June 23, 2015

The Role of Student Affairs in Higher Education

The other day, one of my friends and colleagues at Ryerson University, in a quest to define the real value of Student Affairs, asked me, “What would have changed for you as a student if the department of Student Affairs never existed?” After thinking for a second, I blurted out:


He gave me a weird look and I realized that my response may have come across as completely devaluing everything we do with one word. That was not the case. Observing his reaction, I went on to explain what I really meant and what I perceive to be the role of Student Affairs in higher education. I will now tell you what I told him…

I have worked in the department of Student Affairs at Ryerson for 3 years in a student-staff capacity. I recently transitioned into a more permanent role here and thus think it is the perfect time to explore what I think it is we do here and how we contribute to the student experience.

For those who don’t know, Student Affairs is a network of services and support systems for students at higher education institutions. We deal mainly with what happens outside of the classroom. At Ryerson, Student Affairs consists of: Student Learning Support, Student Life, Health & Wellness, Housing & Residence Life and the Career Centre. Those are staples you’ve probably always known existed at colleges and universities, but perhaps didn’t know all fit under one category: Student Affairs.

These sub-departments give students a place to live, access to psychologists, support with finding jobs, tutoring and mentoring, Orientation and so much more.

As a student, I did not make use of any of these services. I didn’t need to. Throughout school, I was lucky that my learning style was very aligned with that of traditional education. My family was supportive and just privileged enough to allow me to focus on my academics. I understood from a young age that getting 90s wasn’t enough. I knew I had to be “involved”, so I got involved… a lot. I have always been a high-performing, highly involved student. Let me wrap up what sounds like a bunch of navel-gazing with the point. Because school was easy for me, there were many parts of Student Affairs I thought I didn’t need.

I didn’t need math or writing support; I did not have accessibility needs; I didn’t attend my Orientation because I was working; I’ve thankfully not had any severe mental health issues; I didn’t live on residence and I’ve never had trouble with finding or maintaining desirable employment. There was no perceived need for me. Without Student Affairs, I would still have a 4.0 GPA and I still would have gotten involved.

So how, after all of that, did I end up making Student Affairs part of my life and career?

My interaction with Student Affairs started the summer coming out of my first year. I, like many students, didn’t know what Student Affairs was. Simply thinking about how I would continue paying tuition, I was just looking for employment in my field of study. I came across the Marketing and Multimedia positions for the central orientation team. One important person in my story took a chance on a first year and gave me the role of Events Lead. I didn’t think the position related to my field, but it ended up introducing me to every other part of the university and beyond (event planning is a lot of coordination).

After that summer, I stayed on with our student life brand as a Community Manager. In the last 3 years, I have consistently taken on different roles with greater responsibility and have helped grow it into an award-winning brand. Throughout the years, I joined other Student Affairs ventures like our Project Funds Allocation Committee for Students, sought out as many speaking opportunities as possible, learned as much as I could from my superiors and others, and attended A LOT of Ryerson events (I mean seriously, there is something like every other day).

So you see, I didn’t end up in Student Affairs because I needed their explicit service offerings. I just needed to pay tuition. That being said, I can honestly say #RyersonSA is one of the greatest things that has happened to me. Very early on in that first summer, the job became more than a paycheque. RU Student Life became a family, a place to go, somewhere to try new ideas and grow.

Working alongside the people and within the values of Ryerson Student Affairs has legitimately made me a better person. I’m hyperaware of equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI); I’m sensitive to the needs of others though they may not be my own needs; I collaborate with people and teams because I appreciate what others have to offer that I may not be able to; I appreciate everyone’s unique stories; I can effectively lead a team; I know a ton about social media; I can assess all of the things; and my productivity is consistently approving (thank you, Hamza). I am able to do all of this because of the culture that’s been created in @RyersonSA. I have effectively grown up in a culture that respects and celebrates difference, empowers students and staff, and still values the academic skill-building side of things.

Here I am now, just having graduated from the RTA School of Media, and a Digital Marketing Specialist on the Student Affairs Creative Unit, which is essentially an in-house digital marketing agency at Ryerson.


So, now that I have explained my story and am starting my own career in Student Affairs, let me tie this all together by explaining what I see as the role of student affairs in higher education.

The fact that I didn’t need the services of Student Affairs doesn’t mean the services shouldn’t exist. They should. They need to. Because if I could define it, student affairs doesn’t exist to catering to the masses, but rather makes it so that every student can succeed the way I did.

I have always understood that the format of traditional education does not accommodate all types of learners, which is really just all types of people, because everyone can learn. Student affairs makes it so that any type of person can learn to the best of their ability while at the educational institution of their choosing.

Are you that student who suffers from anxiety? That’s okay. Health and Wellness will help make sure you can still learn effectively.

Are you that student who doesn’t know how to get involved? That’s okay. Student Life will help make sure you know all volunteer or leadership opportunities. They’ll even host some pretty sweet events for you to attend.

Are you like me, a first generation student who never really had family to “show you the ropes”. That’s okay! Our Tri-Mentoring Program will make sure you can be as successful as everyone else.

Are you a student who thought you were done with tough essay writing when you signed up to be an engineer, but forgot about electives? Writing Support will help make sure you ace that paper.

I’ve heard the sentiment before: “but that stuff won’t be available in the real world (whatever that is)”. My counter is, well, no. The company you work at may not cater to your learning needs, however we’re not trying to put a bandaids on longterm issues. Really, we are trying to teach skills that students can apply for the rest of their lives. We don’t make that one essay great and say, “See ya later!” In the process, we teach essay writing skills so that you no longer need the Writing Support. We teach you healthy methods to deal with your anxiety so that you no longer need our Health and Wellness, and have coping mechanisms of your own. The irony is that our goal is to essentially make it so students no longer need us; to write ourselves out of jobs. Somehow, I’m not worried though.

What does student affairs do? Like every other department in the university, we support academic excellence. That’s it. But not just academic excellence for students like me. No, academic excellence for all students.

Needless to say, I am proud to start my career here and am excited to make some amazing things happen!

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Thanks to Creations by Saxon

Bailey Parnell
Bailey Parnell is the Founder & CEO of SkillsCamp and was named one of Canada’s Top 100 Most Powerful Women in 2016. Bailey is a 2x TED speaker with over 3.5 million views, an award-winning internationally-recognized entrepreneur, active humanitarian, and one with a talent for helping people develop the skills they need for success. Her work and expertise have been featured in Forbes, Good Morning America, CBC, FOX, and more.

For speaking, media, or a quick chat, reach out to Bailey today.

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