I started a new job a little under two months ago. It was a lateral move, but it is 9 hours closer to friends and family. It is the first time that I have had a new job in 3 years and it is weird, yet refreshing, to not have an immediate answer to every question. My student staff has been directly supervised by the Associate Director for the past couple months while that same AD was still doing every part of their AD position. For some of my staff I am their third or fourth supervisor. I am brand new to this university and there are many things I do not know, but I have dedicated myself to listening to my staff to obtain the information necessary to maintain the status quo.
With over 3 years of residence life experience finding that balance was not particularly difficult. In early April I started being on-call for campus and quickly learned all the ins and outs for our crisis response. I consider myself a quick learner and felt good about where my understanding of the procedures, policies, and protocols were for my new department. This is when I started to think about the future. Over the past few weeks and during one on one meetings I have asked my student staff to tell me what their experiences in have been. What did they think was done well? What improvements could be made? I asked them about their frustrations and their successes to help me better understand what my role could be in the future of this department.
My number one strength in Strengths Quest or Clifton Strengths is Restorative. When I see something that I know can function more effectively I feel compelled to do what I can to do so. However, over the past week or so I have found that hesitant or unsure about some of the changes I think would be beneficial. I have verbally expressed to the staff member’s that I am speaking with that “I don’t just want to replicate what I have done elsewhere.” That phrase has stuck with me over the last couple days and I feel that I need to write about it.
Living in the Past
I had a great undergraduate experience. There were so many positive experiences during that time that they fundamentally shaped who I am as a person. I truly became a person representative of the liberal arts. It does not surprise me that when I went to graduate school that I tried to bring pieces of that experience with me to my new context. I can think of two distinct examples of me attempting to do so. The first example was an event called a “study a thon.” The premise of this event was to provide students, during finals week, a place to study with sweet treats served at regular intervals! I really enjoyed my experience at my undergraduate institution with this event, which was implemented during my last year. It seemed obvious that it would be a success anywhere. However, the student reaction to the event was less enthusiastic than I anticipated. I was determined to make this a success. I planned and hosted the event again but made some changes to location and our offerings during the next semester. Still, I found myself less than satisfied with the response of the students.
The other example was to mimic my undergraduate institution’s leadership application process or LAP: a student leadership position recruitment and application process for nearly all the student leadership positions on campus that happened simultaneously. I thought it was clever to have one application for a wide variety of student leaders. I wanted to bring this experience to where I worked as a graduate assistant, but there was no incentive for orientation leaders of welcome weekend leaders to recruit as early as resident assistants. Admissions staff wanted to maintain their hiring process as it was. I should have taken the hint that it was not going to work, but instead I replaced the word “process” with “portal.” Instead of a streamlined process I was going to lead in the creation of a web portal where all our student leadership positions would be posted. This would open the opportunity to use the learning management system (where the portal was housed) for webinars, resources, and more. I believe it was cast aside the moment I left.
Deciphering my Thoughts
These are just two examples from my own experience. What drove me to work so hard just to replicate pieces of my past? Reflecting on the study a thon example, I do not think there would have been any threshold that would have satisfied me. I continually struggled with the fact that these students were not loving the event or concept of the event as much as I did. It’s taken me a couple years to realize just how naïve my thought process and actions were. I was frustrated because students were not enjoying the same things I did or utilizing them the same way I did. I thought that my reaction, my lived experience, was the one that made the most sense. It just made sense that college students would want free food and a place to study during finals, right? Wrong. My mistake is that I thought that my experience and feelings were generalizable to a larger group of students who were not like me or the student population at my undergraduate institution. I was not adapting to, learning from, or understanding my environment. I was trying to force my environment to meet my desires and conform to my experience.
Although I have reflected on my own personal experiences, I know that these things happen throughout the field of student affairs every day. “At my previous institution” is a phrase that I have personally used and have heard at department and committee meetings. Ideally, our offices and departments are constantly updating and changing themselves to the changing needs and wants of our students and our staff. We should compare ourselves to others and make changes. We should evolve. Let me rephrase that: we must evolve. There have been times where I have seen ideas from a person’s former institution be extremely successful. There have also been times where I have seen those ideas flop and be done away with within a semester because it never fit the way it was supposed to.
I write about this topic not to discourage the utilization of great ideas, but to offer words of caution as we, collectively, strive for improvement. Just because you loved a program, process, or policy does not mean it is generalizable to a new context. As a professional you are making decisions that impact multiple students and employees. Your responsibility is to create an environment for them to thrive, not to maintain your own status quo.
What can I do about it?
I have already begun to take these experiences and turn them into action. Earlier I noted that I have been saying “I don’t just want to replicate what I have done elsewhere” to my staff members. Saying this out loud, with witnesses, is an important step. By stating this I am creating the ability to be held accountable in the future if I stray from this cautious approach to instigating and instituting change. Another verbal effort I make is to make it clear that I am inclined towards a change I am suggesting because I have used it elsewhere or I created and implemented it elsewhere. In other words, I acknowledge that I am biased. This added transparency can be useful to peers who are advocating in a different direction. In my case, I hope that it makes my peers challenge me more vigorously.
The most important action that I can take is simply recognizing that I have tried to recreate my past experiences for others and utilizing this recognition as a context for future brainstorming. This realization will help develop me into a better professional and a better decision maker. What I have done previously will always inform and influence my future actions, but I should treat these experiences as guides.
Thanks for reading.