#higheredWed: Advice for New Student Affairs Professionals

I’m devoting this week’s #higheredWed post to those folks who are starting their first full-time positions in student affairs. As a qualifier, I’m directing this primarily to new student affairs professionals who are coming directly from full-time graduate preparation programs and began those programs straight out of undergrad. This is, admittedly, a declining proportion of new student affairs professionals, but they still account for a significant number of new professionals in the field. These tips come from my 11 years of teaching master’s students in student affairs graduate programs and listening to the insights of dozens of those students over the years.

1. You will make new friends. For many of you, you’ve had a friendship group handed to you via your classmate peers since you went to kindergarten. This may be the first time in your life that you’re starting a new experience without anybody else being in the same boat. You may be the only new hire in your unit or in your division (less likely for those of you in residence life) and making friends will take initiative and assertiveness on your part that you’ve not had to exert before. All this notwithstanding, you will make new friends. You might just need to push yourself out of your comfort zone and strike up a conversation. I know, I know, that’s hard, but it’s worth it. Use professional networks to connect to other new professionals in the field (e.g., ACPA’s Standing Committee for Graduate Students and New Professionals), as well.

2. Make friends and socialize both on campus and off. Please don’t allow your work comrades to be the sum total of your socializing. Get to know a wide variety of people beyond your office and people who don’t work on your campus. You’ll appreciate this for a number of reasons down the line, not the least of which will be for the opportunity to NOT talk about your work all the time. Related to #1, if you take this time to explore new hobbies (or hobbies that were lost to your graduate studies!), you’ll make new friends and practice some life balance. Get off campus!

3. Don’t give up on your supervisor or your job. It really takes a least 3 years to really get settled in a new place and position. The first year you don’t know what the heck is going on. The second year, you’re starting to feel competent and get your bearings. In year three, you’ve got a rhythm and you have learned how things work a little better. If you throw in the towel after the first six months (unless things are really severe), you cheat yourself of the opportunity to rise to the challenge and grow in some unexpected and uncomfortable ways and you cheat the institution as well. Your supervisor may not be ideal and the job may not live up to your dreams, but you can benefit substantively from experiences that are less than ideal. Actually you might learn more. You might also want to check your assumptions and expectations that you had before you came in the door. Were they fair and realistic? Were they appropriate to the institutional environment? Did you take into account a full and complete understanding of your supervisor’s work load, personality, supervisory style?

4. Ask questions first, give ideas later. This is not the time for you to say, “Well at my grad/undergrad institution did it this way….” That’s the quickest way for your ideas to get dismissed and for you to be written off as the typically arrogant, know-it-all master’s graduate. Take the time to learn how things are done at your new position and WHY they are done in that way. What may have worked successfully at Institution A may not work as successfully at Institution B because of differences in culture, organization, resources, students, and staff dynamics. Ask questions that reflect a desire to learn and a humility about what you need to learn, not questions that passively imply rebuke.

5. Be confident about your skills and knowledge. Although you still have a lot to learn, you have already learned quite a bit and have some skills and knowledge to share and to work from. After all, that’s why they hired you in the first place. Know what you know and work with a spirit of excellence and improvement. This will confirm your supervisor’s decision to bring you on board. As you continue to gain competence, also plan to share your expertise with others through presentations at regional and national conferences and publication of effective practices.

6. Be a team player, not a competitor. A recent CSP grad, Caitlin Keelor, gave some advice to some first-year peers at the end of last fall that I think applies excellently beyond graduate school. She exhorted them to “use each other as resources, not as benchmarks.” In your new position, even though you may be the sole staff member responsible for X, you are likely working as a member of a larger unit, whether that me your department, or at smaller institutions, the student affairs division. Each individual is contributing to the success of the larger unit. Competing with others for recognition, resources, or prestige does not contribute to the whole. If you are doing good work, it will be recognized over time. More importantly, if you are doing good work, you are likely helping others do good work as well and benefitting the experiences and learning of the students at your institution. That’s what really matters.

7. Take seriously and invest in your own professional development. Although you’re happy to be done with classes and papers and grades, your learning isn’t finished. Keep up your professional organization memberships, both umbrella associations like ACPA & NASPA and functional-area specific associations if they exist in your area. Take some of that “extra” time you used to have to spend reading for classes and writing papers and read newly published research in the field (those association memberships typically come with a journal subscription included remember) , attend a webinar or workshop, and intentionally use national and regional conferences as opportunities to attend workshops and sessions that will help build knowledge and skills in areas that need to be developed. Find ways to join with others at your institution to do professional development in more cost-effective ways. For example, register for a webinar as a group and share the registration fee instead of doing it as an individual.

Your first year will be an amazing period of growth and learning for you and some times challenges will come along the way. However, you’re in this field for a reason; use those reasons to motivate you when the going gets tough. Finally, if you haven’t read Whitt’s 1997 article “Don’t  Drink the Water,” I highly recommend that you dig it out of your grad school readings or download it again from online. Her suggestions remain timely and helpful for both graduate students and new professionals. You are a welcome addition to our profession. We’re glad to have you and hope you’ll stick around for a couple of decades. 🙂

Happy New (Academic) Year!

Sorry for not posting on Monday (I did post to my research blog though); I’ll be taking this Friday off to decompress and enjoy some down time but I’ll be back on Monday, August 20!