Of Housing and Job Markets…Trying to Find Reason Amidst the Fickle

Reasoning why you are not selected for a position for which you applied and interviewed is an interesting mental exercise. Unlike a crossword or other puzzle, there is no correct answer; and unlike an interactive game, you don’t have an opportunity to keep practicing on the same target. Selling yourself to a search committee or an employer is a lot like selling a house.

I have followed the ups and downs of friends who put their house on the market a year ago, and I find their experiences very similar to what colleagues experience during the job search process. In order to get their house ready for the market, my friends downsized, and they had professionals “stage” the house in order to display the best assets of the house. They made major investments to upgrade appliances though what they had was in perfect condition. They had everything freshly painted, and there was nothing left to chance. Then they contracted with a realtor who suggested that though their carpeting was in fine shape, they should get new carpeting in the living room just so everything would look brand new. They were extremely proud of how the house looked and they were assured by friends that the house would sell immediately.

Colleagues who are applying for their ideal next position also do a lot of preparation in order to show well. They write draft after draft of their resume or vita in order to streamline it and highlight their strongest skills. They even get help from professional career counselors who advise them on the best way to present their resume or vita and themselves. Their colleagues encourage them to go for it.

When my friends’ house did not sell by fall, they changed real estate agents figuring that their agent must not be as good as another agent. The next agent told them that the reason the house did not sell immediately was because it was not priced correctly. So they adjusted the asking price. When that didn’t garner buyers, the sellers and all of the sellers’ friends concluded that the prospective buyers were just stupid and didn’t know what they wanted.

Colleagues who are in the job market ask experts to help them with their interview skills when they have not been selected following what they thought was a good interview. After getting sound advice on how to interview well and doing a superb job but still having the position is offered to someone else, the candidate and all their colleagues conclude that the search committee members or the potential employer are all idiots and don’t know what they are looking for in a candidate.

In frustration with the stupidity of buyers, my friends took their house off the market for a while figuring the timing must not be right. Colleagues drop out of the job search mode for a while for the same reason. Then something totally unrelated to preparing the house for sale occurs and my friends say, “It’s providential! This occurrence needed to happen first and that’s why the house didn’t sell sooner.” Colleagues have something totally unrelated to their search occur and they and their friends declare that the jobs they applied for were just not right for them and their dream job is waiting.

We really don’t know why the house did not sell as quickly as expected, and we don’t know all the variables that went into decisions not to hire our colleagues. The best thing we can do is to get our houses in order to the best of our ability, take the risk of having what we offer not accepted, and if we determine that we want to stay in the game, know that we may really never know why we were not selected, and take solace in the idea that not being selected may not have anything to do with you or how well you showed. And remember that reasoning why is just an interesting mental exercise.

Nothing New Under the Sun: Of Mentors, Mentees, and Common Experiences

I think it’s true of everyone; it’s just that I have lived so long, it probably happens to me more frequently…

It seems that no matter what someone says to me, I have an experience that is similar that I can relay. I have to work really hard not to jump in when they take a breath and tell them how the very same thing happened to me! I hope that when I do share, it will help to establish that we are similar and therefore have something upon which to build a relationship or at least a common reference point.

When I’m out and about among young professionals, they frequently take me aside for a private conversation or ask for time to talk with me by phone at a later date, particularly about their career direction.

I’m always open to hearing and helping in any way that I can. Sometimes, they want me to just look over their resume and give my thoughts; other times they seek an introduction or nomination for a professional position; and some want to bring me up-to-date on their career in order for me to serve as a reference.

Some of the most intriguing conversations are those when I’m asked to critique a recent interview at a time when the person was not selected for the position. During these conversations, I turn myself into a fly on the wall and imagine the space and the interactions from the perspective of the interviewers and the interviewee. I imagine what the conversation was among the search committee members prior to the candidate’s interview, and I make assumptions about what the conversation would be following the interview as described by the candidate.

What’s uncanny about my mental reenactment is that the candidate and I come to the same conclusion about what was a strength of the candidate during the interview and what needed strengthening. Sometimes one’s reflections upon an experience needs a mirror outside of one’s self.

In a recent conversation with a tremendously talented mid-level administrator, I was struck by how our experiences were so similar. I was able to share my experiences and what I learned upon reflection. I also found that the person in describing her experiences used the exact same words that I used when I wrote in my journal following our common experience!

While time marches on and the circumstances in regard to climbing the career ladder may differ, I continue to be amazed how the experiences elicit many of the same responses and reactions that colleagues generations before also expressed. It’s these kinds of encounters that convince me that mentors can be useful.

Seldom am I stumped for words when I’m in conversation with those who want a sounding board. I use my communication skills that have as the first rule that I listen attentively and encourage the speaker to continue. When I do respond, because this person has trusted me with their deepest dreams, aspirations, and fears, I have moved them to my inner circle of people I love and want to protect and help succeed.

While I have at times shied away from being a mentor in the formal sense because I didn’t think I had enough to offer, I realize now that it’s not what the mentor thinks she has to offer, but what the person who wants a mentor thinks one has to offer. And, if the potential mentor has reflected on experiences and gleaned lessons from them, the relationship can be mutually beneficial.

After listening and sharing with some of my colleagues who are thinking about the paths they want to take for the next stages of their career, I feel energized, hopeful, and useful. There are not many experiences that can leave me with such a feeling of euphoria.




Reflections on Cool Passion: Challenging Higher Education

NASPA’s latest book Cool Passion: Challenging Higher Education by Arthur Chickering will be available to the public in mid-March.

I just finished reading every line of this extraordinary work. I was hooked by the title even before I began to read. The opening paragraph of the preface is sheer poetry!

Chickering gives us an incredible gift as he shares his personal experiences, values, and beliefs, as well as his professional reflections. It is fitting that he shares a holistic perspective that is in line with his foundational philosophy of student affairs and the premise of promoting learning that lasts.

There is so much in this book that will appeal to a diversity of people who are at different stages of their life and to those who are working with students who are finding their way. For example, the Wesleyan University story will resonate with those who are having a rough beginning. To me, it speaks to having someone believe in you and the power of will. This part of the book says a lot about the influence of every educator on campus, including the deans in the admissions office.

Chickering’s candidness about developing self-esteem as a result of small acknowledgements and recognitions is so important to hear because of late the so-called “self-esteem movement” has put a negative connotation on any efforts to address self-esteem issues with students and colleagues.

As I read about the evolution of Chickering’s thinking about what variables had an impact on students’ learning, I realized that all of the insights that theorists and I have had about teaching and learning were already there in the Goddard educational philosophy. Chickering’s work continues to demonstrate how those insights can be put into action.

I take heart in the fact that though Chickering was never a student affairs professional, in his daily work, his insights have served the profession well. I was never a “student affairs professional” in the strict sense of the term, and I hope my insights have been beneficial to the profession.

The professional reflections Chickering and his colleagues share make this book required reading for graduate programs throughout higher education. What an incredible gift Art Chickering has given to higher education and all educators!

Modern-day Bias: Overcoming the “Where” Barrier

It’s funny how the mind works. Or, perhaps I should say, how my mind works…

In The New York Times last Sunday, Thomas Friedman’s Op-Ed piece seemed to be just the validation that student affairs staff need. It offered outside confirmation about the importance of skills that are not generally acquired in the classroom but in the work and interactions students have outside of class, usually through service and their involvement in the areas within the bailiwick of student affairs.

Rather than focus on these main points of the article, however, I keyed in on this sentence: “Talent can come in so many different forms and be built in so many nontraditional ways today, hiring officers have to be alive to everyone—besides name-brand colleges.”

This statement stood out for me because I am so disappointed in search firms and colleagues who overlook good people when hiring and good ideas when planning if the candidates or ideas don’t have the imprimatur of a “name-brand” college. Some potentially outstanding candidates are not given a second look if their resume or vita does not indicate that they have been connected in some way to a brand-name college or university. In the past month, I have talked with colleagues at three universities who could not accept innovative ideas because they did not consider the institutions where the ideas originated as their peer or aspirational institutions.

Just as I naively thought when I entered college that the professors and staff would be broad and open-minded and would not judge students by the color of their skin, I was hopeful that in today’s environment of innovation and leveling of playing fields that faculty, staff, and administrators would not judge people and ideas on their lack of connection to elite institutions.

I am not under the illusion that this attitude will change even though the experts at Google and Friedman assert that “The world only cares about – and pays off on – what you can do with what you know (and it doesn’t care how you learned it).”

I am hopeful that those who make decisions for hiring and planning in higher education will sooner than later adopt the attitude that we don’t care where you learned it.

Take a breath and keep doing your good work…

Take a breath and do not feel defensive. When the reporter from The Chronicle of Higher Education called to get my thoughts on the conclusions drawn from the Delta Cost Project’s report on the higher education workforce, I took a breath and did not become defensive. The conclusion of the report is that the big increase in the higher education workforce is attributable in large part to what is labeled “Student Services.” The question is whether the expenses are justifiable or unnecessary bloat.

I told the reporter that if one looked at the numbers under the classifications “Professionals” and “Student Services” and compared the numbers to full-time faculty, one would get the sense that more resources were going toward student services professional staff than to faculty. However, there is a problem with labeling what are student services.

The Lumina-funded study we did at NASPA a couple of years ago about resources expended on student services was a clear demonstration that what is described as student services is all over the place, depending on the college or university. Further, if one reads what is labeled as student services in the Delta Cost study, it’s obvious that student services cannot be aggregated and referenced as one would the classification of “faculty.” The bottom line, though, according to the study, is that “hiring practices favor non-instructional professional positions.”

I assured the reporter that one would be hard-pressed to find a college or university president who would choose to fund student services if there were a choice between the academic program and student services. Upon investigation, one will likely find that increases in student services are related to governmental regulations and avoiding the risks of liability.

The general conclusion from this study adds kindling to the smoldering between academic and student affairs, and I encourage student affairs professionals to not be defensive but to do the job you were hired to do. There is too much work to be done to spend energy justifying your existence or explaining the reality of your work to those who have already prejudged.

Autonomy and Competence: Self-reliance as a Learning Outcome

Many of my conversations with colleagues are about how great are the support needs of students today. There are many different ideas about why this might be the case, such as parents who do too much “helping,” high schools that were more than “accommodating,” and expectations of students and families as “customers.”

Given these conversations, I was drawn to an April 2013 Inside Higher Ed article highlighting research at the University of Rochester that found that

students motivated by a desire for autonomy and competence tended to earn higher grades and show a greater likelihood of persistence than did other students.

. . .While much previous research has suggested that students who form social connections on campus are more likely to be retained, this study found that students who place a high priority (in their decision to go to college) on meeting and interacting with peers tend to earn lower grades than do students for whom that is a lesser motivation.

If this is what the research tells us, student affairs professionals who work in student activities and multicultural affairs, in particular, will want to help students develop autonomy and competence in the work they do with clubs and organizations. Not all students are privileged with too much help, but those who are need to be cut loose from their dependence on paid staff for every need in carrying out the mission of their group.

Some student affairs staff fear that if they reduce the support, or “hand-holding” as some call it, it may appear that they don’t care about students or that they are not doing their jobs. In order to minimize these negative assessments of a change in behavior, it is important that staff establish “helping students develop autonomy and competence” as a learning outcome and support this with the research and with specific objectives and tasks based on what students need to learn to do for themselves.

In addition to supporting students in their self-sufficiency, staff will gain opportunities for planning and interacting with colleagues across campus to plan even more significant learning experiences for students.

Creating Meaningful Orientation for “Between Voyagers”

A vast majority of professionals in student affairs are able to name a mentor or someone they admire who made a difference in their lives. Many who choose student affairs as their profession do so because they want to have the same kind of impact on the lives of others as someone did in their own development.

One of the best and most advantageous positions to have an impact on college students is that of an orientation provider. Why is this the case? It is because orientation providers have access to students and families during a critical “between time.” Students and families at this time are like the “between voyagers.”

“The between voyager temporarily possesses . . . flexibility to become whatever can be imagined, and the openness to be radically transformed by a thought or a vision or an instruction.” (I Was Amelia Earhart, Jane Mendelsohn, Alfred A. Knofp, NY, 1996)

Just think about it. The students you see during orientation, whether fresh out of high school or adult learners, are more malleable during this time than at any future time during their college career. What you do or don’t do can make the difference in whether or not the student remains at your college or university or leaves for another institution or even leaves higher education.

To students just beginning their journey in higher education, orientation providers are all-knowing and all-powerful. Orientation providers have what these new students want: the keys to the kingdom, the magic word to open the doors to their success.

Orientation providers can capitalize and take advantage of this critical time and space by knowing, in broad strokes, something about these learners as a generation. Using this knowledge, orientation providers should take it as an imperative to plan an orientation that is created specifically to provide the support and information that this unique cohort of students deserve.


What does welcome look like? Expectations of a multicultural campus

Demographic diversity does not define a multicultural campus.

Different cultures living in the same space do not make a multicultural campus.

A multicultural campus has expectations of members of the academic community. These expectations include all members – especially students – contributing to a welcoming and supportive environment.

Members of the academic community are not always aware of what welcome looks and feels like, and they often do not know that they are responsible for it.

I have been on many campuses this fall and, on one campus, I was looking out of a window just above where a student orientation leader or student adviser was giving remarks before beginning a campus tour. All the students taking the tour were white except for one black student with long braids who stood to the extreme right of the group on the front row.

During this beginning part of the tour, the guide never looked toward the black student. The tour guide had long hair that covered or shielded the right side of her face, and she never turned her head to see around the hair, therefore blocking off all vision of those on the extreme right where the one black student happened to be standing.

The black student might not have been welcomed and the student might not have felt welcome. The guide might not have been aware of how it might seem when she never looked toward this student.

This is why it’s necessary to make all members of the academic community who represent the college aware of what welcome looks and feels like. Something as simple as a student tour guide making eye contact with everyone could make the difference in whether or not a prospective or new student feels welcome and whether or not the guide is contributing to the culture of a multicultural campus.