Survey: Student Development in Campus Recreation the Summits and Pitfalls

Becoming a professional staff member in a campus recreation department has developed into much more than simply running a gym. It has essentially evolved into a role that is key in the development of student staff. As student development continues to be an important aspect of campus recreation, rec professionals have started to question exactly what student development means to them. With this in mind, 27 schools were studied where exceptional work has been done, however most still demonstrated areas for improvement.

The research was structured around a basic hypothesis that addressed a specific problem. Although campus recreation can fall under three different departments — student development/affairs, finance and administration, and athletics — about a decade ago a notable shift took place. Previously, the mentality of those recreational professionals might have been described as, “This is just a job that includes overseeing students that manage a recreation facility correctly.” Now, that same statement can be articulated differently as, “Overseeing these students in such a way that ensures the professional staff serves as a resource for them, so that they can develop academically, professionally and personally.” Some rec departments experienced this shift sooner than others, however it had not yet become a well-known practice in NIRSA in those first few years. More recently, it has become an important component of the professional staff member’s job and a bigger part of NIRSA’s identity.

While these professional staff are starting to add student development into their “curriculum,” at some universities there are opportunities for further development. At these locations, there appears to be a miscommunication between the student and the professional staff.

To develop a plan to address this problem, a broad array of professional staff members were contacted to gain a fuller understanding of their perspectives. The goal was to talk to as many professional staff as possible to find out how they are approaching student development at their universities. In all, more than 50 staff from all across the nation were contacted, and 27 chose to participate. Universities that were represented included:

  • Boise State University
  • Butler University
  • Colorado State University
  • Creighton University
  • Florida Gulf Coast University
  • Illinois State University
  • Liberty University
  • Northern Kentucky University
  • Oklahoma State University
  • Stanford University
  • The Ohio State University
  • University of Alabama-Birmingham
  • University of Arizona
  • University of Delaware
  • University of Georgia
  • University of Nevada-Las Vegas
  • University of New Mexico
  • University of North Dakota
  • University of Oregon
  • University of South Dakota
  • University of Southern Mississippi
  • University of Texas-San Antonio
  • University of Vermont
  • University of Washington
  • Villanova University
  • Wichita State University

The sample varied by location, enrollment size, student staff size, professional staff size and whether public or private institutions. Each was willing to share how they implement student development at their schools and were contacted using a similar approach.

A rubric was created to effectively compare and contrast the results at each location. After talking with all of the professional staff members, it became evident that there were a few who were models for student development, with something to be gained from each insight. The six categories for the rubric tool were derived from these insights. The rubric is shown below.

Four points of the rubric were assigned higher priority for their value in professional development. They are resume/cover letter writing, interviewing skills, leadership training, and promotion of attendance at professional conferences. Some were already prevalent in campus recreation programs. Professional and leadership skill development during required staff training sessions was the most discussed among the professional staff interviewed. Almost every university rec department had leadership training in its “curriculum.” Through required staff trainings, in-services, the promotion process, and just being a part of the staff, students are exposed to this by rote.

The second most mentioned point was attendance at conferences. For many campuses, student staff are offered the opportunity to attend state conferences. It was learned that there is even a conference planned and led by students to promote student attendance, titled NIRSA Student Lead-On. While these conferences focus on campus recreation, there are countless presentations, resume reviews, and mock interviews that students not intending to follow the campus rec career path can use to gain professional knowledge. This is where it became apparent that there is a need to teach the skills of writing resumes and cover letters, and interviewing, to college students.

When professional staff were asked if they do anything to teach these skills, many of them admitted they do not. On a few occasions, the professional staff member mentioned that he used to have skills sessions presented jointly with Career Services or other pro staff members to discuss these areas. The sessions were discontinued for several reasons, most notably budgetary restrictions. Some of the schools required attendance at these skill sessions, therefore the student staff had to be paid to attend. The other reason was low attendance. When attendance was voluntary, the turnout for these skills sessions was very low, so they stopped holding them altogether. For whatever reason they had, many of these rec departments were not teaching these critical skills. Another option that these professional staff rely on is for the students to approach them, asking for their assistance, but we will touch more on that later.

These results and others were scaled and presented on the rubric below. Categories were created for level of involvement indicating heavy, moderate, and light ratings. Not surprisingly, results were dispersed across the categories.

A solid 29 percent of the rec departments fell into the heavy category, demonstrating model development programs for their students. These exemplary departments touched on every aspect of the rubric and did it well. In the beginning, we assumed that the larger schools would dominate this category, since they usually have a bigger budget and more professional staff. It is interesting to note, however, that these schools tended to be medium-sized in terms of enrollment.

More than half of the population fell into the moderate group. That same disconnect can come into play here. These schools offer many great programs for their student staff, but are missing resume and cover letter writing and interviewing skills. This could be for a variety of reasons already mentioned, such as budget or lack of student attendance at prior sessions, or perhaps they have not gotten around to addressing the topic but plan to in the future.

Finally, the light group represents only 19 percent of the schools interviewed. These rec departments are not designed for total student development. In all cases, they believed that career services did a much better job than their own department in developing their students effectively. One rec department in particular was comprised mostly of community members from the surrounding area. Only 25 percent of their staff are actual students. For this reason, that they have not invested in professional development.

In Conclusion

This study identified certain trends representing the majority of rec departments sampled. In general, no one department mirrors another, they are all unique. There are many different factors that contribute to their operational model. These could be budget, number of student staff and professional staff, or which department the rec falls under structurally. As we mentioned before, these could be athletics, student development/affairs, or finance and administration. While NIRSA is encouraging these approaches to be more standardized, that is not an easy task. Every university employs different department strategies in order to achieve a variety of missions.

As we touched on before, another trend was that many of the rec departments who do not have an official program to teach resume writing or mock interviewing, said that if a student approached them asking for help, they would be more than willing to assist them. Many students do not consider asking their supervisors at their rec center to look over their resume or help them prepare for their job after college. Those students that do approach them for help are looking to follow the collegiate rec career path. If the professional staff is willing to help them, then they should be striving to teach these practical skills to all of their students, rather than just the ones who approach them.

Finally, it is no surprise that students are pressed for time. Considering all of the required trainings, in-services, shifts on the job, miscellaneous meetings, and classes, students do not have time to acquire developmental opportunities. This is why it is critical that rec departments have a strong sense of student development, since it may be the only place that their students will be getting that training. A focus on leadership that ensures students get development and practical skills to succeed after they graduate is going to continue to be an essential part of the world of campus recreation. It needs to be addressed in some way.

AFTER NOTE: This research will be continued. Feel free to contact us if you would like to have your rec department included in our research. Please email


Sam Stidham is a Sport Management student, pursuing his Health and Sport Sciences degree at the University of Dayton. He is currently working on Dayton’s campus in their Campus Recreation Department.

Dr. Peter Titlebaum, Professor of Sport Management at the University of Dayton in Dayton, Ohio, has more than 30 years of experience in management in the profit, nonprofit, private and public sectors. He speaks and writes on areas of networking, organizational and personal development, educating audiences to be their own advocates.


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