Theory into Practice (and Practicality)

Curious friends often ask what a graduate program in student affairs entails. Unlike some grad programs, most of my learning happens in experiences outside of the classroom. My profession is one in which theory needs to be put into practice; for an individual like me, a practically-based program is wonderful, as I learn best by doing. Here are a few examples of projects related to theory and practice.

1. AHE 510 – Summer 2011 – University of the West Indies

  • My colleague and I spent a portion of time conducting informational interviews. We talked to representatives from functions such as advising, housing, international programs, disability access services, and counseling/psychological services. We looked at how operations were being carried out, and how operations had evolved/were continuing to evolve. Given our experiences in the American higher education system, our job–as posed by our supervisor–was to make suggestions for improvement, as we functioned as an unbiased, outside party.

2. AHE 510 – Summer 2011 – Wenatchee Valley College

  • I examined several sources before making recommendations on how to improve WVC’s new student orientation. First, I was given a set of models proposed by peer institutions (e.g., other community colleges in the Pacific Northwest). I looked at how their programs were designed, as well as the rationale for any changes that had been made in recent years. Second, I researched WVC’s demographics and the student population(s) it primarily served. Third, I examined WVC’s most recent attempts for new student orientation and noted potential downfalls. From there, I was able to create a proposal for how orientation would be overhauled and redesigned. My proposal then led me to the direct creation of a new, online component which was intended to serve as a “pre-orientation” tool, which was also comprehensive enough to allow students unable to attend on-campus orientation to gain a sense of the institution and their place within.

3. AHE 510 – Fall 2011 – Willamette University

  • This was probably my most research-intensive internship. At WU, my task was to compile a document outlining best practices in advising student organizations. I had to first understand the environment in which advisors functioned (i.e., a small private liberal arts college), as I did not have any previous experience within that kind of institution. Afterwards, I met with advisors from different areas to find out why they advised and how they advised, among other things. Although the sample I got seemed invested in the organizations, this could have been due to the interviewees being a self-selecting population. That is, the interviewees were already involved, and as such, were happy to share with me; uninvolved advisors may have not responded to my inquiries, thus leaving out an important perspective.
  • At the end of my internship, I was able to make recommendations. Notably, it was decided that a new method of delivering information–mostly to new advisors–was necessary, as email communication was often lost or misplaced. Because of this, I designed a working document (a Prezi), intended to capture advisors’ attention, and hit key information in under five minutes: the Office of Student Activities’ contact information, effective ways to engage and communicate with student leaders, and where to find the advising handbook.

4. AHE 520 – Spring 2011 – Multicultural Issues (course)

  • My end-of-term research paper was a library research paper. I essentially deconstructed multicultural conflict into the concept of “trust.” From there, I made the suggestion that cross-cultural mentoring become a way to bridge the gaps in trust between various groups.

Currently, I am working on a “personal capstone” internship which utilizes elements of student development theory and advising. I am currently assessing high-school students” completion rates of math classes at a community college and from there, I will make recommendations on how to reach out to these students and improve rates. I have been waiting for a project like this my entire graduate career, and I am very excited to put things in motion.

In closing… hooray for research! It doesn’t all involve lab coats and mice in mazes.

Life as a Graduate Teaching Assistant

As most people know, I am in full-swing regarding the student affairs job search. I am on the hunt for a job which will allow me to come in, not necessarily as an expert, and give me the chance to grow with the position. I am anxious to find out where my professional journey takes me next.

I would not be framing my job search in this way if it were not for my graduate teaching assistantship. Over the course of the past year and a half, I have discussed my role with the University Honors College (UHC) occasionally through my blog. Here, I intend to clarify how I got here, what it is that I do, and how it applies to student affairs in higher education.

When I was on the interview circuit for student affairs graduate programs, I went through admissions and assistantship interviews with Oregon State University, Western Washington University, Colorado State University, and Seattle University. For each program, I interviewed in-person for different GTA positions, jobs in areas like Career Services, Diversity Development, Health and Wellness, and commuter and transfer programs. The only phone interview I had was with the OSU UHC, and it was after I was already waiting to hear about my acceptance to various programs. I had two phone interviews with the UHC, and I conducted both of them out of a tiny room at my then-employer’s office. The offer to come work for the UHC was extended to me mere days after I arrived in Madrid, Spain for a volunteer program. I wanted to celebrate after receiving that email, but I was certain no one would quite understand why I was so excited over a temporary, part-time job at a university halfway across the world.

Even now, there is some question about my exact role. To put it succinctly, I am a holistic academic counselor. I was hired specifically to be the liaison between the UHC residence hall and the staff, who are located in a different building. My job does not constrain itself to an 8-5 schedule. I live in a residence hall, and I do not live there to enforce conduct and policies; in other words, no, I am not an RA. While I hold office hours in a traditional office several times a week, the rest of the time, my office can take the form of a hallway conversation, an all-floor dinner, or an all-hall event (among other things). I am a relationship and community builder. I am a role model. As the only graduate student living in the building, people know who I am, and I know that my actions can influence not just how I am perceived, but also in how others may choose to model their future actions. I am a generalist and a resource, someone who can answer questions about nearly everything imaginable. Granted, sometimes that means referring a student to someone with more expertise on a given question, but even in this sense, I am effective in my role as liaison.

As an advisor, I help students specifically with questions about coursework and requirements. The nature of the UHC is such that I work with students in many different disciplines. I have grown into this role from my previous experience as an administrative assistant (formal title: Company Services Assistant, as it did encompass more than a traditional admin assistant position–for ease of reference, however, I use the phrase administrative assistant) because at Zumiez, I was tasked with answering incoming questions and then properly directing inquiries to another employee, if necessary.

As an academic counselor, a term with which I became familiar through the CSSA program, I provide support for students’ concerns that may or may not directly relate to classes. For example, students have asked me about balancing their schedules many times. My recommendations often include advice on pursuing interests they have outside their academic majors. Other times, I take on a sounding board role where students talk through and process issues. Sometimes it’s how to deal with prioritizing activities and classes, or sometimes it’s how to find a better sense of health and wellness.

Notably, there have been several instances in which I told students to check out OSU’s Mind Spa at Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS). As a person who moved from eastern Washington to the rainy side of the Cascades, I have often battled with seasonal depression, and some students have expressed the same kinds of issues; that is why I recommend the Mind Spa, or checking out a SAD light from Health Services, since CAPS had the foresight to build a space with a SAD light and other stress-reducing tools. I openly discuss these resources because I know from personal experience how draining it can be to want to do well in school when stress or depression is keeping a person from doing so. By sharing these important resources, I help students learn to help themselves while letting them know that it is okay and they should not be ashamed.

As a program planner, I develop and plan events. These events range from very small programs to large programs for our students and their families. In order to develop or refine new and existing programs, I approach my work in a collaborative manner. I advise a student organization, the Honors Activities and Advisory Committee, which is a group dedicated to planning activities and events for the UHC community. Their initiative and enthusiasm has grown tremendously over my time at OSU. When I started planning events, it was almost like I was on my own, with some input and advice on what the event had looked like in the past coming from my students. Now, students are enthusiastic about taking the lead to plan community events, and I provide logistical support, as well as answers to questions that come up. Additionally, I provide support in terms of ideas and presence at activities to McNary Hall Council and the McNary staff. Sometimes, I find myself in awe that this role is so much fun. I get the chance to see how different programs engage students in new thought processes, in new social settings, in ways that make them feel empowered. One of the best feelings is helping students with a program and then having someone else, at the end, ask about how he or she can become involved. Program planning was an intimidating aspect of the job, at first, since I had only minimal experience; while it is by no means a stress-free component, it has become something I cherish. After seeing how my students and I can plan successful and engaging events, I am anxious to see what I can provide to my next community.

I made it my goal from the beginning to be someone who was not intimidating. I did not want to be the grad student that was simply a walking encyclopedia. Instead, I wanted students to learn several things from interacting with me: (a) that staff and faculty are real people; (b) that these real people care about students’ success; (c) that it is okay to be undecided or change your mind–exploration is encouraged in college; and (d) it is worth it to consider meaning and purpose. I remember an RA telling me last year that so many others saw my personal balance and composure and decided they would strive for a life like that.

Overall–and as I was told would be the case–my GTA position has allowed me to touch on all of the CSSA competencies. I can see how a program grows and evolves. I have learned incredible amounts of the dynamics of a small college within a large university setting. Every day, I see how my role and my colleagues’ roles can influence student development.

I just want to close with one of my favorite aspects of my assistantship. I love the moments when I’m walking on campus and a student recognizes me. That smile of recognition (which is always greeted by one from myself) is almost beyond words.

This is why I do what I do.

SPLAC

The following post is a reflection I wrote about my Fall 2011 internship experience. It was composed in early December, and my projects are now fully complete.


SPLAC: Small Private Liberal Arts College
(I don’t think this acronym is in heavy rotation, but what a shame.)

I spent Fall 2011 interning at Willamette University in Salem, OR. I spent one day a week over the quarter working in the Office of Student Activities, a centrally-located office housing administrators over-seeing various campus functions. OSA additionally functions as a hub for student interactions, with various student leaders coming in throughout the day to complete tasks, hold office hours, and generally catch up with each other.

One of my main goals with this internship was to gain a better understanding of the environment found at a small private university. My background in education has always been public, from K through grad school. My undergraduate university was mid-sized, with about 13,000 students total; my graduate institute currently enrolls about 24,000 students. By comparison, WU has about 2,800 students currently enrolled. How does a small population affect the campus atmosphere? I noticed that the smaller physical layout of campus allows staff, faculty, and students to pass familiar faces often. As a result, I observed folks carrying on conversations that would last several minutes when each party was simply walking to a class or a meeting or running some other errand. People know each other on WU’s campus, possibly from a combination of housing, small classes, programs and organizations, as well as seeing each other while passing through campus. This creates a comfortable atmosphere, and the campus culture seems to be very friendly and accommodating.

A concern I have for myself, in terms of functioning within a smaller campus population and environment, is that I seem to embrace a degree of anonymity. (In other words, I feel like I can flourish by breaking through the walls that students may perceive in certain organizations.)  My personality and goals seem to align well with community colleges and mid- to large-sized public universities; this is something that I have been hoping to determine since starting the CSSA program. I originally thought a smaller environment would suit me the best, but as a high school classmate said (who, incidentally, goes to WU), “It can be a bit cliquey, and ‘high school drama’ tends to manifest.” I can observe how that would be possible, and I am not sure that would fit well with where I am in personal development. However, I had a positive experience at WU and could very well adjust to the right small institution in the future; nothing is ruled out!

Another key piece in this internship was improving my familiarity with technology. Main components of the technology piece included the following: (a) updating and editing WU webpages; (b) using Prezi to develop a final document; and (c) navigating Google Docs in the context of higher education (since I am trained in Microsoft Office in previous work environments).Through my internship, I was able to learn how to use WU’s web editor, which helped me build upon my knowledge of editing websites. I have some previous experience through my position as the NASPA International Education Knowledge Community’s Technology Chair, and regularly update our site by using SavvyTools. In comparison to that software, WU’s editor is more user-friendly, and works across multiple platforms. Since I work off of a Mac primarily, I appreciate software that accounts for this and allows me to continue to be effective in my work. I am still in the process of identifying pieces of the WU OSA webpage that could use some touch-ups, and I hope to have those pieces complete by the time I depart for winter break.

I gauged which changes were necessary for the website by reviewing peer and aspirant institutions’ pages, as well as talking to students about what they would have liked to see. Overall, websites tend to list too much information, making it hard for students to find what they need. Items are sometimes in hard-to-find or non-intuitive locations. A hearty reorganization and paring-down effort is necessary to bring WU’s OSA page up-to-date; luckily, as I have often said, its interface is already light years ahead of some institutions’ pages–one of which was literally a big block of text without any hyperlinks or guidance.

The largest component of my internship was my assessment of student organization advising. My project focused around identifying best practices in advising student organizations, along with developing working documents in order to address existing areas of opportunity. The biggest divergence in advising student organizations at WU is found in whether or not an advisor oversees organizations as part of his or her job description. Advisors that have dedicated time for advising meet and/or communicate with students more often, find more scheduled time to attend and support events and activities, and overall express a calmer demeanor toward the advising functions. Advisors that do the job on a voluntary basis seem a bit more detached, although that is often due to the type of organization with which they are involved. However, what was consistent was a sentiment that there was not adequate time in advisors’ schedules to communicate and meet with students; their professional schedules, along with students’ class schedules, do not allow for time away from essential job functions.

One advisor who also is a faculty member suggested that WU re-evaluate requirements for tenure-track professionals. She stated that perhaps, given WU’s position as a liberal arts college, professors could be able to use advising a student organization as a type of fulfillment towards tenure. This would dually allow advisors more time to tend to advising needs, thereby allowing students more interaction and hopefully better support.

I am designing a Prezi to function as the focal point of administering a training session for advisors. Advisors, often times, are not up-to-date with materials, where things are located, or how to best communicate with their clubs. A Prezi allows advisors a fun and engaging way to get updated on advising, as it serves to deliver information in a way that is more dynamic than email. An electronic format, furthermore, allows flexibility; this is crucial since many advisors are already pressed for time with other job functions.

This has been a very good experience for a term. I have learned more about current technology, small colleges, advising, and assessment. I have been immersed in a new campus culture, and I am happy with the experience. I now have new perspectives to add to my personal skills. I envision that the ability to understand how to best support student organizations will allow me to be an effective and engaged advisor in the future.

“The Secret Lives of Women” by Deb Schmidt-Rogers, DePaul University (via WISA – KC)

Like.

"The Secret Lives of Women" by Deb Schmidt-Rogers, DePaul University So my WISA blog post was written and ready to be sent to Ann Marie for posting on Wednesday and then just a few minutes ago I received a DM on my twitter account that read, “Really need some prayers for strength and perspective today.  Struggling more than I have in a really long time” I had been struggling with this blog post since I agreed to write it. I am not really good at writing on demand. I have to somehow feel my subject and while I have … Read More

via WISA – KC