Date of Award

Summer 2017

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Educational Foundations & Leadership

Committee Director

Chris R. Glass

Committee Member

Monica C. Esqueda

Committee Member

Dan St. John


Breaking the Silence: A Phenomenological Exploration of Secondary Traumatic Stress in U.S. College Student Affairs Professionals is a qualitative-intensive mixed methods study using phenomenology and art-based research techniques to uncover the essence of secondary traumatic stress in U.S. college student affairs professionals. Researchers in the fields of psychology, counseling, social work and other helping professions suggest that repeated exposure to individuals experiencing trauma, or hearing repeated details of an individual’s trauma, have negative outcomes on professional helpers. Coined secondary traumatic stress, this phenomenon may be defined as “the stress resulting from helping or wanting to help a traumatized or suffering person” (Figley, 1999, p. 10). Despite severely increasing incidents of student trauma, little scholarship has focused on the impact that support-work may have on the professionals often acting as first responders for students. This study aimed to address this gap in knowledge.

Guided by phenomenological methods described by Moustakas (1994), this study investigated the essence of secondary traumatic stress through the lived experiences of 30 college student affairs professionals who have supported students through one or more traumatic events. These individuals were also asked to complete a brief visual representation activity used within their interviews to better understand the nuances of their experience of secondary trauma and how it manifests. A total of seven meta-themes emerged from the data: 1) Cumulative nature of trauma support in higher education 2) Inadequate professional preparation, resources, and guidance 3) Professional’s self-efficacy as an effective support-person 4) Impact of professional and organizational culture on the development of maladaptive views of student support 5) Importance of personal and professional support networks 6) Personal impact of professional’s relationship with student(s) in crisis 7) The negative impact of support-work on personal wellness. These themes suggested that the professionals in this study experienced negative psychological and physical outcomes as a result of their work supporting students through trauma. Findings also suggested the repetitive and collective nature of student trauma within student affairs work. Implications for policy, practice, and future research are discussed.


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