Marketing Communications in Student Affairs: Make Way for a New Functional Area

Let me begin with what feels like a little-known fact: Yes, the world of marketing communications exists in student affairs, albeit a small and growing niche concentration. It’s an exciting time to be a communicator in higher education as more institutions come to understand the value of marketing communications to student outreach and retention. Because this trend is just now on the rise, pathways to becoming a marketing communications professional in the world of higher education and student affairs are not always the most clear, and absolutely not discussed often enough. We could use more communicators with student affairs backgrounds.

So, here is my story. 

I owe my entire career to Tumblr. For those unaware, Tumblr is a micro-blogging website created in 2007 and I was an early adopter of the platform. When I went to college, I used Tumblr to connect with other prospective and current students at my institution. Over time, anonymous questions from prospective students began pouring into my Tumblr inbox, asking anything and everything about the university. And because I wanted to help out, I did my best to answer them all, tagging each post with the university’s official hashtag. Because I used their hashtag, I was noticed by the institution’s central marketing office and was eventually called in for an interview to fill an open position. So, I started out the way most do—as an intern.

I worked with my undergraduate institution’s Office of Marketing Communications for three years, focusing on digital marketing communications channels including email and social media and on producing photography and videography. When I started, I was a nursing major, but by the time I reached my third semester, I knew I needed to make the switch to media studies. I also enrolled in a dual-degree teaching program to begin earning credit toward an MA in Teaching because I knew early on that the field of education would be my calling. All the while, I held down multiple student leadership positions on campus, which was the part of my experience that introduced me to the world of student affairs. I was an RA, a hall council member, a front desk assistant, the publicity manager for the choir, the online editor for the school newspaper—sometimes all at once. Outside of student affairs, I was also a freelance photographer, the social media manager for an annual film festival and created videos on YouTube just for fun. One might say I had too many things going on, but as a student putting himself through school, I never said no to an opportunity. I lived every semester like it could be my last. From the very beginning, I straddled the worlds of student affairs and higher ed marketing communications. And I hoped someday to bring my two passions together, somehow.

It’s time that we made room for a new functional area in the profession.

Once I realized that higher education was the field for me, I decided not to finish my MA in Teaching and launched myself into the application process for student affairs programs across the country (I documented that whole experience on this blog, by the way.) Because of my strong residence life background, I wanted to land a position in that functional area, and I was excited to say “yes” when that opportunity came through. As I discerned my career trajectory as a graduate student, I quickly realized that student affairs doesn’t recognize marketing communications as a traditional functional area. This was something I noticed from online groups, discussions in my academic program and my experiences as a TPE Intern. Pathways to careers in functional areas like residence life, student leadership and multicultural affairs were discussed often and seemed so clear; work an entry-level role or two for two to three years each, rise to an assistant director role for several more years, and eventually move into director-level roles with potential to rise into upper-level administration roles thereafter. The pathway to communications and marketing roles in student affairs, however, was never quite so clear. 

After my first year as a graduate assistant, I did an ACUHO-I internship in New England and was set to return for my second year as an assistant hall director. Over the summer, though, I was selected for a full-time role as a social media strategist in the university’s central marketing communications office. While I will always love residence life, I was excited to get back to producing creative content and engaging with a specialty that excites me while still getting to mentor student assistants. I took a quarter off from graduate school to breathe and then jumped back in as a full-time graduate student working a full-time professional role. I was busy. I was fortunate enough to be sponsored to attend the NASPA National Conference as I wrapped up my penultimate quarter, which was ultimately the conference that changed my life.

How will the profession rise to meet the needs of students in a time where effective communications and marketing strategies can make all the difference for student awareness and success? 

It was a classic case of being in the right place at the right time mixed with everything I had learned about the power of networking. At a session about social media, I encountered a colleague working in marketing communications at their home institution. I was so excited to meet another person at the conference with this concentration. With all the courage I could muster, I decided to approach them after the session and chat about our field. One thing led to another and I was asked to apply for a position in their office. Little did I know that I had just met my future supervisor.

I went through the application process for several other roles, including both residence life and marketing outside of student affairs. But what made the role I heard about at NASPA different was the blend of student affairs and marketing communications—this institution’s Division of Student Affairs had a Student Affairs Marketing and Communications department, and the opening was focused on social media strategy. It was basically my dream come true. In the end, I accepted that role, which brought me back to my home state of California, a place I needed to be on a deeply personal level at the time.

Almost a year into the role now, I’m excited to see other institutions start hiring student affairs practitioners focused on marketing communications roles and I’m hopeful that this is only the beginning. Considering the Technology Competencies for the profession and our students’ heavy use of digital tools to send and receive information, it only makes sense that this is the direction we’re going. I offer this account of my career path in case there’s others out there like me, particularly graduate students, wondering if marketing communications can exist within the world of student affairs.

It’s time that we made room for a new functional area in the profession. The need will only continue to grow—while we might be stewards for critical forms of student support and architects of the student development experience, these efforts fall flat if we can’t effectively tell our students about those resources. While it’s helpful to have a team approach to marketing our content, marketing communications really is a full-time job and there are industry best practices and standards that higher education and student affairs programs simply don’t equip new professionals with. How will the profession rise to meet the needs of students in a time where effective communications and marketing strategies can make all the difference for student awareness and success? 

I’m thrilled to be a part of this innovative wave in the field and I can’t wait to see how we change to meet this growing need.


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