I have the opportunity to meet with a number of students every year that have made the decision to pursue a career in student affairs. Their interests are in housing, student activities, and the student union to mention a few. The question that is asked most frequently is which institution should I attend to prepare for this career. Typically, you will have an institution in mind because of a conversation you have had with a supervisor who attended that institution as a graduate student. I offer perhaps a little different approach – a more intentional selection process.
My visit with students always begins with a discussion on non-program factors and program factors. You have to be able to prioritize these factors. For example, if spirituality is very important to you, the city/state location may be important in order to find a spiritual location such as a mosque or synagogue. It may be important for you to compromise on one factor in place of another. It is ultimately your decision as to which factors are a priority. Let me elaborate on each of these non-program and program factors.
Non-program factors include issues such as geographic location. It is important to many of you who have been raised in a specific part of the country that possesses a geographic culture to stay in that location of the country. It may be an urban or rural setting or the northeast, west, or southern parts of the United States. Second, the proximity to your family may be important. Not every one of you is able to venture hundreds or thousands of miles away from your family, so finding a program within a short drive of them is very important. Third, will the community support your lifestyle? Are there clubs, organizations, and services that are available to you? Fourth, identifying spiritual opportunities is important. You may be highly involved in spiritual support. Traveling to a location that does not have a spiritual setting or leader may be detrimental to your overall experience. Fifth, the opportunity to participate in recreation may be important. You may find the value and benefit of hiking, skiing, swimming, and so forth as vital aspects of your wellness. Identifying a program in a location that offers your form of recreation is important. Finally, is the type of environment where you live. If you were raised in the south, you may not believe that you would fair well in the snow, or if you live in the midwest, you may not believe that you would fair well in the heat and humidity of the south. These are all important factors to consider and you could probably add a few more of your own to this list.
Program factors might include public or private education. For some of you attendance at a public or private institution is the overriding factor to the selection of a preparation program. Similarly, whether the institution is a liberal arts or research based program. Second, the total cost of the program and availability of tuition waivers, assistantships, fellowships, or other work opportunities must be considered. Costs of attending a program might include: tuition and fees; accommodations with related expenses of utilities, telephone, and deposits; meals and meal preparation; books, supplies, and lab costs; and travel to home, conferences, or classes. Some programs require the participation in an assistantship and work closely with you to secure one. Assistantships may be work-related such as a position in housing or student activities for an average of 20 hours per week. Many of these assistantships provide accommodations, tuition waivers, or meal packages. Assistantships may also be related to research or teaching under faculty supervision. Fellowships are less available and typically granted to one or two students in each in-coming class based upon academic or leadership records. Fellowships may pay for many of the expenses to attend the graduate program. A third factor to consider is the number of full-time faculty dedicated to the program and the courses that utilize adjunct faculty. The strength of an academic program lies in the faculty. A program that has dedicated several faculty to the department offers great depth and scope. Similarly, a program that augments their full-time faculty with adjunct faculty or practitioners to teach classes has the ability to provide information to students from direct providers and professionals in the field. Fourth, the availability of the practicum or internship experience is important. You must be able to practically apply the classroom or laboratory experience to the work place. Working in a setting for 10 to 20 hours per week per term and receiving class credit provides the hands on application opportunities. Fifth, the caring level of the faculty (i.e., do they bring you to conferences, make money available for conference registration or travel, have meals in the faculty homes, allow you to present, write, or research with them, etc.) is important to many students. Faculty who nurture and coach you beyond the classroom setting may provide a mentoring experience that lasts beyond graduation. Seventh, is the experience you will have with the faculty that will have direct contact with you. Many preparation programs have faculty who are very visible and prominent in their fields. You should take care not to select a program solely based upon a faculty members’ career visibility. You should inquire, particularly as masters students, to the level of contact you may have with these faculty members. Many of these faculty members are doctoral faculty teaching few classes available to masters level students. Eighth, is the program counseling-based or administratively-based. Many of the student personnel programs have a counseling-based curriculum. You need to determine if that curriculum fits your interests and needs. Similarly, you should ensure that the program is accredited. Finally, consider the cohort nature of an incoming class. A cohort class that enters the fall program works and plays together. They become a support group for one another forming study groups, social groups, and traveling groups. The cohort class concept is an important aspect for those of you seeking a tightly knit program between faculty and students.
Once you have prioritized these factors, I encourage you to click on to the Association for College Personnel Administrators (ACPA) web site. Click on the publications button and review the on-line College Student Personnel (CSP) Directory. This directory provides you with the CSP preparation programs from the United States. Each program contains information on the requirements for admission, the graduate coordinator, the classes required for a specific degree, the numbers of students graduating from each year, the names of the faculty and adjunct faculty, and so forth. This document becomes an excellent resource as you narrow down the number of programs that fit your factors. Identify the five or six institutions that you believe provide you with the experiences and support you are seeking.
My second visit with a student is now a discussion of these five or six institutions. We review the factors of each program. I encourage you to visit with a faculty or staff member that has graduated from each of the programs. Ask these folks about their experience, what went well, and what could have improved the experience. If you are comfortable with the responses, I encourage you to contact the graduate coordinator for each program and request an application. When you receive the materials study them closely. You have now selected two or three graduate programs that you would like to attend. You have found these programs in a very intentional manner considering the factors that are most important to you.
The subsequent application process, interview process, and selection process is perhaps an article for another time. I wish you the best success in finding a graduate program that fits your needs.
Submitted by Norbert W. Dunkel, Associate Director of Housing, University of Florida