Knowledge and Understanding of Higher Education and Student Affairs


Sub-Competencies for Competency #1: 

    1. Articulate knowledge of historical and philosophical underpinnings of past and current issues shaping the field of student affairs and the student experience
    2. Demonstrate knowledge and understanding of the range, scope, and roles of different functional areas within higher education
    3. Understand the primary challenges and opportunities being presented to student affairs professionals
    4. Understand systems of privilege and oppression and the impact of these on institutional systems or organizations
    5. Identify goals, trends, and key issues related to the future of the student affairs profession
    6. Identify legal issues that impact higher education, field of student affairs, institutional policy, and the student experience


In the College Student Services Administration (CSSA) program, the first competency asks for awareness of what student affairs does, why and how it performs those functions in the higher education setting. Prior to this program, I did not have much knowledge about the history of higher education, functional areas in higher education, and/or student affairs. This section of my portfolio will look at my progress through understanding the role of student affairs within higher education. This program has taught us, pushed us, and inspired us to be the best student affairs professionals we can be. Often during this program, we have been asked to consider questions such as “how do we/can we best support students? What does student support look like?”. To be able to answer that, there are a few main areas we need to consider: historical context and impact, different function areas, specialists versus generalists, lending support to not just students, but professors as well, and lastly how do privilege and power play a part in students affairs? Personally, I would like to see more of a holistic or one stop shop in student services; students being provided a space where all of their questions or concerns can be addressed, and they are not having to run to eight different departments all over campus.

Throughout course work, professional experiences, and personal evaluation of the past four years in higher education (including the last three in the CSSA program), my own complex and exciting relationship with past and current issues within higher education has taken shape. This relationship is continuously evolving and will continue to inform my work as a student affairs professional. There is a significant importance as a student affairs professional to learn and understand where, for whom and how higher education was originally created to better understand how we got to where we are today and how to best endorse and influence change. My thoughts on this competency are an examination of both the establishment as well as the progression of higher education in the United States, how I have engaged in it and will continue to work within it.


Historical Context, Impact and Legal Issues

During my first term in the CSSA program, I continued this journey of understanding in ‘History of Higher Education’ (CSSA 548), where we explored the American history of higher education and student affairs. In the United States, institutions of higher learning were created to be tools of transformation to separate the privileged (almost exclusively for white, Anglo-Saxon, heterosexual, wealthy, males) from the rest of the society and with the intent of developing competent political leaders, learned clergy, and cultured men (Rudolph, 1990). Rudolph (1990) wrote: “A college advances learning; it combats ignorance and barbarism. A college is a support of the state; it is an instructor of loyalty, in citizenship, in the dictates of conscience and faith. A college is useful: it helps men to learn the things they must know in order to manage the temporal affairs of the world; it trains a legion of teachers”. (p. 13)

During the time of colonial colleges, those that worked in these institutions were seen as the parents away from home taking care of the students enrolled in their colleges. Cohen (2010) states, “The colleges were truly to act as surrogate parents…” (p. 29). Most would view it as a positive for their children to have a home away from home, somewhere safe with a sense of camaraderie. Unfortunately, it was not seen a positive back then, as colleges were seen a place for youngsters with a discipline problem, Randolph (1990) points out, “[colleges were] to enforce behavior that the boy’s parents might not have been able to instill…It often led to an excessive paternalism, a handholding, spoon-feeding, that would prolong adolescence unnecessarily” (p. 108). As we have learned over the years, higher education is more than only for education – it is a place for growth, independence, autonomy, friendship, professional development, and so much more. It is the responsibility of not only the student to take advantage of that, but faculty and staff to provide access to those things for students.

Currently, I believe faculty and staff on campuses still have a tremendous amount of responsibility to students to do what is best for them and to guide them through their education journey, while encouraging autonomy and self-growth. In CSSA 552 and 553, ‘Principles and Theories of Student Development’, we covered several different theories on student development, one that really resonated with me was Chickering and Reisser’s Seven Vectors of Development which I had the opportunity to explore during our Final Development Analysis Paper (Artifact A). This theory explains how students develop through seven broad experiences or ‘vectors’ that contribute to the formation of identity during their undergrad years. These vectors include a) developing competence; b) managing emotions; c) moving through autonomy toward interdependence d) developing mature interpersonal relationships e) establishing identity f) developing purpose g) developing purpose (Patton et al, 2016). This development is not linear.  As Chickering described “the direction may be expressed more appropriately by a spiral or steps rather than a straight line…each of the seven vectors involves cycles of differentiation and integration…” (Jones and Abes, 2013, pg. 33). During my own undergrad experience out of the seven vectors, vector three (moving through autonomy toward interdependence), vector five (establishing identity) and vector six (developing purpose) impacted me the most; Oregon State gave me the space to learn how to listen to my own desires and work towards doing things on my own instead of relying on those around me. As student affairs professionals, I believe it to be our responsibility to lead by example for students and I believe institutions need to hold their staff accountable to that, I will speak more to this when I cover the legal issues class I took during the program.

Legal issues that impact higher education range in scope and specificity. Out of all the classes I needed to take to complete my CSSA graduate degree, ‘Legal Issues in Higher Education’ (CSSA 554) overwhelmed me the most and seeing the textbook that was 900+ pages did not help. However, after diving into the legal issues and instances those issues could impact a university, I realized how important it is to have a basic understanding of those challenges. In CSSA 554, I had the opportunity to write a law and policy memorandum (Artifact B) about an issue that interested me within higher education. I was interested in learning more about employee conduct and holding them to the same standards as students.

When students are accepted to Oregon State University, for example, they are expected to follow a code of conduct, which serves as a contractual agreement between the institution and the student. When the student violates the conduct code, they are subject to the repercussions set forth by the Office of Student Conduct and Community Standards. In my memo, I asked questions about policy and practices such as – how often employees go through training for reporting incidents of sexual misconduct or discrimination and how often is the training updated, what liability can OSU prevent through staff conduct standards along with improved trainings, and if affiliate employees of the university are given the same training opportunities as regular OSU employees. Through my research of applicable laws, various legal cases, employee best practices and current OSU employee training materials, I recommended thorough staff training for all employees of the university, establish a current code of conduct for faculty/staff that represent OSU’s missions, values and assemble a diverse team to develop the code, and lastly, making sure all affiliates of the university have access and acknowledge the staff code of conduct as it could be a university liability otherwise. To best represent Oregon State, as staff members we must remember it is important to be individually accountable for our own actions, collectively accountable for upholding these standards of behavior, and for compliance with all applicable laws and policies.

Different Functional Areas

Prior to the CSSA program I did not have a strong understanding of functional areas within higher education. However, researching functional areas taught me that the student affairs world is full of different roles and opportunities, which only excited me more about working within the field. Each functional area lends so much flexibility and likely will differ not only across a single institution, but from university to university as well. Each institution may have various implementations or uses of a functional area, the Council for the Advancement of Standards in Higher Education (CAS) Standards provide a set of practices that should be represented throughout all functional areas. Having come into the CSSA program with only a year of professional experience in alumni relations, I was excited to explore new functional areas in my three years as a student and through practical/personal experiences. The CSSA program has given me the opportunity to experience and work in a few of the functional areas in student affairs through internships – athletic student advising, career development, and distance learning, which I will speak about through this portfolio.

In my second term of the CSSA program, I took ‘Programs and Functions in College Student Services’ (CSSA 551) which focused on historical, philosophical, and organizational foundations and operational components and functional areas. With limited experience and knowledge of programs and functional areas in student services, this class was a great introduction to these topics and consistently changing landscape of student affairs. As one of our assignments, we conducted virtual visits of three different institution types (Artifact C), which allowed us to explore their mission statements, basics of each institution (acceptance rate, enrollment, number of majors, etc.), and look at their approaches to student affairs. For this project, I researched Amherst College (a private coed liberal arts college), University of Michigan (a public coed university), and Mills College (a private women’s college). This project was a great introduction to institutions across the nation and pointed out how different student affairs could look to each institution and how different they could be even if they offer similar programs. A few examples of this: Mills College had an acceptance rate of 87% while University of Michigan and Amherst College had less than 20% for an acceptance rate, University of Michigan had 1500+ student organizations in areas of academics, activism, cultural, gender and sexuality, professional, religion, social, science and sports while Amherst had 150+ in areas of academics, arts, common interests, media, professional, religious, and political.

A few classes I took throughout my program had interview assignments, ‘Programs and Functions in College Student Services’ (CSSA 551), ‘Organization and Administration of College Student Services’ (CSSA 558) and ‘Community Colleges’ (CSSA 599), which during these assignments I had the opportunity to learn about and hear from different professionals in higher education (Artifact D, Artifact E, and Artifact F). Those I chose to interview during these assignments had different roles within academic advising; since academic advising is my area of specialization, I wanted to get their feedback, views, and opinions of working within the profession. During these interviews I learned athletic academic advising is not for the faint of heart as they work to bridge the two worlds of academics and Division I athletics which sometimes work well together and other times not so much. I also learned that academic advising within community colleges is very much needed, but lacks the workforce needed as the common ratio is 900-1000 students to one advisor. Despite nuanced differences, across these interviews I heard a commonality that I expected all along, which is those in these position have a true passion for helping others and advisors navigate for their students, so they can have the best experience possible.

One of the many things that I love about the prospect of working within higher education is the never-ending variety of opportunities it offers. Student affairs is not about the perfect functional area or the perfect institution, which I believe to be the best part of this field. Student affairs is not perfect, you will not find the perfect institution, the perfect position, but that is okay. In my opinion, this field is about being actively involved within your communities, continually seeking to understand and grow, taking on the challenges and adapting to them while celebrating the strengths and victories. The various functional areas will help me serve students better as an academic advisor, as I will be able to provide more holistic support/wrap-around care.


Specialist Versus Generalist

During my internship at Academics for Student Athletes (ASA), I saw how much support student athletes are given in terms of their education. It is understandable considering athletes are on the road quite a bit, busy at practice, keeping up with their schoolwork, etc. However, it made me start to think about why non-athletic students do not have access to a similar setup like at ASA, where athletes are provided a “one stop shop”, so to speak. In this place, athletes have their academic advisors, tutors, mentors, access to study hall to do homework, etc. as well as any administrative logistical support such as navigating various student systems (myOregonState portal), student accounts, and financial aid. When it comes to academic and student support, athletes are able to be supported all under one roof, and I believe it is important for all students to have the same access to such a place. Non-athletic students do have access to similar services. However, I see most of those students getting bounced around like a pinball in a pinball machine; their academic advisor in one place, tutoring in the library, academic support in a different center, mental health support in counseling or health services, and financial aid in an administration building. It seems to me it would be much more streamlined for not only students, but faculty/staff as well if they all lived under one roof. Is there a reason these services do not live under one roof? What I have noticed, more often than not, these services do not interface or communicate with one another, making it more challenging for students who may have needs that span across units

It may be challenging or difficult to implement a holistic approach or one stop shop right away, but I think it would benefit students in the long term and makes the most sense. For students, I believe it can be discouraging to hear that each of your questions and concerns must be answered by different departments and those departments are spread across campus, especially for those who are unfamiliar with their respective campus. In my current position at the Oregon State University Alumni Association (OSUAA), I have a customer service role and my number one priority is to try to be as helpful as possible. If I receive calls about admissions, athletics, general campus, or scholarships questions, I do not necessarily just transfer the inquiry to another department, I will try to find a more nuanced or relevant response (i.e., which admissions counselor covers Texas, which scholarships could out of state students apply for, or what time the baseball game is). In student affairs, there is worry about overstepping or stepping on someone’s toes and speaking for other departments, but we all need to understand that we have the student’s best interest at heart and sometimes answering their questions or helping them feel heard and at ease takes precedence (where appropriate of course).

Such comprehensive student services is not unique to Athletics. For example, the University of Minnesota has “One Stop [which] provides student information regarding registration, records, financial aid, billing, payment, and veteran benefits” (University of Minnesota, 2021). This department is not just a department that helps/benefits students. One Stop offers how-to guides for parents/guests on how to make a payment on their student’s account, and how to complete parent access forms to view a student’s information (the student must provide access before parents are given access). One Stop also offers training resources to faculty and staff as well as providing resources to those staff members to make it easier to provide students with information about student support, grades, advising, funding for graduate students, university governance, financial aid, key events, and disability services. An approach such as One Stop allows for a more holistic approach to not only student affairs, but a holistic approach to student development, Patton et al. noted “higher education in general and student affairs in particular lack a holistic, theoretical perspective to promote the learning and development of a whole student” (2016). A holistic approach allows the focus to be on the intersections of the student’s identity rather than separate constructs, therefore looking at students as whole beings.


Power and Privilege

I was not able to take CSSA 520, ‘Multicultural Issues in Higher Education’ until Winter 2021 (my second to last term in the program) and I wish I had taken it earlier, but it was during this class that I continued to realize just how complex the systems of privilege and oppression in our society are, especially currently. In our readings, Adams et al.’s (2018) textbook gave a great baseline of knowledge for types of identities, oppression, microaggressions and growth that could be done in terms of social justice/change. This course covered how experiences can be shaped by our social identities and reiterated what we have seen throughout history, “social categories such as gender, race, and class are used to establish and maintain a particular kind of social order. The classifications and their specific features, meanings and significance are socially constructed through history, politics and culture” (Adams et al., 2018). The class taught me that there was a great deal I needed to unlearn and re-learn when it came to multicultural issues. The importance of having difficult conversations was made aware during this class as it allows us to see different points of view and challenge what we already know. As student affairs professionals, I believe having difficult or uncomfortable conversations is one of the most effective tools in our toolbox, so to speak.

It is not a secret that the university system in the United States was originally created with flaws. As it was created to educate those with privilege, wealthy white men were educated. While women, people of color, people from lower socio-economic backgrounds, as well as people with disabilities were prohibited from and deemed unworthy of participating in higher education. Unfortunately, these previous opinions dictated how one should act, look, and be. They gave unjustified advantages to some while taking advantages away from others.  These systems of privilege and oppression were historically created and are currently so imbedded into our society that at times they are not even noticed – at least to those who benefit from them (Johnson, 2006). “The trouble around diversity isn’t just that people differ from one another. The trouble is produced by a world organized in ways that encourage people to use differences, to include or exclude, reward or punish, credit or discredit…” (Johnson 2006). During ‘Transitions’ (CSSA 599) I was asked to think about and look at my own identities and the privilege that comes with them. To be completely honest, up until graduate school I had never given much thought to my own privilege; I knew I grew up easy in identities that were the majority, and I was aware that ‘isms’ were still a problem of the present; however, beyond that I had not considered what others could be experiencing more directly. Looking back, I now know systems of power and privilege and often identifying in the majority have allowed me the unfortunate opportunity to stay ignorant.

At times, examining privilege can be scary, but examining one’s privilege and owning it, it can lead to a more equitable world. It is important to realize the responsibility we all have in trying to balance our own privilege. We cannot expect change in the world if we do not become aware of the privilege in ourselves first. Within higher education, it is our duty to lead by example and educate those around us on how to examine our privilege and accept it. Opening lines of communication, removing barriers, and becoming more comfortable with talking about privilege are a few ways we can change the world in terms of social change (Johnson 2006). Currently, I am working to spend more time confronting my privilege, by doing so it can lead to more equality and making it easier to find ownership of an issue, which can lead to a quicker resolution.

Each student has a story that is personal and important. All that they have experienced has gotten them to this point in their life. During this program, I have learned that you cannot assume anything about someone’s life (past, present or future); it discredits their story when we do. However, it is easy to reduce a person’s experiences with assumptions, it is part of us being human, but if we remain self-aware, we can make sure to be one more person that does not reduce others’ experiences. Listening to the TedTalk by Adichie (2009) in which she gave an example of a single story of Africa as: “a place of beautiful landscapes, beautiful animals, and incomprehensible people, fighting senseless wars, dying of poverty and AIDS, unable to speak for themselves and waiting to be saved by a kind, white foreigner”, I realized how I have been quick to reduce someone’s experience in the past, even just as I have walked past someone.  I believe that being aware is the first step to fixing such assumptions. Adichie (2009) showed me there is still more work to be done, and the first step to this is that I recognize personal growth that still needs to happen.

After talking about the danger of a one-sided story, privilege, oppression, social change, being uncomfortable, and individualistic thoughts – I think it all comes down to one thing, responsibility.  Johnson mentions “Acknowledging an obligation to make a contribution to finding a way out of the trouble we’re all in and to finding constructive ways to act on that obligation” (2006) is critical. Holding a position in higher education carries power in of itself, which can affect situations. In these positions, I will acknowledge the obligation I have for educating students to appreciate different identities values, cultures, experiences, and views; and why it is important to understand power, privilege, and oppression. It is also crucial to encourage students and others step out of their comfort zone and try new things, while acknowledging that it is okay to embrace discomfort. To help make social change happen, it is important to realize that baby steps are better than no steps and it will not all be fixed overnight.

Student affairs is not for everyone, and I believe you need to feel called to it or feel inspired to pursue it. It has been talked about that a professional in this field needs to have beliefs such as: “a belief in the dignity, uniqueness, potential, and worth of each individual, a belief that learning occurs in diverse places and diverse ways, a belief in communities where diversity is desired, mutual respect is expected, and where ideas and assumptions are to be explored and questioned, and a belief in supporting the goals of individuation and community, recognizing the powerful role of community in learning and development” (Love, n.d.). These beliefs still hold true centuries later and I believe holding true to them will make me a better higher education professional in the end.



Adams, M., et al. (Eds.) (2018). Readings for diversity and social justice. (4th). New York: NY: Routledge.

Adichie, Chimamanda Ngozi (July 2009). The Danger of a Single Story. Retrieved from:

Cohen, A. M. & Kisker, C. B. (2010). The shaping of American higher education: Emergence and growth of the contemporary system (2nd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey Bass.

Johnson, A. G. (2006). Privilege, power, and difference (2nd ed.). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill Education.

Jones, S. R., & Abes, Elisa S. (2013). Identity development of college students: Advancing frameworks for multiple dimensions of identity (1st ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Patton, L. D., Renn, Kristen A., Guido-DiBrito, Florence, & Quaye, Stephen John. (2016). Student Development in College: Theory, Research, and Practice (Third edition.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass & Pfeiffer.

Love, P., PhD. (n.d.). Considering a Career in Student Affairs. Retrieved from

University of Minnesota. (2021). One Stop Student Services – Twin Cities. 

Rudolph, F. (1990). The American college & university: A history. Athens, GA: The University of Georgia Press.