Moving From Serendipity to Intentionality in Student Learning

NOTE: This was originally posted to ACPA Developments Volume 13, Summer 2015 Issue (June 2015)

Please visit ACPA Video On Demand where I discuss this concept in a video interview.

On a Friday night in late April in 1987, during the spring of my sophomore year, I was attending a movie with friends in Brody Hall at Michigan State University. Back then, the Residence Hall Association screened movies in select lecture halls across campus. We didn’t have Netflix back then. We didn’t even have cable.

After the movie an event happened that changed my life forever.

On my way out of the lecture hall I ran into a friend of mine, Stacy Huffman, from my hometown of Saginaw, MI, who had also attending the movie. As friends who hadn’t seen each other in a while (it was a 21 acre campus of 30,000+ students), we caught each other up on our lives. As the semester was nearing an end, we discussed our summer plans in Saginaw. Stacy said that she was going to be staying on campus working for the Academic Orientation Program. She continued that they were looking for one more male orientation leader and encouraged me to apply. The interviews were the next day and there was an opening at 8am.

Wiping sleep from my eyes I got early, ate my Wheaties, and headed to the interview. A few days later I was notified that I had been selected as an orientation leader. Serendipity opened the door to my first student affairs job and my career – although I didn’t comprehend it at the time.

Fast forward to June of 1993. Frustration and anxiety was setting in because I had recently graduated with my master’s degree from MSU and, unlike my classmates, was still job searching. And searching. And searching. There had been a few phone interviews and even a couple of campus interviews, but nothing panned out. Self-doubt became all-consuming as I wondered why no one wanted to hire me despite what I thought were excellent grades and extensive experience.

When hope was waning, serendipity struck again.

I received a call from the Department of Residence Life at the University of New Hampshire for an on-campus interview. A hall director job at UNH was my “perfect” job from the start of my search. Unfortunately for me, a few weeks before, shortly after the phone interview, I was told that they had hired other individuals for their open spaces. However, a residence hall director had decided to leave UNH in June, opening up a position. I jumped at the chance for a campus interview. Two months later I was packing up a U-Haul to make the trip Durham, New Hampshire for my “perfect” job. This position created the foundation of who I am as an educator today. Plus, UNH was where I met my current partner. Call it destiny. Call it kismet. Or maybe it was just chance. But, it this result was certainly not intentional.

The orientation leader position began my career in student affairs but working for the Department of Residence Life at the University of New Hampshire changed how I approached my job. While I learned many things during my six years in residence life, one word has stuck with me and was the concept that compelled me into assessment work. That word is “intentionality.” During numerous staff and supervision meetings hall directors discussed how we were being intentional in our outreach to students and in our programming. Intentionality became a mantra for my work then and the driving force for the assessment work I have been undertaking the past 15 years.

Synonyms for serendipity include chance and accident while synonyms for intentional include designed, deliberate, and planned. While not antonyms of one another the concepts of serendipity and intentional are opposed to each other. I think serendipity vs. intentionality is a tension we continue to struggle with today in regard to learning in higher education. All too often we assume or think that learning is happening outside of the classroom and we aren’t doing as much as we can to intentionally foster it. We can no longer rely on serendipity to ensure student learning and success.

External demands for accountability are increasing the need for intentionality. The completion agenda dominates the national discourse of higher education. Students, parents, and legislatures are questioning the return on investment of a college education and want to known what students are learning after paying exorbitant amounts of money. College administrators are questioning the value of student affairs in an era of service provision where students are customers and clients. During a program session with college presidents at ACPA15, when asked what the priority should be for student affairs, all panelists stated that college student educators need to be able to demonstrate how they and their work positively contributes to student learning and retention. The completion agenda at the federal and state level is a major thrust behind the current accountability movement in higher education. This emphasis on retention is not simply because of the individual benefits for students who graduate but because of the financial impact of tuition revenue and state appropriations for colleges and universities.

More important than external calls for accountability are the internal calls for accountability that originate from inside each one of us as college student educators. We chose this profession for our careers because of the want and need to positively impact lives of college students. Thus, we strive to do the best job we can to assist students. As a field, we need to make intentionality an interwoven thread in the fabric of everyday practice to ensure student success, both academically and personally.

Intentionally isn’t rocket science. It can be explained in a four-step process outlined by Linda Suskie (2009). The first step is to begin with what you want students to achieve (aka outcomes which an be learning, operational, or program). Once outcomes are identified, existing literature and other evidence are used to identify strategies to foster those outcomes in step 2. Step 3 is to collect and analyze data to determine if the outcomes are achieved and how outcome achievement can be improved. The final step is the most important – closing the loop by making improvements. Intentionally is a process, not a destination.

Suskie Cycle

Figure 1. Assessment cycle by Suskie, L. (2009). Assessing student learning: A common sense guide (2nd Ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

How Can ACPA Help You Be More Intentional
ACPA’s focus is student learning. As stated in our mission “ACPA supports and fosters college student learning through the generation and dissemination of knowledge, which informs policies, practices and programs for student affairs professionals and the higher education community” (ACPA, 2015). There are many ways ACPA can help you foster student learning, development, and success.

Individuals can leverage ACPA to help foster and support student learning by accessing the scholarship that is generated through various outlets. ACPA’s signature publication is the Journal of College Student Development. There are articles in each issue pertinent to faculty and practitioners alike. Previous issues include scholarship regarding experiences of Asian American and Latino/a students at an HBCU, the academic performance of Black emerging adults, a method to increase the grade point averages of fraternity members, and others.

About Campus is a scholarly publication directed towards practitioners. This bi-monthly magazine provides insights to improve practice in higher education. Past issues include articles addressing positive psychology, long-term success in work and life, as well as high impact practices.

In addition to these publications, and Developments which you are reading now, ACPA also sponsors books and monographs. This past year ACPA published Job One 2.0: Understanding the Next Generation of Student Affairs Professionals which focuses on the first jobs of college student educators as well as Working With Students in Community Colleges: Contemporary Strategies for Bridging Theory, Research, and Practice which provides approaches to help community college students be successful. Additional publications can be found here. ACPA books and monographs coupled with our other publications provide faculty and practitioners a library of research and scholarship to inform further research and practice.

Another major way that ACPA supports student learning, development, and success is helping college student educators across the spectrum of higher education bridge theory to practice. Some of this work is done through our acclaimed professional development events. Most of our activities are driven by curricula rooted in research. Upcoming events include

You can find additional professional development events here.

Theory to practice is also addressed in other venues including ACPA On Demand and Student Affairs Live, sponsored by ACPA. ACPA On Demand is collection of pre-recorded videos covering a variety of topics relevant to college student educators. Student Affairs Live is a weekly talk show viewed via GoogleHangouts covering critical emergent issues in higher education. Recorded versions of the shows are available the Student Affairs Live website and podcasts are available in iTunes.

As college student educators, we need to be much more intentional in how we cultivate student learning and development. While learning may happen by serendipity, we can’t rely on that. Our students – our future – are too important to rely on chance. ACPA is your go-to source for research, scholarship, and proven practices for fostering student success. Tap into the resources now!

References
ACPA (2015). Mission, vision, and values. Retrieved on April 8, 2015 from http://www.myacpa.org/values

Suskie, L. (2009). Assessing student learning: A common sense guide (2nd Ed). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

About Gavin Henning

Gavin is a college student educator with a reputation as an organizer, collaborator, and catalyst for educational change. His professional mission is to generate applied scholarship, bridge theory to practice, create systems and processes, and edify higher education professionals to foster college student learning, development, and success. Gavin has advanced this mission during his 20+ years in higher education in positions including professor, assessment practitioner, and student affairs educator. In his current position as Master of Higher Education Administration and Doctorate of Education Program Director at New England College, Gavin helps prepare the next generation of professionals to improve educational organizations. As president of ACPA – College Student Educators International he leads the premiere higher education association centered on fostering college student learning and development. As founder of Student Affairs Assessment Leaders (SAAL) and member of the executive committee of the Council for the Advancement of Standards in Higher Education (CAS) Gavin helps further a national agenda of accountability and continuous improvement of higher education programs and services. Gavin has been recognized by for his contributions to student affairs and higher education by receiving ACPA’s Annuit Coeptis award and Diamond Honoree awards. Gavin holds a Doctor of Philosophy degree in Education Leadership and Policy Studies and a Master of Arts degree in Sociology both from the University of New Hampshire as well as a Master of Arts degree in College and University Administration and a Bachelor of Science degree in Psychology and Sociology from Michigan State University. In his free time Gavin enjoys reading, biking, kayaking, and losing to Facebook Friends in Scrabble.
This entry was posted in Assessment, Higher Education, Student Affairs, Student Learning. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Moving From Serendipity to Intentionality in Student Learning

  1. Pingback: It’s a Grad School Life: A Chat with ACPA President Gavin Henning | Shane Young

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