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Exploring How Professional Associations Socialize Student Affairs Graduate Students and New Professionals

Supporting the Profession New Professionals and Graduate Students Graduate New Professional
January 21, 2020 Mark Wade Michael Thompkins

The following is an excerpt from “Exploring How Professional Associations Socialize Student Affairs Graduate Students and New Professionals” originally published in volume 56, issue 5 of the Journal of Student Affairs Research and Practice.

This qualitative study examines how professional associations in student affairs socialize graduate students and new professionals. Utilizing data from semi-structured interviews with 15 individuals who identify within this demographic, this article reveals how associations encourage new professionals and graduate students to get involved, build relationships in the field, and become lifelong learners. Findings from this study will be of particular interest to faculty members and supervisors working with graduate students and new professionals. 

Representing the future of student affairs, new professionals and graduate students have received considerable attention from graduate preparation programs, professional associations, and researchers alike. Notably, scholars highlighted the influential nature of the period when student affairs administrators first begin to develop their professional values and their philosophy on how to work with students (Magolda & Carnaghi, 2014; Perez, 2016a, 2016b; Renn & Jessup-Anger, 2008). As practitioners start their careers, they also learn the norms of the student affairs profession and the skills needed to be successful, a process known as socialization (Tull, Hirt, & Saunders, 2009). To understand how new professionals and graduate students are socialized, studies examined the role that work settings (Hirschy, Wilson, Liddell, Boyle, & Pasquesi, 2015; Strayhorn, 2009) and graduate programs (Liddell, Wilson, Pasquesi, Hirschy, & Boyle, 2014) play. Socialization research is vital due to literature that reveals high practitioner attrition rates in student affairs, especially within the first five years (Marshall, Gardner, Hughes, & Lowery, 2016). Explaining this trend, Marshall et al. (2016) noted that individuals may choose to leave the field if they do not comprehend the expectations required of them. 

In addition to work settings and graduate programs, professional associations represent a venue in which practitioners learn about working in student affairs, and in turn, these associations may contribute to the retention of student affairs administrators. In fact, Frank (2013) postulated that some professionals depart from the field when they lack a connection to associations. Yet, only a few studies have investigated professional associations specifically and their impact on practitioners (Haley, Jaeger, Hawes, & Johnson, 2015; Janosik, 2009; Janosik, Carpenter, & Creamer, 2006). Thus, it is necessary to understand how professional associations assist early-career professionals with navigating and connecting to the field. 

This qualitative study explored the socialization influences of professional associations on student affairs graduate students and new professionals. Utilizing data from semi-structured interviews with 15 individuals, we examined the messages practitioners received from associations about being a successful professional. The research questions for this study were: 

  1. How do professional associations socialize graduate students and new professionals to the student affairs field? 
  2. What are the messages graduate students and new professionals receive about student affairs through professional associations? 

This research will be of interest to faculty and supervisors who work with early-career professionals since it demystifies the role that professional associations play in this formative time of a practitioner’s career. Professional associations themselves will also benefit from the findings as they seek to better serve new professionals and graduate students. 

The Use of Professional Associations in This Study 

To set the foundation for this research, we articulate what we mean by professional associations. Evans and Ranero (2009) described student affairs associations as groups comprised of professionals who “share common interests and goals” (p. 206), originally developed to “provide support, professional development, and a voice for individuals in ... student affairs” (p. 207). Associations provide services to members such as conferences, educational webinars, and resource depositories. Of note, Evans and Ranero (2009) distinguished between generalist and specialty associations. Whereas generalist associations like ACPA (American College Personnel Association) and NASPA (Student Affairs Professionals in Higher Education) serve the broad needs of the profession, specialty associations like NACADA (National Academic Advising Association) focus on the “subdivisions of student affairs,” including functional areas or constituent groups (Evans & Ranero, 2009, p. 213). This study sought to understand the socialization of graduate students and new professionals in professional associations broadly (generalist and specialty). 

Socialization in the Field of Student Affairs 

Several authors discussed socialization as the way individuals make meaning and understand the rules and roles of an association, group, or profession (Perez, 2016a, 2016b; Tull et al., 2009). Weidman, Twale, and Stein (2001) defined socialization as “the processes through which individuals gain the knowledge, skills, and values necessary for successful entry into a professional career requiring the advanced level of specialized knowledge and skills” (p. iii). For the purpose of this research, we acknowledge that socialization can describe a process and the content people learn from the process. 

First, socialization as a process occurs through participation in experiences such as graduate study and professional association membership. Student affairs professionals are socialized in various ways through their graduate programs (Hirschy et al., 2015; Liddell et al., 2014; Lombardi & Mather, 2016; Perez, 2016a, 2016b). For example, graduate coursework and fieldwork experiences assist students with gaining confidence in their professional roles (Lombardi & Mather, 2016) and allows them to better understand the common standards of the field (Liddell et al., 2014), such as the ACPA/NASPA (2015) professional competencies. 

Professional associations also serve as a main source of socialization for student affairs administrators (Haley et al., 2015; Janosik, 2009; Janosik et al., 2006). For example, graduate students and new professionals often mention conference attendance when asked about professional development opportunities (Haley et al., 2015; Janosik, 2009). These associations provide formal ways for practitioners to develop skills, dispositions, and proficiencies necessary for student affairs. In examining the literature both within student affairs and in other related fields, professional associations facilitated mentoring relationships (Zabel, 2008), created spaces to share scholarship and research (Henderson, 2012), and assisted with overall professional development (Haley et al., 2015). Ultimately, these experiences can assist new professionals and graduate students in cultivating their professional identity (Liddell et al., 2014). 

Extant scholarship also examined the content gained through socialization experiences, noting what practitioners learn about being a student affairs professional. Understanding the importance of networking is one socialization message that graduate students and new professionals receive (Tull et al., 2009). Networking, making important connections, and establishing relationships are important factors that then result in increased self-assurance of their abilities (Dinise-Halter, 2017), mentorship (Dinise-Halter, 2017; Renn & Jessup-Anger, 2008), and a higher likelihood for professional development planning (Haley et al., 2015). The need to engage in lifelong learning is another key socialization message that emerged in extant scholarship (Herdlein, 2004; Renn & Jessup-Anger, 2008). As new professionals enter the field of student affairs, many are taught to approach their new journey with a learning orientation (Renn & Jessup-Anger, 2008), in which they show their eagerness to learn and grow within the field. With this knowledge in mind, this study explored how graduate students and new professionals possibly acquired similar or other socialization messages through their professional association involvement. 

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