8. Individual, Group, and Organizational Communication
Seeing that my undergraduate major was in communication, it is not hard to understand my excitement in seeing this competency made up a part of my graduate program. Communication is the basis of my scholarly pursuits, and it provides solid ground on which to build my professional aspirations.
I am a strong believer in dismantling silos in student affairs. I possess a natural inclination for collaboration. As such, I share insight with colleagues from other institutions. For example, I frequently exchange ideas with members from Seattle University’s SDA program, University of Vermont’s HESA program, and Colorado State University’s SAHE program. I knew, early on, that the mere fact that some of my new friends had chosen to attend grad school at a different institution would not sever our professional ties. Instead, these relationships have given way to many more doors of opportunity. For example, if it were not for these cross-institutional relationships, I would not have been able to participate in my international internship.This has led to a kind of “snowball effect” in professional networking, wherein we are all able to put each other into contact with professionals we may have otherwise never met. While this type of networking certainly works from a sole strategy point of view, it is also worth noting that many of these colleagues are also personal friends. We have shared our graduate school struggles together, and our relationships provide a kind of stability at large national conferences and events. This demonstrates that working relationships can be a source of personal balance, and this is something I have relayed to my students.
I tell students that they can never underestimate the importance of individuals with whom they come in contact. This also goes for people they “meet” in the virtual world. Personally, I have several professional contacts whom I have not met in real life; instead, they are people with whom I regularly communicate through Twitter. Many times, I have the chance to meet these virtual colleagues at conferences, but my network keeps growing and these opportunities similarly expand.
Networking effectively is by no means something in which I am an expert. To be completely honest, networking requires overcoming some forms of social awkwardness. Even though face-to-face conversations and virtual conversations are both arenas in which I do well, it is not to say it comes naturally, since I do surprisingly have a tendency to be shy around very new people. Once I am comfortable, though–and this can take as little as a few minutes–I am a natural extrovert and move into finding common ground around which to form conversations.
There are pointers that I may be able to share with people, including students, looking to expand their network. First of all, I suggest reaching out to an individual with whom they are at least somewhat familiar to pose questions about topics within a given field. For students, this may be a professor whose class they enjoyed or a staff member they talk to every now and then. For others, it may be a colleague or a friend. From there, ask if there are other people who can provide more input. Second, assume beneficial intent; this has been a mantra of a good friend in the program. I assume that individuals I meet want to help other professionals succeed, and as such, they are happy to share information. This is how I found myself on the NASPA International Education Knowledge Community leadership team as a first-year graduate student. I contacted a person who had just come into a leadership position with the community and asked if he needed assistance; I did not know this person previously, but since then, he has become a great resource in providing me with knowledge about the internationalization of higher education, as well as opportunities for professional development.
The bottom line, at least for me, is not to be timid. In the face-to-face realm, it means greeting fellow conference-goers with a smile in our workshops, and exchanging information about what we are all about. My experiences in face-to-face networking range from walking into regional reception (beyond my “home regions” of NASPA Region V and VI) and striking up a conversation with other attendees, to participating in formal conference events like the International Symposium and the Panel of Listeners mentor-mentee program. I would say that my effectiveness in connecting with individuals face-to-face is fairly solid; it is the addition of continuing to communicate via various media that allows these connections to flourish.
One of the best examples of my cross-institutional virtual networking has to be my time spent with Student Affairs Live and Higher Ed Live. This network of educational leaders extends from coast-to-coast. The host with which I primarily work lives in Boston, MA, and when we broadcast, we do so simultaneously with him three hours ahead. This same person serves on my graduate committee and Skyped in to my mid-program review. Fittingly enough, this individual is also someone with whom I first communicated solely over the Internet. He was an outstanding resource on information about the student affairs profession, as well as OSU’s CSSA program. What could have been a rather unremarkable Google search turned into conversations that ultimately influenced me to pursue a particular path.
Additionally, I have completed internships at many different institutions. My latest internship with Linn-Benton Community College came about from contacting one of my CSSA professors who happens to work at LBCC. Understanding that I have professional relationships beyond the classroom has been key in finding many of my opportunities throughout grad school.
Being open to working in different functional areas and in different academic disciplines has made my job within the University Honors College much more enjoyable and rewarding. Each day, I interact with students who are studying engineering, chemistry, education, health care, or sociology–just to name a few subjects. I come into contact with students who have very different communication styles, as well. My knowledge of communication theory allows me to more effectively tailor my delivery of information and interactions, and in turn, students learn to effectively communicate their needs to administrators. Modeling good communication and sharing stories about what good communication can do for friendships and professional lives are aspects of student affairs in which I possess great strength; this strength comes from recognizing my undergraduate achievements, as well as reflecting on the ways in which I have grown since graduation.
Due to my experiences at WWU, I came into the CSSA program with a breadth of multicultural and intercultural communication experience. This aspect was possibly one in which I was the most confident, and I continue to build upon this competence. As a communication major, I had the opportunity to participate in several intercultural communication courses which addressed issues of culture shock, collectivism vs. individualism, and other dimensions. A useful tool in understanding how different cultures communicate has been my knowledge of the Geert Hofstede Cultural Dimensions. I shared these dimensions with my Women’s Studies class in Winter 2011, which I believe helped non-communication majors grasp concepts we had previously addressed–like why women were discouraged from educational opportunities, for instance. I find that these dimensions would be greatly helpful to distribute not to just graduate students, but also undergraduate students, especially in institutions with growing international populations. Knowing how to interact with individuals with different communication norms is essential in today’s highly-globalized world, and as an administrator, I feel as if I have a duty to prepare my students as best possible.
As the UHC GTA, I was supposed to help organize a spring break abroad trip. Due to my dad’s passing in Winter 2011, however, the groundwork for the trip was not laid out in time. When Spring quarter arrived, I went ahead and tried to put together a proposal, even though my supervisor was on maternity leave. I was already months behind schedule, and after presenting to the study abroad panel, the UHC’s proposal was rejected. I was instructed to return with a proposal in the fall, leaving our students with little to no time for fundraising. In an attempt to piece something together, I contacted my major advisor, since he is very familiar with planning service trips abroad. We talked about the options, and I learned he was putting together a service-learning series for CSSA. He ended up talking with the UHC’s assistant dean, who suggested that perhaps my advisor teach his series as an Honors College colloquia on the years in which he did not instruct it for CSSA! Although my personal involvement in planning an international trip ended in what could be deemed a failure, I am at least very happy that a new opportunity came about for my students (and my department and advisor). This story directly reflects the importance in communication between different departments and individuals, as this would not have come about if I had not reached out in some way.
My job requires me to serve as a counselor and advisor for students, as well as an advisor for student groups. While technical knowledge of registration policies and UHC requirements help me solve some issues that arise, more often, a willingness to listen to help students process a situation is necessary. Empathy may seem like a “buzzword” in certain circles nowadays, but in student affairs and communication, it is keystone to creating understanding.
In advising student organizations, I find it helpful to remember that an effective communicator does not do all the talking. It is essential to listen to students to find out what they need and what they want. Sometimes that means letting an uncomfortable silence linger for awhile. In doing so, students are able to think and consider possibilities, rather than pressuring students for an answer. Some days, it means I have to wait until the next day for students to come up with ideas for new events or to volunteer to help out with planning. I will give them a gentle nudge if there are deadlines in planning a certain event, but I understand that my students are comfortable with self-governance. My role as an organization advisor is to be a pillar of support, not a dictator. This is implied through interactions and organizational norms, not written specifics.
Not everything in the realm of communication can be positive, however. Conflict management is something I dealt with much more in my professional role as an administrative assistant. I am acquainted with individuals who even majored in conflict resolution and mediation. I am not one of those individuals, as my collaborative nature means I try and avoid conflict as much as possible. Even so, what I learned in school and on the job helped me successfully navigate difficult situations. In turn, what I learned from those experiences will help me navigate conflicts that may arise in my future career.
I expect that at some point, I will enter an organization where I am met with some form of resistance. Perhaps someone in the office will not believe I am qualified for the position, or a co-worker will find my work style alarming (some people take issue with my West Coast aura). Whatever the reason, I do not expect my future professional journey to be sunny weather 100% of the time. What I do know is that basic communication skills serve to diffuse tension in many ways. It can be as simple as acknowledging another person’s feelings and using “I feel…” statements (remember those?). It can be knowing when to bring in a mediator to discuss–civilly–the issues at hand. Framing a situation from another person’s perspective is also effective; I do not know all the factors that could be feeding into a co-worker’s disposition. Again, empathy is a key component in effective communication, and by recognizing this, even in difficult situations, I feel confident in my ability role model good communication skills.
Additionally, supplementing my communication skills with technical knowledge of policies, procedures, and laws will help me communicate reliable information to students, staff, faculty, and other parties of interest. If I can share accurate information in tough circumstances, I will still feel positively about the role I play. It may be difficult to digest this from another party’s standpoint, but there needs to be room to “agree to disagree” (for lack of better words.)
Overall, being an effective communicator comes with practice. One does not need to be incredibly extroverted to connect with students. Instead, administrators should acknowledge the effect that a simple smile or a “I can relate to that” may have in a conversation. Communication takes into account so much more than just words said. Holistic communicators create supportive environments with their thoughts, actions, and words. These are the people that drive students to think critically and seek out their services when questions arise. Students know that they can reach me at nearly any hour of the day–except for while I am sleeping–to engage in conversation. They do not know this from explicit directions posted outside my door; they know this through the interactions we have from day-to-day.
Geert Hofstede. (2012). Itim International. Retrieved from http://geert-hofstede.com/index.php