As trite as it may be, I think Student Affairs can identify all-too-well with the idea that “there is no rest for the weary.” After a brief exhale marking the end of the academic year, we must take a deep breath and once again begin the work of taking stock, reflecting, and planning. Our reflection, like our work, focuses on our students and the impact our role has in creating a constructive climate in which students can live and learn, both academically and experientially.
While our philosophy and point of view have not changed regarding the positive impact of student involvement and engagement on students’ cognitive and affective learning and development, the manner of student engagement on some campuses has changed considerably. We are witnessing how students’ engagement is evolving from apathy to activism. Many of us support this change because we see it as preparation for future democratic engagement.
Whether we are on board with today’s brand of student activism or not, we must accept that the context in which we do our work is changing. Therefore, the manner in which we do our work will change, as well. Despite our best intentions, we often employ one of two strategies in dealing with change. We either cope with it or adapt to it.
What would our work look like and how might we feel this time next year if we focused on initiating and leading change instead of simply coping or adapting to it? A quick and simple way to gauge whether it’s time to take responsibility to initiate and /or lead change is to think about our response to the following questions:
- What am I hearing about what is happening at other colleges and universities?
- What do I see at my own institution that is different than it was two years ago, one year ago?
- Have we made any adjustments in our operations and policies in the past two years that reflect the changes that we see and sense around us?
If our response to these questions is accompanied by a feeling of unease, then this is one indication that we need to act and not wait and hope that whatever is occurring around us will blow over, dissipate, or disappear. The risk of waiting for change and then reacting to it is often greater than the risk of taking action and initiating change. Admittedly, some of us are risk-averse and do not see ourselves initiating or leading change. What low-level risk might we consider as we anticipate the inevitable?
As the increasingly mild weather brings out more golfers, we might recall author Tom Friedman’s anecdote about being a golf caddy at one point in his life. He recounted what he saw as the essence of his job as a caddy:
- describe the terrain;
- shout warnings and encouragement; and
- whisper in the ears of big players.
Depending on the particular circumstances that contribute to climate on our individual campus, we can initiate change by thinking metaphorically about Friedman’s description of the role of a golf caddy.
We can describe the terrain by going out to students to hear what their expectations are rather than waiting for them to come forward. We can share what we learn from students with colleagues who want to help initiate change. We can share with students the history and evolution of the institution as it strives to create a climate that promotes the best interest of students.
We can shout warnings and encouragement to all the constituents we encounter by reminding them of our shared values. We can push the agenda to act on our rhetoric or warn about the consequences of failing to act. We can help students visualize the process of moving from abstract thinking about their beliefs and convictions to concrete plans for change. We can praise students’ progress in how they are acquiring the support they need to reach their well-considered goals.
Whispering in the ears of big players is an important part of initiating or leading change, and one of the best ways to do this is by creating partnerships without borders. We can redefine our territory and move beyond our circumscribed bailiwick and communicate with those who students see as critical in how they experience the institution. Faculty and high-level administrators are the big players in students’ eyes, and we can target them, without condescension, for orientation to today’s students. And, we can support them in their efforts.
Whether we are describing the terrain, shouting warnings and encouragement, or whispering in the ears of big players, our efforts will serve as a promising bridge between groups that may appear to be in different spaces regarding campus climate and the state of our institution.
Acting, rather than simply hoping and waiting, regardless of how minimally, is the first step in preparing to lead change. Imagine how we will feel this time next year when we take a deep breath, take stock and do it all over again.