Vocation Helping Vocation: Lessons About Student Affairs Administration from Career-Specialized Institutions

shutterstock_85571509When I think about college and university campuses, I think about student involvement, athletics, greek life, traditional residence halls, studying on the quad, switching majors, and really learning to discover “who you are.” I think of students focusing on learning as much outside the classroom as they do inside the classroom. I think of the systems, processes, theories, and history that shaped American higher education into what it is today.

Having worked at several schools, these components were consistent from place to place. However, for the last few years, I have been working at an institution that has shifted my understanding of higher education and how to work with students. Working at what I call “vocational” or “pre-professional” institutions is unlike anything I have experienced in both positives and negative ways. These are institutions that specialize in a particular career interest/goal and students often have to be selected into specific majors prior to their admissions. These institutions consist of visual art schools, performing arts conservatories, schools specifically devoted to engineering, theological seminaries, fashion institutes, etc. Prior to coming here, I wasn’t even sure schools like this had robust student affairs divisions. In conversing with others in the field, I wasn’t alone in this lack of understanding.

What myself, and many other practitioners have realized is that there are strong systems of student support in these schools and the approach has to be different due to the nature of the school.

  • A new model for student involvement. Vocational institutions have structures schedules that provide little out-of-classroom time to devote to being a part of clubs and activities. On my campus, there are four clubs total. It’s not a thing. We find other ways such as one-time involvement opportunities, passive programming, etc. to engage students outside of the classroom. Additionally, professionals plan and facilitate many more programs here. Due to the intense schedule, programs are not students-led. By being more active in this process, professionals are able to enhance the quality of programs to students and reach a greater audience.
  • Commitment from day one. Eight years ago, I was working at a larger public institution where I would converse with students about what they wanted to do after college, changing majors, benefits of study abroad, etc. Here, they come in knowing what to expect and are already devoted to a career path. There isn’t much room to deviate. If an engineering major wants to minor in sociology…well, that is simply not an option. It takes a special student to commit to a career goal at age 18.
  • Deeper knowledge of the academic structure. Being at small campuses and having limited academic options, you get to know academic administrators, curriculum, and even students’ performance in classes quite well.
  • Higher pressure environment=greater mental health concerns. Students find themselves dealing with pressure, critique, imposter syndrome (“am I really good enough to be here?”), and parental drive more than most other institutions. The institution needs to have a higher touch with students on a regular basis to support them through graduation.
  • Emphasis on hands-on experiences. Of course academic coursework is important to all these institutions. If they offer accredited degrees, they still need to have components of liberal arts in the curricula. However, traditional classroom experience is not the emphasis of the school. Whether it’s hands-on experiences, performances and productions, fashion shows, or time in the art studio, these experiences take precedence and are the fundamental building blocks of the institution. It takes extra effort to help students see not only the reasons behind this coursework, but the practical application of them as well.

While these may be specific to these types of institutions, there are many lessons that we have collectively learned that can benefit practitioners across all institutions of higher education.

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  • Help students find vocations early on in their collegiate path. Students with focused goals have less issues with conduct, greater retention and do better academically than students without a clear trajectory. As practitioners, we must facilitate these realizations earlier. This makes it easier to devise educational  programs for students that are connected to the “core” of their vocation.
  • shutterstock_164906795All students need validation. Whether students enroll in community college, the Ivy League, a world-class conservatory, or a regional state institution, most of them will feel out of place at some point. We need to be more vigilant about boosting students up in an era (and often in institutions) that say they have to consistently prove they belong there.

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  • Know the academic curriculum as well as you know the co-curricular. If we are truly looking at the holistic experience of the student, we must know the ins and outs of their academic programs better than we do. If practitioners knew major requirements, built relationships with academic administrators, and anticipated stressful points within the year, they would be much more effective in counseling students, helping them navigate careers, planning more relevant programs and utilizing academic colleagues to help identify and address the needs of students of concern.

Working in an institution like this has been a highlight of my career. These students have taught me a different perspective on what it means to be a student affairs practitioner. Not every professional will have an opportunity to work in this capacity, but it has been by far one of the most enriching professional experiences I have experienced and will guide my work and vision on campuses in the future.

This blog was written as part of the Careers in Student Affairs Month 2015 through NASPA

Special thanks to the following for their contributions to this article

Paul Gordon Brown

Brett Wellman, Director of Student Life, Benjamin Franklin Institute of Technology

Cory Owen, Director of International Advisement, The Juilliard School

Jim Love, Director of Residence Life, The Manhattan School of Music

Elizabeth Thompson, Assistant Director for Student Activities and Leadership, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Eric Crumrine, Director of Housing and Student Life, The Boston Conservatory

Candace Dennig, Dean of Students, The Art Institute of Washington

Melissa O’Brien, Student Services, Hartford Seminary

Howie Lien, Student Affairs Associate, The Juilliard School

*These views are my own and are not endorsed by any specific institution or employer.

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Does Size Matter? Professional experiences at small colleges and universities.

Group of dogs different sizes sit and looking into camera isolated on white. Yorkshire terrier, spitz, bordoss dog.

“I always assumed that working at a small school was like scraping the bottom of the barrel.”

The moment this was stated, I knew exactly what this graduate student was saying. It was a sentiment I have heard from various graduate students that I have connected with over the course of the summer. There seemed to be a growing mentality amongst these future professionals when thinking about their first position out of graduate school. They were reluctant to consider the opportunity of working at small schools as viable, prestigious or challenging experiences. Some gravitated towards small schools, primarily because they had attended similar institutions as an undergrad.  This was the exception, not the rule. There were various reasons why the grads I spoke with indicated that small schools were not on their radar, including access to resources, opportunities for advancement, professional development, and the lack of name and reputation in the profession.

This resonated. I had the same mentality when going through my first job search. I wanted a school with a name, clout, and the resources to get me to my next step. I figured it was the mark of the good and competent professional to end up at these schools. My competitive side would settle for nothing less. I saw this mentality creep in when I was on the employer side as well. When I worked at large schools, we would question if a professional could transition from a small college to a large university. (Incidentally, we have the same conversations at small schools about those coming from larger institutions, yet this is rarely discussed in the field.)

In processing these concepts with colleagues across the country, I encountered mixed reactions. Often, it was my colleagues at larger institutions who didn’t agree that small schools were seen as “less than.” Yet, when asking those who worked at small institutions, they recounted a very different narrative. They felt the work that they do had been discounted by those at larger schools, struggled in convincing staff to come to work for their college, and felt a lack of representation in professional associations, both in terms of professionals and relevant content. Is this true? Maybe. Maybe not. Is it felt? By many, yes.

I am not here to argue which is better or can provide the best experience. That is up to each individual to decide. I have worked at large public universities and small private colleges. Each has provided experiences that have aided me in becoming a competent professional. Perhaps this conversation spawns from internal inferiority I feel working at a smaller school. However, my main motivation is to encourage us as a profession to shift the discourse on how we speak about, engage with, and find value in the experience of working as a professional at a small college. I don’t want a new generation of practitioners feeling a sense of failure if they are not working for a Big 10 school.

I am a Director of a small Housing department. In fact, my on-campus population is less than the building occupancy of the first residence hall I ever supervised. As a result, some have told me that in order to advance my career, my next position will likely be a lateral move to an institution with a higher bed count. Now, I am not assuming that all Director positions are created equal. However, I do find it to be true that there is a difference between running a residence hall and running a residence life program and those experiences have similarities, just on different scales. While I may run a smaller program, this has no indication of my capacity to do higher level work. This experience has allowed me to be a senior-level administrator, having my hand in a myriad of processes on this campus. At this stage in my career I would not have had these experiences and remained critically connected to students had I stayed with larger institutions. Being at a small school allows/forces you to wear many hats and work outside of your functional area. When I worked at a huge university, I couldn’t tell you the names of professionals outside of residence life due to distinct silos. But, I knew the ins and outs of my specific job duties.

As someone who started my career in medium and large public institutions, I recognize many of the amazing takeaways by working in these environments. But as someone who (by happenstance) found myself working at a small college and will most likely find myself working at them for the remainder of my career, I have found this experience invaluable to frame the work that we do as professionals.

As a profession, we need to reconsider the value placed on working at a small school. Soon, new cohort of professionals will be looking to come to our campuses. We need to teach them of the tremendous challenges and opportunities to be had at both types and guide them on a path to the best experience for them. From my time at both, I found the following to be true.

At a large school, you will experience many things:

  • Great students and staff
  • Large departments contributing to personal and professional network enhancement
  • Human, financial and physical resources (still never what we want or need)
  • The ability to focus in on the specifics of your job and perfect the details of the specific functional area in which you work
  • (Occasional) opportunities for advancement focusing on larger administrative tasks
  • “Traditional” student affairs departments

At a small school, you will experience many things:

  • Great students and staff
  • Smaller departments that create tighter bonds within an office and enhance cohort building
  • The ability to collaborate with other offices and departments through sharing of resources
  • Learning to be more of a generalist through collateral assignments in other offices
  • Greater influence and a larger role on campus (committees, projects, processes, etc.)
  • Continued connection to the student body as you move higher up the ranks.
  • The ability to focus on specialized students at certain types of schools and institutions such as women’s colleges, performing and visual arts schools, engineering schools where student affairs structures fit the needs of the institution.

I have seen people succeed  and be less successful at both types. We can’t limit the opportunities we create for ourselves because the school that would give us the best experience may not be what was originally in our heads. Regardless of where we work, it will always boil down to how we provide students with the greatest experience we possibly can in the framework we’re given.

What have been your experience working at schools of different sizes?

365 Days in New York: Lessons Learned

Today marks the first anniversary of when I packed my belongings into a U-Haul and left the farmlands of New England and landed in this concrete jungle. Reflecting on what this experience has meant to me thus far, I was able to glean some nuggets of wisdom that I have picked up along the way. There are the many lessons on how to exist in New York, such as how to tell if a cab is taken, or where to get the best tacos (fyi, that would be Cascabel Taqueria on 108th and Broadway). Then there are the lessons on how to truly experience New York, meaning redefining your understanding of what constitutes as “smelly” and learning how to be okay with strangers touching you on the subway. However, I really want to focus on how I have changed. How have these skyscrapers and never-sleeping streets left their mark on me?

  1. Be grateful for what you have, and share in those blessings. 

gratitude-bookEconomic justice has been on my radar for a very long time. From personal experiences to classes on frameworks of poverty, I thought I had a pretty good grasp. I have even been hired to do trainings on the subject. But nothing ever prepared me to experience the wealth disparity I found here. There is something so haunting about seeing the same woman day after day asking for money to survive while standing in the shadow of the Trump Tower. I live in a nice neighborhood on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. I have a good paying job and I can afford to experience many of the wonderful thing about this city. But I have to remember that the New York that I live in is not everyone’s New York. In my daily life I need to work on cultivating kindness towards others and assist in lessening their pain.

  1. Insignificance is a frame of mind

alone-in-a-crowdIn New York, you are one of eight million faces that share in this collective experience. Your daily actions aren’t noticed here. You could walk out of the house in a poncho and some pajama pants and most people won’t bat an eye. But this can’t justify complacency. I still need to get up each morning and ask myself “what are the ways I am going to impact the world today?” Even if I don’t know the legacy I am leaving on this place, it is still happening. I am not insignificant. We all have a tremendous agency to impact our community and ourselves. It is easy to forget that here and grow cold to each other, thinking that our lives don’t matter in the grand scheme of things. The opposite is actually true. This beautiful landscape of New York is a tapestry woven of individual stories collected over time. Each of these narratives has crafted this community. Without my contribution, this city would have still existed, but wouldn’t have been the same.

  1. Embrace the uncomfortable.

Facepalm Girl-2I am awkward as hell. Anyone who has ever seen me at a cocktail party can verify this. Small talk is difficult for me. When I meet people and they ask what the best part of New York has been since moving here, my mind will blank and I’ll stammer and say something like “uhhh…I don’t know, all of it,” which in reality makes it sound like I haven’t left my apartment since June 2014. At social events, I will follow the person I know best, not always knowing how to engage others in conversations.

Despite being filled with people, this city is isolating and lonely. People are not always trusting, are very focused on the things that impact them, and have already set social circles. It’s hard as an adult to make friends here. Do you know whose problem that is to fix? Mine. There are times that I have to move beyond my comfort zone and just get over the fact that I need to embrace that initial awkwardness. Once I can move past that awkward point, the rest is down hill and I can focus on true relationship building. Reaching out to new people or trying new things is hard. Being isolated and alone is hard. Learn to pick your hard.

  1. People who are bored are boring.

bored-dog-computerI remember so many times when living in Massachusetts I talked about how bored I was. I ran the same routes, ate at the same restaurants, and went about my daily existence as though my life was never meant to be epic. Were there things I could have done? Sure. But it was easier to be lazy and complain about life rather than go experience it. Here, the towering buildings, bright lights and constant bustle remind me that I have no excuse for not participating in the world around me. There are so many possibilities to engage which lead to new experiences. It is my fault if I am bored or in a rut. It doesn’t matter where in the world I live, there are always opportunities to connect and rejoice in my surroundings. If I don’t take advantage of those gifts, I need to recognize that this is a choice I made. There is a time and a place for familiarity, but I will never grow sticking within those confines. I am the cause for my own mundane. Conversely, I am the cause of my own epic journey.

  1. Learn to Breathe.

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I have this thing I call “mid-town” rage. It is basically the rising level of anxiety I feel when I go below 59th street. When people think about the franticness of New York, they are often envisioning mid-town where you are basically on sensory overload all the time. While this level of pace is not even remotely true for the rest of the city, there is something to be said for the high-intensity reputation we have. There are two tempos in New York: fast and faster. I am a fast talker, a fast worker, a fast eater and a fast thinker. This place is ideal for me. However, as I recently discovered, constantly living in this pace can have negative impacts on your health and wellbeing, your work product, and even your relationships with other people. I am certainly not going to slow down. That would drive me nuts. However, the recognition that there are moments where I need to take a deep breath, reflect upon my experience, and savor the richness of my life.  This is going to be what keep me sustained in this highly driven, highly motivated city

So here’s to you, New York and all of your collective stories that have had an impact on me. Thank you for the past 365 days and I am looking forward to see who I am in 365 more.

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Suck it up, Buttercup. Go the Extra Mile.

I don’t exercise, I compete. Being active isn’t a chore, it’s a responsibility. Balance doesn’t mean avoiding work, it means embracing it. I am an athlete. I participate in competitive sports that push me beyond my current capability.  It’s a process that enables me to move past discomfort into what I thought was impossible. In student affairs, we often focus on holistic health, wellness, and balance. We cite studies that remind us that when we exercise, we reap the benefits of released endorphins, the ability for us to remove ourselves from stressful situations and take much needed time for ourselves.  These are all important, and I value them.  But we also need focus our attention of developing the athletic mindset of professionals. Hopping on the elliptical for 45 minutes a day isn’t exactly the same as being an athlete, nor does it produce the same positive benefits.  We need to devote the same care and intention towards embracing the development of the athlete as we do cultivating holistic wellness.

There are many of us who are athletes, though too many are reluctant to embrace that identity. Perhaps you’re not the star player on a team or are often bringing up the rear in a 5k race. I frequently hear “I’m not a runner, I’m pretty slow,” “I’m more like a halflete,” or my favorite “I’m just doing a half marathon” as though running 13.1 miles is trivial.   We discount the effort that we put into pushing ourselves to do something physically uncomfortable, and fail to recognize the benefits we acquire from this work.

This positing came at some shifting points in my personal and professional life. After starting a position, I took opportunities to reflect upon my professional progression and saw a shift in how I approach work and think strategically. Part of this is a natural maturation that occurred and the gaining of a broader understanding of the profession. This self-discovery also happened when I started/ended relationships, moved, etc. However, as I reflected, I discovered a major component of my life too often glossed over or compartmentalized is being an athlete, despite it teaching me some of the most valuable lessons of what it means to be a professional.

When I was in college, I gained the freshman 15 (or let’s be honest, 40), and decided I needed to get on a treadmill to get my health under control.  Running seemed more like a chore and I had no appreciation for it.  This all changed my first year as a professional when I decided to sign up for a half marathon.  I had run a race…once…four years earlier. And it was a 5k. But sure, I was ready for a half, no problem.  My training was painful, difficult to manage with a busy schedule and fraught with excuses as to why I couldn’t/didn’t want to complete this task. “I have better things to do with my time,” “my knee is hurting,” “I’ve worked a lot today and now am too tired to go for a run.” These thoughts permeated my consciousness.  On race day I started off strong, but gradually fell back into old patterns and thinking. I was tired, my feet were hurting, and I wanted to throw in the towel. At mile 7, I was going to pull out of race and just go home. But then I saw a pack of friends, waiting to cheer me on. That’s the moment when I became an athlete. I had to push past all the crap and excuses to get the work done. I finished that race and pushed through those doubts and insecurities. I was in the back of the pack, but I crossed that damn finish line and have never looked back. Since then I have run countless races, began participating in other forms of athletics, and am prepping for my sixth full marathon this fall.

Reflecting on my own and others development as athletes, I’ve identified some ways in which competition and athletics contributes to being a better professional, colleague, and change agent in the workplace.

1.       Increased capacity for work. We all have that moment where we want to quit. It is much easier to watch the latest episode of Scandal than to get a couple of miles in. When I am in the middle of a workout and slowing down, taking more breaks than needed, or not pushing myself hard enough, my coaches don’t let it slide.  My favorite coach is tenacious about this.  When I find myself starting to whine, she tells me to “Suck it up, Buttercup. Get the work done.” And guess what…I get it done. In my life and in my work, giving up isn’t an option and neither is slowing down.  I have a job to do, and I get it done.    Being an athlete helps me cross my “professional finish line” every time.

2.       Enhanced Commitment to Accomplishing Goals. Signing up for my first marathon was scary. It made striving towards a huge goal a reality. I couldn’t back out. I had to stick with my training, which meant getting up at 6am to get a run in or avoiding that extra piece of candy (which was hard because I LOVE candy). I couldn’t spend as much with my partner because I needed to take time towards achieving this goal. We have to sacrifice to reach our dreams.  We put in extra hours, do things we don’t want to do, and give up notions of achieving perfect balance. And we do this without complaining because we signed up for this and no one else is forcing us to continue.  Becoming an athlete has increased my follow-through and has helped me understand what it takes for me to reach the objective.

3.       Increase Efficiency of time.  In Crossfit, we have high-intensity workouts in structured amounts of time. Every gym has this dreaded countdown clock that constantly glares at you, reminding you that you have a job to do and you don’t have forever to do it. I hate that clock. But that clock has taught me that in order to achieve, I have to be incredibly intentional about how I use my time. This practice carries into my work.  I set timers to complete specific tasks.  I get breaks throughout the day, but nothing will be accomplished if I break concentration during my work.   If I have 20 minutes to get something done, you can be damn sure I am not farting around on Twitter…most days. I have prioritized my time differently as a result of this new athletic identity.

4.       Being Ok with Being Uncomfortable. Walking into a gym where guys are competitively lifting hundreds of pounds is intimidating. Scratch that, it’s not intimidating, it scares you sh*tless. My first time going to an Olympic Weightlifting Class, I walked in, looked around, and then walked right back out.  I couldn’t compete and wouldn’t be the best. Then I remembered something a supervisor told me in grad school. “Nobody starts out as a VP. You put in your time and do good work.” Remembering this, I went back, checked my ego, and then went back again. Now I am starting to finally get my feet under me, I have a new sense of confidence, seeing improvements, and finding joy. This would have never happened had I stayed scared.  It is in those moments of discomfort that being an athlete has pushed me forward past my own perceived limits.  I am stronger because of the times I pushed forward even when feeling uncomfortable. I also notice that I have less and less of those uncomfortable moments because my confidence has grown.

5.       Collective Perseverance. There is a comradery that you build with fellow athletes who are invested in your success. You find community with these people and are better for it, because they have seen you at points where you were on an adrenaline rush from running your 5k PR as well as the times that you have failed. Either way, they still cheer you on. Recently, I ran a half marathon in the most miserable weather.  It was raining hard, cold and windy. As I crossed the finish line, runners from the front of the pack who finished much earlier were there in the pouring rain cheering and running people in.  When you enter a community like this, you help each other push through because you have been there with them in that agony.  In my professional life, I don’t surround myself with people who aren’t invested in my success or the success of others and likewise, I will always strive to be a person to push others to both individual and collective standards of excellence.

Not everyone can, nor needs to, go out and run a marathon (although, if you choose to do so, know I’m cheering you on). However,  we need to find things external to our work that push us to become better professionals, allow for personal growth and find that inner voice that pushes us to take one more step and be better than we were yesterday. How will you find that inner voice?  I hope you will listen to it and let it push you that extra mile.

Originally posted as a guest blog on AnnMarieKlotz.com