Bridging Administration and Academics: Engaging Students in Campus Planning

By Robin Helms

November 1, 2017

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Robin Helms, director of ACE’s Center for Internationalization and Global Engagement, talks with Caroline Neal, a graduate student in Old Dominion University’s International Higher Education program.

On many campuses, students and administrators can seem like ships passing (or jockeying for parking spots) in the night. While administrative endeavors certainly impact students, they do not necessarily involve students from a process standpoint.

This lack of involvement, however, can be a missed opportunity for both the institution and the students. Engaging students in the running of the campus keeps their interests at the heart of its operations–and from a purely practical perspective, can help ease administrator workload. For students, interaction with institutional leaders and substantive discussion among campus stakeholders provide a valuable glimpse into real-world organizational dynamics. And opportunities to develop time management, communication, and interpersonal skills surely make such involvement a “high-impact” educational practice, especially when it’s purposefully tied back to students’ academic work.

Through my work with Old Dominion University (ODU) (VA) as part of ACE’s Internationalization Laboratory program, I’ve seen the power of student engagement in an administrative process–in this case, an institution-wide initiative to develop a strategic plan for campus internationalization. From the start, Caroline Neal, a graduate student in International Higher Education at ODU, has been integrally involved by supporting the institution’s internationalization task force, analyzing data, and facilitating meetings and discussion. She also coordinated the involvement of a group of her graduate student peers, who contributed to data gathering and analysis as a class project.

Caroline and I met on campus at ODU last fall and have been in touch regularly through the Lab. I recently caught up with her by email and asked her to reflect on her role in the Lab process and what she has gained from the experience.

Robin: What has your work with the internationalization committee entailed?

Caroline: My work with the Lab began in January of this year. Since then, I’ve assisted the main planning committee and six subcommittees with research and analysis, while also acting as the overall project manager.

Robin: How does your involvement in this project relate to your academic work?

Caroline: As I’m just starting my career as an international educator, this experience has enhanced my knowledge of internationalization and the administrative structure of higher education—knowledge I hope to integrate into my professional practice. I’ve really enjoyed learning about the integration of internationalization into higher education systems and its impact on the campus community from experienced academics, practitioner-scholars, and institutional leaders. Plus, I’ve gained insight about how internationalization impacts and enhances student learning.

Caroline Neal, master’s student in the International Higher Education program at Old Dominion University. Photo courtesy of Caroline Neal.

Robin: Along with your own work on the project, you helped facilitate engagement of a group of your graduate student colleagues. Can you tell me about that?

Caroline: During the spring semester, master’s students in the higher education leadership program completed capstone projects in collaboration with the internationalization committee.  Students compiled research about current internationalization initiatives at ODU into reports and presentations. Through this process, my peers learned of the importance of international education and how internationalization impacts a campus—plus they developed critical competencies and skills that will serve them well as they begin their careers.

Before this project, many of my colleagues had limited knowledge of international education. Being involved in the Lab process allowed them to see a different side to higher education—and it solidified ODU’s commitment to internationalization and student learning.

Robin: What have been the biggest challenges you’ve faced in during the project? How have you tackled them?

Caroline: Higher education is a complicated place! The biggest challenge I’ve faced so far is learning how to navigate the administrative structure and process within a large institution. Before I started this project, I didn’t know much about university reporting structures, who creates strategic plans for the university, or how initiatives are chosen to be a part of a strategic plan. This project has helped me understand how “top-down” initiatives are implemented, and it’s been a great opportunity for me to learn as much as possible about higher education before I start my career.

Robin: What advice would you give to campus administrators for involving students in their work?

Caroline: My biggest piece of advice is to simply open the door and provide an opportunity for us to get involved. We are excited and motivated to be part of the decision-making process, and are happy to work with administrators to figure out how to contribute. We bring fresh ideas and perspectives to the table and want to improve our universities.

Students provide a unique perspective because they are involved in university life at a different level than campus administrators. It’s important for students to be involved in the decision-making process of their universities, as all decisions will affect them in some way!

Robin: Any final reflections?

Caroline: I’ve now seen firsthand the value of internationalization. I see so much potential for the future in terms of producing graduates who can thrive in an interconnected world, but continued investments and action must be taken to ensure that the U.S. doesn’t lag behind its global partners. Through internationalization, we can continue to ensure that our universities are competitive globally and inviting to students from around the world.

Caroline Neal is a master’s student in the International Higher Education program at Old Dominion University. She is currently the graduate assistant for the ACE Internationalization Laboratory and intern for International Initiatives in the Office of Intercultural Relations. She received her Bachelor’s degree in French at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. Caroline has extensive travel and work experience in France including studying abroad, teaching English, and leading a cultural immersion program there. She is interested in working with international students either through programming, advocacy, or policy work.

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About the Author

Robin Helms

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