Student affairs counselors are employed in a variety of settings within higher education. Their day-to-day tasks are as varied as the settings they work in. Professionals who want to advance their careers in counseling can study for a counseling master’s to add even more options to an already promising vocational path.
“Some student affairs counselors work at top-tier research universities,” says Dr. Stephan Berry, Licensed Professional Counselor and associate professor in Troy University’s School of Counseling. “Others work at community colleges. They can be anywhere in higher education — private or public — and even within those contexts, they work in a variety of roles.”
Typical areas of employment include career centers, international programs, deans’ offices, admissions offices, graduate studies, undergrad studies and first-year studies.
“A student affairs career really offers a lot of flexibility and variety, depending on what someone’s interests are,” says Dr. Berry.
It’s the variety that draws many to the field. Bethany Yeend graduated from TROY with a BS in Communication Arts in 2017 and an MS in Counseling and Psychology with a Student Affairs Concentration in 2020. Yeend is currently a manager of employer and student engagement at Auburn University at Montgomery. She especially likes the fast pace of the job and the fact that almost no two days are the same.
“Most student affairs professionals work with students, faculty and other staff on a daily basis,” says Yeend. “Tasks are typically diverse, ranging from advising to event planning to logistics. In my current role, I spend my days counseling students on the next steps to take to reach their career goals, working with other faculty and staff to plan and promote events, and building relationships with the employers in our database.”
Post-Secondary Student Counseling vs High School Counseling
While the motivation to help students may be the same for high school counselors and higher education counselors, post-secondary student affairs counseling is vastly different from student counseling in high schools.
“High school counselors traditionally do guidance lessons,” says Dr. Berry. “They find interventions for students needing help selecting a college or career. In the higher ed setting, counselors can do some career guidance, but post-secondary counseling is a more wide-open field. Counselors in higher education are also working with an older population of traditional and non-traditional college students, depending on the focus of the campus where they work.”
Yeend agrees that the motivation is the same. Both post-secondary and high school counselors have one goal in mind — helping students achieve their goals.
“However, with post-secondary student counseling, it can sometimes feel like there’s more on the line,” says Yeend. “Many of our students are finishing up either four-year bachelor’s or even master’s degrees. Their next step is the workforce, and I feel an immense pressure to be sure they’re prepared. My students look to me for what isn’t always covered in the classroom; I’m their expert. I’m tasked with helping them navigate interview woes and cost-of-living research and salary negotiations. And while high school counselors likely feel much of that same weight, my students have student loans and car payments and often families they need to fund. And I have to help make it happen for them!”
Characteristics of an Effective Post-Secondary Counselor
Student affairs counselors work with students of all ages from all walks of life; not surprisingly, one of the primary characteristics of an effective post-secondary counselor is a concern for others.
“Those interested in a student affairs career need to be caring people,” explains Dr. Berry. “They need to be people who strive to be the best for others and enjoy helping others make a difference in their lives.”
A caring heart is most important, but thick skin is a close second — along with the ability to resolve conflicts with confidence.
“Post-secondary student counselors sometimes deal with people who are frustrated,” says Dr. Berry. “Let’s say the counselor works in the financial aid office, and a student starts yelling because needed financial aid hasn’t come in. Thick skin and conflict resolution skills become very important in that moment.”
Flexibility to change plans on a dime is a characteristic that’s at the top of Yeend’s list. “The number one skill I think anyone in student affairs has to have is flexibility,” Yeend says. “Student schedules change. Bad weather days happen. People cancel. Questions get asked that you don’t have the answer to. And if you can’t pivot, think fast and find a solution quickly, your students notice and often will be the ones let down.”
Challenges Post-Secondary Students Face
Students at the post-secondary level face unique challenges that student affairs counselors help them navigate.
“A major area of challenge is when students come into college not really knowing what they want to do,” explains Dr. Berry. “Helping them sort through all the options is crucial. Student affairs professionals also help students navigate the financial aid world — scholarships, grants and loans. We help them register for classes.”
When students enroll at TROY, they may not know all the resources available to them, and student affairs professionals are equipped to guide them.
“Post-secondary students have needs on almost every level,” says Yeend. “There’s a wide range of what students could need assistance with. Some students have simple questions, like how to write a cover letter. Other students need to know where to find housing or meals because even their basic needs aren’t met. All those challenges are important to us. If students just bring their concerns — whether as small as a parking zone question or as large as student loan approval — to us, we can get them the answers they need!”
Counseling Professionals Help Students Overcome Challenges
Counseling professionals help students overcome these challenges by offering individual counseling services, workshops and job fairs. They also connect students to a wide range of resources, both on and off campus.
“A good example is when professors in other fields such as a social work class, an architecture class, or a writing class invite student affairs counselors into their classes to help students create and refine their resumes,” says Dr. Berry. “Student affairs professionals also provide career fairs for students to meet employers face to face.”
Counseling professionals don’t always have all the answers, but they generally know how to find a resource that might.
“As student affairs counselors, we have the helping gene and a label that means students often come to us for assistance that is outside of our job description,” says Yeend. “When students seek out our help, we can either assist them with whatever their needs may be personally, or we can point them to exactly the person they need to speak with.”
Benefits of a Master’s of Counseling in Student Affairs
One of the benefits of doing a master’s in student affairs counseling is the chance to explore the field while studying it.
“Students get to learn about different work settings before they graduate,” explains Dr. Berry. “Then they can find out which one really works for them. In one of the classes I teach, I bring in professionals from all across the campus to talk about what they do.”
Yeend took advantage of the opportunity to explore.
“I began the Counseling and Psychology program unsure of which specialization I would pursue,” she explains. “During our orientation class, our professor brought in a counselor from each discipline — rehab, clinical, school, and student affairs counseling. When I heard the student affairs representative, who worked in TROY’s Career Services office at the time, speak about her daily tasks and the interactions she had with students, something inside of me clicked, and I instantly thought ‘That’s what I want to do.’”
A counseling master’s is also one of the best avenues for professionals who want to advance in the field.
“If you want to work yourself up into higher-level positions, having a master’s makes a big difference,” says Dr. Berry. “You’ll rarely find people in advanced positions who don’t have a master’s.”
Career options available for someone with a counseling master’s in student affairs are varied.
“They can work in academic advising, human resources, the Office of Civic Engagement and more,” says Dr. Berry. “Other options are working in military affairs with veterans who are coming back to school, disability services, financial services — the field is wide open.”
TROY’s Student Affairs Counseling Master’s
TROY’s student affairs counseling master’s is one of few in the United States. It’s an evening program that offers the flexibility working professionals need to advance their education careers.
“Our program is a 48-hour program in the Department of Counseling, Rehabilitation & Interpreter Training,” says Dr. Berry. “Classes are typically offered at night, and although it’s not a completely online program, some classes are offered online. Typically, students take two and a half to three years to graduate. They take core foundational classes in the counseling program and specialized classes in student affairs counseling. They also participate in a 100-hour practicum and two 300-hour internships, and then they graduate.”
The student affairs program at TROY is unique in that Dr. Berry is the only faculty member that teaches in it. “I’m plugged into all aspects of the campus,” says Dr. Berry. “If a student has a particular need or desire to work in a certain area, I already have contacts in that area.”
The program also offers small class sizes that allow students to get to know Dr. Berry and the other program participants well.
“Class size is typically around 10 students,” Dr. Berry explains. “I get to develop a strong relationship with every student, and throughout their program, they get to meet student affairs professionals and start developing the relationships that may lead to employment later down the road.”
The small class sizes contribute to a feeling of community among students. For Yeend, that’s part of what drew her back to the campus for her master’s studies.
“I attended TROY for my undergraduate degree in communications,” says Yeend. “I always felt heard and seen by the faculty and staff, and I met some of my best friends. The community aspect of TROY cannot be overstated!”
Although several years have passed since Yeend graduated with her master’s degree, she still feels a sense of connection with the TROY faculty and community.
“You will not find a more caring faculty who invest in every single student they meet. You will not find another program that will push you through the practicum, internships and projects the way TROY does. When I logged my 300+ hours of internship and got the notification that I had passed the Counselor Preparation Comprehensive Examination (CPCE), I knew that I was well-prepared to assist students. There hasn’t been a day yet where I’ve been let down by the degree hanging behind me on my office wall.”
For Professionals Who Want To Serve
The counseling master’s for student affairs professionals benefits those who want to serve students and those who will be served — the students themselves.
“Ultimately, the degree benefits the college students who will be served by student affairs counselors who graduate from our program,” says Dr. Berry. “Those students are getting specially trained personnel who’ll be able to better meet their individualized needs.”
The master’s also benefits students who’ve always had the desire to work with students in a higher education setting. “Maybe in an undergraduate program, students have had someone who was a student affairs professional make a big impact on them,” Dr. Berry explains. “That leads them to say, ‘I’d like to do that. I’d like to help people the same way I was helped.’”
Other working professionals, like Yeend herself, feel a calling to serve students in a different way than they have in their previous careers.
“I spent two years teaching in the private sector, and while I loved investing in my students, the extra load of administration failures, lesson plans, disciplinary actions and parental involvement was overwhelming,” says Yeend. “I enrolled in TROY’s graduate school originally to seek a master’s in education but decided that perhaps a school counseling degree would allow me to accomplish the service I was actually looking for. I wanted to be a listening ear for students and help them achieve their goals and dreams without the hours of grading, paperwork and parent conferences.”
Skills Built with the Counseling Master’s
Professionals who choose a career in student affairs are already caring people. The degree builds counseling skills onto that.
“It adds to their communication skills,” says Dr. Berry. “The coursework teaches counseling skills such as conflict resolution and helps participants develop other personal skills such as how to maintain healthy relationships.”
The counseling courses also focus heavily on how to develop authenticity in those relationships.
“The counseling skills my classes and faculty mentors taught me include how to connect authentically with students, how to think on my feet and how to be confident in my ability to help,” says Yeend. “I’ve found that the techniques we practiced so often now come naturally when meeting with a new student or employer and navigating that first connection.”
Interested in Pursuing a Career in Student Affairs Counseling? Here’s What You Should Know
On a fundamental level, a concern for students is the biggest requirement to succeed in the field — TROY can help with everything else.
“If someone has a heart for students, TROY’s counseling master’s can teach the skills,” says Dr. Berry. “It’s also important that those interested know that a career in student affairs is a commitment. It’s not one of those things someone would want to do just because it sounds fun. But for those interested in working with college students, it’s a career worth pursuing.”
Those who have the most success also come into the program with an open mind about specific direction within the field.
“Program participants should have an idea of an area they’d like to pursue,” Dr. Berry explains. “But they should also be open because I’ve had students in the program discover new opportunities they hadn’t thought of before and choose to go a different direction.
“If you love students, this is the best field to be in,” says Yeend. “If you don’t want to constantly be surprised, meet new people, learn new vocabulary and walk students three floors down because they can’t find financial aid, then you might want to visit your Career Services Office and create a new career plan. But if helping people is your passion, this is the place to be.”
Learn more about how you can add to your student affairs career by visiting the Master’s of Counseling page on our website.