James Madison University

CSPA Graduate Assistants Support Student Development

By: Sydney Palese
Posted: October 8, 2013

PHOTO: Natalie Raymond

Experience is the best teacher.

This has been one of the most recurring and vital lessons in Natalie Raymond’s two years in the College Student Personnel Administration program.

Raymond, a second year graduate assistant with the Orientation Office, had never experienced orientation on the scale of JMU’s weeklong 1787, when she suddenly found herself tasked with the challenge of leading a group of 300 undergraduate students in their training to become first year orientation guides.

“There’s something about those types of experiences that really makes you look at yourself and look at the things you’re doing and recognize what works and what doesn’t and knowing that you can take control and that you can create a positive outcome,” Raymond said. “[When] put in situations where you have the opportunity to do that, it makes you realize, ‘OK, I can do this, I am competent, I am capable, and I know what I’m doing.’”

Raymond is just one in her CSPA cohort who serves as a graduate assistant on the JMU campus.

As part of the CSPA curriculum, the graduate students are required to complete two assistantships on the JMU campus and two practicums or internships, either on or off campus in order to fulfill the requirements of the program. These assistantships range anywhere from Career and Academic Planning to University Program Board.

Josh Bacon, Ph.D., co-director of the CSPA program, said “Graduate assistantships offer students the theory to practice connection that is needed to become an educated and enlightened student affairs professional.”

Kathryn Evans, a second year graduate student, is serving her second year as a hall director with the Office of Residence Life (ORL).

For Evans, residence life has always been apart of who she is.

“I remember going trick or treating in the residence halls with my dad because he was a hall director,” Evans said.

She served three years as a resident adviser at her undergraduate university in addition to being an LGBTQ resource, orientation guide and academic mentor, “I didn’t understand until I kept floating around and doing different jobs at my undergraduate university how much helping and guidance you can do and at this specific time in [the students’] lives,” Evans said.

As a hall director, Evans manages a team of nine resident advisers, has student behavior meetings with residents, meets regularly with the housekeepers of the residence hall, serves on the selection and training committee of ORL, leads alcohol roundtables to facilitate student-learning initiatives, has homework to do for her classes and still manages to find time to spend time with family and friends.

“I think its hard when you take classes to feel like you’re a full-time professional because I feel like I’m still learning a lot …but I think the most challenging part is knowing when I can be my student self and when I can be my more professional side,” Evans said. “Knowing how [my staffs] perceive my position as a grad student can get confusing at times.”

Understanding the balance of being a graduate assistant while still being a student is one of the challenges of being a CSPA student, but with the help of the faculty and advisers, Evans and the rest of her cohort are never without support and advice.

“The [faculty] reaches out so much,” Courtney Wallace, a second year graduate assistant in the Community Service-Learning office, said.

Wallace said the professors always make time to talk about their student’s assistantships and help with resumes and cover letters, as well as encouraging networking with their contacts.

“I love how the professors are folks who work in the offices we work in, which is relatable,” Wallace said. “ It’s cool to see that they teach but also have a full-time job.”

Wallace, who attended JMU for her undergraduate studies, is considered a “Double Duke”. However, she noted that her experience as a graduate student in the CSPA program is different than her experience as an undergrad.

Although she volunteered with Career and Academic Planning (CAP) and worked on the orientation staff while pursuing a double major in art history and studio art, she said she never dreamed of a master’s degree in student affairs.

Wallace said she struggled her first year year, but with the help of on-campus resources, she was able to become involved. Because of this, she knew she wanted to give back to the JMU community and soon developed a passion for student development.

“I was always dreaming up projects instead of doing homework for my major,” Wallace said.
Wallace’s supervisors at CAP told her that she could go to graduate school for this type of work.

“As soon as I heard that this was something I could do for a living I said ‘sign me up.’”
While the student affairs faculty in both her undergraduate and graduate studies have been significant mentors in Wallace’s growth as a student, she said she also draws great support from her cohort.

“I think we definitely learn from each other and challenge each other,” Wallace said. “We’ve agreed we’re all going to be supportive. We’re going to have a celebration for whoever gets a job first.”

For Lamar Walker, a second year graduate assistant with University Program Board, this support is one of the many aspects that draws him the most to student affairs.

“I think student affairs gives students the unique opportunity to grow outside of the academic setting; to find out how they can take what they’re passionate about inside the classroom and apply it outside of the classroom,” Walker said. “Student affairs gives us the chance to see that growth and change happen in student’s lives and be that support they need while they’re creating the foundation for the rest of their lives.”

Beyond the classroom and workplace, Walker has learned lessons that he will apply in his career once he graduates from the CSPA program.

“I think this program really gives us the opportunity to … explore the ‘why’ not just the ‘what’ and so I think that curiosity or drive to know the ‘why’ is something I’ll always carry with me.