Innovation in student affairs – where do you see it?

I’m looking for examples of innovation in higher education – particularly student affairs/student life – and I need your help.

Not this.

Innovation is a tricky word. Maybe it brings to mind images like Disney’s “house of the future,” sending a rocket to Mars, or Steve Jobs introducing a phone that will revolutionize the mobile phone and computer industries.

But I think innovation is more basic – and more important – than those once-every-20-years examples. Innovation is being clear about what you do and why you do it and then finding the best way to do those things regardless of what has been done in the past. It’s looking at a situation in a context, addressing the needs, and creating the best possible solution.

Sharing ideas at conferences is great, but this kind of contextual change doesn’t come from copying the best practices of a college across the nation.

Innovation is needed in student affairs.

I’ll be honest. I have an agenda here. I want to see student affairs as a field go beyond managing the programs we’ve been given. I want us to clearly define why we exist, take that vision, and move forward in a way that works for each context.

There are books upon books about upcoming changes in higher education, and student life is rarely listed as a driving force or voice in these conversations. We need to effectively communicate the importance of the development, learning, and integration that happens through the entire college experience – inside and outside of the classroom. Just like educational practices have to change over time as students, culture, and information changes, the way we do our job must change as well. It may mean large changes, or they may be small. But that growth is healthy and needed.

So the goal is to collect and highlight examples of innovation in student affairs – not so others can imitate, but so we can understand the process, challenges, and lessons learned through innovation and change.

Share your examples here, and pass this along to others!

Follow delight


I should have changed the plan as soon as we got in line.

Peter Pan is clearly one of Disneyland’s kids’ rides, but my son looked at the line and said, “no no no.” Being the good parents that we are, we told him he would love it and worked to amp him up for the experience.

After the 20-minute wait and the three-minute ride, my two-year-old was right and we were wrong. He hated Peter Pan.

His “nononono” had continued as he rode through Neverland with his ears plugged because of the loud music. Who knew a kid wouldn’t like a kid’s ride?

But as soon as it was over and we emerged from the ride, my shaken child with tears in his eyes pointed to the nearby carousel and smiled, yelling “Merry Go Round!”

So we went over and let him ride the ride he wanted to ride. He spent the whole time laughing and cheering.

As the carousel slowed down, he pointed to Dumbo and shouted “Elephants!” So we rode Dumbo, and he loved making his cart go up and down while waving at the people watching below.

It’s Disney. One ride isn’t better than another. So why didn’t we listen as soon as we got into the Peter Pan ride to his “no”? We thought we knew better, he’d like it as soon as he tried it, and it would be good for him to experience.

The same thing happens outside of Disney. With “grownups.”

We push people to rides they’re not ready for. Life has enough stretching in it without us finding new ways for people to grow. The best thing student affairs folks or people in helping professions can do is help people navigate the challenges that are already happening. In that process, help them name and identify who they really are. Help them notice the intersection between what they are good at and what they enjoy. Help them find the inner joy that comes from living out the way they are wired.

We push ourselves to rides we won’t enjoy because we think it will be “good for us.” It’s as true for us (me) as it is for others (you). Without realizing it, we can spend half our lives living for other people’s values – stretching because we’ve been told we should. Stretching in the wrong direction.

Every person is different. That’s good. There are some rides you’ll love and some you’ll hate. There are some we have to ride regardless. But when we have the choice, the secret to success is to choose the options, opportunities, and actions you’ll can’t wait to be a part of. And say no to everything else.

Know what you stand for, and make it accessible

What does your organization or department stand for? What do you stand for?

Clearly defining our core values is one of the most difficult and most important things we can do. We’re going to make decisions daily. We can either make them with pre-established guidelines that reflect what we truly value, or we can make them in the moment, trusting that our emotions and the sway of what’s urgent and reacting to what gets placed before us.

So defining our values is proactive. Responding based on the moment is reactive.

National Community Church in Washington D.C. has a unique set of core values. Very “un-church-like.” They’re sticky. They represent a set of beliefs, but they’re phrased in a way that helps people remember and understand them.

When someone hits a situation in their day-to-day life to which one of the values relates, there’s a good chance they’ll remember it. When the church (which meets in movie theaters across D.C. and runs a coffee shop as one of their venues) comes across a new opportunity that means change in how they’re doing things, values like “Playing it safe is risky” and “Irrelevance is irreverence” help them filter the decision through values that speak to the importance of change and relevance. When a person in the church finds personal change and growth hard, a value like “It’s never too late to be who you might have been” inspires them to take steps toward growth.

When we worked to build our developmental model for Residence Life, we realized there are a lot of great, well-researched models out there. But most are in researcher-talk. For something to stick – to influence behavior – it has to be written in a way that connects to the people it’s meant to impact. RAs must “get it” enough to share it or program with it. So we boiled it down to seven core values and tried to name them in ways that would stick. We’re always working to improve things, but so far, they seem to have worked better than anything else we’ve tried.

Core values can be prescriptive and descriptive. They both help simplify decisions by making clear where you stand and what you’re about. But they also show others who you are from the outset.

What about you? Do you have some clear values that drive where you work? Do you have clear personal values that help you filter decisions and actions?