Thrive in Student Affairs with Emotional Intelligence

“You have to remember why you entered the field. You cannot let go of that. You get exhausted, we get jaded— it’s normal. We have to rise above and move on.”

Emotional intelligence (EI) is the ability to recognize and manage both your emotions and understand the emotions of others. It is an excellent way to assess your emotional health as an individual and can be extremely beneficial when adapting and transitioning to new environments.

Harnessing emotional intelligence allows us to work on projects with people who have a range of personalities. To better understand the pieces of emotional intelligence, it is broken down into five main parts:

Self-regulation – the ability to manage emotions so they do not have a negative effect.

Empathy – the ability to recognize, understand, and experience the emotions of another person.

Self-awareness – the ability to recognize personal emotions, emotional triggers, and limitations.

Motivation – an inner drive that comes from the personal joy experienced after an accomplishment.

Social skills – the ability to interact and negotiate with other individuals in order to find the best way to meet the needs of each person.

Strengthening Emotional Intelligence

Individuals with a higher EI are able to cope with high-stress situations and have lower rates of depression. This skillset is extremely beneficial when communicating with college students who often feel anxiety in relation to balancing academics, life, and work. College students are reported to have the highest rates of anxiety and depression than any other demographic.

According to the New York Times article, Today’s Students May Be Emotionally Unprepared,

“A survey of more than 123,000 students at 153 colleges by the American College Health Association in 2013 found that more than half [of college students] experienced overwhelming anxiety and about a third felt deep depression during the academic year.”

How can college students learn and thrive if they do not have the skills to handle their emotions or feel safe and supported enough to talk about them?

Emotional intelligence and emotional health go hand in hand. In order to maintain a healthy mental balance, we must understand and be able to communicate feelings effectively. If we’re able to teach students and staff about emotional intelligence we can better prepare them to deal with the stresses of college and their current or future job.

For students of color, strengthening emotional intelligence is typically more challenging because of lack of access to mental health resources with counseling professionals of color on campuses or culturally competent student affairs professionals. While anxiety and depression are prevalent among all demographic groups in college, there are psychosocial barriers for students of color that limit them from reaching out and receiving care. The Steve Fund was created to address this issue after the passing of Stephen Rose, a Harvard graduate who took his own life at age 29. Since, the fund has been supporting students of color in addressing mental health stigmas and fear of getting help.

Recruiting Employees with High EI

Emotional intelligence is highly sought after by employers. Employees with high EI are considered valuable to employers for many reasons; they’re more likely to enjoy their jobs for a longer length of time. It’s becoming more popular for employers to utilize tests to assess the emotional intelligence of their candidates. Some of these methods include flashcards of faces where candidates are asked to name the emotions displayed or take a quiz containing various situations and choose answers that appropriately respond to the situations.

Research explains how employees who have a higher EI make better leaders. These people seem like natural leaders; they’re generally more positive and often emit calming energy within an office environment. In crisis or high-stress situations, they check-in with their emotions and understand how their emotions may or may not interact with the incident at hand. As a manager, they’re highly trusted because they’re able to make difficult decisions under pressure. Individuals who have a high emotional intelligence lean towards evaluating all options to make informed choices.

Even when not in elected or high leadership roles, employees with high EI perform better in their roles and perform higher in productivity and efficiency overall than their low EI counterparts. They especially excel in positions that require a lot of personal interaction (i.e. student affairs or educator roles).

Individuals who have a high EI exhibit a high self-awareness. They’re prepared to work with others in a positive manner and to cooperate in the best way to reach a goal. They regulate stress well and have an aptitude for forming relationships with coworkers.

Identifying & Addressing Student Affairs Burnout

Burnout is a real issue for student affairs professionals: a lot of administrative tasks, competing priorities, and working exceptionally long hours while not being properly compensated. It’s easy to fall into the burnout abyss when working a stressful job and trying to take on new projects. Symptoms of burnout syndrome include extreme physical and emotional exhaustion, becoming cynical or detached from responsibilities and colleagues, and feeling ineffective in one’s job in general.

According to a study done by Islamic Azad University there was a significant relationship between emotional intelligence and burnout syndrome in the sample of athletic educators. The teachers with higher EI were less likely to suffer from burnout than those who had lower EI. Burnout stems back to our emotional responses to situations and how we feel about our jobs. Ultimately, if employees understand they’re in control of their feelings in regards to their jobs and experience joy in their positions often, they’ll be more like to persist in their role and accomplish job responsibilities. (Thus they’re less likely to suffer from the effects of burnout).

This past year, student affairs professional Shane Young studied the impact of burnout syndrome in the student affairs field in his post called Warning: Burnout.

Young explains,

“Burnout rates within the first five years of experience are estimated to be 50%-60% (Evans, 1988; Holmes, Verrier, & Chisholm, 1983; Lorden, 1998; Tull, 2006; Renn & Hodges, 2007).

When new professionals make up 15%-20% of the workforce within student affairs and 50% will burn out within five years we are looking losing a 7.5%-10% of the student affairs workforce regularly (Renn & Jessup-Anger, 2008).”

For residence life professionals the feeling of burnout can feel increased.

Some of the solutions Young offers include professional development opportunities for new professionals (within one to three years in the field), integration of new technology, flexible hours or work week, satellite offices for administrative tasks, mentorship, and increased communication in supervisory relationships.

Pieces of advice we collected from student affairs conferences in relation to burnout syndrome include:

“Be transparent with staff and supervisor. What may seem obvious may not be obvious to them.”

“As a new professional in an office among seasoned professional, you can feel that your knowledge base is inadequate. Be thankful that you can learn from them and grow.”

“I place so much value in the people with whom I work. To me, we are a team ultimately working towards a shared set of goals. If I feel unsupported, unwanted, etc., it makes me question if this is a team in which I want to be a member. I’ve learned that whom you work with can make or break your experience.”

In 2012, George McClellan published a post after serving in student affairs over 30 years with advice to SA pro’s called Maintaining Passion for the Job. In 2014, higher education professional Aaron Hood explained that he only survived three plus years in the field in his published post called The Paths to Burnout.

Practicing EI With Colleagues & Students

Teaching EI can be a difficult task. How can we teach or develop something that seems to be intuitive to some people and nonexistent to others?

Here we provide activities that help students and staff to understand what emotional intelligence is and ways to practice implementing it into their lives.

Naming Feelings

One of the most basic techniques is to name feelings. You can do this in both real life and during role playing examples. Think of or roleplay scenarios that would elicit a high emotional response and name the emotions you are feeling. Simply acknowledging and putting a name to our emotions can help to identify them, our emotional triggers and help us to be aware of our responses.

Identifying Nonverbal Communication

Another skill that can be taught is recognizing non-verbal communication cues. This is especially helpful when trying to read and understand the emotions of others. Understanding subtle facial expressions, energy, and body language how another person is feeling helps us to adjust our communication with them to improve our effectiveness in communication. There are many classes, TED talks, and resources to help people learn the ins and outs of nonverbal communication.

Resolving Conflict

Being mindful of emotional responses in everyday situations helps with resolving a conflict. It’s easy for conflicts to escalate quickly and say things we may not mean, but if your mind is targeted towards finding a solution or middle ground to resolve the issue you’ll find that disagreements are easier to work through.

You may be surprised by how much your emotional intelligence impacts your job on a day-to-day basis. If you’re currently in a student affairs graduate program, you may want to take stock of your emotional IQ and encourage other graduate students to learn about theirs. Learn more in this infographic provided by University of Maryland below:


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We’d love to hear your thoughts on emotional intelligence in general or within your student affairs/education role.

Tweet us @CheckImHere and get the conversation started! Cheers!

Kayley Robsham, Community Engagement Manager made significant contributions to this post. Thank you, Kayley!


Quintina, A. and Cloud, L. (2015). Overcoming burnout. NODA presentation,

*Contributions made by Kayley Robsham, Community Engagement Manager

Ally Mann

About the author: Ally Mann is a Boise State University graduate and a freelance writer residing in Boise, Idaho. She enjoys camping, eating food, learning new things, and spending time with her German Shepherds. Learn how we can help get your students involved.

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