Making Work Meaningful: Tools to Enhance the Graduate Assistant Experience

by Liz Rockstroh 

Graduate assistants serve an essential role in college unions. Developing structured ways to successfully support their growth and development is critical, especially when faced with new challenges arising from COVID-19.

Staff Development 

In spring of 2020, colleges and universities began closing and moving to virtual instruction in the wake of the widespread COVID-19 pandemic. As staff were suddenly moved to remote roles absent of the routine of their traditional on-campus positions, many staff were left without identified daily tasks. Prior to COVID-19, student staff served in numerous student-facing roles as an indispensable foundation for the work of providing services to community members. With student staff suddenly unable to return to front desks, residence halls, on-campus restaurants, and similar positions; alternative projects were necessary in a short time frame.  

In response to this staffing challenge, many leadership teams pivoted and creatively focused this time as an opportunity for extended training and development. Focusing on the growth and development of student staff in particular allowed a unique opportunity to provide continued meaningful employment for students. 

The Role of the Graduate Assistant 

As campus leaders reflect on these on-going opportunities to develop student staff in the wake of COVID-19, and invest the time into creating meaningful development programs, the role of the graduate assistant is an important position to consider. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, in the fall of 2020, there were nearly 20 million college students enrolled in classes in the United States. Of these students, over 3 million were enrolled in graduate programs. Many of these graduate students are concurrently employed as graduate assistants during pursuit of their academic program.  

While many graduate assistants serve as instructional assistants in the academic setting, another important subgroup work in student affairs and student service areas, including college unions, where they serve an essential function. Graduate Assistants provide invaluable service to departments by filling a gap in leadership between full-time staff and undergraduate student staff. As full-time students, they bring creativity, innovation, and fresh perspective to union operations and services. Their perspective is imperative as college unions work to fulfill their mission to serve students. 

Identifying the importance of graduate assistants, employers must also allocate time to focus on the on-going training and development of graduate assistants. This is doubly important for students majoring in a related field, who may use their employment to fulfill internship requirements.  

Experiential Learning 

While there are many benefits to a graduate assistant position for both the employer and student, one significant benefit to the student is learning by doing – or experiential learning. The importance of experiential learning continues to grow across colleges and universities as institutions add requirements for active learning experiences such as internships, research, and service learning. At the University of Texas–San Antonio, the institution has adopted a Quality Enhancement Plan on the topic of experiential learning. This plan for students centered on finding understanding through experiential learning, including undergraduate research, internships, and community engaged learning, is just one example of a growing focus on experiential learning’s role in academic programs of study. 

As the importance for experiential learning develops, employers are focusing on how to enhance the employment experience for graduate assistants in college unions. Several professional organizations in the field of student affairs and development have established outcomes and competencies that can be applied to the graduate assistance experience. These are useful tools already in existence that can be helpful in creating meaningful training and development programs for graduate assistants. 

National Association of Colleges and Employers  

The National Association of Colleges and Employers identifies career readiness and corresponding competencies that can be helpful in designing outcomes for graduate assistants. Career readiness is defined as “the attainment and demonstration of requisite competencies that broadly prepare college graduates for a successful transition into the workplace.” This association encourages employers to use the eight related competencies that follow “as guidelines when educating and advising students.” The competencies include:  

  • Career Management 
  • Critical Thinking/Problem Solving
  • Digital Technology 
  • Global/Intercultural Fluency
  • Leadership 
  • Oral/Written Communications 
  • Professionalism/Work Ethic 
  • Teamwork/Collaboration 

Interestingly, NACE research has found that “students view themselves as more proficient than employers do in seven out of eight career readiness competencies.”ii As employers invest time in the development of graduate assistants, understanding and utilizing the career competencies can be useful in ensuring student staff are prepared to meet the expectations of employers upon graduation. The organization also provides sample assessments and tools on their website. 

National Association for Student Personnel Administrators/American College Personnel Association 

The National Association for Student Personnel Administrators, in collaboration with the American College Personnel Association, created a Professional Competencies Rubric. The rubric “can be used in a variety of contexts including professional development, graduate preparation, employment and supervision, and professional associations.” The rubric introduction provides suggested uses of the rubrics for various groups, including supervisors and hiring managers. Suggestions for supervisors include incorporating the competencies into job descriptions, annual performance planning and review, and self-assessment tools. While the full rubric and competencies can be found online, the major competency areas are provided below: 

  • Advising and Supporting 
  • Assessment, Evaluation, and Research 
  • Law, Policy, and Governance 
  • Leadership 
  • Organizational and Human Resources 
  • Personal and Ethical Foundations 
  • Social Justice and Inclusion 
  • Student Learning and Development 
  • Technology 
  • Values, Philosophy, and History 

ACUI

ACUI recently updated its core competencies in 2019. These competencies are encouraged for use in developing training programs for graduate students and staff, self-reflection, career planning exercises, as part of job descriptions, and when conducting evaluation projects.iii ACUI has additionally used the core competencies to develop a rubric, which lists outcomes for each competency across four levels: basic, intermediate, advanced, and expert. The ACUI core competencies include: 

  • Assessment, Evaluation, and Research
  • Event Management  
  • Facility Management 
  • Fiscal Management 
  • Human Resources 
  • Marketing 
  • Organizational Leadership
  • Planning 
  • Social Justice 
  • Student Learning 

In addition to the identified core competencies, ACUI notes that there are several common components of the separate core competencies, which are identified as Competency Area Threads. These include:  

  • Communication 
  • Technology 
  • Ethics 
  • Equity 

Comparison 

The competencies and rubrics created by these associations are all valuable tools that can be used in designing meaningful development programs for graduate assistants in college unions. In viewing the competency areas side by side in the chart provided below, there are many similarities and some differences, which are important to consider when using these tools. 

Many similarities can be seen, underscoring the importance of these critical development areas. The NASPA/ACPA and ACUI competencies are the most similar, yet areas such as leadership and technology are identified competencies across all professional organizations represented below. Notably, most of the competencies are duplicated by at least two of the organizations. 

While the similarities in the competencies underscore the importance of these areas, the differences also highlight important elements to consider when creating development programs for graduate assistants. NASPA/ACPA lists Advising and Supporting as a competency area, although NACE and ACUI do not. This makes sense as the NASPA/ACPA list is tailored more towards student affairs professionals. Although college unions do typically fall within the organizational structure of student affairs on their respective campuses, the graduate assistants employed in college unions are not exclusively pursing careers as student affairs professionals. The variety of roles available in the college union appeal to many majors, such as marketing or business majors interested in communications positions, counseling students interested in working directly with undergraduate student staff, or engineers interested in learning about building operations and management. Considering the intended career paths of graduate students is important for developing effective training and development programs during their campus employment. 

Another notable difference is the NACE competency list compared to NASPA/ACPA and ACUI. The NACE list focuses on skills that employers are looking for in graduates. An important question for consideration by current supervisors is how prepared graduate students will be for seeking and succeeding in employment after their graduate assistant experience, especially in a post-COVID-19 environment. 

All effective development programs assist with onboarding, expanding knowledge, and motivation, but in the educational environment working with graduate assistants, supervisors are additionally focused on more meaningful components, such as creating training in alignment with the mission of our organizations to serve students, fostering student development, and preparing students to meet the demands of their future professions. While not an exhaustive list of existing resources, the competencies developed are all useful tools in creating a supportive on-going learning environment for graduate assistants, which can help transform their work experience into a meaningful developmental opportunity. 


Comparison Chart for Competencies 

Comparison Chart for Competencies

An additional tool worth noting in the conversation on graduate student development is the use of guided reflection questions, specifically Iowa GROW® (Guided Reflection on Work), developed in 2009 by the University of Iowa. Iowa GROW® uses four brief questions between supervisors and student employees to help students make connections between the skills and knowledge they are gaining in the classroom with the work they are doing, and vice versa.  

These meaningful connections allow students to reflect on their experience, and the process relates closely to the competencies outlined by NACE, NASPA/ACPA, and ACUI. Some students may struggle to build connections between their classroom learning experiences and their work. For example, a student majoring in counseling and mental health working in a college union programming office may not immediately see a connection. Yet a reflection on valued competencies such as leadership, communication, and student learning may help a graduate assistant identify and articulate the skills they are gaining through their work, relate them in a meaningful way to their academics, and think about how these skills might align with outcomes desired by a future employer.  

Over 150 colleges and universities in the United States and abroad have contacted the University of Iowa about implementing Iowa GROW® at their institutions. Iowa GROW® is a trademarked intervention and the University of Iowa should be contacted directly about adopting or adapting Iowa GROW® on a college campus. 

Future Development 

There are many tools already in existence to assist in enhancing the employment experience for graduate students working in college unions. Identified competencies, rubrics, and guided reflections are just a few of the resources already available.  

Looking forward, there is value in exploring how graduate students resonate with existing competencies, as well as how they perceive and define a successful graduate employment experience in their own words. This type of feedback is critical, especially in a post COVID-19 environment.  

In spring of 2020, as the global coronavirus pandemic spread, unemployment in the United States skyrocketed and students approaching graduation were impacted in immeasurable ways, including the loss of internships and job opportunities. Future research questions for consideration include: 

  • How do the existing outcomes and competencies published by professional organizations align with student goals and experiences? 
  • How do a sample of graduate students perceive and define a successful graduate assistant employment experience? 
  • How do the experiences of current and previous (pre-COVID-19) graduate assistants differ?  
  • How should competencies change based on a post-COVID-19 economy? 

The long-lasting economic implications of the coronavirus pandemic are still unknown, and must continue to be explored in order to best support graduate students. Through on-going research and exploration college unions can persist in creating meaningful opportunities for growth and development for graduate students. 

Useful links for continued learning 

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