Student Affairs – New Opportunities for Students as Partners in Global Learning

By Brittney Klein and Kendra Sherman

About the authors

Brittney Klein is studying to receive an M.A. in Higher Education and Student Affairs with a Certificate in International Higher Education from Boston College, and is currently a Graduate Assistant at the Boston College Disability Services Office.  Kendra Sherman is studying to receive an M.A. in Higher Education Administration with a Certificate in International Higher Education from Boston College, and is currently a Graduate Assistant at Boston College's Center for Student Formation.  

Our first encounter with 'Students as Partners'

Every Student Affairs[1] professional enters the world of higher education for a different reason, but we all have a common goal: to support and advocate for the students we work with. Perhaps one of the most effective ways to pursue this goal is by engaging with students as partners to improve practices and implement new programs. We were first introduced to the term ‘students as partners’ by Wendy Green in our Global Perspectives on Student Affairs class at Boston College this past spring. A requirement of this course was to formulate an action research project that addressed a student affairs issue. Though we chose to address different topics, we both chose to engage with students as partners.

Kendra’s Story

I went into my undergraduate degree with a passion for Biology and genetics, believing that I wanted to become a genetic counselor. Over time, I realized that although I loved science, the possible career options did not excite me like my extracurricular activities did. Throughout my undergrad experience I had the opportunity to work closely with students through Residential Life and Campus Ministry.

During the three years I worked in Residential Life, I spoke with many students who struggled with mental health and their adjustment to college life. I found that I had a real passion for supporting those struggling students. This is why I decided to focus my action research project on the mental health of Chinese international students. Research shows that many Chinese international students experience high levels of depression and anxiety due to the stressors they experience when trying to adjust to campus life in a new country, yet they tend to not seek out mental health support (Redfern, 2015). My experience and reading (Menzies et al, 2015) initially led me to focus on the creation of a mentoring program where senior Chinese international students are paired with sophomore Chinese international students, providing them with a personalized support mechanism and coping strategy for cultural adjustment.

I had an almost complete draft of my project done when Wendy joined our class as a guest lecturer and introduced me to the work of students as partners. Up until that point, I had only ever considered research from a scientific-positivist perspective. Working with students as partners in – rather than objects of – an inquiry, in order to co-create, implement, and evaluate the project is an exciting prospect. I now plan to engage Chinese international students as students as partners in the development of the mentoring program.

Brittney’s Story

As a former teacher of both preschool and special education, I was immediately intrigued when I heard about students as partners from Wendy.While I’ve always believed that students can and should be self-advocates, I had been unsure how to move forward and engage more fully with them. Having spent time as both an educator, and now a graduate student, I was eager to explore how to construct meaningful and mutually beneficial partnerships with students as I prepare to move into the field of student affairs.

I have an interest in study abroad and advocating for people with disabilities, so I aimed to integrate these two areas when choosing a topic for my action research project. I knew from my previous reading that students with disabilities tend to be under-prepared for study abroad because relatively few disability-specific materials exist, and institutions are unsure of how to solve the disconnect in resources and support (Vitosky, Wheeler, & Wieser, 2011).

The project, which I will undertake in partnership with students this fall, will produce a disability-specific pre-departure orientation program at my university. I hope to engage some students as partners in the role of project assistants, while others will become project informants. After giving some thought to how I will recruit the students, I’ve decided to engage them through focus groups and surveys. I will specifically be seeking students who identify as having a disability and have either studied abroad in the past or are interested in studying abroad in the future. I am eager to learn from all of these students, as I’m sure that they’ll have insight into specific issues, resources or information that would have been helpful prior to studying abroad, as well as bring to light questions that I might not think to ask. My hope is that together we will become ‘active collaborators’ and ‘change agents’, working to implement real change at the university (Dunne & Zandstra, 2011, p. 4).

Challenges in the face of COVID-19

Both of our projects could potentially be affected by COVID-19. Budgetary concerns, along with uncertainty about on-campus classes next semester, will make it difficult for Brittney to employ students as project assistants. At this stage, thankfully, there does not seem to be any reason to change the project; the resources created by the planned partnership will be available to students whenever they are able to once again study abroad. Kendra’s project, on the other hand, could be quite timely – given the rise of xenophobia and racism that has been directed towards Chinese students as a result of COVID-19 (Wang, 2020). However, finding enough students to work in partnership may become a challenge due to the drop in international student enrollments.

Engaging students as partners in Student Affairs

Learning about engaging with students as partners has encouraged us to reimagine how we can improve students’ experiences by partnering with them to understand their perspective and utilize their lived experience. We have learned the importance of being true collaborators and equal partners with students and will take this knowledge with us as we approach our post-graduation careers. We are excited to bring fresh ideas to student affairs by engaging with our students, seeking their insight and input into problems that directly affect them.

[1] In the United States, the field known as Student Affairs in higher education is comprised of professionals dedicated to supporting the personal and academic development of individuals attending college or university. Those working in the field specialize in assisting students with a wide array of aspects related to the pursuit of a post-secondary education.