Hoppin’ the Fence

On Friday, April 13th (Friday the 13th!), I defended my graduate portfolio. I gave a public presentation, with the audience consisting of my graduate committee, friends, classmates, and colleagues. I was much less anxious than I usually am in similar presentation/performance situations, primarily because I had a massive reality check on Thursday night when I was nearly t-boned at an intersection; things have a funny way of realigning themselves in terms of priorities. Regardless, I felt ready to profess how I have met my nine CSSA competences over the past two years.

While I was later critiqued for my use of Keynote and bullet points by my committee–who believe I can break out of the presentation box (and granted, I had thrown around the idea of interpretive dance or a skit instead of the traditional slide show)–I gave what several colleagues declared a polished and informative presentation. It was the first time I had been in front of such an audience in several years, and although I have given many in-class presentations throughout graduate school, I do have to admit that I felt rusty, especially when it came to managing my non-verbals. (Luckily, I think I did a fair job of controlling my use of “filler” words, so if someone was keeping tabs on how many times I said “umm,” hopefully that tally was rather low.) My timing device for this time around was a soundtrack; this was the first attempt at using something like this to supplement the atmosphere. The volume should have been lowered, and in the future, I would anticipate using this approach dependent on the mood I need to create. For something as personal as a portfolio defense, using “theme songs” of sorts may be okay, of course with more finesse.

Once I got talking, what I said came naturally. It is rather hard, in my opinion, for myself to flub a presentation that is so highly autobiographical. I had outlined my presentation in such a way that I gave myself room to expand and build as new thoughts came to mind, and I framed the defense in a way that allowed me to relay the story of a soul-searching young woman finding her way to a brand new career path. I did my best to main eye contact and address the whole crowd, while using hand gestures to illustrate and accompany my words. However, due to my lack of note cards, I situated myself in one stationary spot, which is a big “no-no” in solo presentations; I should have remembered that I do well in front of an audience, but I do much better when my performance lets me utilize the full “stage.” Although I was technically a more proficient musician (solo piano and clarinet), I felt much more in my element as a dancer and cheerleader. Believe me, I work much better when I’m allowed to move around, so I anticipate building in some literal “wiggle room” into my next presentations.

The questions posed to me during the open Q&A time allowed me to further expand and clarify on some thoughts. This portion of the defense was more fun than I expected, considering that I do not view myself as the most articulate “on-the-spot” thinker. I am a processor, which is why my writing tends to be much more polished than my in-class thoughts and discussions. I was challenged to think about involvement in professional associations based outside of the United States; while I am aware of organizations, such as CTLPA (Caribbean Tertiary-Level Personnel Association) and IASAS (International Association of Student Affairs and Services), I know there are more organizations in which I can become involved. Perhaps I could look at the organizations based out of Australia and the UK, as I have a high interest in pursuing doctoral studies in those areas (SURPRISE, everyone!), as well as organizations based in Southeast Asia and the Philippines. This international leaning and focus has not been abated, only amplified, and that makes me so excited to look globally, even though I will be based in Portland, OR in the meantime. (Which I am also very excited about.)

My committee gave me excellent constructive criticism. I have not always been the most receptive to criticism, which has been a challenge since I was a wee one–it probably began around age five when I started taking piano lessons and hated the feeling of not “getting it right.” I acknowledge it is something I am working on and have seen a vast improvement in growing and learning from what I am told. For example, Eric challenged me to never use bullet points again in a presentation. How will I accomplish that? I can anticipate using related photos without text while speaking in an animated way. I come from a performance background and love being the comedic center of attention. Eric also said I am at my best when I am both goofy and academic. That makes me very happy, because I have kind of gotten into the swing of separating my professional/academic self from the rest of me, and now that I have “permission” to combine those two sides even more, I have a feeling my creative nature will lend itself to discovering new approaches to work, research, and presentation.

I was also challenged to think about my role and future roles in a leadership position. I have collective tendencies, partially due to the way I was raised and my Filipino heritage. Those tendencies can be viewed as weakness in the individualistic American culture, and I need to navigate expectations of what leaders are to many others, while utilizing my leadership style. In a similar way to how introverts are often expected to perform as extroverts in society (especially the world of business), a collective leader must perform as an individualistic leader–to a degree. It is important for me to distinguish the difference between being a leader and wielding power. As a leader, I analyze the big picture then the details, and from there, I identify which team members are best suited to assist or even head up other tasks. This is something I did when I was put in charge of my college cheer squad; there is nothing fluffy about running an athletic team–especially one in which risk of injury is so inherent–when you are a peer leader. It is tough work that requires understanding weak spots in the program, setting forth goals and outcomes, and getting people to buy into your vision. In the same way, future work in leadership roles will require me to step up and build upon these experiences and skills, while being accountable to students.

Possibly the hardest part of the defense was the waiting. My committee deliberated for quite awhile with me out of the room, reviewing what I had written and composed, what I had presented, and other aspects of the defense and portfolio. As I said upon leaving the room, I had not been that nervous since cheerleading try-outs my freshman year of college; I had given my all and it was up to the judges to decide whether my efforts were worthy of recognition. During my committee’s deliberation, I went from “I got this!” to “Oh no, this is taking much longer,” to “Okay, what do I do if they don’t pass me today? How do I collect myself to give it another shot,” to “Wow, I really drank way too much water earlier. Do I have time to run to the bathroom?” As Dave, my advisor, had said, “Once you feel like you can’t take it anymore, we’ll call you back in.” And that is when I was summoned back into the room to debrief a bit longer, clarify on even more points–and ultimately, be informed that I passed (with the caveat that I compose a reflection on the defense).

What I learned from my defense is… I am still learning. I will continue to learn–about myself, about my field, about my students. I have a lot of work to do, and I will only get better by stepping up and taking on new projects and roles that challenge me (like my dual roles in the NASPA IEKC now, as well as my full-time job), finding presentation outlets and actually presenting in front of audiences, and extending and broadening my literature and research bases (and then contributing). I also realize that I value my personal well-being and the time to reflect more than I assumed before; I must continue to incorporate these elements into my everyday being so that I can be healthy and happy (and productive). Essentially, it would be a failure for me to stop and say, “Good enough,” and declare my work and learning over.

Not so.

As I step into my new role as an advisor, I embrace the opportunities I will have to see first-hand how the organization operates, how I fit in, how I best assist the student population, and how change happens. I look forward to this new environment as the next place in which to cultivate my spirit and to continue my transition.

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