Building Campus Partnerships through Advocacy and Collaboration

Whether as a professional working with students or in peer-to-peer student settings, two communications studies experts believe that improving communication skills can directly benefit defined student populations like first-year and incoming students, second-year students, event planners, and student organization leaders. 

Pamela Conners, an associate professor and chair in communication studies at Gustavus Adolphus College, and Leila Brammer, University of Chicago senior lecturer, are primarily concerned with validating and enhancing the benefits of campus communications centers. But their recent work, “Building Campus Partnerships through Advocacy and Collaboration,” published in Communication Center Journal, also lays bare the benefits campus life divisions can reap through implementing communications workshops. 

Their pilot project implemented collaborations between a communications center and a student life division at a small, private liberal arts college. The idea was that the partnership might support the enhancement of students’ communications competencies. Specifically, Conners and Brammer examined new student orientation programs, a first-year orientation common reading book discussion program that teamed student leaders with faculty, and a sophomore year bystander training program. In each case, the projects also served as opportunities for the communications center to raise its reach and visibility on campus. 

“We focused on the places where communication training or interventions would be the most helpful and welcome,” the researchers wrote. “We coordinated with our partners to identify places where existing strategies for student communication and engagement fell short of student life’s goals. This led us to target two areas for our work: new student orientation and the first-term student experience. For each area, we used similar processes.” 

In this case, new student orientation was led by tenured student leaders providing sessions and mentorship, with a traditional centerpiece being a social justice theatre presentation focused on diversity and inclusion. “The post-theatre small group discussions led by student orientation leaders have long been identified as a site of concern and difficulty. Our center’s first intervention focused on improving the difficult discussions that incoming students had around diversity and inclusion,” Conners and Brammer noted. 

Student organizations working within multicultural, multilingual, and multinational contexts, with the assets provided by a communication center, might aid member students and others to develop necessary communication skills. Peer-to-peer partnerships allowed communications students to share perspectives they had already developed about why those past small group discussions “engendered reticence, skepticism, and indifference among many students and fear and inadequacy among orientation leaders,” the researchers wrote. 

In the study, student orientation leaders underwent a weeklong training based on student support and various other issues like mental health, well-being, diversity, and Title IX. They reported that the student life orientation staff enthusiastically received the suggestion of adding communication training to the training session, and they were then allotted 90 minutes to underscore principles of good facilitation and provide practice in the diversity discussion framework. 

“The session was well received by the orientation staff as well as the student orientation leaders,” Conners and Brammer wrote. “The students were concerned about their preparation to lead a discussion on diversity and were thrilled to be able to have some training, a discussion framework, and some practice. They also reported that this training was extremely useful in preparing them to facilitate other orientation workshops, conversations, and activities with their student groups.” 

In another part of the study, student orientation leaders were teamed with faculty members to prepare and facilitate discussions with first-term students in a common reading book discussion, in this case Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Even with experienced faculty and committed student leaders, student life leaders had identified a common set of challenges: not all students had read or even started the book, participants had no established rapport with either faculty or their peers, and most had never participated in this type of discussion. 

To help faculty and student orientation leaders quickly and efficiently create their own plan for discussions, several frameworks were developed that allowed summer research students to explore different lesson plans, themes, and discussion frameworks. This included focusing on two major themes that reflected the college and first-year experience: Reproductive technologies and difference and inclusion. 

Conners and Brammer built conversation frameworks for each theme that were able to be adapted to a third integrated framework. The frameworks included discussion questions, small group exercises, and relevant quotations with page number references. They presented the frameworks in a workshop for faculty and student orientation leaders. 

In reviewing their findings, Conners and Brammer explained: “We discovered how readily student orientation leaders, residential life staff, and faculty welcomed oral communication training to help them execute their responsibilities. Orientation leaders facilitate group conversations among virtual strangers, and both the facilitators and the participants often have significant apprehension about discussing sensitive topics with their new peers. Guiding such conversations in student orientation can be challenging for even experienced faculty members. The student leaders greeted the discussion frameworks and facilitation training with enthusiasm and relief.” 

Following the success of the new student orientation and common book discussion workshops, student life staff then asked for support in preparing students to engage in dialogues following guest speakers, and the Title IX coordinator requested help with designing a discussion for sophomore year bystander training. Following a bystander training video, students’ orientation leaders and resident assistants led small group discussions to help students process the examples in the video and equip the students to be effective bystanders. “As bystander intervention is discursive, we were able again to focus on communication skills and practicing them within contexts. The framework led participants through examining experiences that they had witnessed and how best to respond to those situations,” Conners and Brammer noted. 

Student leadership professionals can view this as an opportunity for collaboration that in the end supports student growth and specific student life efforts, forms new partnerships, and helps students develop and practice the critical thinking, advocacy, and communication skills that they will need for life. This type of communication skills development also empowers students to become more socially aware, civically engaged, and intellectually alive. 

Conners and Brammer believe student affairs professionals are uniquely prepared to contribute to the academic environment by virtue of their experiences with viewing the campus as a complex of working systems and the student as a whole person. Recognizing that areas of involvement like student orientation and student life programming are ideal sites to support and prepare students for public speaking, interpersonal, and small group communication allows these professionals to serve students in the process of socializing them into the environment of higher education. That, in turn, can improve retention rates and engagement of at-risk students. 

Conners, P., & Brammer, L. (2018). Building campus partnerships through advocacy and collaboration. Communication Center Journal, 4(1), 23-30.


  • Liz Stringer

    Liz Stringer serves as ACUI's director of outreach, overseeing the membership, marketing, branding, and member services areas of the Association. Stringer has been with ACUI for more than 15 years.

    View all posts