5 Ways to Explain Student Affairs

Student Affairs is a term thrown around on campuses as often as a collegiate football. But, what really does the term mean? Is it something you can grasp onto and have a set definition for? Or is that just an idyllic dream?

When talking to students about their perspectives of university administrators and professionals, it is important to think about the other pieces of the higher education puzzle. Students who are engaged, involved and aware of their campus surroundings often have a very different perspective of university presidents than those who do not. A student who is involved understands the role of the president and how that pertains to them. A student who may not be as involved could be unaware of the resources provided to them. Professionals who work with students and often are able to help give students opportunities to be involved work in Student Affairs. Yet, students may not be aware that this is a career path and a resource for them on campus.

1. Student Affairs is a profession

There are people who choose to go into student affairs as their job. These professionals typically have master’s degrees. They have a wealth of experiences and were most likely very involved when they went to college. There are academic programs dedicated to student affairs. It is not just some term that is mentioned offhandedly with no real purpose. People dedicate their lives to student affairs. These professionals can serve in numerous roles on-campus and work with students in a variety of different ways.

Here are some common areas of student affairs (title depends on campus):

  • Dining Departments
  • Residence Services Departments
  • Academic Advising Offices
  • Student Involvement Offices
  • Student Conduct Offices
  • Enrollment Management and Student Affairs Departments
  • Academic Success Offices
  • Cultural Offices
  • GSM (Gender and Sexual Minorities) Offices
  • Orientation Departments
  • And many other departments and offices

2. Student Affairs does not describe professors

While professors may seek to support students as they complete their journey at college, professors are not specifically student affairs professionals. While professors, Provosts and academic departments handle the intellectual side of a student’s education, student affairs professionals seek to support each student’s personal growth, development and experience on campus. They two sides are not independent of each other, and there is overlap.

Think of the academic side and the student affairs side as two different colors that are merging to make a new color. Red can be the academic side and blue can be the student affairs side. Both colors merge to create the color purple, which can reflect the student experience.

The student experience is related to how students view their institution as alumni and how they perceive the administrators. If a student had the chance to meet a high-level professional at the university they may have a different view of their role and how it relates to the student. This may be different for a student who never had the chance to meet with an administrator and any option a student has is from secondary sources, like the campus newspaper.

3. Student Affairs professionals are here to help students

Student affairs professionals make it their job to be a resource and support system for students. These people are here to answer questions. They want to help students succeed and they work to provide resources, like financial aid planning guides, to give students tools for success.

Student affairs professionals may go into programs to train with a background in administration or counseling. There are other classifications, but these are the most common. Here are two examples of different program descriptions from the University of Buffalo and Northwestern University.

There are a lot of opportunity for students interest in working in higher education to go into student affairs. There are also a lot of resources that explain the programs for students who are not sure about where they fit into the puzzle.

4. Student Affairs is as part of the campus culture

Much like sports can influence a campus identity, the quality of the student affairs professionals and the resources provided to students can positively, negatively and neutrally impact a campus culture. The puzzle of a successful higher education experience depends on all the different parts of the campus identity, such as understanding student differences, challenges, experiences and how to support their growth and success.

5. Student Affairs is part of Higher Education

There is no sign by an office door that reads “Student Affairs Only.” Instead, everything is intertwined. Academic professionals and student affairs professionals work collaboratively to support student success. Student perspectives and experiences are influenced by all the professionals they encounter on campus and that makes the student experience.

Student affairs is not something that is a simple term we can briefly describe. There are many factors that influence how someone defines student affairs. In essence, professionals in student affairs deal with the non-classroom side of the student experience, yet work with the academic side to serve students. What do you think? What role do you think student experience plays in student perceptions of university presidents and administrators?

Some additional resources:

Here is a video about different careers in Higher Education from the University of Chicago.


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