by Michelle Turan, PhD BCBA, Research Fellow (Faculty), College Student Success Innovation Centre (CSSIC), Mohawk College
There has never been a better time to explore the collaboration, crossover and relationships between community college student services/success departments and the academic departments. As resources continue to need to be maximized in education, it becomes essential for organizational roles to be examined. Baldwin and Chang (2007) identified how institutions have less resources to devote to training of faculty however a movement away from the autonomous comfort zone into more collaborative activities can create a dynamic climate where effective change can happen. At Mohawk College, one such strategy has been the secondment of a faculty member into Student Affairs and the newly formed College Student Success Innovation Centre (CSSIC). The CSSIC is a new hub to lead Ontario Colleges in the design and evaluation of innovative student success interventions throughout the student lifecycle. Within CSSIC, the emphasis has been on a collaborative approach to improve student outcomes that is informed by rigorous evidence about what works. This approach has included research partnerships across several colleges and universities (Canadian and US), as well as funding from the Ministry, government-funded agencies, and more recently internal interdisciplinary research collaborations. These internal interdisciplinary collaborations are a continued effort to bridge gaps between academic departments and student services, and to increase opportunities to support students across the college. Faculty and student services both value the success of their students and often these efforts are operating independently of one another. However, in the nine months that I have been working in this new role I have learned a lot about collaboration, but also about the value of the work you do in Student Affairs that contributes to the success of students in college both inside and outside the classroom. This work can provide the foundation for ongoing partnerships for student success, and I have made three observations around faculty and student service collaborations that form the rest of this article.
Visibility matters. If you want to build collaboration and interdisciplinary work, you must put people within a collaborative environment. My office is directly located in advising and career services (beside the printer). Every day I hear advisors talking with students, and each other about services, issues, and printing problems. As a faculty member, my role for the previous 14 years has been very autonomous and very focused on curriculum, teaching, and program delivery. Because I held a program coordinator role, I was a leader in both academic and field delivery, something I had a great deal of pride in. I was very protective of my responsibilities around graduating students with knowledge and skills that would be useful to them in their future careers. Within the field placement seminar course I developed professional activities relevant to resumes and interviewing skills. I spent a great deal of time advising students, yet I did not recommend or introduce them to an advisor, until the day that a Student Success Advisor (SSA) was moved into my office area. Once the SSA was within proximity and we could discuss student needs and issues, I recognized the service she was able to provide for students. I would also suggest that she too felt more connected to the academic programs and was also able to advise in a very meaningful way for students.
Innovation is hard but necessary. My role has been to build the interdisciplinary relationships between faculty and student affairs, and to effectively communicate about the student success work being conducted at the college. I used this opportunity to reach out to my network of faculty to have coffee, discuss my new role and plant some seeds around collaboration. My meetings with faculty centered around student success challenges. Faculty were eager to discuss their commitment to the success of their students and the barriers that they have faced, continue to face, and their concerns about the future. It can be difficult to really understand the demands faced by faculty every day in the classroom without being one of the faculty from the classroom. Faculty face students daily who are having academic and personal challenges and they are expected to keep all the students in the ever-growing classroom both happy and successful. Faculty are facing valid challenges such as larger class sizes, student mental health challenges, increases in accommodation plans, a changing student population, an ever-shifting job market etc. It is evident that these instructors are at a loss on how to continue to provide great teaching and service to students as they have in the past. The truth is, they cannot continue to support at the level they did ten years ago, because college looks completely different than it did at that time. The way that things have been done historically will no longer work, as higher education is continually changing, resources are shifting, and there are skills needed that professionals in student services can best provide. There has never been a better time for innovation around student supports for faculty.
Start with shared values. My early experiences in CSSIC have been very positive. I am very impressed with the care and the diligence that student services professionals bring to their work, and the general positivity that I was convinced would wear off at some point. However, nine months in and this is still a department that I would describe as being very student-focused, caring, and continuing to grow towards success for all students. What is clear is that faculty also share the value of having students succeed, and most faculty would tell you that it is the students that keeps them passionate about their work. The next step is to get student services professionals and faculty at the table to face the same issues. In my experience, colleges have very few collaborative opportunities around issues. There is often a very clear delineation around whose job it is to solve a particular problem. However, at the university level, service to the institution by way of committees is a requirement of the job. There are interdisciplinary committees that people can opt to participate in. I would suggest that these same needs apply at the college level, even if only voluntary at this point. If you begin with topics that people have a genuine interest in, you can bring them together to inspire, create and share.
In 2010, Frost et al., identified how isolation and fragmentation are the greatest threats to successful student learning but the growth of higher education continues to make this a challenge as “functional silos” are maintained. This challenge combined with cultural working differences between student affairs professionals and faculty makes collaboration harder to arrange. However, they identify how a shared vision and aligned outcomes can build collaborative efforts. My experience to date has clearly validated that there is a shared vision between student affairs professionals and faculty. Student success is at the heart of what we do and it shows no matter what lens you are looking through. In order to truly establish student success as a shared value, both faculty and student affairs must see the alignment in both the outcomes and the processes. Part of my role will be to continue building this bridge and finding opportunities for continued collaboration with aligned goals. Moving forward, I hope to see more interdisciplinary collaborative efforts across our college to maintain the student success vision.