10 Difficult Lessons I Learned in Student Affairs

December 22, 2014

Difficult Lessons in Student Affairs

Having been in Student Affairs for a long time now, I have met many fantastic and inspiring professionals from all over the world. I have learned many wonderful things, which have made me a better higher education professional (and person!) Some of those lessons, however, have been difficult ones and actually have made me an even more dedicated and resolved Student Affairs professional.

Here are the 10 Difficult Lessons I Learned in Student Affairs:

1. Not Everyone Values Student Development – Just like employees in any other industry besides higher education, everyone has different goals and motivations for doing what they do. The same is true for employees in higher education. While it may seem bizarre to a Student Affairs professional that a college professional would not be interested in student development, some see the study and practice of student development as frivolous and not worthy of attention or resources.

2. The Grass Isn’t Always Greener at Other Institutions – Student lifers rank up there with professional athletes that are traded from team to team when it comes to transitioning from one institution to another. Various reasons, include seeking a better salary, more responsibility, or to be closer to family. Some staffers have the impression that the path a new school is lined with gold. What they can come to find out is that their new situation may not be any better than from where they just came. While there are some places that may be better than others, all colleges and universities have problems, which is something to keep in mind when looking for a new place to work.

3. Most Staff Are Not Trained in Leadership & Supervision – I find that many colleagues at other institutions share their frustration with their institution’s leadership. Frustrations range from having supervisors with challenging personalities and those who provide unclear direction to others who are “buddy-buddy” with select employees or who are downright abusive. Unfortunately, most supervisors in all fields never had any formal education or training in supervising people. Many supervisors learn from previous poor role models and can apply behaviors of stereotypical archetypes of leaders they see on TV and in movies (i.e., coach, military officer, entrepreneur, politician, etc.)

4. Most Faculty & Staff Could Care Less about Student Development Theory – Years ago, I once had an engineering professor at a social event ask me what exactly I was learning in my higher education doctoral program. He was actually perplexed that an academic program like this actually existed. While student development theory is only a small part of a higher ed doctoral program, it helps to inform our practice and should be the basis for how we operate. However, most faculty and staff have never heard of Astin, Kuh, Tinto, Pascarella, and / or Terenzini nor put any credence into the study of students’ time at college.

5. For Some, It’s Just For a Paycheck – For most of us, it is our career and our passion. For others, working at a college or university is simply a job. While some of us are inspired and enthusiastic about our careers, others find it an end to a means.

6. Student Affairs is Seen as the “Icing on the Cake” – In particularly  difficult times with a fragile enrollment environment and the increasing costs associated with a college education, student affairs can be viewed as a luxury. When it’s time to make budget cuts, extracurricular activities are an easy target.

7. Professional Development Can Be Seen as a Glorified “Vacation” – One year I was not permitted to attend the ACPA Convention and was told, “You have already been to one of those” as if it was like going to some amusement park. Now granted, I have seen many professional staffers blow off sessions at conferences and go site-seeing in the host city, but for the vast majority of us, off-site professional development opportunities are for continuous improvement, collaboration, education, and networking.

8. Politics Can Supersede Student Development –  In the 15 years I have been a student affairs professional, I have seen university politics that have been antithetical to the spirit of student development or learning (or simple ethics to be honest). I recently read an excellent blog post called The Dirty Secret of Student Affairs by Christian Cho, which specifically speaks to this dynamic. While politics definitely has its place in colleges and universities, they can also be disconcerting for new and eager student affairs professionals.

9. “Cronyism” & Nepotism Is Pervasive – While some may call it networking, others consider it nepotism and cronyism.  Cronyism is the appointment of friends and associates to positions of authority without proper regard to their qualifications. Likewise, nepotism is the practice among those with power or influence of favoring relatives or friends, especially by giving them jobs. A related practice is the pejorative “inbreeding,” in which an institution only hires those that have graduated from there. This can be challenging and frustrating especially for new professionals looking to advance their careers.

10. The Most Logical Decisions Are Not Always Made – Like any bureaucratic organization, colleges and universities have multiple layers of decision-makers with varying degrees of authority. Additionally, those decision-makers come with different agendas, opinions, and experiences from one another. Given those dynamics, the decision-making process can end up having a mind of its own.

The intent behind this post is not to discourage or frighten graduate students nor to kowtow to experienced professionals. Conversely, I hope to inspire new and veteran student affairs staffers to create a better university environment and experience for both employees and students.

Please share some of the difficult lessons you have learned from your time in Student Affairs.

Surviving Political Game-Playing in Student Affairs

November 5, 2014

Political Game-Playing in Student Affairs

The culture of working in higher education is fraught with conflict, varied personalities, and institution-wide politics. Navigating the political waters of a college or university can be a daunting and, oftentimes, frustrating process. While working in Student Affairs can be a very rewarding experience, it can also be very challenging. Although we’re all in the business of educating students, there are always competing priorities, limited resources, and personal agendas, which creates a chessboard of politics throughout each of our institutions.

When I use the term “game-playing,” I mean it in the negative sense in which individuals use the political landscape of the institution (most times unethically) to further their own agenda to the detriment of others. This is much different than being politically savvy and knowing how to develop relationships and collaborate with others in order to accomplish the goals of your department.

Here are a few examples to better illustrate political game-playing:

  • Unnecessarily carbon copying someone’s supervisor on an email to stir the waters to potentially get them in hot water
  • Planting student “spies” to dig up dirt and  tattletale back
  • Purposely befriending someone’s supervisor on a personal level in order to “conveniently” drop criticisms about that person
  • Sending anonymous communications to the president’s office with untrue allegations about a staffer’s conduct

Despite these type of dynamics, there are many strategies you can use to stay above negative political game-playing, particularly within Student Affairs.

Surround Yourself with Positive Allies – Misery loves company. Negativity and naysayers will certainly bring you down so spend your time with as many positive colleagues as possible. Befriend and partner with those who further the mission and vision of the institution rather than those who attempt to control, demotivate, and sabotage.

Concentrate on Your Students & the Work – Political game-playing takes a lot of time and energy so keep your efforts focused on the primary reason for your being there: the students. Concentrate on developing and educating the students you serve rather than getting involved with needless drama. While doing well can definitely attract undue criticism from jealous colleagues, you can always be confident that you are doing your job and contributing to solutions and not problems.

Don’t Fight Battles That Aren’t Yours to Fight – One of the easiest ways to avoid political game-playing is by only concerning yourself with those projects and tasks that are directly under your purview. Getting involved in issues that simply do not pertain to you opens up the door for undue criticism and potentially making yourself into a political target. The majority of us in Student Affairs do not have tenure so we cannot do and say as we please without potential political consequences. Please understand that I am not dismissing your need to become involved in those issues related to social justice, particularly in regards to the health, safety, and well-being of our students.

Stay Away from Troublemakers – Similar to surrounding yourself with positive allies, keep clear of those individuals who are known to cause trouble and do not seem to have many positive allies of their own. These folks are easy to spot: arguing simply for argument’s sake, lying, pawning work onto others, spreading rumors, and sabotaging projects. As they say, you are the company you keep so spending time with troublemakers can mark you as one yourself.

Don’t Squabble for Kudos – Over the years I have seen many colleagues become nasty people and attempt to stab each other in the back in order to get a pat on the back from the higher up’s. Clambering for kudos always seems to lead to trouble. There’s nothing wrong with being humble and enjoying your accomplishments privately; nobody likes the “teacher’s pet.” Granted, we all want to be recognized for our hard work, but don’t let personal pride become a source of unneeded conflict.

Don’t Compromise Your Values – Most importantly, don’t EVER compromise your values. A majority of the time, political game-playing is going to be unethical, offensive, disgraceful, and in some cases, simply illegal. If you find yourself in a position in which you are often finding yourself having to question directives because of  unethical or illegal practices, seek advice from your human resource department or even an attorney. In a worse case scenario, find another place to work. Yes, I know this is easier said than done, but you want to position yourself at a place that upholds its own mission, vision, values, and fosters your professional integrity.

5 Career Mistakes to Avoid in Student Affairs

November 18, 2013

Mistakes in Student Affairs

1. Job Hopping – While switching jobs is endemic in higher education, job hopping is typically not a good idea. Chasing money, position titles, or trying to find the perfect institution that emulates your alma mater can unintentionally make for a sketchy-looking resume to prospective employers down the road. A resume that illustrates a job for every one or two years can communicate that you are hard to get along with, never happy, or “too big for your britches.” No one goes from being a resident director to a vice president of student affairs overnight. Promotions, responsibility, and a higher salary come from experience and patience. “Paying your dues” is very true in our field.

Friendly Advice:

  • Do your best with where you are at. While your current work situation may not be the best, use it as an opportunity to further develop your skills and your experience. If it is a negative experience, do your best to turn it into a positive for you (no matter how difficult that may seem!)
  • If you are excelling in your current role, ask for more responsibility without the expectation of increased income, which typically should not be expected anyway given the current financial climate of higher education in the U.S. This can only help you in the next step in your career path. Create the experience you want to showcase on your resume and portfolio.

2. Getting Involved in Negative Politics – Colleges and universities are rife with politics in both academic and student affairs. Unfortunately, negative politics can consume your time and energy and get you away from your department’s mission and vision. While it’s easier said than done to avoid the politics of your institution, ultimately you are in control of how to interact with your colleagues and contribute to the success of your students. That’s why we do what we do, right?

Friendly Advice:  

  • Simply put, stay away from those who exhibit negative energy. There’s enough challenges and complications within the institution outside of negative attitudes and drama. Contribute your time and energy in creating solutions and not more problems.

3. Negative Social Media Presence – Social media is now ubiquitous and entwines both our personal and professional lives. Gone are the days when all that a prospective employer knew about you was from what you listed on a paper resume. Many employers screen your online presence, and in some cases, will expect that you will have a positive and impactful presence online related to your department and the field in general. We should be role models for our students after all, right?

Friendly Advice:

  • Understand that it is extremely difficult to have a completely separate personal and professional life online. Given this, the best practice is to keep your online presence as positive, professional, welcoming, and “restrained” as possible.
  • Social media outlets are not the place for uninhibited opinion and “diarrhea of the mind,” particularly if you are looking to land the next best position in student affairs.

4. Failing to Seize Opportunities – There will be the proverbial “two roads diverged” at some point in your career in which you will be faced with a choice to participate in various opportunities. This could be anything from committees, travel, presentations, grant writing, and other institutional initiatives. It pains me when I hear colleagues complain about such opportunities and whine about extra work or not getting compensated for projects outside of their normal workload. By failing to seize these types of opportunities, you limit your exposure to meet new colleagues across the institution, share resources, and impact students on a larger (or simply different) level.

Friendly Advice:   

  • Don’t be the person who said, “Man…I wish I would have been a part of that!” Hindsight is always 20/20 so take on the prospective of keeping your eye open for opportunities as they arise. Even better, create opportunities rather than waiting for them.
  • Keep in mind that NOT every opportunity is a good one nor has to be pursued. Keep your options open and take advantage of those that will fulfill your department’s mission while also appealing to your own interests and expanding your student affairs experience.

5. Failing to Make a Difference – You are what you do; And if you’re not doing much, you’re not making a difference. I will share the same message with you that I try to impress upon student leaders: what are you creating, what are you changing, and what are you influencing? If you don’t have much to show during your next job interview other than a bland job description, others who have made an appreciable impact upon their institution will clearly win out.

        Friendly Advice:

  • Like Stephen Covey stated, start with the end in mind. What difference do you want to make? Figure that out and work toward that end. Develop goals, write them down, and display them so you can see them daily. Also, create initiatives that you can assess. This way you can qualitatively and quantitatively illustrate the difference your work has made.
  • Don’t spin your wheels to impress colleagues. You’re there to impact student learning and retention (among other goals) and not create a club of cronies. As was the case with #2 above, stay clear of drama and concentrate on your work.

* Photo courtesy of Zsuzsanna Kilian

8 Ways to Make Yourself Indispensible in Student Affairs

June 6, 2012

Because of recent discussions related to professional accreditation through ACPA, I felt it would be appropriate to write a post on how current and prospective student affairs professionals can make themselves indispensible within the field. Putting yourself in a position in which “they can’t do without you” not only firmly establishes you at you own institution, but also makes you marketable on a national level.

Here are eight ways to make yourself indispensible in student affairs:

1. Have a Working Knowledge of Research & Assessment – Higher education is coming under more scrutiny in regards to accountability by politicians and tax-payers alike. Are we accomplishing what we’ve set out to accomplish? Are we making an impact on the lives of our students? If so, student affairs professionals need to be armed with the practical skills involved in assessing developmental and educational learning outcomes. Being able to develop and assess student learning outcomes is a skill you definitely want to have in your “bag of tricks.”  Both CampusLabs.com and AALHE (Association for the Assessment of Learning in Higher Education) provide excellent resources.

2. Ablility to Do More with Less (Resource Management) – Times have become tight across the U.S., particularly within public higher education institutions. The ability to maximize resources, whether human resources or financial, is a crucial skill for those who want to remain and excel in higher education administration. Many resources exist through NACUBO (National Association of College and University Business Officers) and NACAS (National Association of College Auxiliary Services) that you may find helpful.

3. Innovation – Being able to leverage technology within student affairs has now become a must-needed skill set. Instructional technologies and social media are now at the forefront of curricular design across the globe.  Also, being able to think outside of the box, challenge the status quo, and develop new and fresh ideas that can help set your department apart from others. What new ideas and practices are your bringing to your department?

The Chronicle hosts the “Wired Campus,” which publishes the latest “news on tech and education.”  Additionally, I highly recommend the book The Innovator’s DNA: Mastering the Five Skills of Disruptive Innovators by Jeff Dyer, Hal Gregersen and Clayton M. Christensen.

4. Develop Student Learning Outcomes – Student Affairs typically complements the university’s academic mission, and being able to demonstrate that that your work directly affects student learning and developmental outcomes is key. Moving beyond mere attendance counts for programming can be challenging, but this is the mark of a true student affairs professional. The Council for the Advancement of Standards in Higher Education offers many resources on learning and developmental outcomes.

5. Knowledge of Best Practices – While many would criticize this for being an overused phrase, having a broad knowledge of what works and does not work within Student Affairs is valuable knowledge. Set yourself apart by placing the bar high and constantly excelling. Again, the Council for the Advancement of Standards in Higher Education is a good place to start to explore what practices and standards you should be implementing within Student Affairs.

6. Nurturance of Diversity – More and more students are coming to our campuses with diverse backgrounds and varying needs. The “traditional” college student is no longer an 18 – 22 year old white male. Student characteristics have become increasingly diverse, and the ability to meet the needs of all of our students is crucial. Student Affairs is past the point of merely “accepting” diversity; a new paradigm of nurturing diversity by reflecting the diverse characteristics of a “global” community is what is expected from all Student Affairs professionals.

7. Political Saavy – Being able to wade through the often murky political waters of an institution is a tricky task. Learn all you that can about those you work for, including the upper-level administrators. Make a name for yourself, and find ways to help them achieve their goals so that they may help you to achieve yours.

8. Mentoring & Supervision – Developing and leading a shared vision is key to being a successful student affairs administrator. Helping others understand and carry out that vision is essential to the growth and development of your department. Be there to support those you supervise and mentor because the more you are there for them, the more faith and trust they will develop in you.

In what other ways have you made yourself indispensible within student affairs? Please share your comments below.

10 Ways to Burn Bridges in Student Affairs

May 31, 2011

Rarely, if ever, are we as student affairs professionals formally taught how to navigate the politics behind working in the field. As is the case in working with people in any career, learning how NOT to burn bridges is a important skill that we all can benefit from. Below are “10 Ways to Burn Bridges in Student Affairs” and how to adequately navigate yourself away from being called a trouble-maker:

1. Refuse to understand and embrace the culture of your department and institution.

We all become indoctrinated with the culture of the schools we grow up in, particularly our undergraduate institutions. Yet as we move onto different institutions for our graduate degrees and new professional positions, we can face completely different types of environments. Being able to adapt to new environments and people who have already established careers there can be challenging. It is important to take it slow and learn the culture of your new department and the institution as a whole. You can be perceived as threatening and making negative judgments about their program, particularly if you try to implement ideas from your previous institution too quickly. Create allies and collaborators before attempting to create programmatic changes. This is not to say that you cannot do your best and bring positive change to the department you work for, but take the time to understand the lay of the land before trying to make sweeping changes. Pushing too hard too quick will cause problems.

2. Speak negatively of colleagues at regional and / or national conferences and meetings.

The student affairs profession is a “small world,” and you will certainly have lifelong connections with individuals in the profession. This means that there is a good chance that you will have interactions with people you currently work with after you leave the institution and also have interactions with folks you have yet to work with. With that being said, you must remember that you are a student life staffer wherever you go. Keep in mind that there are ears everywhere when you go to national and regional conferences and meetings. Someone that overhears your negative comments can potentially be an important colleague or employer in your future.

3. Speak negatively about your colleagues and / or supervisor.

If you have something to say, say it directly to the individual in question in a private setting. People do not know how to change their behavior(s) unless you tell them. No one really wants to hear your complaints (unless of course your colleague or supervisor is doing something illegal, but there are proper forums for that on campus to file a complaint). Not to mention that there is a good chance that your criticisms will get back to your colleague(s) or supervisor at some point anyway in some shape or form. As was the case with #2 above, it is better to bite your tongue rather than have your tongue bite someone else (particularly your supervisor!) You may not necessarily get the result(s) that you want if you do have a private discussion, but at least your loyalty and professionalism cannot be questioned.

4. Attempt to outshine your colleagues in all that you do.

While this may come to a surprise to those of us who are “achievers” as defined by Strengths Finder, being competitive can actually be seen as a threat in many cases. This is particularly true if it is known that you are trying to make a point that you are more capable than your colleagues. Rather, bring your colleagues on board for some “competitive collaboration,” and raise the bar while including them in the process. This way you are not perceived as being “you-against-the-world” in your endeavors. As was stated in #1 above, create allies and collaborators to help you. In this regard you will most likely be seen as a leader in the department rather then a trouble-maker or know-it-all.

5. Use students to further your own personal agenda.

In many cases, students will emulate the causes and passions of their mentors and supervisors. This can be a positive learning experience for students, particularly when the cause is related to strategically-created student learning outcome efforts. However, this can be a dangerous proposition when the cause is solely for personal gain or vindictive reasons. Students should not be caught up in the personal conflicts and politics between full-time staff members that can often occur. Those outside of the drama looking in will quickly judge you for involving students in affairs they do not belong. This is not good for you, nor the department you work for.

6. Never admit that you are wrong.

We all have something to learn from our mistakes. While it can extremely difficult to admit that we are wrong or that we have made a mistake, acknowledging our shortcomings will go a long way with our colleagues. Remaining steadfast to a notion that everyone else does not agree with will not earn the hearts and minds of others. It takes courage to step back for a second and consider a new perspective that you do not necessarily agree with. Likewise, there is something to be said for someone who can admit that a decision or choice they made did not work.

7. Jump the chain of command.

Not only is this one of the quickest ways to burn a bridge, but it is also one of the quickest way to lose your job. Your superiors are you superiors for a reason, and you must respect that (whether you like them or not). Jumping over your supervisor’s head to speak to their supervisor (or even higher in the chain of command) will seriously call your loyalty into question. (This should go without saying, but you may have to do this in the case of illegal activity). If you are not getting the results that you want related to a decision or project, you must find another way in which to readdress the issue. (See #3 above). If you do not like what is going on, you can either change yourself, change your boss, or change your job!

8. Fail to follow “the lines of loyalty.”

This goes along with #1, #2, #3, and #7 in a global sense on campus because you may not know whom is connected to whom. Many individuals can be connected to one another outside of those divisional and departmental lines as defined by the institution. Just because someone on the other end of campus has nothing to do with your supervisor from a departmental standpoint does not mean that they do not already have a relationship in some shape or form with them (or anyone else in your department for that matter). Understanding the behind-the-scenes “lines of loyalty” is crucial as you can create allies or know whom to avoid (particularly if they are trouble-makers). Associating yourself with a known enemy of the department will invite problems. When in doubt, keep your mouth shut and stick to trusted allies.

9. Fail to practice humility.

A little bit of humility never hurt anyone. People want to be around others that are fun to be around, are good  listeners, demonstrate integrity, and are inclusive with others. Additionally, change the things you have direct control over and leave the rest alone (See Stephen Covey’s “Circle of Influence – Circle of Concern” in the The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People). “The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One that Isn’t” by Bob Sutton is a great book on this subject that I highly recommend, particularly if you find yourself in this scenario at your workplace.

10. Leave an institution / position on a sour note.

Colleagues and co-workers will remember more about your exit from the job than when you first started. While you may not be leaving under the best of circumstances, leaving gracefully is always the best practice. On the other hand, burning every bridge on your way out the door with negative comments and / or actions will really cause you yourself more emotional distress than your intended audience.

What is a “bridge” you’ve seen burned during the course of your student affairs career, and what was the lesson learned?

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