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.

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Rear View Mirror

Coming into the CSSA program, I was nervous about my assistantship. I was hired as an academic partner in-residence (read: the liaison between the residence hall and the University Honors College). The job description was fairly extensive; I was to wear many different hats.

My problem(s)? I had little experience putting on events on my own. I had moved out of the residence halls at Western Washington University after a year and not really participated in residence life. I was a liberal arts student not entirely confident in my ability to relate to studious, primarily science-based Honors students. More than that, most of my interactions with my RAs and RDs at my undergraduate institution had been because I was breaking rules (hi, Mom). And to top it off, I was stepping into a position that was not brand-new; I had shoes to fill.

Well, Tuesday evening my hall staff had its last meeting of the year. It was a night of appreciation and reflection. What I learned was truly inspiring.

We did a round of both written and verbal affirmations for each member on the staff. When it was my turn to sit and listen to what others had to say, I was able to find out what they thought of me and the job I had done.

I am reminded of a quote that I first came across in a communication course: “I am not who I think I am; I am not who you think I am. I am who I think you think I am.” Over the past year, I’ve struggled with wondering if I was doing a sufficient job or doing things “right” compared to graduate assistants that previously held my position. I’ve been very insecure in that, to be quite honest. I thought that what I was doing was being held up to a certain standard and that I was most likely failing, especially since I was stepping in after a veteran assistant–one who had wrapped up her second year.

But what I learned was that I’ve been wrong. I learned that my goal of creating community was approached and possibly reached in many different capacities. I heard that I’ve created a welcoming atmosphere, that students see me as a welcoming representative of the Honors College, someone they can approach and talk to. This is exactly what I had talked about in my graduate entrance interviews–I wanted to create that sense of welcoming, of open doors, of no intimidation.

I learned that I’ve put a new spin on several aspects of the job. I heard that I have good ideas for programs, drawing on both creative and unconventional thinking. I was also told that I am an inspiration to be more balanced. Dragon (he asked that be his alias) said he appreciated my ability to remind others that we’re all working on important projects, no matter how different they may look. I heard that I’m a role model in terms of pursuing academics.

What I heard is that I am meeting my goals and expectations. What I heard is that in light of insecurities and anxiousness, I have stepped into my emerging professional role with my personality and outlook and am shaping it into something that impacts people around me.

I did not know what to expect before coming into this role, but what I have found out is this:

…This is why I do what I do.

In the Meantime

Yesterday’s computer set-up process was way too smooth for today’s to be any good. Yesterday, I got onto the network in one of my new offices, got all the required folders, everything looked great– yay, happy times for all.

Today, I called up the tech people to hook up my computer(s) in the other office, and everything went wrong. Okay, not everything, because the only thing that went wrong was the fact that the computer couldn’t detect the correct network.

Which means I couldn’t log on or do anything else. And tech couldn’t figure out why the network wasn’t available.

Instead, I rearranged some furniture in the office, then switched buildings to draft e-mails to send out next week for recruiting assistance for various events, and then I made a draft of a “HEY! DON’T EAT IN HERE!” sign for a classroom. I also worked on various other tasks that needed to get taken care of, and then I decided it was time to eat.

I live an exciting life.

Actually, last night was fun. There was a “fall harvest” festival in the dining area of the hall I live in (did I mention my GTA is a live-in position?), and the RA’s, RD, and I all ventured downstairs for some rather good food. Pulled pork sandwiches and berry cobbler? Yes, please. It was a good way to connect with the RA’s here, and as I told my boss today, “I figured it would be nice to let them know that one, I’m not a big, scary grad student, and two, I’m actually not a first-year student, despite what my size and appearance may say.”

Off I go again.