I have worked in Student Affairs since I was an RA a long time ago, and loved every minute of it. I enjoyed working with students at both their best and their worst, sometimes within hours of each part of that continuum. I remember stories from that time early on, and still even keep in contact with some of my residents, years later. I was thankful that I had the chance to be a resource for other first year students who were starting their college work and going on to next steps. I was one of those people who talked often about not knowing exactly how I got into Student Affairs, and even more about not knowing how I ended up in Student Affairs Assessment. However, this is only partially true - I ended up in Student Affairs Assessment because I had amazing mentors who cultivated my insatiable curiosity and were supportive and helpful when I messed up. And, goodness, did I mess up. These folks knew where to steer my energy and how to connect dots. Or keep me busy so I did not bother them!
I have recently switched jobs to focus on planning (strategic and otherwise) at the institutional level instead of focusing on planning solely within Student Affairs. In my new role, I am asked to look across our budgetary units (both academic and administrative) to determine how the planning process can support and sustain progress for a very complex institution. I am confident that being in a Student Affairs role prepared me for the work I am doing now, and I am proud of that preparation. But what was it about working in Student Affairs that helped get me to a role that is more university-wide, a role I did not even know that I would end up in? I thought about how often we talk about transferable skills, and I realized I had not really written a reflection of how some of these skills worked for me after being so enriched by good people in Student Affairs, particularly those in the area of assessment. So here goes (and this is not an exhaustive list, as I have by no means even come close to figuring this out):
I believe learning to work with, through, and on conflict is one of the most valuable skills I have gained.
I had a class on this during my time at the institution in which I did my master’s degree, but I had no idea how helpful it would be to learn to listen, care, and sometimes not arrive at a clear solution, and to even be skeptical of a solution as a productive outcome. When working with people who had data that maybe did not work out the way they hoped, I learned that sometimes reactions were about more than just about the data. I learned to care in a way that was appropriate to the topic at hand, but still think about how we might move the work forward - together. I learned, and am still learning, what it meant to ask the question “how can I support you?” authentically.
Working with people dedicated to equity and inclusion shaped (and continues to shape) the way I think about work not just with assessment, but at the university in general.
The time and energy that people spent talking to me about their work - the work that was transforming not just the lives of students but the life of the institution - helped change my entire perspective on the work that Student Affairs Assessment could do. I learned to ask hard questions that were attempting to be equity-minded, but also learned why it was those questions are so important. I learned that in settings across campus, people want their work to matter and to change lives. I am so thankful for the time and energy people spent working with me as a person who worked in Student Affairs Assessment. I taught myself about the history of this kind of work and how it has done both harm and good to people and institutions. I learned about, and continue to learn about intersections of beneficence, equity and inclusion. I learned when and how it is important to speak up, even if your colleagues who do this work are not in the room - because I learned it is all of our work to do so. I learned it is important to stay up to date. I learned to read things like this: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/journal/1536075x
Highlighting, sharing, and amplifying the work of others is an art.
A former supervisor of mine, Larry Roper, once said: “leadership is about uncovering and revealing the brilliance of others.” I think in the same way, working in Student Affairs Assessment taught me to learn deeply about the work that others were doing, why the questions they were asking were so important to them, and helping them, insofar as I could, raise those questions up to a larger level. I learned of the delicate dance between giving credit and not taking credit, and working hard with people to co-construct the ways in which they wanted their work represented. It was not always numbers. It was not always stories. It was not always visible. What I learned to be ok with is that sometimes the brilliance of others would never make it into a report, a data analysis, or what have you, but this brilliance would be manifested perhaps in a student or colleague in which a value or investment was carried forward to those around them. I learned transformation is hard to measure, and perhaps that this is ok. Celebration and failure are both acceptable outcomes, but what might be not as acceptable is whether or not we learned something from either.
I know how hard this is to measure. I mean, I hope I am a critical thinker, but I think the real skill here is learning to be malleable and open enough to hear the perspectives of others in decision making. We speak in Student Affairs about data-based decision making, but this process involves people - people with investments and sometimes agendas. Smart, thoughtful people who want to do good work and, if they are anything like me, do not always make the right decisions. I think learning how to critically think, but maintain curiosity simultaneously, has allowed me to see something from a perspective I had not considered.
This is a very short reflection, but I am curious - what are other skills you’re developing that you think will help you outside (or inside) Student Affairs? How do you bring these skills to life and create a culture of continuous learning about them within yourself?
Daniel Newhart, Penn State