my willingness to engage in the scholarship that grounds our profession. Learning and practicing student development theory does not and should not end with our hard-earned master’s degrees.

Living the life of a scholar-practitioner is a conscious decision and requires each of us to be active in our ongoing learning. Although you may not decide to pursue a doctorate, you can read recent dissertations by your ACUI colleagues, the thought-provoking articles in The Bulletin, or find one article per month from the higher education journals of ACUI’s sister associations. In addition, you can support research initiatives by your graduate assistants, partner with faculty on your campus, and explore ways to ground your decisions, policies, and practices in student development theory.

I challenge you to become a scholar-practitioner and model the way for your students and future student affairs professionals who want to make a difference just as you have throughout your career.

Daniel Maxwell

Daniel Maxwell is the Associate Vice President for Student Affairs at University of Houston.

Dan provides administrative oversight to career services, a student persistence program, strategic planning and assessment, marketing and communication, academic and faculty collaborations, advancement, emergency management, student housing Initiatives, and division-wide committees at the University of Houston. Dan served as ACUI president for two terms, 2004-06, and the chair of the education research fund for three years. He is currently active on the research program team.


This is a great post Dan! Thanks for sharing.:)
Jeff Rensel
Comment posted 06/24/2016 3:55 PM
Well said, Dan! Thank you for the reminder, and for being such a great role model for your colleagues and your students.
Comment posted 06/27/2016 8:46 AM
Note: To post a comment to The Commons, you must login to the ACUI website.
about the commons
The Commons is the online hub to discover new ideas and learn what is going on in the college union and student activities profession.
more ...
about the contributors

Meet the ACUI members who have volunteered to share their knowledge and insights as regular authors in The Commons.

more ...