If the title above snagged your attention then chances are you are a new addition to the world of residence life professional staff. Not too long ago you may have left the life of an undergraduate or graduate level para-professional with a myriad of experiences that motivated you and prepared you to enter the professional world of residence life and student affairs.
As a new professional, the anxious anticipation and intellectual stimulation of professional staff training probably ran right into the simultaneously energizing but undeniably tiring world of student staff training, which in turn likely led straight into the structured chaos of your first opening. Now weeks into the semester you may be struggling with the amount of time you spend buried under piles of paperwork or treading through bureaucratic red tape. Perhaps you are having difficulty adjusting to the thankless number of hours you spend in the office compared to the drastically reduced number of hours you have to spend on your personal life. Does FERPA or that blinking ‘new voicemail message’ light make you want to cringe.
If you have been reading along shaking your head or mumbling in agreement, then read on! The bullets below are some of the lessons that helped two ‘somewhat new’ professionals along the sometimes anxiety provoking, occasionally stress ridden, always professionally developing, and hopefully fun filled journey of surviving the first year.
1. Know your top 3 job responsibilities (typically supervision, judicial, crisis response)
• Be prepared to constantly learn from your experiences and occasionally from your mistakes – be open with your supervisor regarding your fears – use your colleagues as a resource – they’ve all ready been in your position and may have powerful advice
• Supervision – track information in a useful manner – eventually you’ll need to complete evaluations – having notes will ease the tedious process; learn what needs to be addressed immediately vs. what can wait until your next individual meeting; practice ‘trickle-down-supervision’ – your energy and motivation is apparent and will be infused into how your staff perform their position’s responsibilities; come to terms with the fact that not everyone will like you all of the time; learn the importance of the ‘quick compliment’ – a comment, no matter how simple, that acknowledges a job well done has powerful impact on morale
• Judicial – sometimes educational conversations can be life changing events but do not disregard the effectiveness of the punitive end of the judicial continuum – continue to learn and re-learn your system (shadow your fellow hearing officers, have conversations regarding your decisions, use colleagues as sounding boards for decisions) – learn how your system can be flexible and when your ‘hands are tied’ – keep thorough notes
• Crisis Response – protect, direct, connect – learn to judge when situations need immediate attention, educate students on what needs to happen and then connect them to the resources they have available to them – crisis response can be drastically improved by incorporating a customer service attitude (i.e. what do you want, how would you like me to respond) – many campuses have a critical incident plan, take time to review it and remember to refer to it as needed
2. Know your basic administrative responsibilities (typically meeting deadlines, delegation, budgets)
• Be aware of deadlines – keep them all in your planner
• Know what you can delegate – utilize your staff, office assistants etc.
• Be aware of how the budget works at the school and in your department – make sure you are creating an outline for how you plan to spend your funds for the following year
3. Know your available resources
• Spend time getting to know what department needs to address what task – you’ll waste time and frustrate colleagues by misdirecting requests
• Search your school’s website – spending a few hours surfing the web can make you a campus expert – pay special attention to the pages dedicated to the student population
• Take time to interact with important departments face to face – the personal contact can set you apart from others
• Spend time getting to know secretaries / administrative support staff – they can provide significant assistance in getting items ‘moved along’
4. Know how to establish and maintain relationships with important colleagues
• Get involved on committees across the institution and make contacts in different departments.
• Use face-to-face interaction- stop by offices – even just to check in, the more they see your face, the more likely they will help you out when need be
• Be aware of how correspondences sound – even the most innocent email might be sending the wrong message
5. Know how to maintain balance
• Structure your schedule so you can leave at the end of the day
• Make sure you are scheduling your vacation and comp times – although we feel like we have to be around in case something happens – there is probably someone else who can cover for you when you are gone
• Have hobbies not associated with your position – and not on campus
6. Know how to get involved departmentally
•Be prepared to go beyond your job description and volunteer to take on a few additional tasks
• Be ready to start small – you may not be assigned student staff selection – but you may be able to take responsibility for an essential piece of it
• Find a niche were you can make yourself the department’s “expert” – make your knowledge on a task valuable
• Refine and revise – after taking on a task learn it, do it, then take it apart and recreate it to make it better – refining a task to require less person-power is an excellent way to showcase your efficiency and importance to the department
• Keep your eyes open for the next ‘gap’ you can fill – find a process or task that has been left unattended or needs attention to be paid to it and then volunteer to take it on without ever being asked – your initiative will be noticed (but tread lightly – do your research to determine why the specific process or task came to need the support you can offer)
7. Know how to get involved on campus
• VOLUNTEER! There are always individuals around campus looking for help from different departments – be your department’s rep!
• Talk with the director of your department – they may be aware of additional opportunities that other department heads have brought to their attention
• Use your contacts – they may also know of other opportunities
8. Know how to get involved in professional organizations
• First make sure you have the necessary support from above – in terms of both financial support and the need to take time away
• Involvement in professional organizations happens on three levels: conference attendance, program presentation and organizational planning
• Conference Attendance – find the organization that works for you – ask your supervisor or CHO what the various acronyms stand for and what their focus entails – make your first experience low-stress, simply attend as a New Delegate or New Attendee and flex your networking muscles
• Program Presentation – find something that you or your department does well and sum it up in a proposal – look to your departmental colleagues for someone with prior experience to assist as a co-presenter
• Organizational Planning – host a conference, join a committee, review program proposals – the opportunities to ‘get involved’ are everywhere you just need to find the time to follow through
• Think geographically – you can start locally – many states have a statewide professional association (i.e. New Jersey has NJCORE) – and move up to national involvement with ACPA or NASPA
9. Know theory and current trends
•Become a member of list serves for state, regional, and national organizations – through email correspondences you can be aware of the issues other professionals in your field are facing
• Join professional organizations and read the journal they publish
• Check with the colleagues in your department, see what journals and newsletters your department receives – read them!
• Have an understanding of major theorists – you can catch a presentation at a conference or read their work – major theorists include: Chickering, Boyer, Kohlberg, Gilligan and Perry
10. Know what it takes to move up
• Be prepared for a political environment – know who holds the power (within your department, your division and / or your campus as a whole)
• Become financially friendly – refine your ability to manage a budget and support your fiscal decisions
• Be ready to embrace change – visionaries are more likely to find advancement opportunities – avoid becoming mired in a “that’s how we did it before so that’s how we’ll do it now” mindset
• Become involved (refer to numbers 6, 7 and 8) – but most importantly become involved in areas that allow you to network and learn more ‘insider’ information regarding other areas in your division
• Be conscious that the best professional development opportunities can sometimes be found on your own campus – volunteer to task forces, committees and new collateral assignments that place you outside of your typical comfort zone
• Stay positive – don’t fall into the pitfall complaining – if something needs to be changed then provide viable alternatives instead of simply pointing out shortcomings
Submiited by Kate Berry, Complex Coordinator, The College of New Jersey and Tom Scheuren, Area Director, The College of New Jersey