Surviving the Cattle Call: Lessons learned on approaching the job search in student affairs


SPOILER ALERT: tl;dr.   This is a long post, but hopefully has some content of value for you.

Ah…spring semester.  Flowers will soon be blooming, temperatures will be rising, and the air will be filled with the anxiety of the job search season that permeates throughout much of higher education. Whether you are looking for your first (or second…or third…or…) job, or you are recruiting to fill vacancies in your own institution, the spring turns into grueling process that can stress out even the most zen among us.

I have worked for over a decade with recruiting and hiring qualified candidates to positions at various levels for a number of institutions.

I have also been in many a search…some that went well, and some that took my ego and shattered it in a million pieces. And although we constantly say “trust the process” and “you’ll end up where you’re meant to be,” these platitudes don’t pay the bills or confirm to your parents that you are an actual adult.

Yes, the job search is very much about finding the right fit.  But I have sat through enough interviews where the candidate could have possibly been the right fit, but did not equip themselves well enough with a solid set of “search skills” that demonstrated their ability to succeed in the role.

As such, here are my steps to “Land the Yes” in student affairs, specifically for those looking for their first jobs in the field.  These by no means will guarantee that you land the job of your dreams, but they may potentially increase the likelihood.

Step 1: The Pregame

These are the preparations you do now to acquire the understanding of where you want to be after your job search.  This allows you to develop strategies on how to get to the point, as well as forces you to address the hard realities that may be obstacles to your search. Ask yourself the following five questions in this process:

  • What are the functional areas in which you want to work? If they are specialized functions such as working with identity centers, conduct, or even student activities, be prepared to be on a different timeline then your residence life colleagues. And if you are open to residence life, but not a “lifer,” please never make this sound like a fall-back option.
  • What type of institutions will be the best fit for you? Whether they’re large, small, public, private, faith-based, secular, etc., this will direct not only which schools with whom you interview, but how to market yourself appropriately to each type.
  • Where do you want to be geographically? If you desperately want to be in a city, there is nothing wrong with that. But you need to 1) tell a better reason than you want to be in the city when you are applying for this job and 2)be prepared to be on a different timeline.  There are more people trying to get jobs in cities, which decreases potential opportunities.
  • What have you done to prepare yourself for this position and your ability to instill confidence. If you don’t have direct skills with the job you applied for, that’s totally okay. I am a believer in transferable skills.  But not everyone sees it so you need to be prepared to spell it out for them.
  • What are your non-negotiables? Do you need somewhere that has a pet-policy or domestic partner policy? Do you require the ability to supervise a graduate student? Do you have a specific salary minimum? All of these things are questions you need to address prior to interviewing with any school.

Step 2: The Research Phase

So you’ve found which type of institutions you want.  AWESOME! Before you even apply to any positions, you need to do a little research on the institution.

  • What are their mission, visions, and values? Can you tell this from their website? Does it demonstrate how it is applied? If yes, focus on this during your application and interview.  If not, use it as a follow up questions during the actual interview process.
  • Do they have a strategic plan? If so, how can this position to contribute to where they want to go, and how can you add value to that direction? For me, the most valuable pieces of research come from the webpages of the President’s Office and the Office of Institutional Research.
  • Do you know people at these schools? Even if you don’t, you probably know someone who knows someone. Utilize your contacts.  Talk to people beforehand to see if you can get a sense of culture, challenges, opportunities, etc.  Most people, especially if they are not connected to the search, will want to be honest with you.

Step 3: The cover letter (aka the first date)

There are two types of people in this world.  Those who read the cover letter first, and those who read the resume first.  Don’t assume you’ll have one or the other, which means that both need to be flawless.

When I craft a cover letter, I tend to think of it like a first date.  Now, I’m not going to lie and say I haven’t been on plenty of first dates, or that they were good. They weren’t. And there was no second date. Why? Because they talked too much, or didn’t talk enough, or only talked about themselves, or honestly made me feel like I was copy and pasted into a poorly organized outing. But I digress..

So in cover letter writing, as in dating, you need to follow the same advice.

  • Don’t talk only about yourself. Don’t hash out exactly what is already on your resume. This isn’t an abstract before a research article, it’s a unique opportunity for you to tell them why you would be a good fit at their institution.
  • You need to talk about what makes them special. I have worked at a women’s college, a performing arts conservatory, and large state schools.  All of them have something different and wonderful to offer.  But if I am interviewing people for a position at a faith-based, mission-driven institution and they don’t know that mission (or even worse haven’t realized it’s a specialized institution), they’re dead in the water. Recognize their uniqueness.
  • Keep it to one page. Leave something to the imagination, huh?

Step 4: The résumé

A résumé is meant to be a snapshot into your career, not a laundry list of regurgitated position descriptions. There are loads of resources out there that go into how to best craft these, so I will just name a couple of my pet peeves.

  • If you are an undergrad applying for a full-time position or grad assistantship, or if you are a grad student applying for a entry level job, your resume should absolutely not be more than 2 pages. If you are an entry level applying to mid-level, you can go to three pages.
  • If you are applying for your first entry level job after grad school, take ALL undergrad stuff off your resume, unless it dramatically outlines your experience with a specific skill set or institutional type.
  • If presentations are part of your job, DO NOT list them out under the “presentations” section. If you are a grad in residence life, I am going to hope you know how to present on managing roommate conflicts without it be explicitly stated.
  • Do not list all the conferences you have attended. I really don’t care if you went to NASPA in Orlando a handful of years ago, unless you presented or were a part of the actual conference implementation.
  • Do not use multiple colors, graphics, or pictures of yourself.

Step 5: The Interview Process 

YAY! You landed the interview. Congrats! Now is your time to really ramp up your skill set. Now there are different approaches to phone interviews and in-person interviews. Honestly, phone (or even skype) interviews are harder.  It’s harder to connect, they may not be able to see your facial expressions or to discern tone.

First round interviews:

  • First of all, never EVER take an interview for a school for which you wouldn’t actually consider working. Don’t do “practice interviews,” because you are not going to get feedback, and you are just wasting their time. Which isn’t cool. Like…at all.
  • If doing a phone interview, do the call on a land-line, and do it somewhere quiet. If you live in a residence hall, try to do it somewhere not in your residence hall.  I once had a candidate doing a phone interview in her residence hall apartment and the fire alarm went off and she had to evacuate.  Not her fault, but it threw off the interview and when we rescheduled, we couldn’t quite get back on track.
  • Even though you might be in your pajamas during a phone interview, don’t sound like you’re in your pajamas. I always dress up for a phone interview.
  • Remind yourself to speak slowly, clearly, and practice eliminating vocal ticks. I struggle to like, pay attention, like if every other word is like….”like.” Same things with “umms.” Be deliberative in your answers and don’t let your mouth get ahead of your brain.
  • The first question is most likely going to be the standard “tell us a little about yourself and why you want to work at _________ institution.” This question should take you no more than 2-3 minutes. I once did a mock phone interview with a mentor.  I was asked this question.  After six minutes of talking, they hung up and made me call them again.  This is a very short introductory question in which you need to answer the question “what led you to apply specifically to that job?”
  • For the rest of the questions, as much as you can, answer behaviorally. Tell me about a specific situation relating to the question and how you approached it.  Even if the question is “tell us about your philosophy on supervision,” sure talk about your thoughts (briefly) on it, but then tell us how you applied this philosophy.  Answer in ways that make distinctions between you and the 200 other candidates that have applied for this job. Again, so much of this process is you connecting the dots for the people on the other end of the table. Are you passionate about social justice? That’s amazing.  Tell me in specific terms what you have done to create a more just and inclusive environment in a meaningful way and how that may apply to other institutions.
  • Do not do a humble brag if they ask you about your weaknesses. Saying “oh, I work too much” or “I’m too devoted to my students” that makes you sound like a BS artist. Give honest examples, but also tell what steps you have done to overcome these challenges.
  • Make clear and concise points. I cannot tell you how many times I have had to get through 10 questions in half an hour, but the candidate took 5-6 minutes answering each question.
  • Ask good (but not too hard of question).
    • Ask questions that are relevant and specific to the institution… so do not ask “why do you like working there?” Why I like working somewhere means squat to determine if this will be a good fit for you (plus I guarantee you most people are going to either say that they like it there because of their students or their colleagues…). You have a limited amount of time to get the information you need. Ask questions such as “How do you feel your department models your values of inclusivity/sustainability/community?,” “how do you support students of color on your campus?,” or “what are some challenges for people who work here?” Also remember all that research you did prior to the phone interview?  Ask questions about that “tell me about the success of _____ program.” “I see that you are entering into a new capital campaign.  What role does student affairs have in that process?”
    • Do not ask questions about salary, benefits, etc. That will come as you progress in the search.

On-campus interviews

  • Everything about the phone interview now applies to the on-campus, except now they can see you. Dress your best, whatever that means for you.
  • If the school is kind enough to pay for travel expenses, do everything in your power to work with the host site to make their life easier.
  • Remember to ask during the on-campus offer if they are requiring you to do a presentation or to prepare a portfolio (or both). From that, try to glean what it is that they are looking for from you.  Do they want to see your presentation skills? Are they looking at your knowledge around a specific topic (such as leadership development and how to implement it on a commuter campus)
  • If they take you to a meal, eat conscientiously. Also remember no alcohol.  No matter what.
  • It is a marathon, not a sprit. Take your time, don’t get flustered, be intentional.  I once was on an on-campus for a top choice school when applying for an RD position.  My second interview of the morning was with the Assistant Directors.  After the interview, one of them approached me and said “you are a really good candidate. I want you to succeed.  But that didn’t go well [at which point I died inside]. Just calm down and breathe.  You’re good enough, so relax.” I had two choices: blow the rest of the interview, or fight for what I wanted. And my choices there led to three happy years at that school.

Step 7: The Offer (or lack thereof)

Ah, the moment of truth.  When you see that number flash up on your cell phone and you know that one way or another, your life may change in that moment.

  • If you absolutely know that you want this job, it is absolutely okay to accept on the spot, despite what many people think. If this is your dream job, unless you are trying to negotiate certain components (in which case, read Patrick Love’s article about negotiation, I don’t know why you wouldn’t accept right away.
  • If you need some time to think about it, agree to a time that you will reconvene to discuss the offer.  Have your mind made up by then.  Do not take too long, because they need to reach out to other candidates who may be waiting and take this job in a heartbeat.
  • Always get everything in writing.
  • If you get a rejection, it is totally okay to ask for feedback. But realize that it is hard for employers to provide total strangers with honest feedback, so you may not get what you are looking for.

With that being said, I wish you the best in your job search process.  So many of us have gone on interviews we absolutely bombed (in one interview, I referred to myself several times as “awkward.” They failed that search). Use your networks, learn from your mistakes, and above all, remember that job offers don’t determine self-worth. Whether you get hundreds of offers immediately or it takes you a little while to find your path, you are amazing and better just by going through the process.

I would love to hear your thoughts or what I missed.  Tweet @TM_Porter with further tips and thoughts.




A Reflection on Dog Walking and Internalized Dominance

I walk my dog three times a day. For some, this is a meditative time to be outside with their canine companion; a chance to disconnect and be with your best friend. For me, it is more like a chore. Living on the top floor of a Manhattan sky rise makes this a process just to get to street level. Compound this with the fact that my dog suffers from high anxiety, deals with prejudice against pit bulls on a daily basis, and the many obstacles of city life—trash for her to get in to, crowds of people everywhere, and some people that set her on edge—it makes for a sometimes painstaking process. Yet I do it diligently, though sometimes begrudgingly.

Last night, I took her for a walk, a bit later than usual. I had got caught up in some binge watching and lost track of time. I knew it was going to be a short walk. Typically when I walk her, I try to have her avoid other dogs and other people. It is always a wild card to know how my very anxious dog is going to react to them. She has recently gotten into a scuffle with another dog. I try to be very mindful of how she engages with others and have learned how to detect when her anxiety increases and ways I can counter it.

The avenue I live off of was uncharacteristically quiet and empty. As I walked her down the street, there was a strange man that approached us. He was a younger man of color, much taller than myself, was muttering to himself and wasn’t walking with any purpose or direction. I perceived him as potentially homeless, but there was nothing to justify that assumption. He just stopped in front of us and didn’t really say anything. I immediately felt myself tense up and tighten up on the leash. I quickly moved out of the way to avoid interacting with him. He started to say something and I retorted “sorry, she is just not comfortable around strangers,” and quickly walked away.

Now, chances are, regardless of who this was, I would have said something similar. But there was something about this interaction that made me more uncomfortable than  when most strangers approach us in the past. I felt fear. In addition to having a 70 pound dog that I know will protect me, I am a man that can physically hold my own if I am ever in an unsafe situation. So I am not quite sure where this discomfort or fear stemmed from, but if I am being honest, I suspect that both race and mental health had something to do with it. Something about it being late at night, on a deserted street with a stranger approaching me, with all of the subliminal messages I have received about “safety” and who is defined as “safe” definitely influenced this interaction. I could easily blame this on my dog. I didn’t know this man; I didn’t know how she was going to respond to him or what he was going to say to me. But when I walked away from the situation, my gut said to me “crap, what just happened?” He could have been dangerous…but also, he could have not been. I didn’t stick around long enough to figure out which. I made a snap judgment, and that judgment lead to not giving this man the benefit of the doubt.

I have been doing anti-racism work for over a decade through conferences, workshops, conversations, etc. Yet, this one moment seemed to hold up a mirror to my face and shatter my mindset that I have transcended my own racist biases. I knew that when I said, “sorry, she is just not comfortable around strangers” what I really meant was “sorry, I am not comfortable around strangers, specifically strangers like you.” It has shined a flashlight into my soul to make visible my feelings when it comes to race and mental health.

In her book Rising Strong, researcher Brené Brown describes the process of looking at our own shame stories and learning to uncover the root of them. This shame often relates to our experiences growing up combined with both covert and overt messaging we receive from society. Well…this shame story is an example of internalized dominance if I ever heard one. As a child, we are told, “don’t talk to strangers,” or learn that homeless people are “crazy” and dangerous. These messages, along with the well-documented way white people internalize racial dominance, the assumptions I made about this individual, and the fear I felt (whether rational or not), revealed that my actions had little to do with the dog herself, and more were demonstration of my own biases.

As the Rev. Dr. Jamie Washington points out, “oppression is pervasive and it affects us all.” We live in a world where despite some of our best intentions, we still have very polarizing systems of race, class, ability, gender, orientation, etc. We can go to workshops, conferences, read books, and truly try to engage in the work, but this doesn’t fix everything. Last night was a reminder for me that the work is never over. Despite my best efforts, my own prejudices come back and often bite me in the ass. That is a hard pill to swallow.

So in moments of falling down—when you have made a mistake, when you have hurt someone else, when you have contributed to the narrative of oppression—what do you do? How do you take the most from these moments and find the nugget of truth in them?

Here is the process that I find to be the most helpful:

  1. Acknowledge it. My friend Brian calls this the “sit in your sh*t” moment. We have to recognize shame and feel it to move forward. We acknowledge the fact that something has happened, that we have not engaged in the most generous way, that we have hurt someone, or that we have just displayed a racists/sexist/ablists/etc. behavior. The more we divorce ourselves from it or justify what has happened, the less we can truly engage in this process.
  2. Dig through it. We know our behavior was unjust. But sometimes we don’t always know why. We need to explore what in our past has created this moment. We need to expose the roots of our own prejudices if we ever want to move forward. This is a painful process. It is uncovering skeletons in the closet and revealing deep secrets from long ago. If we can’t unearth them and begin to heal the root of the issue and the pain it has caused each other, then everything else we do is just a Band-Aid.
  3. Apologize for it. I wish I could find the man from above and let him know that I regret my actions. It is through sincerely apologizing to those we have hurt that we accomplish two things. First, we publicly recognize that we have caused a wound and that we regret it. Secondly, the act of apologizing demonstrates vulnerability, the recognition of imperfection, and creates the capacity for greater human connection.
  4. Share it. I think one of the greatest obstacles to social justice is the inability for dominant group members to share their experiences of times that we have messed up. The more we are able to share our own shame narrative, the easier it is for others to relate and learn from one another. Too often we are so caught up on looking like the “good one” or trying to demonstrate that we are so “woke” that we have moved beyond racism. Or even worse, we throw others under the bus so we don’t have to expose our own oppressive thoughts, actions, or behaviors. By allowing ourselves to be vulnerable and share these experiences, we increase our ability to learn from and connect with one another.
  5. Learn from it, remember it, and let go of it. These experiences are gifts for us. They teach us how to be humane, and imperfect, and provide us with a roadmap on how to improve ourselves, not only for the benefit of oppressed groups, but also to provide us with the opportunity to liberate ourselves. When we take lessons from the experiences in which we were not at our best self, we help set a chart to where we want to go and our role/responsibility in achieving it. We take these experiences with us to remind us of that course. However, if we fail to take the opportunity to forgive ourselves and practice self-love, we will never get there. When we hear people of getting caught in the trap of guilt, it is because they have not learned from their experiences and subsequently haven’t forgiven themselves for them. Every person on this Earth is going to make mistakes. When we don’t move on from them, we can’t fully show up and engage in the process.

As far as the instance above, I am sorry to that man for whom I made some very unfair assumptions. Some of these could have been true, I don’t know. But I didn’t even entertain the idea that they might not be. The work is never ending. We never stop learning, growing, and undoing our own prejudices. It is hard work, but we need to be there for each other to help guide one another through this gauntlet. Now if you excuse me, I need to go sit in my sh*t for a little while.

Living and Leading through Gratitude

My mother’s purpose in this world is to live a life of gratitude. This is not done in the abstract, but a genuine reminder to herself on a daily basis that in spite of the struggles that plague many of us: problems at work, struggles in romantic relationships, health concerns—not to mention the frustration and anxiety produced by our increasingly complex world, that life is not worth living if we cannot appreciate it. It would be an understatement to say that she has had more than her fair share of obstacles, pain, and setbacks in her life. Yet, she has never let these be a cornerstone of how she chooses to live her life.

If those closest to me were asked to pick adjectives to describe me, I would hope they might pick “determined”, “intelligent”, or “motivated”. I am also sure my snark and my tendency towards the curmudgeon would be included. However, I am not sure that that “gracious” would near the top of the list. My default is not naturally being overly jazzed about life, and it is easy for me to get trapped in focusing on the negative. Complaining comes as naturally as breathing to me. My mom challenges me on a regular basis, reminding me that a living without acknowledging blessings makes living with the challenges even more difficult.

Over the past six months, I have challenged myself to live this existence of gratitude. For me, this doesn’t mean being inauthentic; I am not trying to recreate the flower power movement. What this meant for me was that when I started to complain and focus on the negative, I needed to ask myself the following question:

  • What is really the problem? It is often easy for struggles to snowball and conflate into larger issues. If I am upset about a situation, I need to delineate if I am upset about the specific issue, or if it was symptomatic of a larger issue that was causing me unhappiness.
  • What has been my part in the creation of this problem? It is never easy to admit that we may have at least contributed to the current state of things. Blame is a default for many of us, but it takes more courage to recognize the role we played in its existence.
  • What is my capacity to change the problem? Complaining is easy. Fixing the problem is harder. Sometimes, we have the ability to change a situation, but we don’t because we don’t understand our power to do so. Or because we expect someone else to fix it for us. Or sometimes it is just easier to play the martyr. Yet, the more we fail to take action to change the problem, the greater the impact the problem has on our ability to function.
  • When is it time to walk away? Sometimes, we don’t have the ability to change the problem, or that changing the problem may be more taxing to us than just living with the issue. This then requires us to let go of things causing us negativity. One of my most used phrases is “not my pig, not my farm,” meaning there are things beyond my control that I can’t focus on, because they are not mine to deal with.
  • What are the positives? When people say, “look for the silver lining,” I have a tendency to roll my eyes. I don’t ever want to downplay a problem by only looking for the positives, and honestly, I sometimes find excessive optimism annoying. Yet in reality, this is the only way we survive the challenges of life. 2017 hasn’t started off well for me: there have been many professional challenges, my dog went through a costly and frightening cancer scare, and I had to have knee surgery. These frustrations are real, and I certainly have a right to be upset about them. Yet, through these experiences, I have been able to clarify my own professional ethics, I have the opportunity to deepen my commitment to my dog, and I have never felt such love as I did when friends came out of the woodwork to help me survive post-op. These are by no means trivial. By focusing on the benefits, it makes it easier to deal with the reality of the challenges.

In learning to live a life of gratitude, I found this to be just as important in my professional role as a leader and manager. Leadership will always continue to create new challenges, frustrations, and opportunities for us to become overwhelmed. When I am faced with problems as a leader, it is easy to become consumed, lose my cool, and live in state of indignation, conflict, and division. This is selfish. It focuses on the struggles we as leaders experience and we lose sight of those we serve.

As leaders, we need to more fully embrace gratitude in order to lead people effectively. Former NBA coach Phil Jackson captured this sentiment in his book Sacred Hoops: Spiritual Lessons of a Hardwood Warrior:

“If we can accept whatever we’ve been dealt – no matter how unwelcome – the way to proceed eventually becomes clear. This is what is meant by right action: the capacity to observe what’s happening and act appropriately, without being distracted by self-centered thoughts. If we rage and resist, our angry, fearful minds have trouble quieting down sufficiently to allow us to act in the most beneficial way for ourselves and others.”

With the increasing complexity of the world, we are only going to be faced with more struggles across all industries. The only way that we are going to be able to survive is if we approach life with more grace. As someone for whom this is not always a natural state of being, this will continue to be challenging. I invite you to join in this process with me. Take my mom’s advice and learn what it means to live and lead a life of gratitude.

How do you demonstrate gratitude in your life? Tweet me @TM_Porter or comment below.


The Beauty of Looking Up

My friends often tease me about my “nerdy” tendencies. Perhaps one of the most uttered phrases out of my mouth is “did you know…” followed by some obscure fact that will most likely not benefit me in life unless I end up as a contenstent on a game show. I am obsessed with historical fiction, classical music, and probably most profoundly…architecture. I am even writing this from a reading room in the New York Public Library, a building with beauty and gilded charm from another era that we have yet to recreate in the stop-and-go world of the present.

alwyn2.jpgMost people in New York have favorite restaurants or stores. I have favorite buildings. Two, in fact. The first is Alywn Court, a very ornate apartment building located just south of Central Park built in the early 20th century in the French Renaissance style. The second is Walker Tower, in Chelsea. An elaborate residence that is an epitome of Art Decco. Though dramatically different from each other, these buildings have taught me the fundamental importance of looking up. Just like most buildings, they have the most unique features and ornamentation at the top, but very few people realize it. This is where the character lies, and this is what creates the magnificent skyline. Yet, most people don’t look up to gaze at the magic of detail. Walker .jpgThey live in a city of architectural wonder and possibility without ever noticing the intracies that construct it. In pondering this, it became very clear to me that this is indeed a metaphor for our lives.

Way too often, we live our lives very tunnel-visioned. Focused on the present moment, the current task, or trying desperately to get to our destination, we forget to notice our surroundings. We lose sight of some of the most important detail that envelop us because it is not in our most immediate line of sight. There is beauty in that detail that is fundamental to our existence. The elaborate cornices and quatrefoils that are speckled across the landscape of manhattan don’t mean much to me in my day-to-day existence. I get up, go to work, go to the store, live my life. It is a very matter-of-fact existence. Yet, when I miss these elements, my existence in this city is incomplete. I fail to see the uniqueness that makes up my chosen home and I have a limited scope of understanding of how I fit into this tapestry.

The other day, I was walking down Broadway in the theater district and saw a very overy-the-top design element on a building that I had never noticed before. I turned to my friend and almost naievly asked “has that always been there?” Of course it has, but throughout the past three years of living here, I have been too focused on either getting through midtown as quickly as possible without getting frustrated by a tourist or because I am hungry and trying to get to my sandwich shop to stop and notice. The top of this building, decked out in what I can only describe as “architectural sequins” dramatically contributes to the glitz of the area. It stunned me that I had not ever seen it before. While I am not a fan of this component that looks like it was summoned from the Las Vegas Strip, I appreciate not only the work that it took to create, but also the fact that it is now eye-catching for every time I go to there. It recontextualized the landscape for me.

When we stop focusing on our immediate goals and path, we are able to understand this greater landscape. It is the elements that we don’t often see, the porticos and traceries that enhance our surroundings and help clarify our understanding of the world. In my life, I have had a vision in my head of how life is supposed to turn out and occaisionally have gotten tunnel-visioned on how to get there. I became laser-focused on how to reach my destination and haven’t always looked up. Yet, as sometimes happens in life, I occaisonlly get thrown out of orbit and am forced to see elements and details that somehow I have missed. Recently, I have begun contemplating my own goals and trajectory, personally and professionally. I’ve begun to redefine my sense of the world and how I fit into my surroundings, how I experience the beauty that surrounds me, and how I reciprocally contribute elements of beauty back into the world. As I began to notice my surroundings, I realized that there is greatness in what I have to contribute in ways I have never thought of before.

New adornments construct a different landscape than what was previously known. When you look up, buildings are no longer utilitarian doorways strewn about as you move closer to your destination. People are no longer obstacles that you need to dodge as you attempt to reach your target. But rather, they become integral part of the journey along the way that helps create meaning. They help shift you and occaisionally allow you to change direction to find other beauty that you may have missed before. When you slow down to look up, you create clarity and understanding of your place in the world and the vast possibilities within in. Your environment has changed you, so you in turn can change your environment in this constantly moving and evolving process.

As we begin to say goodbye to the old year and welcome to a new one, my wish for you is to look up. Take a moment to appreciate where you are, the journey that has taken you there, and the beauty of the path ahead of you, even if it is not the one you had planned. Look up and realize that the magic is sometimes just beyond the horizon.

street view look up.jpg

Service is more than a red ribbon

AIDS-Ribbon.jpgEvery December 1st, on World AIDS Day, I take a moment to light a candle and say a prayer for those we’ve lost to this disease and those that still live with it on a daily basis.  I put on a a red ribbon to honor those impacted by this epidemic.

Growing up in the 80s and 90s, HIV and AIDS were things that were heard about occasionally on the evening news, but rarely was discussed in every day conversation.  It was a “gay affliction” and any association with it was mostly done with a distain for the gay men who suffered and died from this disease. This disease made it easy to reenforce a public discourse that viewed gay men as objects of ridicule and pity at best, repulsion and worthy of physical and emotional violence at the very worst.

This made growing up increasingly difficult for me. As a young adult coming to terms with my own identity being gay, my narrative was that people like me were dirty, sex-obsessed pariahs.  There weren’t role models to show me how being gay was not a death sentence.  The generation before me had been wiped out because of this disease.  When I finally did come out, the question I got most often was “aren’t you worried?” This was of course relating to my own health and not contracting HIV, despite advances in prevention efforts  and treatment for those affected because the two were synonymous. I was terrified of this disease.  I hated this disease.  This disease was a reminder that people like me were not cared for and wouldn’t belong.

When I was in my early 20s, someone very dear to me disclosed to me that they had been diagnosed as HIV positive. There was pain, there was worry.  But more than anything, there was shame.  How could they let this happen? It was no longer the late 80s, so how could this be a thing? My own discomfort clouded this conversation in a way that causes me no pride. I tried to refrain from judgement, but lacked success in doing so.   Despite my best efforts, my own bias prevented me from exhibiting grace in the time someone needed it the most.   Various other people would disclose their status to me throughout the years and I hope that they found a stronger support than I had given before.

After some time had passed and I had grown in my understanding and emotional capacity, I made the decision that I had to contribute to this conversation.  I wanted to change the narrative of what it meant to be HIV positive and to provide more kindness to this community than I had once shown.  I became deeply involved in a local AIDS Service Organization (ASO) that worked to provide services and financial assistance to those living with HIV and AIDS in that community.  It was not about finding a cure or advocating for changes at a policy level. This was recognizing the humanity of this disease and working to promote the quality and dignity of life for people in my own community.  I served as a lead volunteer and then eventually on their board of trustees, chairing their annual gala and raising funds to support their efforts.  I have since moved away and had to step away from this organization. However, there are three lessons I learned as a result of this work that I still need to carry with me to this day.

  • Service is the purest form of allyship. HIV hits low income communities of color with higher frequency.  In social justice work, we talk about utilizing privilege to ease the suffering of others. This was the most tangible way I found to demonstrate the leverage of my privilege. My social, educational, and financial capital as a white, middle-class man could be used to support efforts to ensure that people had a way to pay their rent or buy a new mattress. I could talk the talk, but until I had a way to put my words into actions that made a difference in other people’s lives, social justice remained a selfish endeavor for me.
  • We are at our best when we are in community with one another. I have never felt as supported as worked as hard until I worked in service of others. Not only was this because of the phenomenal people that were a part of this organization, but being able to connect to those that utilized these services and going out into the community to do education and advocacy work made me understand the importance of the work that the organization did and the role I played.  This motivated me to push even more for this organization. By connecting to people’s lives and having them connected to mine, we created a sense of collective purpose and I found my best self.
  • We can’t fix the past, but we can do better in the future. I wish I could go back and change things. But that’s impossible.  For years, I avoided the conversation of HIV and AIDS. It was a source of shame for me for how I didn’t show the depth of compassion that I needed to. But being paralyzed by that shame accomplishes nothing. I needed to get off my ass and do something of service.  It is in this service that I was shown the grace and kindness that I lacked before. And when I found it, I found it was easier to reciprocate.

HIV and AIDS is a topic that has gotten less and less attention recently with thoughts that we are now on the brink of a cure. It is no longer a part of any public discourse.  And most funding for HIV/AIDS related-causes goes towards research, finding a cure, etc.  However in this dwindling economy, there has been dramatic decrease of funding for those that are actually on the ground doing work in the service of others. To recognize the dignity of their lives.

World AIDS Day ended a couple of hours ago.  I saw many people change profile pictures or walking around with red ribbons. Now I challenge you to do more. If you put on the red ribbon, walk the walk. Go to events, volunteer, or donate to your local ASO. As such, I am committing to making a monthly pledge in 2017 to Bailey House, an organization that has committed to serve the homeless population of NYC living with HIV/AIDS.  While it isn’t much, it’s recognizing that we can no longer just go on by putting on ribbons and forgetting about it come December 2nd.



Five Reasons Why Every Student Affairs Professional Should Serve on a Non-Profit Board


Next week, I will officially end my three-year term as a member of the Board of Trustees for a non-profit that promotes the health and dignity of people living with HIV and AIDS. It has been a tremendous honor to serve in this capacity for such a long time and I am going to miss the organization and the people. I started off in this organization as a volunteer and soon became involved in its operational success as a trustee. It has been great to give back to my community. Unexpectedly, the organization has given me so many invaluable tools that will serve me in my career as a leader within higher education.

Serving on a non-profit board can increase competency, develop capacity, and shift your understanding of institutional effectiveness. Here are five reasons you should become involved in non-profit work:

  1. Improved Business Acumen. This is by far one of the greatest tools that student affairs professionals have in their arsenal. They learn how to balance budgets, they navigate complex human resource issues, they are knowledgeable about branding and messaging, and they understand the importance of advocating for financial resources. Each of these is essential to their success. And these are all things that you can do on a non-profit board. Learning about profit and loss sheets, working with FMLA or unemployment pay, crafting messages to donors and advocating on your organizations behalf are all skills that you develop when you are part of the governing body of a non-profit.
  2. Provided context for governance. At each of our campuses we have a governing body. Whether they are a board of directors, regents, or trustees, these individuals have been charged with ensuring the well being of their respective institutions. They have to look at the big picture when it comes to the operational and financial health of the organization in addition to ensuring that it is in compliance with its mission, visions, and values. These boards are entrusted to make decisions that have an impact on people. While the outcomes are not always popular, they are done with a common vision of sustaining the campus for years to come. Working with a non-profit allows you to clarify your own understanding of these governing bodies and learn to trust in their function, even though you may not always initially see the 30,000 foot view.
  3. Moving outside of your Higher Ed bubble. My non-higher education friends hate it when the rest of us get together. Why? Because we only talk shop. Our world revolves around our jobs, and in many cases, we actually live where we work. It can be easy to forget that worlds exist beyond our campus borders. Involving yourself in non-profit work provides a larger scope of how your campus fits into the larger landscape of your geographical region and puts you in touch with the needs of your community. Think of how this understanding can impact the town-gown relationship on your own campus. By framing your work in a larger context, you begin to see how things are interconnected. Additionally, serving on a board outside of higher education makes you a more interesting person and gives you more things to talk about at a cocktail party.
  1. Becoming a skilled fundraiser. The crux of non-profit work is about building solid relationships with donors. If you know how to win people over, you are more likely to raise funds than if you struggle to build connections. Fundraising is about developing positive rapport, selling the mission of the organization, and learning how to partner with others so that your relationship is mutually beneficial. As the future of higher education becomes more and more scrutinized, financial resources are going to be under the microscope at most institutions. If you know how to bring both internal and external people on board so that they ultimately believe in the mission of your division or department, you will have higher success in getting what you need. More Student Affairs divisions are starting to look externally for funding sources for programs and initiatives. Capital fundraising is an invaluable tool in your wheelhouse because you can maximize your ability to build a premier student affairs program.
  1. Setting an example of servant leadership. One of the tenants of higher education is to prepare, develop and engage global citizenry. We want/hope/expect our students to go out and change the world. But how are we showing them what this looks like? Are we truly demonstrating the importance of being involved beyond your collegiate experience, being invested in something greater than yourself, and working to shape the world we live in beyond just our profession? If the answer to that is no, we are not demonstrating servant leadership and truly showing these students how to become engaged citizens.

It is so easy to get wrapped up in the day-to-day lives of our students, our work, our campuses, or even our own lives. But in order to develop skills and competency to further develop these, I firmly believe there is nothing better than giving to others through service on a non-profit board. As for me, I am stepping off of this board, better for the experience, and so grateful to so many people who have been a part of this journey with me.

What are your thoughts? Tweet at me @TM_Porter


New Year, New Professional You

It’s 2016 and all social media channels are filled with posts about New Year’s Resolutions. Many of them pertain to healthy habits, physical fitness, attitude towards life, or perhaps even personal finance. Indeed, I made a few of these for myself (goodbye gummy bears, we had a good run).

However, one thing was noticeably absent. What I didn’t see was the abundance of professional goals that people have set for themselves in the New Year. There were a few here and there to resolve to spend more time with students or writing for professional publications. However, in higher education, I saw fewer professional resolutions than I was anticipating.

I think there are three reasons for this. First, because we work on an academic calendar, this feels like we are not at a new beginning, but rather halfway through a cycle. It would seem strange to switch the course and make new goals now. It is much easier to say “that is a great idea for next year.” Hello…it is a new year. It may not be a new beginning, but it can certainly be a time that we refocus our goals and modify our objectives.

Secondly, when setting goals, we tend to think of our jobs in a vacuum, not necessarily in terms of the larger trajectory of our careers. When creating New Year’s resolutions, we are thinking about the next 365 days. Unless we are anticipating a major transition during this time such as a job change or going back to school, we set short-term professional goals to develop habits that help us manage the day-to-day. These can be great, but at the same time, they may require us to invest excess energy on things that won’t have the greatest return.

Lastly, we feel that in order to achieve work-life “balance” (a concept that honestly rubs me the wrong way), we need to really start focusing in on the “self” and work on enhancing our life outside of work. Wrong. While it may be true that there are areas in our individual lives to which we need to give priority (going to the gym, eating well, spending more time with loved ones, etc.), we still need to remember that the work is not going to go away. Actually, as you move up in the field, it is only going to increase. We spend half of our waking lives with work-related activities. For me, work is the part of my life I need to focus on most because it inhabits the majority of my time. If I truly want to enhance my life, I need to be able to create goals in my work life that allow for greater efficiency, achievement and productivity, so that I can continue to achieve the things that need to get done and create time for things beyond the scope of my professional life.

With all of that in mind, here are my 2016 Resolutions both for myself, and for us as a profession:

Focus on Intentional Branding. shutterstock_236672323We have heard the messaging on the importance of networking and getting positive name recognition. However, 2016 needs be the year of demonstrating substance and value within our work. Focusing on what is being put on social media, engaging in critical conversations about our profession, and working to become bridge-builders will build a better brand. Don’t be white noise that is just retweeting what the last person said. Contribute, engage, and create.

Inbox Zero.
shutterstock_164861015I know…we work in an email-happy profession. It is maddening. It can be a full-time job just to answer email, let alone all the other work we have to accomplish. However, if your professional reputation becomes one that email goes unanswered, that people have to pester you for a response, or that you haven’t read emails to prepare for your next meeting, think of what this is doing to your local professional reputation. It doesn’t matter the quality of name recognition if you don’t follow up on your administrative tasks. Personal brand is good, but professional reputation is better. Don’t let a lack of email follow-through destroy that.

Inclusively engage in justice. 

shutterstock_281978054This could be a completely separate blog post. 2015 reached an apex for issues of injustice, both domestically and internationally. We are impacted by the world around us that can be personally painful or cause pain to others.That’s real and that pain needs to be honored and addressed. At the same time, we are educators and we need to allow space for dialogue, learning and growth in helping all of our students work through and cope with these injustices.We need to lead by helping our students develop critical consciousness about their identities and how they show up in this world.This can trigger us in unintended ways. That’s okay.But sometimes, it can be easy to lead through our own pain and unintentionally disrupt the learning process for students, especially those coming from places of privilege. Let’s find a way to work with students, including those that are having difficulty understanding issues of injustice, at their own level and help them get to where we hope they go (this is everyone’s responsibility, not just that of subordinated identities). Can/should we be activists? Absolutely. But we need to know the time to be an activist and the time to be an educator, and recognize that they are not always one and the same.

Be a supervisee/supervisor that is an activator. shutterstock_228639250.jpg
Don’t go rogue, but stop waiting for others to tell you what you should or be doing or what they need from you. Take the initiative and positively contribute to the enhancement of your department and institution. Learning how to anticipate the needs for those at ranks above and below you will ultimately make your initiatives  more strategic, which in turn allow your job to be more effective in the long run, creates a stronger team with greater success,  and enhances time and opportunity for other work to get done.

Approach work with positivity. shutterstock_266019002.jpg
Being on call for the second week in a row sucks. Dealing with unreasonable student conflicts is the worst. Balancing your budget GL reports can be boring. But we all signed up for this job for some reason, right? Work shouldn’t always be enjoyable. That’s why they call it work. But it shouldn’t be completely miserable either. In moments of misery, ask yourself, “is the work really miserable, or is my approach what is making me miserable?” If it is the former, perhaps you are in a position that isn’t the right fit. If it’s the latter, change the approach to remember why you signed up for this job and find a way to do it with joy.


To all my colleagues and friends in higher education, I wish you a happy New Year. May your professional goals be just as rich as your personal resolutions. What are your hopes for 2016? Let me know @TM_Portershutterstock_155644700