Parenting and a new perspective on balance

We live and work in a culture where our work defines many of us. Vacation days go unused, parental leave is worse than in most other countries, we are connected to work 24/7 with mobile technology, and the 9-5 is no longer the norm.

I am currently in the final stages of building a house, am still less than a year into a new job, and have a 1 month old. These are, as they say, 3 of the top 5 most stressful things a person can endure during his lifetime, yet I am the least stressed I can ever remember being. Here’s why; it all comes down to perspective.

My perspective on balance changed a month ago when my daughter was born. I quickly have switched from living to work from working to live. My job, though it provides me with tremendous meaning, pales in comparison to the sense of joy, responsibility and meaning I get when I am at home with my family. Parenting as taught me to be selfish. I say no, regularly. If it is outside the scope of my job and/or it takes away from my family, it is not important enough for me to say yes to. You would think this makes me less available and “worse” at my job. However, the opposite appears to be true. I am overall happier, more focused, and better at prioritizing because my time is more precious. I no longer live for my work, which really helps me to see things more clearly, not take things too personally, and to set healthy boundaries. These all make me a better professional and a better dad. I don’t bring my stress and problems from work home the way I used to.

Before I was a parent, I lived for my work. It is what gave me my greatest meaning. Working with college students, I feel that my work matters. The growth and development of my students came before my own needs and caused me many late nights, long weeks, taking things too personally, and lack of sleep. The crazy thing is I did not seem to mind. I was driven by this sense of being a part of something bigger than myself and by playing that important role in the lives of students. I am still driven by this, but it’s different now. I have a new found drive at work. I work with some incredible students who will one day change this world and impact it in profound ways, all of which my daughter will be the beneficiary of. I get out of bed and leave my family every morning to work with these students, so that they can grow and develop into future teachers, psychologists, activists, researchers, doctors, etc. that will make this world a better place. Not only has becoming a dad taught me how to be better balanced, it has also reinvigorated my sense of purpose for working in higher education. The two things (work and home) are mutually beneficial to each other and are firing on all cylinders.

I think working parents are often accused of having a “convenient excuse” and that expectations of parents in terms of balance may be unfair in comparison to those of non-parents. I can’t definitively say that either is or is not true across the board, but I can say this: balance is as much, if not more, about the person and not about the system. You are in control of much of your own balance. Don’t believe me? Look at your calendar right now. How many of the obligations (especially outside of “normal” work hours) are necessary for the successful fulfillment of your job duties? Struggling? Try this question instead: “Will I be fired for not going to this?” I am willing to bet that you can eliminate at least an hour or two of obligations by taking that perspective. It should not take becoming a parent to see this. I should have learned this a long time ago. Being overtired and busy, because I chose to, did not make me better at my job; it made me worse. When we are healthy and balanced, we are our best selves at work.

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What could you eliminate from your schedule and what would you do for yourself with that time?

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Permission to brag

I’ve written about this before: we have a branding issue in Student Affairs. We are misunderstood, and it is largely our own fault. We spend a lot of time in the classroom, on campus, at conferences, and especially on Social Media talking about this. How do we talk about what we do? How do we articulate and demonstrate our value to the academy? How do people outside of our field come to better understand what we do? I don’t have a solution, but I may have stumbled upon something, perhaps a starting point…

This morning, I was perusing my Twitter feed in the short few minutes I had before my next meeting and I stumbled on a particular tweet from my friend Jason Meier at Emerson College. He was talking about how proud he was that they addressed and discussed mental health at Orientation to begin to destigmatize asking for help. I immediately responded asking him to share what they were doing.

This is just one small example of many posts I see throughout this time of year; pictures of RA training, stories of move-in, Orientation program highlights, excitement for the start of the year, interactions with students, etc. I too find myself mostly posting about work this time of year. I do it to connect with students, but also, I am damn proud of what we do. I am proud of my team, my institution, and myself for what we accomplished during our Week One program. Here’s an example: I have posted several times about our new Consenting Communities workshop that was designed and led by students to begin to discuss the real issue of sexual assault. This program was created and led by students, with staff support. I was proud and felt the need to brag. Why does that not feel OK?

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Here’s my takeaway: we need to be better at ok with bragging. Jason’s tweet and my post are small examples. They show people outside of our field that we are more than just party planners or chaperones. It provides ideas and motivation to those within our field. My plea to all of you, my colleagues, is to keep these posts coming. Don’t let this just be an August thing. Make it an all year round thing. Let’s continue to talk about issues within our field, the future of it, and share ideas, but let’s also (and especially) be OK with showcasing our work. If it feels like bragging, embrace it. You do meaningful work – share it! At least in my mind, this will go a long way towards increasing the awareness and respect of what we do.

Let’s brag: share what you are proud about from the last few weeks!

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.

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?

Work-Life Balance: Lessons Learned

All too often we are told as young professionals to seek work-life balance.  It is ingrained in our graduate school experiences.  We talk about it at conferences and have discussions with our supervisors and mentors.  How many student affairs professionals can actually claim they have achieved balance?  What does balance mean?  I always thought it was like a UFO; something many look for, few claim they have seen, and most believe it does not actually exist.

I have a few thoughts…

  • Balance does not equal 9-5.  Let’s face it; we all knew coming in that this field requires late nights and weekends.
  • Balance is subjective and means something different to everyone.  This is important when comparing yourself to others and when having discussions with colleagues and especially with your supervisor.  Know what it is you need to achieve a healthy work-life balance.
  • No one will hand you work-life balance or offer a magical solution.  You need to advocate for yourself.
  • Sometimes we are our own worst enemies.  (See below for some steps I have taken that might help)

I would like to share some things I have learned and some steps I have taken to improve my work-life balance that might be helpful for others.

  • Learn how to say no.  How many times are we asked to take on another advisor role for instance?  We are dedicated to our students, so we most often say yes.  I challenge you to think of balance the next time you volunteer for something.  Being an over-committed, hard to reach, always busy advisor is not helpful.  Maybe there is someone else who is able to give that organization the time and attention they need.
  • Decide whether or not you will check email from home.  This could be an entire post.  The subject is still open for debate.  The moment I purchased my first smartphone, balance went out the window.  I checked and responded to emails regularly.  I’ve learned over the last 3.5 years that you can be more effective and efficient with this.  I have stopped notifications from coming to my phone alerting me when a new message comes in.  I check it only when I have time and feel like checking it.  I use the functions afforded to me in gmail that allow me to filter out unimportant or less important emails, so the only ones I read on my phone are important.  Lastly, I ONLY respond to the vitally important emails.  See Ed Cabellon’s helpful blog post on Achieving Inbox Zero for more helpful tips.
  • Set boundaries with students.  I used to have students call, text, and email me at all hours of the day.  I have worked hard to educate my students about the difference of something that would require a phone call or text and something that can wait for an email.  With this, I also set the expectation that emails would not be answered at all hours of the day, so if something is indeed important, to just pick up the phone.  This has been surprisingly helpful and students have respected it and communications with them have improved.
  • Work smarter, not harder.  Find simple ways to make your daily tasks easier, so that you can spend your time and energy on your students and larger, more important projects.
  • Get a life outside of work!  Find hobbies and make time for friends and family.  If you are a calendar fan and schedule every daily event like I do, putting dinner with friends, a concert, date night, etc. into your calendar will help you stick to it.
  • Think about becoming a pet owner.  Pet ownership is not for everyone.  For me, it has done wonders on improving my work-life balance.  Having a dog helps me stay active (via our daily walks), improves my overall stress relief, and sometimes gives me the much needed excuse to escape the office for a little while.  Besides, my students love when she comes to visit as it provides some stress relief for them

Our pup Sadie at her favorite place, the beach!

No one knows better than you, what will work best for you and what work-life balance looks and feels like for you.  I hope what I shared will be helpful.

What do you do to improve your work-life balance?

Have You Thanked a Student Lately?

In the spirit of Thanksgiving, many folks have been posting, on various platforms, all the things for which they are thankful.  Some of them post weekly, and some even daily.  I have decided to focus what I am thankful for most on this single post.

Of course, I am thankful for many things; my beautiful wife (of just over a month), my loving puppy that brings us much joy, a supportive and warm family, dedicated friends, motivated colleagues, good health, financial stability and much more.  However, this post is meant for those for whom I am thankful every day, but never really tell them; my students.

Most of us enter this field for its intrinsic benefits.  At our cores, we are helpers and are dedicated to student success and development and thrive off of their growth, celebrating their successes more emphatically than our own.  We make significant bonds with these students and often continue to keep in touch with them long after they graduate.

Many of us that supervise students spend hours, and several dollars, on student employee recognition programs.  We have awards, give out some fun items, and celebrate them in many formal ways.  How many of us, though, take the time to just say “thank you.”  I am talking beyond a “thank you for doing your job well,” or “thank you for helping out on this project.”  I am talking more about a simple thanks just for being who you are, for making me laugh, or making me proud.  Many of us would not be in this field, literally, if it were not for our students; our departments could not function fully without them.  Further, many of us would not be in this field if it were not for our direct, daily interaction with students.

My mentor sums it up best when we debrief with our Orientation Leaders after three long weeks of hard work and no sleep.  He genuinely thanks them for allowing him to come to work every day truly happy to be in his dream job.  I don’t think he means this in a literal sense with all of the administrative tasks he has to complete each day; but in a more holistic sense that his work is fulfilling, meaningful and focused on his students.

No matter how bad or busy my day may be, I can always count on at least one interaction with a student that rejuvenates me, challenges me, makes me smile, or reminds me why I do the work that I do.  My students fail to realize how impactful their smiles, hard work, jokes, and conversations with me are.

As I reflect on what I am thankful for and vow to express my gratitude to others more, I ask you this: Have you thanked a student lately?