Dr. Annemarie Vaccaro, associate professor and program director of College Student Personnel, received a national award for a “lifetime commitment to research and scholarship” in student development and social justice in January, .

NASPA, also known as Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education, honored Vaccaro with an award for an “outstanding contribution to literature and/or research.” Last week, she took the time to discuss what her ongoing work is all about.

“The NASPA award [is] for excellence in research and research that matters,” Vaccaro said. “My research looks at students’ experiences with campus culture, micro-aggressions, belonging, developing a sense of purpose and how their social identities influence perceptions [of campus life].”  

In addition to her work as a researcher, Vaccaro is intimately involved in the way theories of student development, like the ones she researches, are put into practice. Before coming to the University of Rhode Island, Vaccaro said she worked for ten years in student affairs at the University of Denver.  

“Historically it’s been the case that faculty in CSP [College Student Personnel] programs have student affairs experience,” she said.

Having this dual role in theory and practice is a main feature of Vaccaro’s work at the University and how she conceives of her roles as a professor, a researcher and a director. The CSP program at the University of Rhode Island educates those who want to be administrators in higher education and its graduate students often work in residence halls.

“There has been an explosion of work on social justice and diversity recently. I believe it’s my job to help [graduate CSP] students make meaning of that and figure out what it means for them as [student affairs] practitioners. There’s this deep responsibility in ‘doing,’” she said.   

“How can we teach students to be effective practitioners if we haven’t done it ourselves?”

She also reflected on the value of her research in student affairs to the University community at large and emphasized the value of research despite the supposed limitations of theory.

“There’s this whole cadre of faculty members [in Student Affairs] who support students and help them grow; their work is no less important than what happens in the classroom,” she said. “We’re at a research institution; some people get a little scared of the ‘word’ research but it [doing effective research] can really change people’s lives in a lot of ways.”

As a qualitative researcher, i.e., one who seeks to understand specific examples, root causes and concepts while also a professional ‘on the ground,’ Vaccaro still emphasizes practice.

“[Theory] should never be a box that you put people in but it can inform our work,” she said. “Sometimes we have impressions or assumptions about the way students experience [campus life], but until we do research to find out, we’re just guessing, and that’s not acceptable.”

“Through my research,” she continued,” I can help people clarify those assumptions.”

Vaccaro offered her take on why qualitative research in student affairs is so useful.

“We remember peoples’ stories; [qualitative] research, done well, can take individual stories that could be dismissed as single anecdotes and analyze them with all these other stories, and that can tell us something about the experiences on campus. We are in this field because we are passionate about students, and their stories are so interesting to us.”