November 19, 2013

A Brief SWACURH Follow-Up: CWTM

With speaking and performing, sometimes it's difficult to pause, slow down, and crawl through certain parts and give a larger breath of a concept or idea. Hence, for the next couple of weeks or so I'm going to revisit parts of my opening keynote from the Southwest Affiliate of College and University Residence Halls (SWACURH) 2013 Conference at Texas Tech University. It was a great time, and the crowd was very encouraging when I was on stage. So, while that record-breaking conference has finished, and 600-some delegates return to their respective campuses, it's always good to find ways to keep that spirit going.


As I talked about last week, my transition and familiarization with the community at Arizona State University during graduate school days was challenging. I went from an on campus population of 3000 to 6000; a total enrollment of 11,000 to almost 40,000; and geography of four short, suburban blocks, to 7-8 long, city blocks. The department too was not only bigger, but also different structurally considering that most of the ASU Hall Directors were graduate students and not full-time professional like at Oshkosh. ASU was also still undergoing an identity shift of being a pyramid college--one which is "fed" juniors and seniors from community colleges--to a more traditional college with even numbers of all undergraduate class types.

Another difference I noticed existed between the supervisors/adivsors and student staff. To be very fair, I would say it was professional at best. Yet, a lot of the professional distance created between the groups also left a major gap when it came cultivating teams inside each residence halls. This is no knock on my colleagues; many of them were great people. Yet the same curiosity I felt at Oshkosh, which was served by a community of Hall Directors who were willing to share about life as a full-time Student Affairs professional, was left to flounder at ASU. As a first-time advisor/supervisor I wasn't sure how to both function within the implicit rules of the community I worked in while positively supporting and responding to those who mattered: our students.

My father was the one who taught me CWTM: Cheerleader, Waterboy, Teacher, Mentor. I was back in Wisconsin on holiday break, enjoying watching my breath hang in the air and the cold wind against my face while my body was covered up, when he shared this advice with me. He said that as a manager or leader, yes, we have a duty to make sure the organization is running well. Yet, he said that didn't mean we had to sacrifice some human connections with those we worked with.

In Student Affairs, more than other organizations, I think there is the most potential for this kind of role. While conferences like SWACURH are at the peak of energy and enthusiasm, I think the constant practice of recognition and encouragement is particular to Student Affairs more than other areas. Many of us are used to that as undergraduates: a card, a positive e-mail, verbal encouragement during a one on one, even a gold star or other creative, colorful sticker.

For me, Cheerleader is an important role because it means you keep up the pep even when times are tough. This is hard to do, yet, the more I responded to my students with "why not" instead of "why" I found that they were able to explore their ideas first, before moving into the more pragmatic challenges. Cheerleader is not about blowing smoke and painting rainbows, it's about perseverance.

The learning curve is important, and thus, so are the moments to say "yeah, it didn't work out, but let's talk through it and see how this is an important part of living and growing." In my speech I lampooned the first time I had only a couple of students show up for my first social program on my floor. I mentioned how my hall director told me the "Starfish Story" where, in short, as long as one person is served than the program was a success. I get that ultimately my HD, Kris, was trying to tend to my broken ego and disappointed heart.

At ASU I saw this relief role quite often. A lot of students would feel frustrated at a multitude of things. When our RHA was revising its constitution, there were a lot of stressful nights. And it is one thing to keep positive, but it's also something else to step in and let students know they can take a break. Let them know they don't always have to be strong. Let them know there are ways to break down without "breaking down." (Heh, this reminds me of a particularly awkward and stressful situation the night before our RHA banquet where my friend, and RHA president, Vondre and I shared a laugh over the possible nightmare the banquet could have been...which it was not...another story for another day.)

To this day, I will strongly credit Jen Cecich for what became my first teachable moment as a student leader. And I think setting up these moments are difficult to do since they are often right before a major decision could be made or needs to be made and someone needs to step up. Often these decisions can be unpopular. For me, it was telling Oshkosh delegates we were discontinuing our infamous "got"-line of delegation t-shirts (while, as I mentioned in my speech, the themes started to fade, they were very popular on our campus). She asked me if I wanted to say something or if she should, clearly giving me an out and avoiding become an unpopular NCC. It was a hard decision, as I too kinda liked that tradition. But I stepped up.

I think these are the moments as an Advisor I enjoyed because I could be big picture with my students. I could find ways and scenarios for students to practice focusing enthusiasm instead of dissipating it by banging their head's against a wall. This happened when our RHA tried to host a sub-regional conference with other schools in Arizona and New Mexico. They had most of the materials ready to go. But a few leaders chose to step up and explain to other student leaders why it couldn't happen. As an advisor, you have to see these moments, and find a good way to convey the possibilities without influencing a decision.

I feel like this phrase is often overused and abused. What I learned a long time ago, from other mentors in my life, is that mentorship is NOT two things: a top-down relationship or a replication of style.

The people who I would refer to as my mentors not only reflect past supervisors and advisors but also colleagues and people I supervised or advised. These were people I learned from not by aping their mannerisms and styles, but by determining what it was I liked about what they did. My first hall director Laurie Thomas was great at recognizing people. And I wanted to be like her. The more and more I developed as a leader, I discovered I was great at big recognition (writing bid awards, planning special events) but not so much the day to day. LT never once pushed me into that style of leadership. She only encouraged me to be me.

To this day, I still find it helpful to see mentorship as paying attention to people who follow their own path and seeing the small things they do and the enthusiasm they do it with instead of becoming mirror images of them. Same goes for being someone else's mentor (which I always find a sort of funny and misleading concept because it assumes the person wants to be mentored and that you're the "right" person to do it). In those moments where I've felt that relationship develop, I felt that I was doing less instructing, and more conversing about why I did what I did. It felt more like reflecting and sharing instead of molding and scolding.

My father has had many hats in his professional career yet all of his co-workers often referred to him as the World's Nicest Guy. No wonder, with a philosophy like CWTM, how can we not find ways to rhetorically approach unique situations and adapt to what others need?