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New Year, New Relationships: Establishing Meaningful Partnerships Between Student Affairs Educators and Faculty Members

February 16, 2021 Michael J. Stebleton Lisa Higashi

JCC Connexions, Vol. 7, No. 1, February 2021

New Spaces & Roles for Student Affairs: An Ongoing Column of JCC Connexions

The year 2020 finally ended. Between the twin pandemics of the Coronavirus and the ongoing fight for social justice, many student affairs practitioners and other higher education professionals enter a new year with cautious optimism and higher expectations for a better year ahead in 2021. We contend that educators should take the time to reflect on the challenges of this past year while also carefully considering new goals and ideas for potential collaboration this next year. Troubling times can lead to a re-evaluation of existing relationships with students and colleagues. Intentional and meaningful collaboration between student affairs professionals and faculty (and other instructional staff) needs to occur and will be beneficial to all involved, including students.

Setting Some Context

The authors of this piece embody such a partnership between student affairs and academic affairs. Currently, Lisa serves as associate director of career and student development at the Beedie School of Business at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, CA. Michael works at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, MN as associate professor and coordinator of the higher education graduate programs. We met at a career development conference in Ottawa, CA ,in early 2020 right before the pandemic struck. Since that time, we have worked virtually on a range of topics related to social justice, career development, and the roles of student affairs professionals. We continue to learn from each other, while also cultivating our own partnerships at our respective campuses. Ultimately, our work coalesces around a common shared goal: working together to better support the needs, interests, and concerns of students.

For some student affairs professionals, this type of collaboration may be new terrain; for others the message is a reminder to extend one’s outreach and potential to establish relationships. Encouraging faculty and instructional staff—many who work in siloed departments—to collaborate with student affairs professionals can be challenging, especially at larger, research institutions. For example, faculty may not fully realize the potential impact of their influence upon students, particularly when coupled with a strategic partnership with a student affairs professional. From a career development perspective, Ho (2017) found that faculty members could serve as career influencers towards supporting students around career decision-making. Due to the pandemic and the resulting remote work environment, this type of proposed partnership will present new obstacles and opportunities.

Why Collaboration? Engagement and Professional Development Matter

Initiating and developing new partnerships takes time, energy, and serendipity. That said, there are advantages to establishing these types of professional relationships. New partnerships can lead to greater engagement and renewed professional development, especially during these challenging times. In a recent Change Magazine article by Kezar and Elrod (2020), the authors noted that professional engagement in higher education contexts continues to be a problem. They cited a Gallup poll that found that higher education had the least engaging workplace of all sectors surveyed out of dozens globally. Perhaps surprisingly, the results indicated that only 34% of faculty and staff were found to be engaged in their work. While the varied reasons for disengagement are beyond the scope of this blog post, these data demonstrate a crucial need to improve engagement.

Encouraging educators to seek out new relationships, generate professional development opportunities, and upgrade skill sets as described in a new book on the future of work by McGowan and Shipley (2020) can lead to greater engagement at work. For example, student affairs educators might explore teaching experiences with faculty members. Similarly, faculty members should reach out to student affairs educators, such as career services, to intentionally infuse career development content into existing curriculum within the classroom (Stebleton et al., 2012). We believe that these relationships should be reciprocal, mutually beneficial, and share power and responsibility; there should be a sustained commitment to the partnership (LePeau, 2015). One such example is Robert Nash’s (2009) work on crossover pedagogy, which  documents a faculty-student affairs effort that focuses on a collaborative search for student meaning and finding purpose in college (Nash & Murray, 2010). The benefits are clear: Greater engagement for both parties around a shared project of interest and value add to students.

The New Amenities: Students Benefit from Collaboration and Relationships

Given the impact of COVID-19, higher education institutions will continue navigating through austere financial constraints, with some institutions closing or drastically reducing services and expenditures. Admissions, enrollment services, and other student affairs units will fight for limited resources including dwindling dollars and students’ attention, especially their sustained focus during this time. It is the responsibility of the institution and its leaders to find ways to engage and support students, many who are navigating these challenges (e.g., mental health, remote education, rising tuition). In the past, college campus amenities focused on the physical structures or symbols of engagement, such as climbing walls, luxurious fitness centers and student unions, and stadiums, which drew many students to campus. In the future, we predict that the new amenities will focus more on learning impact, mainly on innovative programs and initiatives that engage and capture students’ attention through multidisciplinary, multi-modal learning contexts (Lang, 2020).

Prospective students (and their families) will likely place a greater emphasis on these types of intensive, more personalized learning opportunities; it will become more important during the decision-making process for deciding on where to enroll—and where to stay. Students will want these programs to be highly individualized and student-centered. Moreover, students want the chance to get to know student affairs educators and faculty members. From this perspective, student-educator interactions and relationship building with faculty and student affairs educators will take on an elevated priority.

Relationship-Rich Education

In a 2020 conference presentation, scholar Peter Felten (Elon University) stated that students want to feel relentlessly welcomed on campus. Students seek out a strong sense of belonging and connection--and this desire will be heightened post-pandemic. In a newly released book, Relationship-Rich Education, Felten and Lambert (2020) discussed how student-faculty relationships need to assume greater prominence; these connections drive student persistence and success. The authors argued that students do not necessarily expect educators (i.e., academic advisors, faculty) to solve all their problems; mainly they just want advisors to see them as humans. The institutions that create opportunities for students to develop these personal relationships and inspire student learning will flourish.

Additionally, sustainable institutions will create a plethora of learning opportunities for all students, not just a select few. New learning situations, with an emphasis on experiential learning and support, should be designed with multiple objectives: to nudge students to develop a web of relationships; to ask big questions; and to allow students to grapple with purpose and meaning as they make sense of an uncertain world (Parks, 2011; Stebleton, 2019). Now is the ideal time for student affairs educators and faculty to step up to meet these demands, to collectively generate new and innovative learning experiences that are grounded in the principles of relationship-rich education.

Two Examples for Student Affairs Collaboration with Faculty

We share two models of ways that student affairs and faculty can collaborate to support students. The first example comes from career services and their intentional work with business faculty at Simon Fraser University. The second example stems from the first year experience at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities.

Collaboration between faculty and staff at the career management centre (CMC) at the Beedie School of Business (Simon Fraser University) exists in multiple curricular and co-curricular spaces. Most directly, the school embeds career education for all 3,800 students within the bachelor of business administration (BBA) program. In the first year, students take part in the co-curricular Business Career Passport program to prepare for related paid-internships, co-operative education, part-time work, or volunteer opportunities. Mid-way into the program, the instructors of the Introduction to Marketing course incorporate an understanding and application of marketing concepts to personal branding principles and networking into the curriculum. Industry professionals from various sectors are invited to class to allow them to practice their networking skills. The teamwork between faculty members and the CMC has allowed large-scale career education to support students who are entering the uncertain job market.

The first year student experience program at the College of Education and Human Development at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities serves as an example of collaboration between student affairs educators (e.g., academic advisors, career counselors) and faculty. A more thorough overview of this program can be found elsewhere (Stebleton & Jehangir, 2016). The program embeds the input and efforts from both student affairs staff and faculty members who deliver the four-credit course (“The First-Year Inquiry”) to over 500 students each fall. Among the benefits of the program to all students, the curriculum aims to support first-generation and/or low-income students.Student affairs educators have provided valuable feedback to faculty to enrich these experiences for students (e.g., common book discussions). In recent years, advisors have led their own sections of the course.

Strategies on How to Build a Collaborative Partnership

Faculty and student affairs professionals are often members of subcultures in which culture clashes can pose challenges for collaboration. There are several practical steps and strategies that collaborators can consider and move towards when exploring potential collaborations.

Select a Collaborator

There may be times when educators are asked to collaborate; however, many working relationships can come about through proactively choosing a collaborator. When embarking on a collaborative relationship, the authors encourage faculty and staff to consider Adam Grant’s framework on how to pick a professional soulmate as it encompasses four aspects to consider for an effective partnership. Grant recommends finding someone who has different skills, has similar values, is reliable, and is enjoyable to be around. Juggling multiple priorities means that discussing common interests and optimizing  time together will be important.

Fill a Void to Support Student Development

When considering a holistic approach to student development, there are endless possibilities in which faculty and student affairs professionals can work together to support students in the curricular, co-curricular, and extra-curricular spaces that align with institutional goals. What opportunities might exist to build inclusive and safe spaces? How can educators build a supportive community that prioritizes a healthy campus? How might they work together to create experiential and career development initiatives inside or outside of the classroom? What are various ways to increase awareness of student services by promoting and encouraging students to utilize support systems in place? Lastly, can faculty and staff draw on strengths to assess current initiatives to improve the effectiveness of programs, events, and initiatives?

Find Outlets to Share Work

Further collaboration can emerge by way of making presentations on successes and challenges of, and learning about collaboration efforts.In recent years, it has been encouraging to see publications, webinars, and conference presentations being shared on a range of topics. Gaps remain that need to be filled, however. Highlighting these examples can encourage more members of the higher education community to engage in this way and benefit the careers of both partners. Student affairs and higher education journals (e.g., New Directions for Student Services, Journal of Student Affairs Research and Practice, Journal of College and Character, Innovative Higher Education, among others) serve as scholarly venues for work.

Grow and Expand Relationships

Working collaboratively will inevitably deepen the relationship between the faculty and student affairs professional. Such partnerships will benefit students. Leveraging academic affairs and student affairs networks can facilitate further opportunities. A guest speaking engagement in one class can spread to other classes or into new projects through referrals. In addition, many of these initiatives allow for students to build connections with more members of the campus community, facilitating a sense of belonging and connection.

Author Acknowledgement: The authors would like to thank colleague Lisa S. Kaler for her helpful edits to this blog post.


Center for Engaged Learning. (2020, September 18). Four principles of relationship-rich education https://youtu.be/

Felten, P., & Lambert, L. M. (2020). Relationship-rich education: How human connections drive success in college. Johns Hopkins University Press.

Ho, C. (2017). Professionals in post-secondary education: Conceptions of career influence. Canadian Journal of Career Development, 16(2), 58-62.

Kezar, A., & Elrod, S. (2020). Taken for granted: Improving the culture of celebration, appreciation, and recognition in higher education. Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning, 52(5), 29-36. https://doi.org/10.1080/00091383.2020.1807880

Lang, J. M. (2020). Distracted: Why students can't focus and what you can do about it. Basic Books.

LePeau, L. (2015). A grounded theory of academic affairs and student affairs partnerships for diversity and inclusion aims. The Review of Higher Education, 39(1), 97-122. https://doi.org/10.1353/rhe.2015.0044.

McGowan, H. E., & Shipley, C. (2020). The adaptation advantage: Let go, learn fast, and thrive in the future of work. Wiley.

Nash, R. J. (2009). Crossover pedagogy: The collaborative search for meaning. About Campus,14(1), 2–9. https://doi.org/10.1002/abc.277

Nash, R. J., & Murray, M. C. (2010). Helping college students find purpose: The campus guide to meaning-making. Jossey-Bass.

Parks, S. D. (2011). Big questions worthy dreams: Mentoring emerging adults in their search for  meaning, purpose, and faith (2 ed.). Jossey-Bass.

Stebleton, M. J. (2019). Moving beyond passion: Why “do what you love” advice for college students needs reexamination. Journal of College and Character, 20(2), 163-171. https://doi.org/10.1080/2194587X.2019.1591289

Stebleton, M.J., Jehangir, R. (2016). Creating communities of engaged learners: An analysis of a first-year inquiry seminar. Learning Communities Research and Practice, 4(2), Article 5. https://washingtoncenter.evergreen.edu/lcrpjournal/vol4/iss2/5

Stebleton, M.J., Soria, K. M., & Albecker, A. (2012). Integrating strength-based education into a first-year experience curriculum. Journal of College and Character, 13(2). https://doi.org/10.1515/jcc-2012-1877