7 Blind Men and An Elephant

elephant

Working in a large public institution has given me the opportunity to observe several leadership styles. Given the segregated nature of the functions of the institution, it is not surprising that many leaders have adapted their leadership style to ensure the survival of their department. At times, this can be frustrating because in my experience it creates seemingly unnecessary conflict.

I was recently reminded of the story of seven blind men and an elephant. In the story, each man is feeling a different part of the elephant. The one touching the tail thinks it is a rope. The one at the leg thinks it is a tree trunk. They start to fight about it. Whether or not the conflict between the men and their perspectives was resolved depends on which version of the story you believe. The lesson I take away is that we all think we know how it is but in reality we only see a piece of the whole.

I like this story because each of the men was right. In my own work life, I have recently started trying to identify the elephant. How can it be that we are viewing the same issue from opposing positions? What could the issue look like from your side of the elephant? And how can I best describe my side in a way that helps us both get a better idea of what the elephant really is?

In some cases, this has required assembling an elephant that doesn’t yet exist. In creating collaborative programs within the institution, different departments bring their components or values. Sometimes they are open to integrating these components and often they want their components to be the whole elephant.

I have recently encouraged the students I work with to see how they could combine their seemingly different perspectives to create a greater outcome. This is especially challenging because the temptation is to recreate our existing structures – silo-ed departments, specialized colleges, two-party systems. Everywhere we look we can find examples of people holding on to their piece of the elephant.

Interfaith Diversity and the Future of Student Affairs

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I recently returned from #ACPA15 in Tampa, Florida. It was a blast! I attended sessions on ADA changes, Twitter, coaching, leadership, and even blogging! The conference brought together student affairs professionals from around the country to Consider, Collaborate, Create, and Commit. All this took place against the amazing backdrop of the waterside Tampa Convention Center.

One of the conference’s keynote speakers was Eboo Patel. I especially enjoyed Patel’s message about the need for Interfaith Leadership. I have often reflected on the role of higher education in addressing religion as part of student identity development. As Patel said, “Student Affairs has made huge impacts on issues of race, gender, and sexuality. Student Affairs helps shape American democracy. How would the U.S. look if we focused on religion?”

Faith-based organizations provide important support for students during the transition to college, when faced with loss, and when exploring the deep issues that emerge during the college experience. In addition to supporting students in their spiritual development, we need to facilitate the dialogue around religious identity and diversity. This includes opportunities for engagement, meaningful interactions, and inspiring relationships across differences.

In 2011, I helped organized our campus involvement in the President’s Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge. The initiative brought together students, faculty, staff, community members and faith-based organizations. Together, we engaged in community service projects that bridged religious and cultural lines. College is a time for students to explore spirituality, morals, beliefs, and even purpose and interfaith community service is a way for students to learn about and explore various faiths and contribute to the common good.

The United States is one of the world’s most religiously diverse nations. Patel reminds us it is important that Students Affairs professionals have the same frameworks, competencies, and tools to work within the realm of religious diversity as we do with ethnic diversity. Patel asked some hard questions. Why has Student Affairs not been more proactive about this? Is religious diversity too hard? Are there dimensions of religion that we are uncomfortable with? Is celebrating diversity only celebrating the differences you like?

I am struggling to answer those questions myself. Doing social justice work often requires a strong self-awareness and understanding. When I embarked on my personal journey to explore my own racial identity, I became a better advocate for ethnic diversity and social change. I believe the path to religious diversity will involve the same attention, research, and knowledge development. I am looking forward to the journey and hope to see interfaith diversity in the future of Student Affairs.

It’s All About Relationships

Relationships

My favorite fortune

A short trip down memory lane takes me back to the small liberal arts college where I earned my undergraduate degree and to the two large public institutions where I earned my advanced degrees. While I am grateful for the technological advances that allowed me to email my professors, upload my assignments, and research my dissertation through the library’s online catalog, the experiences I remember most are my conversations and interactions with faculty.

My first psychology professor was a young doctoral student named Dr. Swan from the adjacent graduate school. She was recently married and just establishing herself as a faculty member. She was someone I could relate to and wanted to emulate. I hung on her every word, dissected her wardrobe, listened intently for clues about her life as a new wife and mother, and basically remembered very little about the developmental life stages and Freudian theory.

Fastforward ten years. My dissertation committee chair was a leading researcher in special education and disabilities. He held high positions in organizations leading the way in this field. He advised countless doctoral students, yet always gave me his full attention. After spending hours editing my dissertation and pouring over each chapter while being mindful of his critiques, what do I remember most about my committee chair? He taught in a hospital in Malawi, raised two daughters, bred golden retrievers, and liked to wear Hawaiian shirts.

I remember the personalities of my professors more than the equations, formulas, and theories they lectured about for hours. When I hear students talking about taking a class from a well-known professor, I know they are often drawn to the professor’s character more than the class content. Powerpoints, digital projectors, laptops, and wireless internet are powerful tools but they can’t replace the people behind them.

Students can find the answer to almost any question with a simple Google search. Our challenge as educators is to help them understand which questions to ask. And that happens in relationship – the way we model critical thinking, our response to complex social issues, and our commitment to life long learning. The information students need is already at their fingertips, but the transformation that takes place in higher education still requires a human connection.

10 Interviewing Strategies Used by Top Candidates

People waiting for job interview

My department has hired 10 new full-time staff members in the past 12 months. I have been involved in many of the searches, and currently am chairing yet another search committee. It’s literally a full time job to review applications, develop interview questions, schedule search committee meetings, contact candidates, organize forums, and run everything through Human Resources. But I can’t complain too much because we’re fortunate to receive funding for these positions, and each new successful hire brings much needed expertise and resources to our student programs and services.

Each interview has been an opportunity to see into the life of another professional, learn more about the interpretation of these positions across the field, and clarify the needs and priorities of our department.

These tips are based on the strategies that strong candidates utilized to rise to the top:

1. Take the interview seriously – Submit a complete application packet, dress professionally, research the department, and look at similar models on other campuses. As a candidate, you are being judged the minute you submit your application. A sloppy presentation of yourself on paper or in person can send the message that you may not be completely interested or even qualified for the position. When you put time and effort into preparing for an interview, it is obvious to the search committee that you are committed to getting the job.

2. Ask questions that demonstrate your knowledge of the big picture and the major concerns in the field. Your questions say a lot about you so choose them carefully. Avoid questions that can be easily answered on a website, such as demographic or historical information about a university. A question about the culture of the department or how the department is approaching challenges in the field (such as social media) will tell you more about the reality of the position, as well as communicate to the search committee that you are well versed in current issues.

3. Stay on topic and answer the questions. Interviews can be stressful, and being nervous or unprepared can sometimes lead candidates to lose track of their thoughts, speak too quickly, or get off topic. Practicing your answers, visualizing your ideal interview, and learning meditative techniques can help you prepare for the interview, calm your nerves, and improve your responses. It is also acceptable to ask, “Did I answer your question?” during the interview if you suspect you have missed the mark in your initial response. If you tend to be chatty, try to tone down your answers and monitor the length of your answers.

4. Communicate your passion and how it relates to the position for which you are applying. Our passions are sometimes more obvious when we interact in social settings, but may be less obvious in an interview. I think it’s inspiring when a candidate has committed him/herself to a field and enjoys the work. As a supervisor, I prefer to hire someone with passion and energy who may have less experience rather than a candidate who has more experience but lacks enthusiasm for the position.

5. Expand on answers and give good examples. You want your answers to be concise, but not too short. You still need to provide the search committee with enough information to evaluate whether you are qualified for the position. Be prepared to give examples of how your previous experiences and education have prepared or qualified you for the job. Opt for a short description of an experience that demonstrates your skills (like when you solved that challenging problem or resolved a sticky conflict) rather than a laundry list of accomplishments.

6. Establish a connection. We all want someone who can get the job done, but we also want someone on our team who is likeable and approachable. Smile, make eye contact, and be aware of your body language to convey confidence and warmth. How you say it can be more important than what you say.

7. Elude to ways you would take the position to the next level – either directly or indirectly, without suggesting that you would change everything. New hires bring fresh energy, creativity, ideas, and perspectives. I enjoy hearing about tools, processes, or approaches that candidates may bring to the team. However, be aware that not everything is broken and some traditions are deeply rooted in the institution. It’s appropriate to share your ideas, with the caveat that whether or not they are adopted depends on many factors.

8. Speak with confidence about your abilities without bragging or using laundry lists of accomplishments. Confidence is one of the top traits employers are looking for in new hires. You may have all the skills, knowledge and abilities, but if you lack confidence it shows in the interview. People with confidence know themselves – their abilities, weaknesses, priorities, values, and goals – and can talk about their successes without having to overcompensate for their faults.

9. Limit your use of common phrases like “I think…,” “That’s a good question…,” and “I guess I would…” These phrases are often used to fill the space when a candidate is thinking about his/her response. The problem with these filler words is they make a candidate look insecure and unprofessional. Instead of filling the space, just be silent. The silence conveys the message that you are giving thought and consideration to the question.

10. Speak articulately about your experiences, previous employment, projects, and successes that qualified you for the position. Focus on specific examples that translate to the position. Describe the skill sets and how you used those skills. Identify the achievements you want to share before the interview and weave them in where appropriate in your answers.

How do you recruit the most qualified candidates to your institution?

6 Strategies for Helping Parents (without violating FERPA)

Locked files

Parents are important partners in supporting student success. They are also part of our university family. I enjoy interacting with parents and encourage them to contact me if they have questions. However, due to FERPA privacy laws I am restricted in how much information I can share with parents.

Here are six strategies I use to help parents when they have a student in crisis or in need of support:

1. Provide information about campus policies and deadlines. When a student or family is in crisis, knowing their options can relieve the pressure of the situation. I frequently explain course and term withdrawal policies, medical leave of absence deadlines, and options for taking incompletes. Many parents have questions about what will happen to a student’s on-campus housing if the student is no longer enrolled full time or takes time off during the year. Information can empower them to make informed decisions.

2. Give information on campus resources. Again, information can be empowering. There are many resources available for students and parents. With knowledge of these resources, parents can encourage their student to pursue a tutor, talk to a counselor, seek out an academic advisor, apply for disability resources, or visit an instructor during office hours. There are also resources specifically for parents, often called Parent & Family Programs, which help parents get connected with the university.

3. Share in generalities. I may not be able to talk about the specifics of a student, but I can share my approach to handling different situations. For example, if a parent asks whether her student came to see me about a roommate conflict I can explain how I would handle the situation without disclosing whether or not I met with the student. I might says, “Typically I ask the student about the situation and notifying Housing if it is occurring on campus. I may also ask the other student to meet with me. If the issue involves safety, I would notify campus police to check on the situation.”

4. Share tips for communicating with college-aged students. It can be helpful to explain to parents that this is a time when young people naturally seek independence and choose to find their own solutions. Parents might consider having a conversation with their student about how often a student will check-in with a parent to reassure the parent that he is ok. If a parent is paying for the student’s tuition, it might also be reasonable to ask for some assurance that the student is progressing academically.

5. Ask questions! I may not be able to disclose much information, but the sky is the limit on what parents can share with me. I ask parents, “Is this unusual behavior for your child?” “What is he like?” “What has he told you about his experiences here?” This helps me assess whether there has been a change in the student’s behavior and/or how much he is disclosing to his parents. This can also be helpful in determining the relationship between the parent and student.

6. Provide words of encouragement. It makes a difference to parents when they hear that other students have experienced similar situations and been successful. I frequently tell parents, “There are many paths to success.” It makes a difference to parents when they hear that other students have experienced similar situations and been successful. I frequently tell parents, “There are many paths to success.” If a parent has shared about the student, I may focus on the strengths of the student and say “From what you have described, it sounds like your student has tremendous potential” or “I hear that your daughter has great self-awareness.”

I do not share any FERPA protected information with parents, including confirming or denying whether a student is enrolled, a students academic performance, where a student lives, or whether I have contacted a student. There have been exceptions in situations when a student is an imminent threat of harm to self or others. A student does have the option to sign an information release agreement if he/she would like a parent to have more information.

Hello World!

Launching a new blog is always exciting and a little daunting. The first post is like the first brushstroke on a blank canvas. It holds all the potential of becoming a brilliant masterpiece and risks becoming cast aside with the half-knit sweaters and unfinished scrapbooks.

I have been a hobby blogger for almost six years. Writing has always been my creative outlet and stress reliever. So it made sense for me to create an outlet for the ideas, thoughts, and musing I have about work.

I decided to start this blog to share my own experiences and also to create a conversation and build a community. I have worked in student affairs for more than ten years, and I feel privileged to work with some of the brightest students in the country. I know that I am not alone. My days are filled with touching, hilarious, and hair-pulling moments…and I hope to share them all here!