When I posted my article on 25 Pieces of Advice from VPSAs the two people who commented directly on the blog mentioned being surprised at the fact that there wasn’t any advice related to students or student leaders. It did not really surprise me, because I have heard the concern from professionals about not wanting to lose contact with students as they move up through the organizational hierarchy. I have long had a different perspective on such concerns. But curious, I went back to the 24 responses and looked specifically for such advice. There wasn’t much. In fact, only 7 of the 24 respondents mentioned such advice and four of those basically said as a part of a list of suggestions something to the effect “spend time with students/student leaders and listen to them.” Only three of the responders provided more substantive advice related to students or student leaders (most of which I am taking).
This lack of overall focus on providing advice related to students begs the question, “Why wouldn’t such advice be given?” The reason is because direct student contact for upper level administrators is a very small part of their job. One VPSA actually broke down his time usage into percentages and put direct student contact at 10%. He may have been overestimating!
In my last two positions, Associate Vice President of Student Affairs at Rutgers University and now Vice President of Student Affairs at NYIT, my direct contact with non-student leader undergraduate students has been minimal—and I am okay with it!
When I consider this issue, I think about the story of the boy and the starfish. As you may recall, a man comes to a beach where an unusually high tide has washed up thousands of starfish who were now drying and dying in the sun with no way to return to the ocean. He spots a boy down on the beach. The boy bends over, picks up a starfish, and flings it into the ocean. He does this over and over but, from the man’s perspective, is hardly making a difference in the numbers of starfish being saved.
So the man goes down on the beach and says to the boy, “Young man, there are thousands of star fish on this beach. You are wasting your time. Your efforts are hardly making a difference. Why are you doing this?” The boy stands up with a starfish in his hand and flings it in the ocean. He turns to the man and says, “It makes a difference to that one.”
Staff LOVE this story. I love it too! We like the idea of having a clearly discernible impact on the students with whom we work. We like the idea of acting heroically in the face of insurmountable odds. Maybe it was someone “flinging us into the ocean” who first introduced us to this field. Helping individuals is why many of us were attracted to this field in the first place. However, think about this story differently.
What if the boy was on that particular beach because his mom was managing a construction site across from the beach? He could go to her and convince her to send the bulldozer to the beach and in a matter of moments return a vast majority of the starfish to the ocean. Think about it – How many of us are flinging starfish in the ocean and feeling mighty good about ourselves when a bulldozer is resting just beyond our sight?
If the reason why we are losing touch (i.e., direct contact) with students is because we are advancing organizationally, it is probably a good bet that our ability to influence a wider swath of the student population is significantly extended. As a hall director I could influence about 200 students. As an area coordinator that number jumped to 1000. As a Director of Residence Life, it climbed again to 2000. Now, as VPSA it is about 13,000. Do I know these students? No. Do I have direct contact with these students? No. However, my actions do influence them.
I influence students in at least two ways. The first is through other people—the people I hire, train, develop, supervise, mentor, and advise. My direct contact is with staff, not students. The second way I influence students is through the type of work I have performed in my various senior level positions during the past decade, such as organizational restructuring, program development, strategic planning, professional development, and on various committees (such as suicide prevention, freshman advising, the transfer student experience). This “bigger picture” work has put into place programs and services that are positively influencing the lives of students.
There are, not surprisingly, at least two challenges in this.
The first is that I refer to much of my work as “faith-based practice,” because even the best assessment practices cannot capture the actual influence of many organizational actions on individual students. This is very different than the heartfelt “thank you” you may have received from an individual student for a conversation you had with them or from the assessment of the direct impact of a particular program or project. We must face this challenge and continue to explore multiple and creative ways to assess the impact of programs and services on the growth, development, and learning of students.
The other challenge is that the skills focused on and developed early in one’s career (e.g., listening, advising, supervising, training, counseling, translating theory into practice) only form the foundation of the broader skill set needed to be successful higher in the organizational hierarchy. Competencies in such areas as leadership, organization development, resource attraction, talent (staff) development, marketing, intrapreneurship, strategic planning, financial management, and political management must be recognized, appreciated, and learned. Ideally, the recognition and appreciation of the importance of these competencies should come early so that developing them can begin through observing and engaging with successful middle- and upper-level administrators.
Obviously, there are many professionals who have long and fulfilling careers in direct contact jobs, such as counselor, academic advisor, and career counselor. However, most of us eventually start to move up the organizational hierarchy and that direct contact diminishes. I especially invite graduate students and new professionals to reflect on this issue and let me know your thoughts.
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