The question is, of course, a rhetorical one…or at least I hope it is. Student affairs is, after all, a profession that values the ideals of diversity, balance, and inclusion. I am often surprised to discover just how many student affairs professionals identify as introverts, probably because even I assume that this is a field dominated by extroverts. And why do I, and many others, make that assumption? I know many introverts who have both thrived and succeeded in student affairs. Yet, I wonder if you conducted a survey and had people identify the “characteristics” of a student affairs professional, how many of those would align more with what we perceive to be extroverted characteristics? How many people believe that student affairs professionals are omnipresent, eternally peppy, and always ready with an icebreaker at a moment’s notice?
Yesterday, I posed this question to on twitter
Curious – how many introverts have recorded feedback from colleague/supervisor that their introversion was perceived negatively #SAchat
Many of the responses I received, both on twitter and privately, that many folks had received some type of negative feedback. The response that resonated the most with me was this one from Jeff Pelletier
@clconzen totes. I get being present feedback all the time. Because my internal processing is perceived as being checked out.
This is also feedback I hear frequently. I sometimes have to go the extra length to prove that I am, in fact, engaged and “present”. I most recently received this comment from someone who was in fact also an introvert. What made this especially surprising for me was that this person is often criticized by other (unfairly) for not being “present”. I decided to push back a little and ask the person to define what they meant by “present” and, as I expected, the person was at a loss to give a solid and measurable definition.
I think introverts are at the biggest disadvantage when compared with extroverted colleagues or predecessors. The gregariousness that often comes more naturally to the extrovert can make the introvert look almost anti-social. 16 hours into an Orientation Day, the extrovert seems almost to gain more steam while the introvert may often be running on fumes. While the extrovert may be jumping right into the middle of a crowd of students, the introvert may be on the perimeter, observing the activity and connecting with the outliers.
Now, as I addressed in a previous post, introversion cannot be used as an excuse for being overlooked or misunderstood. For me, I realize that I have chosen student affairs as my profession and if I do believe it is an “extroverted” profession, I have to do what I can to succeed in that environment. I can’t expect that all of my colleagues have read articles on how vital a role introverts play and how introverts are misunderstood. But I can work to help create a better understanding and appreciation for my introversion by doing what I can to dispel the myths while also demonstrating that I’m just as good (if not better) at my job as they are.
So what do you think? Is Student Affairs a natural fit for introverts? Is it not as compatible, but with a little work, we can fit in as well? Or is it forcing a square peg into a round hole?
My friend, Becca Obergefell, recently wrote a post related to “work/life” balance that was spot on. Fortunately, for me, I’m fairly good about taking my time, leaving enough in the bank should catastrophe hit, but not leaving any on the table that I would lose (disconnecting from work when I’m out of the office, however, is a different story – one for a future blog post). While some of us need to be pushed to be more mindful of achieving balance (or integration) I think there are others, especially some newer professionals, who feel like they want to, but can’t. While some of that may be self-imposed, there are colleagues out there who are stuck – working for supervisors who aren’t always the best stewards when it comes to helping their staff achieve the balance they might desire.
A few years ago, I interviewed for a position and was participating in the on-campus portion. I was sitting with the potential supervisor, and was asked if I had any questions for her. Prior to that, she set a pretty obvious tone with expectations of being “present” on campus, which was fine, but I wanted to explore that a bit more. So, I asked her how she created balance for herself and set an example for her staff. It was definitely a curve ball, a question she didn’t expect at all, and she stumbled quite a bit as she tried to frame her answers in a way that didn’t make it seem like most of her life was spent at or with work. While I don’t begrudge the decisions she makes for herself, I knew at that moment that this was not the environment I would want to work in as it became apparent that my own formula for work/life integration would likely be a square peg in this round hole.
So, this post is directed at my colleagues who are supervisors. We are in a profession that espouses believes in being “holistic” and having an “ethic of care”. We talk a good game when it comes to the students with whom we work, but does the same hold true for our employees? We train and develop our staff members when it comes to skill sets and aptitudes, why should it be any different for balance and well-being? Here are a few challenges I’m making to my fellow administrators.
Actively Manage Vacation Schedules: Now you’re saying “of course I manage vacation schedules”. I’m not talking about managing to make sure there aren’t holes in coverage. What I AM talking about is making sure your employees are TAKING their vacations. When you receive vacation requests, are you checking to see if they have a few random days sprinkled throughout the semester instead of just checking it against what events or programs they absolutely can’t be gone for?
Stop the Lunchtime Meetings: Working lunches are stealing. Yes, that’s what I said, stealing. If you’re staff members have a lunch period as a part of the work day, scheduling a meeting in the middle of the day and telling staff “bring your lunch” makes us no different than the playground bully grabbing lunch money. Many of our staff members, especially if they are new, may not feel comfortable saying no. And, actually, if you work in the state of NY like I do, requiring a staff member to work through a lunch is a violation of labor law.
Avoid Monday Morning and Friday Afternoon Meetings: I can’t repeat the words uttered under my breath after working all week, followed by a Saturday event, then to discover I have to be work by 9 on Monday for a meeting. Really? I can’t even come it at 10 after I spent my entire Saturday night watching people Dougie? And the Friday afternoon meeting…well now you’re asking for people to ignore “Boss’ Day”. Yes, situation may require the occasional meeting at those times, but if your staff members are expected to work a schedule outside the 9-5 bounds, protect their sanity by at least giving them some breathing room.
Stop Letting Others Watch Your Clock: I can remember numerous times when, walking in at 10 AM after having attended a 3 hour SGA meeting the night before that was 1 hour meeting and a 2 hour interpretation of Robert’s Rules, and running into a colleague from another office who said “Oh nice to finally see you”. While I have enough witty comebacks in my arsenal, it can be disheartening for a staff member to feel that others think they don’t work as hard or just mosey on in whenever the mood strikes, because the case is quite opposite. It’s important that we advocate outside our areas to let it be known that our staff members are often burning “the midnight oil”. It is especially critical when the mere snickers turn into actual pressure to have your staff “conform” to a more traditional morning schedule. If we routinely want our staff to be present at 9 PM meetings and yet be bright and chipper and in the door just 12 hours later, then our staff members will be burning out just as quickly as that midnight oil.
Be the Guardian of Equity: If supervising multiple professionals, you might find yourself in a situation where one is much more willing, and seemingly eager, to volunteer for the above and beyond assignments. It is probably a very genuine interest, and it saves us the time and hassle of having to “assign” something…but that doesn’t always make it fair. I see this happen especially when some staff have partners and/or children and others do not. The soccer practices and ballet recitals start to take precedence over the “well I didn’t have anything going on anyway, so I’ll take that event, no worries”. If people are in equal positions, then they must also equally share the load. It might not be the most harmonious way, but being a supervisor means having to deal with the flat notes as well.
Stop Micromanaging by Proxy: I realize that some managers are a bit more hands on than I am. I sometimes joke that I’m more of a “macro-manager”. Where it gets a little out of hand is when our micromanaging spreads through our staff members as well and we expect them to be intimately aware of every nook and cranny of our students’ extracurricular lives. Yes, major events and special programs require staff presence (and sometimes they’re actually quite fun to be a part of). But, honestly, do we really need them to be present for every meeting? Any time two or more students gather on the quad, do we really need someone from our office to be there in case there might be a “learning moment”? Academic advisors don’t sit in on every class with the students they advise, why must our staff members sit through every weekly meeting? We’re trying to teach our students to be autonomous, yet we never let them be untethered. Sure, there might be a moment where Robert’s Rules anarchy breaks out…but there’s a book for that.
No, “Because That’s What you Did When You Were a New Professional” is Not a Good Enough Reason: If a student uttered that same phrase, we’d have an entire monologue ready on how we need to “break cycles”, yet we somehow think it’s ok to approach our supervision of staff in that way. Sure, we may have to pay our dues, but that doesn’t guarantee that it was always the best way to learn or to do our jobs. Yes, we might have accepted that having “a life” just wasn’t possible in our first few years in the profession, but that doesn’t mean we can’t work to be more intentional about helping the next phase of new professionals have better balance than we did. We have a responsibility to them; yes they are adults capable of advocating for themselves, but there’s power in our expectations and reactions. The first time we make a staff member feel guilty about requesting a day off for no reason or when we don’t notice that they worked every night of Homecoming week and forget to say “hey make sure you take some comp time next week” will set the tone for the rest of their employment. Don’t let our students be the only ones we act “developmentally” towards – our staff members deserve the same consideration.
A new calendar year is upon us (not to be confused with the academic year, which is just one way we confused the people we try to explain our jobs to). Grad students coming to the end of their programs will begin the job search in earnest, while others ready to take the next step will start monitoring the Chronicle or HigherEdjobs more feverishly. Still others, with New Year’s resolutions (or OneWords) fresh in their heads, might start considering a career change or shift. For some, the soul searching might result in a renewed interest in the profession or a desire to shift into a different functional area, while for others, there might be the “how did I get here and how do I get out of here” moments.
Almost half of the members of my graduate school cohort are not in student affairs. In fact, a few of them did not even pursue jobs in higher education upon graduation. A few years out of graduate school, I started thinking about a career shift, entering a program in school counseling at the institution where I worked. Ultimately, I realized I wasn’t looking for a career change, but actually an escape from what seemed to me at the time as endless nights and weekends of work. Fortunately, with the help of a supportive supervisor and co-workers, I found better ways to balance my own time (which I actually used to work a 2nd job as a youth minister at a church, but that’s another post for another time) and I once again found the career satisfaction I had been lacking.
Student affairs will be where I forge the rest of my career path. However, I’ve recently had conversations with folks who don’t see their futures in the same field. I’ve started reflecting on how we all end up on the “SAPath” in the first place. I’d venture to guess almost none of us came to college thinking “Hey, I’m going to be the Director of Campus Activities one day”. This is a career many of us find as we’re in the process of finding ourselves. How often does this scenario happen:
A third or fourth-year-student who started out in sociology, or psychology, or even mechanical engineering has started to realize “I don’t really like any of the careers that come out of this major”. Yet, the student is so far in, with all of the general education classes finished (except for maybe that math course you’ve been avoiding because it was only offered at 8:30 AM – or maybe that was just me) the student has now embarked on the classes that are major specific. The student is starting to say “Oh crap, I’m graduating soon…what the heck am I going to do”. The student also happens to be very involved…could be a SGA Vice President or a RA. The student gets even more involved because, at this point, leadership is much more fulfilling than coursework. Then, the magic moment happens – it could be that the student expresses the career doubt out loud or he or she says “Hey, how do I do what you do”. Then, like someone has activated the “SASignal” we go into action. All of a sudden we’re forwarding them grad school applications and connecting them to our colleagues. We get so excited about the opportunity to mentor a new professional into the field, we might forget to ask the probing questions like “Well, what is it about student affairs that you think you might like” and help them to explore all of the options that might also fit that criteria. When the student announces which graduate school he or she will be attending and what assistantship he or she is taking, we shed a tear and proudly send a new “SAProgeny” out into the world.
A few years pass – the now grad students learn there’s actually theory and years of practice behind what we do. They excitedly move on to their first position and get ready to cut their teeth. Then, another magic moment happens – the moment they realize that working in higher education is much different than being a student leader in higher education. It might happen when the new professional is required to support a policy he or she would have organized sit-ins against as a student. Or it could be the moment that the students who made excuses to sit their office just to hang out with them are now writing angry facebook statuses about them because they had to hold the students accountable. Or it could just be the last night of homecoming week, when, as a student, he or she would have been out celebrating with friends, but instead he or she is left cleaning up the confetti with the grounds crew. And then a familiar feeling creeps in again – the feeling they had their third or fourth year when they realized their major wasn’t for them, only this time they have student loan payments, car payments, and cat litter to buy.
Of course, I’m being a tad cheeky about this. I know a great many professionals who are in this for the long haul like me and are more than happy to be here. But I think we can also name folks we know that are probably on a career detour right now – whether they have realized it themselves or not. Is this something we need to talk more about as a profession, or is it just par for the course in any profession? Can we be better about helping students explore other professions that might also meet their goals? I’d love to hear thoughts from other folks about this…even thoughts that I’m way off base on this one.