My virtual #sachat road trip!

#suedle drawn by the talented Sue Caulfield

#suedle drawn by the talented Sue Caulfield


One night last week it dawned on me: there are so many great student affairs professionals with whom I have formed a strong online connection to, but have yet to meet in person, or have only met briefly. With this in mind, I tweeted
While the reality of an actual road trip is slim, thanks to an idea from one of these friends who I’ve yet to “meet”, Sue Caulfield, I will be doing a virtual road trip in 2014. With the hashtag #SARoadTrip and Google Plus as my vehicle, I plan to “see” as many colleagues (and perhaps their spaces on campus) as I can.
Here’s how it works:
I will try each week to have a G+ Hangout with one or several student affairs professionals. These will be super informal and meant for us to just chat about our jobs, careers, interests, and wherever else the conversation may lead. I hope to use this blog as a sort of travel journal to highlight the people I meet, the places I see, and the things I learn.

Interested? Tweet me or email me at tstjohn33@gmail.com and we can set something up. I look forward to meeting you!

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The problem with inspiration

I was asked a few weeks ago to keynote at RA training at my new institution. I was thrilled and saw this as a great opportunity to connect with a great group of student leaders. When I responded with an emphatic, “yes” my biggest question was regarding the topic(s) they wanted me to cover. Surely they had something in mind. Instead, I was told to just present on anything inspiring/motivating to lead them into the next semester. “What the hell am I supposed to do with this,” I thought. I started to question what I could possibly say that would be inspiring or motivating in any shape or form. This is where I quickly learned I was thinking about this the wrong way. My job is not to inspire them, it is to help them find their own inspiration.

It’s that time of year where folks are writing and tweeting about their New Years Resolutions and One Words for 2014.  Motivational quotes and Instagram photos are in abundance. Here’s the issue, those things do nothing for me. While a quote may resonate with me, there has to be more to motivate me into action. If I am inspired by someone or something else, it is usually short term. This is why, I think, many resolutions fail. People get inspired from outside sources, rather than from within. This is where I think a lot of motivational speeches fall short.

The BEST (and I have seen a lot) motivational talk I have ever heard, and the only that caused me to act, was given by Tom Krieglstein at #satechBOS a few years back. During this talk he used letters and notes of thanks and admiration given to student affairs professionals from students (I even submitted one that he ended up using). Using the framework from Simon Sinek’s Golden Circle, he inspired us to really get a deep understanding of why we do what we do beyond the surface reasons we are so used to thinking and talking about (helping people, giving back, passionate GASP about education, yada yada yada). Yes, we might do what we do becuase we want to help people, but WHY do we want to help others. Asking that next question helps you to dig even deeper into why you do what you do. The main difference between Tom’s talk and every other one I have heard is that he did not use words alone to inspire. He gave us the tools to find the inspiration within ourselves.

I have battled with weight issues my whole life. In 2013, I lost 45 pounds and am now a proud runner. What was different this time? For me, it was because I was motivated internally, being fed up with my poor health and inability to do things my family loved doing together. This is very different from being inspired by other people’s actions, reading a fitness blog, watching Biggest Loser, or just wanting to look good (all reasons I attempted weight loss in the past). The deeper I peeled the layers of my motivation for wanting to lose weight, the more successful I was at staying motivated. As an example, I could not run more than a mile at one point because I had no motivation. Then April 15th happened. On the 16th I ran 2.5 miles at a faster pace than ever. Why? I was motivated, fired up even.

I have seen posts the last couple days from friends (see Mallory’s post and Sue’s post) who have talked about just doing. We are in sole control over our actions. I have heard a saying before that goes something like; if you get motivation from a quote or a pretty picture, your job (task) is too easy and will probably be done by robots soon. The work we do in student affairs is complex, hard and stressful.  To be successful, we need to fully understand why we do what we do, at a deep level. No other person, quote, picture can give us this motivation. Only we can find that motivation and inspiration to keep moving.

I have taken pieces of what Tom presented to us at #satechBOS and have presented my “Why” presentation to hundreds of student leaders. I hope the RA team will take something from this.


This is my favorite clip to use in any of my “Why” presentations.

What motivates you? Where do you find inspiration?

There’s a reason you have two ears and one mouth

This was a gift from my 2013 Orientation Leaders. It is displayed prominently on the wall in my new office.

This was a gift from my 2013 Orientation Leaders. It is displayed prominently on the wall in my new office. The saying comes from Disney’s customer service training.

As many of you know, I am in my third week of a new position. I am often asked how the transition is going, how I am approaching it, and what I am learning. While I hope to write about many of these lessons, here is an initial taste.

The most valuable thing I have learned in my first two weeks, has been the importance of truly listening, observing and processing.  In my new job, I am afforded the time and attention of others to ask as many questions as I want, large or small, specific or conceptual. Everyone wants to meet the new guy; tell him what they do, what they think of his office or the institution in general, and other general guidance. While this can be both entertaining and overwhelming at times, it has been tremendously informative. As quick as they are to give their opinions, I am able to ask questions about why things are done that come across as purely inquisitive and not challenging. This is something that gets harder the more you know, or the more you are perceived to know.

In the busyness of the year we are barely able to slow down to think, let alone, to ask what others think, listen, and process. There is so much one can learn by listening and observing that is often missed or overlooked. I challenge each of you, no matter how long you have been on your campus and in your current position, to spend some time acting as if you are new. Here are some ways to do this:

Meet some new people
There are always students, faculty and staff on your campus you don’t know. Find ways to meet them and discover what they are interested in, why they are at your institution, and what they think of your area, and just listen. Eat in the dining hall. Break out of your usual, comfortable group at campus receptions and meetings to get to know other colleagues.

Visit new places on campus
Ever wonder what happens in that research lab or who works out in that small fitness center? Go there and find out. Chances are if you do not go there often, you don’t know much about what happens there or the people who work there.

Ask lots of questions
Ever wonder why something is the way it is? Just ask! Context is helpful to all of us. So often we just assume things are the way they are because, well, that’s just the way they are. Ask these questions in a way that is inquisitive and not judgmental.

Explore campus through the eyes of others
When is the last time you have been on a campus tour? What do tour guides say about your office when they walk by? I have walked through campus with a colleague, a friend, and a student and all had different perspectives. I learned new things from each of them. This is something I vow to do often in my new role, is to have walking meetings with folks, have them take me to their favorite spots, and see campus through their eyes.

We talk often in student affairs about the importance of professional development and staying in tune to everything new happening in the field. Sometimes, this causes us to overlook what is new and developing on our own campuses. Taking the approach you would to learn a new place, continue to learn and re-learn about your institution.

The next phase of my journey…

First off, please forgive me for putting this in a blog post.  I have way too many words than anyone would tolerate on Facebook, let alone fit within 140 characters.  I have had my conversations, sent out my emails and texts, and am ready to make an announcement:

I have recently accepted the position of Director of Student Leadership and Programming at Clark University in Worcester, MA.  I am thrilled to join the incredible team at Clark and to be a contributing member to such a dynamic and innovative community, who’s motto is:

“Challenge Convention. Change Our World.”

Every single person I met with on the Clark campus was inviting, passionate about their work, and dedicated to this very motto. I couldn’t think of a better place for the next step in my professional journey and my director position!

This announcement is bittersweet, though as I will be leaving UNE on December 5th.  If you add up my time as an undergrad and as a staff member, I have spent 9 and 1/2 years at UNE. It has become home. Leaving UNE is not easy. The incredible students, remarkable colleagues, and fond memories will be with me forever. Though, it is hard to leave, I know it is the right time. I hope that I have conveyed enough to my UNE students and colleagues how much they mean to me. They all know how connected I am to my phone, so I will be reachable often 🙂

This new adventure is not only great for me professionally, but for Amanda and I personally.  It has always been a long term goal of ours to move back home and this position allows us the opportunity to do so. Hope our family is ready for us!

 

How running has made me a better professional

Image

My wife, Amanda, and I running my second ever 5K!

I am sure, by title alone, you are already wondering how I can make the claim that by becoming a runner, I have become a better student affairs professional.  Over the last 10 months, in large part thanks to running, I have lost over 40 pounds (and counting).  I am in the best shape of my life.  I also feel that, professionally, I have found my groove.  Part of this has to do with experience, but I think is in large part due to my new found health and fitness.  I came to this realization the other day, where else, but on a 4 mile run.  Let me attempt to explain….

Running makes me happier

It is no secret that working out is good for one’s mental health.  Since being active, I find myself to be a happier person.  This is not to suggest I was not happy before, but rather I am happy (and proud) of the holistic “me” for the first time in a long while. This certainly translates to my work with students.  I am more positive, patient, and overall cheerful.

Running gives me energy

No amount of coffee in the world can compare to the energy I have gained from being active.  I would take a morning run over a morning coffee any day.

Running gets me up and away from my desk

With more energy, I am less apt to sit in my office all day.  I walk all over campus and to meetings.  I meet students in various locations for our one on ones.  This has helped me to interact more with folks I did not see as often within my Campus Center bubble.

Running gives me confidence

I was NEVER a runner.  When I set my goal in December of running my first 5k in June, I thought knew I was bound to fail.  The more I ran, the further I pushed myself, the more I believed in myself.  Self-confidence is something that has helped me tremendously at work as I am given more and more responsibility.  That voice in my head that often says “you can’t” is now drowned out by “remember that time you said you’d never be able to run more than a mile…”

Running has pushed me to take more risks

I ran my first 3.16 miles on a whim.  I had set out to run my usual 1.5-2 never thinking I was close to that elusive 5k.  While out on my run, something sparked that drove me to give it a shot.  What resulted was a 34 minute 5k and one of the greatest feelings of accomplishment I have ever felt in my life. This spark has not gone away, as long as I am consistently running.  It has followed me into my professional life and with more self-confidence and trust in myself, I take more risks and, as a result, have been more creative and innovative at work.

Running has helped me to own and accept my mistakes better

Let’s face it; we all hate to fail.  What running has taught me, however is that sometimes, it just isn’t my day and there is not anything I can do about it.  Other times, it is because my will and resolve were not strong enough.  Other times, it is because I have made a poor choice, such as bad nutrition prior to a run.  All of this, professionally, has better helped me to own my mistakes and realize that mistakes are bound to happen, especially as I get more comfortable with taking risks.

Running has helped me be a better role model

I’d always felt like I was a good role model for my students, except when it came to wellness.  I was significantly overweight and not at all active.  What’s worse, is I work in a building which houses the fitness center, and the department, which oversees student health and wellnes..  I was not leading by the example I should have been setting.  Now, the opposite is true.  I chat often with my students about my journey and what running has done for me.  A group of orientation leaders approached me about wanting to run with me.  It has now become a regular, weekly run.  Two of them, having never run more than two miles, ran a 5k our first week!  This is an experience I would have never been able to have shared with students prior.

Running gives me balance

Running, for me, is the greatest form of stress relief.  Instead of getting lost behind a screen or in food as I did in the past, I lace up the shoes and hit the pavement.  I feel rejuvenated and energized afterwards.  Running is my “me” time.  I am fierce when it comes to protecting it, in a way I had a hard time doing before.

I am not suggesting that all student affairs professionals should, or could benefit from, running.  I am simply hoping my story will help others who are in a situation like I found myself 10 months ago find hope.  Whether it is running, lifting weights, yoga, biking, etc. physical activity will pay off for you both personally and professionally, I promise.  If you did not know already, there is an amazing, supportive #safit community on Twitter and Facebook.  It is these people who inspired me and continue to support me throughout my journey.  It is safe to say, without the #safit community, I would not be where I am today.

So, what are you waiting for?  Lace em‘ up!

Time to let them see behind the curtain. Are we overselling a career in Student Affairs?

A conversation this morning with Jeff Lail and Sally Watkins really has me thinking.  Are we overselling our profession and is this negatively impacting the longevity of our young professionals?  I think we are.

Here’s how the story goes for many.  Somewhere along the way you get involved on campus.  You link up with an advisor, mentor, hall director, and so on who says something like, “You know you can do this for a living, right?”  Student Affairs professionals, more than most, love it when we hear someone wants to do our work.  Most of us value our work and it is a sign of respect and admiration when a student expresses interest.  Next thing you know a professional has taken you under her wing, taken you to conferences, and shared with you all the rewards that a life in higher education will bring.  What’s missing?

Here’s what happened for me.

I was an overly involved student and as a sophomore RA, student government leader, and Class President identified that I wanted to be a Student Affairs professional.  My mentor did all of the above, but more.  Under his guidance, I enrolled in courses outside of my major that would strengthen my critical thinking, reading, and analytical thought.  I was encouraged to continue my path in student government and became student trustee where I learned all about institutional politics.  I was able to go to staff meetings, be a part of the budget process, and even supervise other students.  I was encouraged to turn my work in the Student Involvement Office into an academic internship, where I was required to put my work into a portfolio, make decisions, and justify my work.  I was a fly on the wall of many conversations and meetings that most students are not privy to.  On top of the usual conferences, my mentor took me to meet colleagues at other institutions who are Deans/VPs.  I listened and asked questions as they discussed the issues on their campuses and what things they were working on.  I was fortunate to be given a realistic view of what my work in Student Affairs would be like.  As a result, I was fully prepared as a grad and new professional and have progressed quickly as a result.  I do my best to pass this approach onto both the students and the grads I work with.

We need more of this in our profession.  At most conferences I attend, there is some sort of session, roundtable or talk on “growing the profession.”  We need to stop and think about how to grow our profession.  Do we want a wave of new professionals who enter the field thinking their work will be much like their experience on the programming board, as an RA, or peer advisor?  Do we want a field of new professionals who chose their field only because what they saw from their mentors, or what was presented to them?  OR do we want a field of new professionals who understand the holistic work and not just the icebreakers, ice cream, events, and laughs that most students see and are capable and willing to the job in its entirety? If we are not realistic in telling our story while recruiting, we run the risk of having new professionals who are not cut out or who burn out quickly.

Additionally and consequently, we also need to better prepare our new professionals for mid-level management.  The higher one climbs in our field, the less the job becomes like that dreamy, fun, college job that many first perceived when expressing their interest in this work.  We need to teach, emphasize and require hard skills and competencies such as budgeting, legal affairs, risk management, and technology not just in a textbook, but in a way that is practical.  Most undergraduate students do not see higher education as a business, and this is problematic when they enter their graduate programs.  There is only so much damage that can be undone in a two year graduate program.

By no means am I trying to be a negative curmudgeon and say our work is not fun, meaningful, and important.  After all, my first strength is positivity and I have written about it before.  What I am trying to say, however, is that I fear that is all some people think our work is.  It is certainly all of those things, but like any work, can also be stressful, political, and challenging.  This is also why we are not so good at justifying our work with our academic colleagues (another post for another day).

I think Student Affairs is but one example to a greater problem with career decision-making.  People choose careers at a dangerously young age for so many wrong decisions (money, fame, comfort, power, respect, parental choice, etc.)  We are in the field of education, we owe it to ourselves and our students to encourage them to make an informed decision about their path to a career in higher education by being honest and allowing them to have many opportunities to see it for themselves.

Like the Wizard of Oz, it is time for us to let them see the “man behind the curtain”

What was your path to Student Affairs like?  Were you prepared for your work?  Any surprises?  Share your story.

Enough with the shop talk

OK I will admit it, I talk about work often.  I talk about it with colleagues, family, friends and sometimes strangers (i.e. the waiter who might as me “what do you do?”).  I love what I do and it is very much a part of who I am.  It is something, I think, we as a society do.  What is one of the first questions you ask or is asked to you when you meet someone new?  

It usually goes something like this:

1) What is your name?
2) Where are you from?
3) What do you do?  

Here’s the thing, I love the work that I do, but I love other things too.  I love to bike and run, I love sports, I love film and television, I love music, I love food.  Why don’t I talk about those more?  I am not defined completely, or even mostly, by my work.  

I spend a lot of my meals and personal time with colleagues.  I am fortunate to work with some incredible people whom I consider close friends.  Many of them were invited to my wedding and have taken part in celebrating other personal milestones and life events.  However, much of our time together outside of “the office” is spent still talking about work.  I feel we are doing each other and our relationships a disservice by always spending the bulk of time together talking about work-related things.  The same can be said with students.  Most of my time spent with students is task related in that we talk about what they came to meet with me about, logistics for the upcoming program, questions they have, etc.  However, my rapport with them gets stronger when we talk about other things not related to the task(s) at hand.  It allows us to connect beyond the work we are doing together.

Work/life balance is a touchy subject for me.  To quote Brian Lind, “My life is not a lunch tray, sometimes the peas mix with the mashed potatoes and I wouldn’t have it any other way.”  I do not feel work and life need to be black and white.  However, I do feel that we can make choices that help us to be sure that work does not become life and life does not become work.  Taking time with colleagues to talk about interests and topics unrelated to work will help with this in a way.  

I am issuing myself (and you) a new challenge to spend less time talking with colleagues talking about work outside of meetings, projects, and events and more time connecting over common interests.  This will only strengthen our personal and working relationships, which will enhance our capacity to do great work together.  You can learn a lot about a person if you take the time to ask and listen.

When was the last time you spent with colleagues talking about non-work related topics?  What did you discuss?  What would you discuss?

#ACUI13: Reflections from home

As most of you who read my blog probably know, this week is the Association of College Unions-International’s (ACUI) Annual Conference in St. Louis, which is hosted by my super talented friend and colleague, Erin Morrell.  I, of course, am sitting in my office in Maine (not St. Louis), reading the conference back channel #ACUI13 and feeling very jealous (don’t feel bad for me, I am missing the conference as I am going to Orlando for a vacation with my family at the end of the week).  I am jealous, though, not about all the wonderful content I am missing, but the people.

You see, for me, while the things I learn at a conference are great, it is the people that keep me coming back.  It’s the tweets, texts, and phone calls from colleagues, now friends, from across the country during the conference that make me miss it the most.  Much of the information being presented, sure, I will be able to access or could find somehow.  Information is at our fingertips and is more accessible than ever.  The conversations with colleagues, the networking, and the peer-to-peer learning is irreplaceable.  Yes, we have Twitter, but there is something more powerful about breaking bread together, having informal chats, or just connecting in person.

What I miss the most, though, is the energy that surrounds the ACUI Conference.  The sessions, the networking, the reconnecting with friends all help accomplish one thing for me. During this crazy time of year my friends in ACUI Region 1 like to call Maprilay (March-April-May), the conference causes me to re-energize and focus as a professional.  It always helps me remember the importance of the work I do and that I have people around me (literally and via mobile devices) that support me and understand my profession.  Though I know it is always there, ACUI reminds me of this.

I am thankful I am able to read all the tweets and live/learn vicariously through those who are at the conference.  

Friends at #ACUI13: what are you enjoying most about the conference thus far?  

What do you gain most from conference attendance?

How to be innovative (sort of) in Student Affairs

I have been reading and thinking a lot about innovation lately.  The culture at my institution is fast-paced, forward thinking and innovative, especially in the last few years.  In general, the landscape in Higher Education is changing and we as Student Affairs professionals need to adapt our thinking, programs and services.  Something I have noticed though, is that for some, innovation and new thinking can be difficult.  Often, we get stuck in the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” mentality.  For many of these folks, they have an all or nothing approach to innovation. The notion is that you have to come up with the next best thing, this big new idea, and it has to be grand.  It is when you realize that is not entirely true, that you can begin to think differently and in a way that fosters innovation.  I am writing this post to share some tips that have worked for me to think about innovation in a smaller, more manageable scale.

1.  Assess first

Trying to innovate without knowing what the needs or problems are is like running a marathon without shoes, and perhaps without any training.  It can be done, but it makes your task much more difficult.  I am a firm believer that you can’t find a solution until you have identified the problem and its scope.

2. Think thrift shopping

Sometimes you don’t need to spend all kinds of money to get a pair of jeans when you can get something just as good from a thrift shop.  The same  thought process can be used while seeking new ideas.  Some of my most “innovative” ideas for my work and my institution have come from colleagues or by researching what is done at other institution.  Though it is not a new idea or innovative in the truest form, it is new and innovative for my work and my institution.  You will be amazed by how many incredible things your colleagues are doing and we are fortunate to be in a field that is so willing to share and help.  Utilize your resources and watch the new ideas flow.

3. Think small

The point, for me, of innovation is not necessarily thinking large scale.  It could be the smallest tweak to a program, a minor change to a service that could make the biggest change or impact.  By thinking small, you open yourself up to more ideas that are practical, and oftentimes more cost effective

4. Brainstorming; groups or individuals? BOTH!

It is no secret that Higher Education loves committees!  We have meetings about meetings.  While thinking and brainstorming in large groups can be helpful, it is not the only way.  Sometimes group think can occur and the politics involved with any organization can stifle individual creativity.  With my students, I encourage them to brainstorm on their own, once the problem has been identified, then come together as a group.  Instead of a rattling off of undeveloped ideas, the group gets to hear solid, well-thought out ideas and evaluate them instead of starting from scratch.  This saves a lot of time, a valuable resource for all of us.

5. Be flexible and adaptable

This final step is, perhaps, the most important.  Sometimes an idea can seem so profound and everyone is sure it will work; and then it all blows up!  There are outside factors that effect whether or not a new idea will work.  These are often out of our control.  It is important to not let the failure of one new idea deter you from trying others.  It is important to learn from your mistakes and move forward with the new knowledge.

What innovative ideas have you implemented in your work lately?  What was that process like?

If you could do anything….

We have a staff member at my institution who asks the same interview question for every candidate, regardless of the position or department, and it goes something like this….

“If you could do anything, create your dream job, what would that be?  What would you be doing?”

I think this is such a fantastic question and one we should think about often and earlier.  I read an interesting article this morning that talked the characteristics of college students.  One theme that stood out to me, was their reasoning to go to college and to choose their given major: a job that will provide a comfortable living.  Students are coming to college, less and less, to explore, learn, and enjoy the process.  I wonder how many students, when pondering the above question, would realize their intended career path or major is far from their dream job.  I am fortunate for my experiences that led me to explore and develop, which led me to student affairs.  Being a first generation college student, I of course, had no understanding of student affairs coming into college, thus no intent on it as a career path.  It was getting involved, exploring interests, learning new things, and starting to figure out what I was passionate about, good at, and most interested in that led me to where I am today.

Just for fun, here are some of the elements that would make up my answer to this question:

  • Drum set tester: Who wouldn’t love to be paid to play with drums all day?  Right?
  • Ice cream taster: Let’s be real, this would be sweet.  Literally!
  • Bat boy: I love baseball!  It would be a dream to sit on the field and be paid to watch baseball every day – and pick up equipment once in a while.
  • Chopped judge: Getting paid to taste all kinds of tasty creations all while being on TV?  Count me in!

I am sure there are lots more, but those top my list.  Because most of these are not (traditional) career paths and have limited opportunities, I won’t be leaving my profession for them anytime soon.  My point in encouraging others to engage in this process is to see what elements within each of these are things that you enjoy.  Believe it or not, I can relate something in each of the above to what I do.  I am confident in my own path to know that I truly love and am challenged daily by my work.  I reached this point because I explored and figured out what I was interested in and good at.  We need to allow ourselves, and encourage others, to do the same.

How would you answer the question?