ResEdChat Ep 44: Ardell Sanders & Alex Martinez Preview the 2023 Institute on the Curricular Approach

This week, we’re teasing the upcoming Institute on the Curricular Approach (ICA) happening October 22-25 in Long Beach, CA. Dustin chats with co-chairs Ardell and Alex about how they got involved in ICA and what they’re excited about for this year’s institute. Register now to make sure you don’t miss out on this amazing event!


  • Alex Martinez (She/her/hers), Interim Director of Residence Life, Central Michigan University
  • Ardell Sanders (he/him), Executive Director of Residential Life, Indiana State University

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Dustin Ramsdell:
Our conversation here today is going to be all about the Institute for the Curricular Approach, ICA. It has gone by other names in the past, but the event this year, we’re taking a moment to just give a little bit of a teaser, help promote this event. Hopefully folks are already signed up and are just wanting to get even that much more excited, or we can inspire some more folks to get involved. It’s something that Roompact in particular is closely acquainted with. So yeah, the episode this week is all about the ICA. We have two guests with us this week, so we’ll have each of them introduce themselves briefly. Ardell, we’ll start with you, then go over to Alex.

Ardell Sanders:
Yeah, absolutely. Well, thank you for having me on. My name is Ardell Sanders. I go by he/him/his pronouns, and I serve as an Executive Director for the Office of Residential Life at Indiana State University. I am in my second year as a Co-Chair for the Institute on the Curricular Approach, and it’s been quite a journey and I have loved every bit of it.

Alex Martinez:
And hi there. My name is Alex Martinez, I use she/her pronouns, and I currently serve as the Interim Director of Residence Life as Central Michigan University. I’m really excited to talk a little bit more about ICA. I’ve been on faculty since 2019 and really into the Curricular Approach since 2016.

Dustin Ramsdell:
Excellent. We will start, though, with a brief explanation of what the Institute for the Curricular Approach is. So, Ardell, if you want to just give a brief definition? I mean, you’ve been involved with it as sort of a Chair and leading the charge, so if you want to give a brief explainer as to what this event is?

Ardell Sanders:
Yeah, absolutely. For folks who don’t understand or know what it is in terms of a Curricular Approach, if you think about it from the academic context, when you think of any kind of a course, if you take a math class for example, and how we look at the Curricular Approach is we want to make sure that we have specific outcomes that are necessary for college students within Student Affairs. And so we build that out by looking at the goals, what are the goals of the organization, the department, the division? Whatever it may be. And then we build out the sequenced learning on the Curricular Approach from there.
And so I try to think of it as taking addition first before we go to subtraction, and then we might learn some multiplication and learn some division, because you need to figure all those out before you ever can work your way up to calculus. And that’s what we’re doing with our development for college students and also with our teams in each of these areas, and so it’s kind of what the Curricular Approach is, sequenced learning, where we’re taking learning organizations and developing learning organizations to create a better environment for our students that attend each of our institutions.

Dustin Ramsdell:
Yeah, I mean, my impression when I was digging in deeper, doing my own research on it, it feels like it really, the Curricular Approach as a concept helps to bridge the gap between just the traditional student development theories into practice. There’s just this sort of chasm where, especially in very functional jobs, certainly Residence Life, because I know that’s the sort of origin story of what became what it is now, the ICA, was based more in sort of residential education and everything, where I think it was so much more important to be mindful, like how are we curating intentional developmental experiences versus just sort of administering buildings and the day-to-day and all that? There just can be sometimes that sort of tragedy where it’s like we don’t really have a mechanism to honor the time-tested developmental theories and how can we embed them into very tangible, explicit outcomes, and then like you said, just really have all the building blocks stacked very neatly with each other?
So yeah, it’s really exciting to see, and I think just having an event like this that’s happening every year, bringing folks who are really committed to this and maybe can be those champions at their campuses all across the country is just really cool. So, we’ll go to each of you for this question. Alex, if you want to, as you talk about the Institute, you’ve attended and now you’re obviously helping to run it and everything, what inspired you to get involved as an attendee and then now even getting into more of a leadership position?

Alex Martinez:
As an early Student Affairs professional and someone who has a background in K-12 education, when I was introduced to the Curricular Approach, it made so much sense to me when I was thinking about it in an in-classroom context, having a sequenced, thoughtful Curricular Approach and having thoughtful outcomes, translating that into the lived experience of students on campus, that made absolute sense to me. And so the idea early on really helped shape me professionally. So when I think about how I was trying to get involved with one, my first one, my first institute was down in South Florida in 2016, and some of these tremendous faculty members who are with us today as well, and those who have served and continued to offer their talents to the profession really inspired me. I thought, wow, look at these professionals who are coming together in community to talk about how they are intentionally creating learning opportunities for not just the student who attends a program, but really looking at different ways of being creative of how we could provide learning opportunities for all students while they’re on campus.
And the other part I think that was really exciting to me, again, being in community with others who are also doing this work. Hearing about how they’re finding success, hearing about different strategies they use, and also hearing about where they’re seeing resistance and rubs and how they are looking to overcome that and do that with other folks in community was super inspiring to me. And so that is what got me involved, and as I came on as a faculty member, that experience never left me. Every time I attend ICA, I have my own learning experience. I’m around other folks who are learning and developing and sharing knowledge. And so what keeps me coming back and what keeps me involved is the iterative process that is the Curricular Approach and doing that in community with other folks.

Ardell Sanders:
Yeah, and if I can kind of jump off of that, for me, the Curricular Approach was mind-blowing. And I don’t say that in a hyperbolic way. I mean, I truly mean it was an experience where when I first attended ICA, I had heard about the Curricular Approach. Indiana State University, my first year here, I was here as a graduate student and later career graduate student, and so I was here as a graduate student and I did not participate in any of the things, but we hosted that year. That year that I was a graduate student, I didn’t participate at all, didn’t necessarily understand a lot of it, but I also was on a one-year track here, at least that’s what I believed at the time, and now I’m heading into year nine or whatever it is here.
And so as I sat and learned in my first professional year here at Indiana State what the Curricular Approach was after attending what was then RCI, that first year was RCI before becoming ICA, and I saw this process, and it was the first time I’d ever experienced a process that was as simplistic yet kind of complex at the same time. And it had the elements of all the pieces that folks within Student Affairs that we had been kind of criticized for years, we had been dubbed the party planners, the pizza buyers, the folks that just walk students over to other folks’ events and things like that, and not really understanding the value that we brought to the table as Student Affairs professionals. And many of us even in the field not understanding that we are contributors to learning, not just the sidecar that goes along with the faculty being the show of an institution.
And so for me, when I started to get in and really dive into the Curricular Approach and what it brought in terms of, legitimacy is one component of it, but it’s not just legitimacy. It’s not just about trying to prove to someone else that the work that we do is great. It’s really proving to ourselves. We weren’t telling our narrative and our story from a Student Affairs standpoint, and the Curricular Approach gave us the opportunity to do that. And so that’s why I fell in love with it, and it absolutely literally has changed my career, because I was walking away from higher education and then I met this approach, and now I’ve become a faculty member, second year co-chair, and just what it has done for me professionally, but also what it has done, and I’ve seen at multiple institutions across the country, and I think that this is the next thing. It’s not a thing that’s just kind of a flash in a pan. It is the next wave of where Student Affairs goes in terms of telling its story and the paradigm that we’re in right now, and I only see this continuing to grow and evolve as the approach evolves.

Dustin Ramsdell:
Yeah, and kind of a clarification too with what you’re saying, just for folks who may not have caught the acronym, it used to be the Residential Curriculum Institute, RCI, and it is now ICA, which sort of honors the broad applicability of the approach. And I think the foundation was built in, Residence Life teams are big and just have a wide scope of impact, and I think it came up through that functional area, but there is so much impact across the entirety of campus. So I think, yeah, it’s really exciting to see, like you said, this sort of paradigm shift happening and finding a professional home like this where it is just a community of people that are all sort of committed to this and just the epiphany and mind-blowing impact that it can have for folks.
And I guess as a follow-up clarifying question, I’m curious, because I think, Alex, you said that you got involved early around grad school or that sort of thing. I’m curious your perspective on, it seems like it would be especially impactful if it happens during or close after grad school, because I feel like it really kind of crystallizes the idea of, “Okay, there’s these theories that really have just, again, time tested, can have just really clear calls to action as sort of best practices and everything.” And then if it’s like, “Okay, cool, and now here’s how you embed them into the work that you’re doing every day.” Do you feel like that’s something that kind of resonates, I guess, the timeliness of trying to incorporate the Curricular Approach?

Alex Martinez:
It does, it does. I think that paradigm shift, Student Affairs educators being folks who contribute to the educational mission and not just supportive of the educational mission, when that switch happened as I was exposed to the Curricular Approach, that’s when I think I really found a renewed energy around my purpose and identity as a Student Affairs educator. Not just a professional, not just as a practitioner, but as an educator, someone who’s in there. And so that continues to be something that renews my energy, being in spaces where learning is happening and not necessarily being the person who is out there and just talking to folks, but centering learning in the student’s experience. It doesn’t matter what stage you are in your professional journey, and entering as a graduate student, entry level, mid, and above, I think folks across the board can reconnect to that piece of being contributors to the educational mission of their institution by utilizing the Curricular Approach.

Dustin Ramsdell:
Yeah, I guess it’s like it’s never too late, kind of thing, but it seems there’s a good opportunity to try to especially leverage it for people where it’s like it’s really fresh and you’ve never known a world without it, kind of thing, the Curricular Approach versus… Ardell, I guess if you have any similar feelings on just when it incorporated into your professional journey and as you’re learning things in a graduate program, all of that? Because it’s that mind-blowing potential, it is that idea of like, “Oh my gosh, I’ve gone without for so long,” and maybe it has you look in retrospect in a different way of like, “Wow, we were really doing things that were really impactful, and if we could really honor that much more clearly and have it translate to other colleagues on campus and everything.” I guess just your thoughts on the timing of it and how that can hit or just that experience of how it incorporated into your journey when it did.

Ardell Sanders:
Yeah, no, I think what you mentioned about having it be at a time where you’re engrossed and ingrained into the fabric of what’s happening with theory and understanding student development and how all of that plays out, if you’re studying it and actually living it in that time, I do believe that there’s an easy parallel and there’s an easier transition of going. Because the opposite way is if you’re doing the work on a day-to-day basis, and you may not be pulling out that student development theory book on a regular basis because of just how you’ve lived it as opposed to just experiencing it from a theoretical standpoint. Once we’ve lived something, we feel like we know it a little bit more.
Well, then the challenging part is the ability to unlearn. And what this does is it requires a little bit of unlearning, not of things that were bad, because it’s not like the previous paradigms, those iterations of Student Affairs are bad. There’s just something that’s better. And so going into something that can be even more beneficial, and it’s not just the easy… Because it’s really looking at things backwards. We used to look at it from a programmatic standpoint and say, “Hey, we’re going to do all these programs and then students are going to show up and they’re going to show up in huge numbers, and that means success.” And there are still places that are like that right now. They still believe that that model is what works, and I’m not saying that there’s no value in that. I’m saying that there’s more value in the Curricular Approach because we flip that on its head.
And what it does is it says, “Okay, what is it that we actually want students to get out of this first? Let’s start there.” Let’s not start at what it is that we like to do or what we’re expert at. Let’s start at what’s the promise that we’re making to students? If you engage with this office, with this organization, with this institution, with this department, what are you going to walk away with? That’s the thing. So, once we figure that out, now we can figure out what vehicle do we need to use to drive them there? That’s what the Curricular Approach does. It flips the model on its head, and there’s an unlearning as a later career professional.
I mean, I can easily say I was in my early 40s when I was introduced to this. So at that point, why do I want to learn something different? Except I saw the opportunity in it, which was the beautiful thing, and now it’s just introducing that opportunity to other folks. And if you can get folks to get out of that comfort zone, be willing to unlearn, it’s not an impossible process. It’s not even really that difficult once you change your mindset. It’s the mindset shift, though, that is the challenging part. You can get people there. You can get them to this place where we can change lives with this approach.

Alex Martinez:
And I would share that in my educational and professional journey, I started off without knowing what the Curricular Approach was. I went into Student Affairs, specifically Residence Life, I was a practitioner, I was in there. I was helping students through their experience. I noticed that I perhaps wasn’t skilled enough. Trying to go back and gain more knowledge, skills and experiences, I went back, I worked professionally while I was completing my Master’s Degree in Education, and so I think that component primed me for it.
But it really wasn’t until I attended this Institute on the Curricular Approach that all that knowledge and background around educational theory, learning considerations, came together in a way to be able to apply to my work every day. So, as someone who didn’t experience this Curricular Approach in my master’s degree itself, it felt affirming. It felt affirming to come to an experience with other people who are also saying, “Yes, we have agency to be really intentional about how we’re creating these learning experiences for students and inviting folks in and sharing in community what’s going really well and what other considerations folks might have.” It’s a powerful experience and one that is particularly, for me, it really was beneficial to come not only, excuse me, come as a group of folks. So, our institution sent a delegation there, and that at ICA was really helpful for me as well.

Dustin Ramsdell:
Yeah, and I think just the core point where my mind was going, one of the dots to connect is, one, for the individual as you’re making a decision of to go or those sort of things, there’s I guess kind of twofold of the individual, is like the timeliness is absolutely there if you are learning about theories or just learned about theories in a graduate program. And that could be if you went later, it doesn’t even have to be right after undergrad or anything, but even if you are going and it’s well after you ever went to a graduate program and learned about these theories, it’s still just sort of that classic idea. It’s like if you’re teaching something, try to build based on prior understanding. The idea where you’re clicking. It’s like, “Hey, so you know those theories, right?” And all that, and it’s like you just start to just play around with those pieces.
But the other part of it was trying to encourage just, I guess I don’t know how much program coordinators or people who run higher ed master’s programs are involved with this, but it’s that idea of, again, if you can try to at least start to catch more people earlier on as either a program head or even just as a department head, if you’re like, “Okay, I’m the Director of Residential Education, I should probably be aware of this, or that champion or the person who can help train the trainer and build that expertise internally on my team.” Yeah, I mean, there’s just so much relevance wherever you are, just depending on how you view the value proposition or the relevancy, or how it’s going to apply or how you can be an advocate for it or any of those sort of things.
So I think, yeah, it’s really powerful, because my brain is going to we put the burden historically on the individual of, “Well, let me go crack that theory book on my bookshelf, or whatever, to try to figure out…” Whether it is you as a resident director or you as a assistant associate director, director, whatever, you are burdened with trying to maybe try to create this framework. But this is giving you that playbook that can give you a structure and foundation to then figure out how is it going to take shape on your campus and those sort of things.
So, for each of you, and I guess we’ll start with you, Ardell, on this one, just for this year’s event in particular, is there something that you are most looking forward to, whether it’s something that happens every year, something that’s new or what, just something that you are personally excited for?

Ardell Sanders:
Yes, there is a lot that I’m personally excited for. I don’t know how much of this… I’m going to go ahead and throw it out there that this year for folks who have attended the Institute in the past and they’ve come in, gotten a lot of information and renewed their commitment to being great within the approach, we took that similar approach this year with the Institute itself. And so our faculty has done a phenomenal, and I cannot stress enough when I say phenomenal job this year of re-envisioning what the Institute is. There will be a lot of familiar components to the Institute that people will see, so we’re not deviating so far that it’s not going to look familiar to folks. But there are a few additional added pieces that we’ve now put in with a very specific focus in terms of really taking the Curricular Approach and curricularizing it itself within the Institute.
And so we have all of those different components that we’re building, and we have three different tracks now, and we used to have two. At a few points throughout our history, we’ve played around with some different tracks at other times, and now we believe that we have a structure that works and that will work for a wider audience. We were very intentional in targeting the different types of not just institutions, but the people from those institutions who might attend the Institute. So, from your entry level, first year or graduate student, or even an undergraduate student if they wanted to bring them, from that person all the way up through your Dean of Students, Vice President, President, whomever may be there, we have something for everybody now, and because their intentionality is there, it will not feel forced when people are experiencing it. So, I’m really excited to see how it all plays out and how the participants experience it and enjoy it and enjoy and engage in everything with us. And so I think it’s going to be a wonderful experience this year.

Alex Martinez:
Yeah, I’m really excited to see how the faculty’s efforts to apply the Curricular Approach to the Institute plays out this year. A ton of intentionality around creating our own educational priority learning goals and outcomes and looking at different engagement strategies. So, you’re going to see different opportunities for learning in the track sessions. That’s one of the ways. We know that lots of learning happens through showcases. You’re going to see that as well. Faculty consults are there and available as well. We’re doing some Institute showcase, some bigger highlights of different work happening on different campuses. We have keynote speakers. We’re also having curriculum dialogue circles this year, which is really a really exciting engagement strategy that we are trying this year, where faculty members are going to be helping facilitate dialogue between participants around topics that are relevant to them and that are within the context.
So, we’re trying to be responsive as well. We know that the Curricular Approach is iterative, and we are trying to do that ourselves with the Institute. And so we are really excited to see how this effort that our brilliant faculty have done to create a Curricular Approach in the Institute particular shows up in Long Beach. We are just thrilled and excited to try this, and excited to do that with other folks who are attending.

Dustin Ramsdell:
Yeah, that’s really cool. I guess, yeah, just the diversity, like you said, of tracks or just the modality thing, ways that folks will be conversing and sharing and all that. Which is, I just feel like always just a really cool part of just any education circle, is just the show and tell flavor that a lot of these conferences and stuff take where people aren’t really, they’re not really hogging the stuff that’s working and it’s like, “Hey, this is how I did it. You can take it and do it how you will do it,” and all that kind of good stuff.
We will end, though, if you had any parting bits of advice for folks who are attending or considering attending or anything. We’ll start with you, Alex, on this one and go to Ardell. Yeah, just any advice for folks about attending?

Alex Martinez:
Yeah, two things. If you’re able to come with a group of folks from your institution, hopefully even outside of your own department or division, we would encourage that. So, bringing a group of folks along just helps in that way. And the other piece of advice is to now, before you attend, book some time on your calendar, hold some time after the Institute to process your experience, to help actualize some of your learning and put some of that into motion.

Ardell Sanders:
Yeah, and I will also jump in and talk about, for this experience, what we want people to do is to come in as learners, center themselves as learners on the way in the door. And in doing so, what we want them to do on the front end is, with the different tracks, people have been familiar with the tracks that we’ve held in the past. We have some tracks this year that have pathways attached to them. It is a different experience than what people have seen in the past. And so we want folks to kind of, maybe on the front end as you’re registering, go in and really take a look and be honest with yourself with who you are and where you are in this process. Because the way to get the most out of this experience is by being in the right track with the right pathway based off of where folks are.
And so we want people to, whether you’re brand new, have no concept of what the Curricular Approach is, or if you’ve done this for 10, 12 years and you’ve been here many, many times, there’s going to be a space at the Institute for you where it will not feel repetitive, but where you don’t have to come in and be an expert at any one thing, but you can come in and participate as a learner, take away from the folks around you, take away things from the faculty, but also just engage in the community as learners. And so I think that’s probably the most important component that I could share with folks. The other thing is, if you’re not registered, make sure you go out there and get registered, bring a friend, talk to your friends at other institutions. It’s going to be amazing, and we’re going to have a fabulous time in Long Beach.

Dustin Ramsdell:
Yeah, yeah. I remember going to a company meeting in Long Beach years ago, and it was a beautiful spot. Yeah, I mean, it’s always just, I mean for me, where I work remotely, any opportunity to be in community with other higher ed folks is awesome. So, I think this in particular is so focused, and just that advice to be, what I heard from that is just an active learner versus just being sort of a wallflower. Because so much of it is designed around the collaboration or sharing with each other and just being really engaged in the whole process.
So yeah, we’ll have the ways to check out the event and get registered in the description for the episode and ways to connect with you all as well. But yeah, just thank you both for helping to plan this event and telling us a little bit more of what it’s all going to be about. Yeah, so we’ll, like I said, just have ways to connect, but yeah, just thank you both for your time and all that you shared.

Ardell Sanders:
Thank you.

Alex Martinez:
Thanks, Dustin. We’ll hopefully see you in Long Beach.

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Roompact’s ResEdChat podcast provides a platform to highlight amazing professionals and important topics in residence life and college student housing. If you have a topic idea for an episode, let us know!

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