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Flexibility is the name of the game when you’re working with a wide range of students in a profession that is itself changing along with society. Rich Parsells and Alicia Vela, two faculty members in the Master of Arts in College Student Development program at St. Edward’s University in Austin, Texas, share their insight about the qualities that are essential when you work with students.

Good People Skills

Effective student services professionals have the ability to develop rapport quickly, to think on their feet and to be patient. But they’re also adept at drawing students out when they can’t figure out what they want.


Those who excel in the field appreciate that people come to college with different levels of academic preparation and personal growth. “One realizes the need to meet each individual where they are, while understanding that as human beings, we’re all capable of growth and of developing further,” says Parsells, who directs the master’s program.

A Sense of Purpose

Many adults who make a career change into student services do so because they’ve discovered that working with students is their passion. “They may have a career ‘aha moment,’” Parsells says. “They thought about it and decided they really want to be in a helping profession in a college setting because they think back and remember how important it was for them when someone reached out and helped them get through college. Basically they discover a purpose in their life.”

Openness to Diversity — and to Change

This means not simply being able to work with all kinds of people but understanding that the profession itself is evolving to adapt to the changing student population.

In the last few decades, college enrollments have become much more diverse in their ethnic, cultural and socioeconomic composition. However, much of the foundational theory about college student development is based on research conducted when college populations were primarily Caucasian and upper middle class. As new research unfolds and theories are updated, student services professionals need to be flexible in their thinking and their approach to working with students.  “What we know now may not be what seems credible 10 or 20 years from now,” Parsells explains.

It’s also important to realize that the student services profession changes along with society. Today’s master’s-level students will be making decisions for people who might be in middle school today, explains Vela, the director of Residence Life at St. Edward’s. “I tell my students not to focus on the here and now but to always be thinking about the future and how are things evolving.”

The part-time weekend Master of Arts in College Student Development program, completed in two years, at St. Edward’s University in Austin, Texas, prepares graduates for careers to help college students reach their full potential.

Robyn Ross is a freelance writer.