Career advancement for SASS participants

Published On: 1 December 2023|

They are the graduating class of 2023 – the 51 participants in the inaugural SASS (Student Affairs Student Success) programme which was conceptualised by a consortium of higher education and student affairs experts and coordinated by the Higher Education Leadership and Management (HELM) Programme of Universities South Africa (USAf).

SASS is a direct response to a national Training Needs Assessment (TNA) survey that HELM carried out among student support professionals working in Student Affairs, Student Development and Student Support services across the 26 public institutions in November 2021. The study found that 86% of the surveyed sample (N=362) were keen to take part in a capacity building intervention to enhance their impact on student success.

The first 51 participants last week completed the programme at a SASS colloquium held at the Southern Sun O.R. Tambo International Airport Hotel where Dr Birgit Schreiber, the SASS programme leader, discussed their possible career advancement and ways to use SASS as a springboard to do this.

Strengths, values, interests and goals

Dr Schreiber said that participating in SASS could help to advance their careers. In order to navigate their career journey, participants need to evaluate their strengths, values and interests as well as their short-term, medium-term and long-term goals. This would help them make career choices at the next juncture in their life. In order to achieve this, it would be helpful to make a list of what they have done really well and how they like to work.

“Most important, though, are the immediate steps over the next year or two in terms of getting to the larger goal,” she said.

Dr Schreiber (left) gave an example of how when she looked back at her large volume of published work, she realised that she worked better in teams. People, she said, also had to be honest when it came to their weaknesses in order to be able to do something about them, “Be honest about the gaps and see what steps you need to take to address these. Look at where you may need more training to enhance your skills,” she encouraged.

Curriculum vitae

She emphasised that it is imperative to have an accessible and updated CV – one that is updated when something is achieved, otherwise down the line an event, publication or award will be forgotten.

Social media

Make sure you have an appropriate online presence: “Google yourself online and see what comes up, including pictures, and ensure you have an online footprint that is professional and neat,” she said.


Dr Schreiber urged participants to ensure that that they have good networks and that they are also willing and able to help those they network with.

Areas for development

“Be honest about the gaps and see what steps you need to take to address these. Look at where you may need more training to enhance your skills,” she encouraged.

Personalised coaching

“Coaching can be done as an intervention over a two-to-three month period or as coaching conversations with your peers.”

As an exercise the attendees had to divide into groups to discuss where they see themselves in five years, both professionally and personally, as well as describing their ideal professional and personal situation. Participants had to outline gaps they may have and steps to take to achieve their goals. People, she said, have to be deliberate about what to do to affect the changes they want.

Some feedback

Participant 1: “We spoke about the necessity of getting a PhD because we are in the higher education space. The first step for us would be having a concept paper before registration and then setting concrete timelines.”

Participant 2: “The way in which we are almost mechanically pushing people through the mill to PhDs has changed. I think the most important first step would be to identify a supervisor that suits you. Perhaps, it would be a person that holds you accountable.”

Participant 3: “I don’t want to grow vertically careerwise but rather horizontally. I need to be very intentional with publications and the research topics I want to specialise in. I am interested in both civil organisations and student success and would focus on them when it comes to research. I don’t want to publish just for the sake of it and not only write for the academic space, but it should also be meaningful and have impact.”

Participant 4: “We also mentioned the PhD as being a goal, but we come from different worlds.  In the support department, you don’t need a PhD to progress professionally, but in academia you need it as a passport, in my opinion. We also spoke about building our research portfolio, finding our niche area and then building on that.”

Participant 5: “The work that we do and what we each bring to the table differs from person to person and if you find your niche area, which you specialise in, you make a particular contribution that the next person might not make. A PhD is valuable not just because it’s academic capital but because it contributes something to the knowledge base. You also need to identify opportunities for yourself in your institution, where you can be more visible in the sense that you make an explicit contribution that is noticed. It then becomes part of a natural progression of advancement.”

Participant 6: “People only listen to you based on your qualifications.”

Participant 7: “Go and do something in a different field as well, whether it is a business or ethics course, for example. It expands your mind and makes a difference in how you see and do your job.”

Dr Schreiber congratulated the 51 attendees who now become SASS’s first alumni group with an alumni site on CANVAS ( and who will help mentor next year’s class as well as still having access to all SASS resources.

Janine Greenleaf Walker  is a contract writer for Universities South Africa.


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