Looking to the Past, Present, and Future: Supporting our First-Time Professionals during COVID-19

Looking to the Past, Present, and Future: Supporting our First-Time Professionals during COVID-19


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To me, student affairs assessment has always been about asking questions. “What is the purpose of our work? How do we know we’re making a difference for our students? How are we improving? What do we want to improve? What’s next?”


But assessment is also led by questions, “What is the effect of time management workshop attendance on a student’s semester GPA?”, “What type of spaces do students want to see in the new residence hall?”, “How does serving as an executive board member within this student organization impact a student’s leadership capacity?”


But the question I want to look at today is “How are our first-time professionals doing?”  


Today, many of us are in our “new normal” for both professional and personal lives; however, for our first-time professionals, many never had an “old normal” as a full-time professional. Using assessment to ask questions and create processes and procedures, how can we make sure to better support these professionals during this time of transition?

Looking at the past: “I need context and I need support.”

            What about the past? Many of our first-time professionals were either finishing up their Bachelor or Masters coursework when the COVID-19 pandemic began, or were positioned outside of higher education. Either way, they’re not privileged with understanding what their position or a full-time employment status looked like before the pandemic. Although saying “Remember! Your first-time professional was never a full-time student affairs professional before the pandemic” feels like a no-brainer, it’s an important shift in how we interact with and support these professionals. They may have many questions, or many things they don’t understand in their positions, simply because of how new they are to the profession.


Two of the most important things for first-time professionals is the context of what their work environment was before COVID and support during this time of professional and personal transition.


Even if your employee onboarding is perfect, having a meeting or informal conversation with a first-time professional over these topics will make sure they’re on the right track:

  • What their work looked like before COVID (typical events, services, procedures, etc.).
  • How the office, department, and institution looked for student and employee feedback in planning for COVID.
  • How the office, department, and institution transitioned to online and remote work (both in the early months of the pandemic and for the first full semester in the pandemic).
  • What employee policies changed due to COVID (i.e. working from home).


“Okay, that’s great. But I’m wanting something with a little more structure. What can I do?” Here are some easy ways of assessing a first-time employee’s context and transition into their work:

  • If you’re supervising a first-time employee, devote a segment of one-on-one meetings to give that context or to specifically check in about their transition to their new professional life.
  • The job search process may have been difficult for first-time employees. Consider creating a short assessment to see what their experience with the process was, or use it for upcoming open positions (especially for those 4 hour long “on campus” interviews). Since some hiring processes are new (i.e. 4 hour-long Zoom interviews instead of on-campus interviews), it can help improve the process for both the interviewees and the office.


Looking at the present: “I’m excited to work, but I’m also trying to balance it all.”

What about the present? As with many first-time professionals, this is a big time for self-efficacy. “Am I good at what I do? How did my degree prepare me for this? How does my non-higher education experience relate to this work?”


We’re in a time in which all of our work feels temporary. This is certainly a “new normal” but it is not the normal in which higher education works. Two amazing ways to support new professionals during this time is inclusion and balance.


I’m preaching to the choir when I say this, but assessment is even more vital during this time than it is outside of the pandemic. Do not stop the assessment that you’re doing, even when it feels like everything is hard to balance. Our first instinct may be to take assessment off of our first-time professionals’ plates, but we shouldn’t. They have vital skills that they picked up from their Masters and Bachelors programs, or perhaps have done something similar in their pre-higher education positions. Don’t leave them out of assessment, because it’s a vital process in our work.


Although including them in our assessment is important, making sure their work is balanced is necessary too. Check in with these professionals to make sure their transition is strong. As a supervisor, is there anything they need taken off their plate? As a co-worker, is there anything you can go over with them that they’re not quite getting? What ways can you collaborate?


“Again, I love it. But give me some structure.” Here are some specific procedures you can use with first-time professionals


  • Identify their strengths and weaknesses and include them in the processes of assessment that best match. Are they tech savvy? Introduce them to Qualtrics or have them create future tools. Are they a social butterfly? Let them lead the next focus group.
  • Ask them what assessment they think the office or department could be doing. Fresh eyes can give clarity to much of the work you’re already doing.
  • Identify what assessment skills and knowledge they might still need. There are lots of trainings, webinars, readings, and resources that can help fill in gaps for them.


Looking to the future: What will my work look like post-COVID?

This entire blog post has been about transition. Transition because of COVID-19. Transition into a new position. And looking to the future is another transition too. “What will my work look like post-COVID?” To best support our first-time professionals, encouragement and feedback are powerful.


It feels like a simple thing to focus on, but encouraging our first-time professionals that we’ll make it through COVID-19 can go a long way. Although life feels like a “new normal,” the “Pandemic Blues” is a real thing that we all face. For our first-time professionals, many who have moved to a new city or town in the middle of a pandemic, reminding them that this work is not permanent is important. We can’t always fix or provide for our employees outside of working hours, but we can encourage them as much as we can during work. “I loved how you approached this”, “I think you bring X to the team,” and “I’m happy to have you here” can go a long way.


Although emotional support is important for first-time professionals, don’t forget to include them in the transition to post-COVID as well. Ask your first-time professionals questions about how their work is going and what should stick around. “What events should we keep offering online?” “Should online advising be more common of an option?” “What are ideal work-from-home options?” are all great questions to ask.


“You know what I want, give me some concrete examples” Here are a few things you can do to support first-time professionals as they, and the unit, transition for after COVID:

  • Now, or when things start to settle down, schedule time to check in with the first-time professional and receive feedback on aspects of their job that should stick around (i.e. working from home policies or online event offerings).
  • Task the first-time professional with creating assessment plans for the transition. Even if you feel like now is too early, it’s work that we’ll have to do eventually. 


Moving forward

At the end of the day, this blog post is not meant to be a perfect guide or a comprehensive report on how to best support first-time professionals during this time. Every position, professional, institution, and office are different and require distinct approaches that best fit the situation; however, this blog post is supposed to be a reminder. Check in on your first-time professionals. Whether you’re a supervisor or co-worker, conversations with this purpose and intentionality can go a long way.

Aidan Williams, Belmont Abbey College

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