We had the honor of representing NIRSA at the Primer Congreso Internacional de Asuntos Estudiantiles: “Desafíos y Sentido” (NASPA LAC First International Student Affairs Conference: Challenges and Meaning) hosted at la Universidad de los Andes in Bogotá, Colombia. This first international conference for student affairs, hosted by NASPA-LAC, brought together participants from Mexico, Guatemala, Colombia, and Chile to establish a first-rate professional development offering.

In addition to attending sessions, and representing NIRSA during a panel discussion of associations within student affairs, we had the opportunity to tour Torre Séneca, the first residence hall in Colombia, and visit the campus Sports Center.

NIRSA was represented on the student affairs panel

As NIRSA’s representative, Victoria had been invited—along with members from ACUHO-I, ACUI, and NODA—by NASPA to present on a panel providing insight into the different areas of student affairs in the United States and sharing high-impact practices. NIRSA’s contributions focused on providing an overview of the profession of campus recreation as well as information about NIRSA and its history. Other highlights that stood out to this audience were the discussion around student employees and the critical, lifelong skills they gain working in collegiate recreation and recreation’s role in integrated wellbeing.

Widening NIRSA’s global perspective

Our three days of learning proved to be eye-opening and expanded the lens through which we view our work as collegiate recreation professionals. The experience enhanced our understanding of the characteristics, challenges, and innovations within the region.

In recent years, many universities have experienced a significant increase in enrollment. With this increase comes a diversity of people and thought, and institutions are focusing on how to strategically meet the needs of their students. More first-generation college students are attending, which has surfaced issues around achievement gap and retention.

The politics of inclusion have become a focus and faculty, staff, and students are eager to develop the necessary cross-cultural skills and competencies.

Within the region, the prominent issues facing higher education included the use of alcohol and other drugs, the high cost of education, and increased demands on students’ time. Mental health was discussed several times with a focus on suicidal ideation and anxiety. A great deal of work is being done to inform students about the support and resources available to them, and professionals at the conference are interested in making a concerted effort to combat the stigmatization of mental health issues.

Finding similarities with North America

During our time at the conference, we saw many similarities between the region and North America, particularly the United States, regarding characteristics and issues in higher education. Higher education professionals in South and Central Americas too are concerned with supporting and retaining first-generation students. Identifying barriers to learning through the lens of inclusion and identity is a large focus—specifically, socioeconomic class and its correlation with the achievement gap.

There is a recognized need for preparing students with job-readiness skills through experiences on campus that take place outside of the classroom. Additionally, universities in the region are trying to establish their role in the lives of the students. For example, how and when to inform and involve parents. Universities must navigate incidents ranging from minor offences to those as severe as sexual violence within the cultural contexts of the region and the absence of federal laws like Title IX and FERPA that are present in the US.

Opportunities for reciprocal learning and engagement

The two most significant take-aways from our experience were recognizing the internationalization of our work and the opportunities available for NIRSA to engage in the discussion of integrating wellbeing into campus life. Universidad Tecmilenio (if you view the website in Google Chrome, there is an option to translate the page to English) in Monterrey, Mexico is pioneering a student learning model grounded in positive psychology. The university works to create a community of wellbeing where all members are stewards of its success. This construct for student learning is universal, and many opportunities to learn from Tecmilenio exist.

As more focus is placed on job-readiness skills, NIRSA is poised to engage in dialogue about the application of student development theory via student employment. The competencies, theories, and research of student affairs are being used internationally. More work can be done. Opportunities exist to further the field of collegiate recreation through technology, engaging in shared research, and providing professional development focused on leadership, intercultural communication, and the application of student development theory.

This conference not only opened doors for NIRSA to build relationships in Latin American countries, but allowed us to network with colleagues throughout student affairs in the United States (ACUHO-I, ACUI, NODA, and NASPA). Collectively, we were able to look beyond our most southern border at new relationships, collaborations, and possibilities for advancing our field. Our work is universal; having NASPA as a partner has allowed us to explore new relationships and consider how we might look to other hemispheres of the world to carry out NIRSA’s strategic values.

We encourage you to take advantage of these opportunities to engage as well—the second annual NAPSA-LAC conference will be hosted in October of 2018 in Chile.

  • For more information on the event, please contact either of the authors. For more information about NIRSA’s work with partner associations, such as NASPA, please contact NIRSA Director of Advocacy & Strategic Partnerships Erin O’Sullivan.

Victoria Lopez-Herrera is currently Associate Director of Campus Recreation at the University of Texas at San Antonio; she can be reached at victoria.lopez-herrera@utsa.edu.  Bill Crockett, RCRSP is currently the Executive Director of Campus Life Services at the University of Maryland Baltimore and the President on the NIRSA Board of Directors; he can be reached at president@nirsa.org.