NECPA Note

A Case for Competency Development

by Nancy Hunter Denney

Going to college was a game changer.  This is where I learned just how much it was I still didn’t know.  This is where I messed up, made up and moved on.  College represented a place to “find myself” while growing as a human being.  A liberal arts education stood on its own merits.  I was free to choose a major based upon my unraveling interests, change majors five times and figure it out as I went along.  A college degree would guarantee a host of career options and success.

If that jog down memory lane resonated with you, you are most likely from the Gen X, Baby Boomer or beyond generations.  Fast forward to today.  Generation Z students question whether a college degree is even necessary; is it worth the cost?  Are they better off than if they didn’t have a degree or the enormous accompanying debt?  Will they do better in the workforce? 

After almost 40 years in higher education, I humbly answer “No.”  There is a reality to be reckoned with; let’s focus on what matters most.  Specifically, what are you doing in your work with students (and colleagues) that is truly preparing them to be successful in their work environments and careers?  Are they properly equipped?

The more you know about today’s students, the more you recognize the need to encourage their exploration of self, provide candid feedback, teach problem-solving strategies and encourage initiative.  Each of these represent a leadership competency as defined by Dr. Corey Seemiller in the Student Leadership Competencies Guidebook (Jossey-Bass).  By using actual “competency language” and familiarizing yourself with the competencies Dr. Seemiller’s research notes as the most important to today’s employers, you provide yourself with the knowledge, language and content from which to program and train.

According to Seemiller, a competency is a “cluster of related abilities, commitments, knowledge, understandings, and skills that enable a person (or an organization) to act professionally and effectively in their jobs.”  Because they are used in interviews, promotion considerations, evaluations and position placement by approximately 85% of employers, referencing a particular competency proficiency or deficiency with the accompanying “evidence” or “proof” is significantly more beneficial than “job well done.” In other words, you offer up specific observations suggesting the need for growth of a particular competency or you identify signs that growth has occured.

Not only is the incorporation of competency language valuable, Seemiller notes the use of competencies for your program development, inventory efforts, program transparency, and program assessment.  In addition, it provides a common language for strategic planning and can be used to promote programs by making a connection to career readiness.

Another application is the use of competencies as a guide for your leadership programming.  From one-day conference formats to workshop series, by selecting the most relevant competencies for your particular population, you can identify or create programs that develop the understanding, knowledge and skills around a particular competency or group of competencies.  In other words, the competency drives the program selection. 

With the assistance of leadership practitioners and researchers (including Dr. Seemiller) I created the Lead365 National Conference held in Orlando.  This annual conference is for undergraduates, graduate students, and professionals dedicated to the development of collegiate leaders.  The undergraduate curriculum offerings, learning outcomes and general sessions are completely linked to specific competencies.  The professional and graduate student track focuses on innovative program designs, and the application of current leadership research.  In addition, electronic credentials are available through the SLC Badging program.

What can you do to incorporate competencies into your work?  How can you alter your language to include “competency speak” more often?  A wonderful resource to get you started is www.studentleadershipcompetencies.com where you can find free assessment tools, inventories and more ideas on the application of Dr. Seemiller’s work.

College needs to be a game changer where we honor the true and never changing role of the educator; to teach students just how much it is they still don’t know while preparing them to be productive and contributing members of society.  Our own proficiency at the competencies of self-awareness, providing feedback, problem-solving and taking initiative, for example, will either help or hurt those we serve to learn these same skills.  What did your college experience teach you?

About the Author

Nancy Hunter Denney is a nationally recognized keynote speaker, author, and educator dedicated to empowering others to maximize their personal influence, inspire others and seek happiness. She seeks to encourage a personal sense of responsibility (and obligation) for serving a greater social good by sharing strategies for enhanced engagement in one’s work place, areas of study, organizations, communities and relationships.

Learning About Yourself

             As student affairs practitioners, we are constantly thinking about how to improve the experiences of students. We might even find ourselves asking questions like, how do we get on the same level of students? Or, what resources can we use to help students in their educational endeavors? Both questions are important in meeting students where they are developmentally and allowing them to see personal growth as learners who can find success in their educational career. However, while we should remain focused on the experiences of students there is a need to also identify and pursue opportunities for our own growth and development.

             Doing so will give us more skillsets and experiences to utilize in dialogues with students transforming us into stronger practitioners. This is possible through getting to know the variety of strengths we possess and our personality type. Having attended numerous training and workshop sessions in the past I was given the opportunity to identify some strengths I have. One of these being my need to learn and continuously improve. Finding this out about myself made sense since I enjoy new challenges and the actual process of learning. Helping students to formulate their own techniques and ways of learning is one reason that I became interested in higher education.

            Another aspect that I learned about myself was my sense of responsibility as it applies to serving student populations. I find myself brainstorming new ways to help students connect more with their campus environment whether it be in a small or large way. In the past when I have seen a student who is having a hard time making their campus community their own I have provided guidance. Sometimes students benefit from having a conversation about what student organizations they can be involved with to give them a sense of belonging. During these conversations, I have found it helps the student to give them a variety of options to participate in.

            Taking the initiative to become more familiar with those strengths I possess has aided me in helping students grow into engaged learners. Nonetheless, while becoming more knowledgeable about my strengths I know there are other areas that could be focused on. Understanding your personality and how it contributes to your environment is also crucial when working with students. If you are more introverted like I am as opposed to extroverted this can also aid you in developing methods for working with students. I have realized that this also gives me perspective when helping students who identify as being introverted. Reflecting on my undergraduate experience it was hard for me to initially participate as I was hesitant about putting myself out there. Each day I worked on becoming more comfortable with my environment and continuously working to get others to know and understand the true me. Being able to relate my process to a student’s experiences allowed me to show them that it is possible you just need to go at your own pace.

            This goes to show that being more in tune with your strengths and personality can serve you and those students who you are working with well. Practitioners should be working to use their own background and knowledge to relate to a student’s experience. In this way, they will be more equipped to help them develop into the type of engaged learners they want to work to become.

About the Author

Benjamin W. Bucklin, M.Ed.

Ben is currently working with Eastern Maine Community College in Bangor, Maine and Colby College in Waterville, Maine on a variety of projects around student life. He is always looking for new ways to get involved with the field of higher education and in his spare time enjoys volunteering within his community.

Higher Ed Trends to Watch in 2019

By Emily Perlow, Assistant Dean of Students, Worcester Polytechnic Institute

As higher education professionals, keeping abreast of happenings in the world and anticipating the ways that these changes will affect our work is an ever-constant need. The world is rapidly changing and our students are evolving in response. Higher education is not always the most nimble enterprise, yet we’re called upon to be leaders in educating students for this rapidly shifting world.

In my 15+ years in higher education I’ve seen a lot of trends, some short-lived and some that have had lasting impacts. Here are the top 6 trends that I’m watching for 2019.

  1. Declining confidence in higher education. A Gallup study found a declining confidence in higher education as an industry. In 2015, 57% of respondents reported confidence in higher education compared to 48% in 2018. Notably, the greatest drops were among conservatives. Additionally, a Pew Research Foundation study found that 6 in 10 Americans say “higher education is going in the wrong direction.”  This report indicates skepticism about the way that professors socialize students to think in liberal ways, a belief that administrators are too concerned with shielding students from uncomfortable ideas, that colleges are failing to give students adequate job skills, and that the costs are too high. Student affairs professionals can play an important role in supporting students in better articulating job skills gained through co-curricular learning and in helping students critically think about their views on controversial ideas.
  2. Increasing tension between administrators and faculty. A recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education highlighted the declining value of the tenured professoriate. Tenure appears to erode a little each year and tensions over shared governance increase. Often student affairs professionals are caught in the middle—neither upper level administrator nor faculty member—yet our jobs are often cited as examples of administrative overgrowth. As a result of what I believe will be a long-term trend, I would suggest we need to capitalize on opportunities to participate in shared governance and rely on our shared experiences to foster collaboration opportunities with non-tenured faculty colleagues.
  3. Determining what counts as learning.  There is increasing discussion on what counts as learning, what tools should be used to support learning, and what learning spaces foster the best kinds of learning. As the Department of Education considers whether to redefine the credit hour, this could allow for more creative delivery of content and acknowledgement of prior and co-curricular learning. It’s possible this could be a game changer for institutions looking to better serve adult learners. It could also mean additional revenue streams for colleges that are faltering in a time of declining enrollments. Student affairs professionals are educators and the work we do contributes to immense amounts of learning for students. We must do a better job of capturing and measuring this learning in quantifiable ways.
  4. Increasing emphasis on educational innovation. The idea of innovation is everywhere. Our students are more entrepreneurial and higher education leaders are working to distinguish their university from the rest using innovative strategies. To do this well, we must question our assumptions. Is it possible to offer free college education? Can we really deliver quality education virtually and still engage in high impact practices? One important need for innovation across higher education as an industry is an increasing need for the development of courses, majors, and programs that adapt to changing markets. As a result, there is also an increasing emphasis on interdisciplinary programs that integrate learning from across the institution. This could be an incredible opportunity for student affairs professionals to emphasize our expertise in integrating reflection and meaning-making by partnering with faculty as these programs are being developed.
  5. Making higher education increasingly accessible to diverse populations. Recent events such as the lawsuit against Harvard and the recent admissions scandal will lead to increasing scrutiny on the admissions process. This is coupled with the fact that we’re seeing declining enrollments of international students. I hope that these events will compel colleges to interrogate our assumptions, policies, and processes and hopefully lead to important perspectives on the programs and services that both support and inhibit the success of students in accessing, succeeding, and completing college. There is a growing interest in first generation student enrollment. One important distinction that will be essential moving forward is to avoid conflating first generation with working-class as too many of our first-generation focused programs do. We must be meeting the needs of working class students, an identity group that has too often been ignored. Tied to this assertion, I believe we must also better adapt to the needs of students with intersectional identities. For example, how do we meet the needs of a first generation, working class, Latinx student? I would invite that each of us should be thinking about the well-intentioned policies, practices, and procedures that may not support equal access and to enact equity by design
  6. Mobilization of the student voice. As we approach 2020 as an election year, we should certainly expect that it will be years of polarization on our campuses. I think we will see less tolerance among students of the bad behavior among their peers, more protests, and more student advocacy. Additionally, today’s student is more willing to limit speech that is not inclusive, even if protected by the First Amendment, which I personally believe is a dangerous position. There will be an increasing need for student affairs professionals to teach students how to have controversy-with-civility and how to manage being confronted with uncomfortable ideas. It will also be important that we think about our own and our institution’s positions on free speech versus exclusive or offensive speech.

These are just a few of the trends affecting our day-to-day work. It is essential we stay attuned to the larger industry trends as they affect the ways resources are allocated at our institutions and the projects and programs that are prioritized. These trends also create opportunities for student affairs professionals. I would challenge you to always ask yourself: How does/could this affect my work or my institution?

Most important, I invite you to stay attuned to world events. Subscribe to the higher education publications and news publications of your choosing. Read articles and authors with whom you disagree and think about how those positions will affect your work. Share what you’re learning with your peers. Some of the best, most thought provoking conversations I have had with colleagues came over something I read in the Sunday Globe.

About the Author


Emily Perlow is Assistant Dean of Students in the Division of Student Affairs at Worcester Polytechnic Institute. Emily also currently teaches in the Central Connecticut State Student Development in Higher Education program.  She holds a Master’s degree in College Student Personnel from Bowling Green State University and a Ph.D. in Educational Policy and Leadership from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. She volunteers actively with NASPA, AFA, NGLA, and Alpha Gamma Delta Women’s Fraternity.

NECPA Award Winner Spotlight- Sarah Santiago

Service to NECPA Award Winner- Sarah Santiago

What do you love most about working at Framingham State University?

I’ve only been at FSU for a couple months, but I love working with my team, especially my students. We have a small student team who do most of the campus space reservations, event support, event set-ups, and event tech. We put our full trust in them, and they work so hard to make each and every campus event a success!

Who inspired you to get involved in Higher Education?

My RD Shannon Jordan was one of the first people in my life to take what other people saw as flaws and show me how they can be my strengths and where those traits come from. She had a major impact on how I show up in this world and this work, and I will be forever grateful.

What advice would you offer to new professionals who are starting their first professional position?

Get involved- just like we encourage our students to do! My involvement in ACPA-College Student Educators International, the Massachusetts College Personnel Association, and the New England College Personnel Association has opened doors to opportunities, development, and relationships that I would not have had if I had just focused on my work at my home campus. Some of my favorite experiences and people have come into my life through my involvement, and volunteering is a great way to give back!