Faculty Spotlight

July Faculty Spotlight with Assistant Professor, Rachel Smith

July 16 Faculty Spotlight

Public affairs is often focused on how to improve the lives of those in need. But an equally vital facet involves the assessment of higher education, such as understanding the development and outcomes of the student-peer relationship or communication patterns of administrators. The Master of Science in Education in Higher Education Administration program is focused on teaching how to lead and manage in the unique world of higher education. Assistant Professor, Rachel Smith, who teaches in the program, discusses the student experience, CUNY, her research, and the classes she'll teach this upcoming semester.

What classes will you be teaching in the upcoming fall semester?
This fall I will be teaching two required courses in the Higher Education Administration master's program: an introductory course in student affairs administration (PAF 9336); and a course in research for educational administrators (PAF 9317).

The student affairs course is about thinking through the structures, policies, and practices that we use to support college student learning and development. The course will examine a wide range of different institutions, from community colleges to research universities. The class is not intended to be just the "nuts and bolts" of being an administrator. Students in the course get to focus on a particular population of undergraduates and research best practices institutions can use to support them through college to graduation. We also have a chance to critically examine current issues on college campuses that affect students—for example, supporting transgender students or campus climate issues related to the Black Lives Matter movement—that are always lively discussions, given our engaged and thoughtful higher-ed students.

My other course next fall, research for educational administrators (PAF 9317), focuses on the philosophy, design, and mechanics of conducting both qualitative and quantitative research in educational settings. An administrator's job involves consuming the best information available, implementing the best policies or practices for the institution, and constantly assessing the success of those policies and practices. The course develops tools for educational administrators to become better consumers of data and become more capable of assessing whether those policies and practices that we hope help students to learn and graduate actually "work." Students practice collecting and analyzing qualitative data and they develop a quantitative research proposal. Although students don't always eagerly anticipate the course, one of my goals is to generate excitement about how research methods could apply to their own workplace and inspire students to develop further research-related expertise.

Can you tell us about some research you've done that was particularly stimulating? Do you have current or upcoming projects or articles?
Colleges and universities are under increasing pressure to find ways to improve retention and graduation. One of my current research projects examines whether a common intervention, the creation of residential learning communities where students live and learn together, improves the level of academic and co-curricular involvement of students on campus. Most higher education research focuses on how attributes of the individual student, such as race, gender, major, or socioeconomic class, are related to variations in student involvement. But in reality, we know that involvement is also shaped by the nature of our webs of relationships with family, friends, classmates, professors, administrators, and a host of others.

I use a quantitative technique called social network analysis to study how institutions can help create positive social networks, and in turn, the ways that students become members of various campus communities. To help introduce this method to the field, I've conducted a study on a residential learning community as compared to a random-assignment residence hall floor at a large, private research university. Educators sometimes debate whether student engagement with particular niche communities (like themed learning communities, or racial/ethnic identity centers) is somehow limiting, or segregationist, or protective. For example, if you come to campus and join a residential learning community with a particular theme, will you bond exclusively with members of that community while ignoring other forms of involvement on campus? A mixed methods paper I have under review suggests that rather than harm later involvement, these communities may facilitate "connective segregation", where students initially bond with one another and are subsequently supported by their residential community when they begin a wider exploration of communities on campus. My research suggests that residential college administrators need not necessarily worry that establishing new learning communities will limit or slow the process of getting students involved in campus activities, and thus becoming more engaged in the college experience.

What drew you to the topics you research and study (student-focused learning environments, including learning communities; the first-year experience in higher education; student transition issues; analysis of student behavior in social networks; student success in college)? How do they continue to shape your career and your research?
Like many newly admitted college students, I received a brochure from my alma mater, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, with a variety of options for on-campus living. I chose a unique residential learning community on campus called Chadbourne Residential College, and found myself immersed in a diverse, dynamic group of students and faculty who cared about learning and exploring new topics. I appreciated the value of that experience so much that I became a student leader in the community, and I began working with a variety of campus programs to help new students orient themselves to a college environment. We literally throw the majority of our college-bound young people into one of the most radical life-changes they will likely experience with only a brief thought to the social structures in a variety of contexts that help those students to adjust.

All of these problems of engagement, retention, and graduation are magnified in a public institution like the City University of New York, where a high percentage of students are first-generation, commuters, and often hold part-time or full-time jobs. The CUNY system is an enormous incubator of economic growth and provides a critical opportunity for students to obtain a relatively inexpensive college education. However, many CUNY schools suffer from low retention rates and low graduation rates, which mean there is a tremendous amount that administrators may be able to do to make these institutions an even more valuable resource for the New York City community. I am motivated to research the effects of programs like learning communities (among others), because these types of interventions, if designed and implemented properly, can make a positive contribution to campus communities and improve student outcomes. And, of course, I am constantly inspired by my wonderfully diverse, hard-working higher education students, who bring new and exciting ideas to the classroom each semester.