It is 4:00 in the morning. I am sitting at my gate in the airport, and already downed half of my grande latte (with a dash of cinnamon). Amazingly, I had gotten myself out of bed about an hour ago, strapped myself and two carry-on sized bags in my Prius, parked, sleepily did TSA yoga, stopped by Starbucks, and flopped myself on the flattened faux-leather chair to read. It is then that I observe a woman with very fierce features approach the desk. The employee notices this as well and offers a big smile. But not big enough.
“I demand a refund”, says the customer. Her let-me-speak-to-the-manager hairdo is bouncing with fury. “What can I do for you?” says the attendant, the smile shrinking. “This airline gave me the wrong ticket! I am supposed to be going to San Diego but they put me on the plane to stupid Maryland instead!” (it is then that my Maryland born and bred eyebrow arched). Apparently, ‘let-me-speak-to-the-manager hairdo’ had selected the wrong destination and demanded someone pay for her mistake.
At 4:05am in the morning mind you, my mind raced back to a conundrum I had in grad school:
“Is student affairs in the business of making students happy?”.
Take the same situation; a student made a mistake and wants the organization to fix it for them. I would argue that what student affairs departments are trying to do is balance students’ learning with organizational advancement and mission. From my observation, the balancing act is poised on a common denominator: Money.
A career services office cutting a student worker position may not make the students happy. But organizationally, to maintain a happy budget, the cuts had to happen. Yes, we want to make students happy during the first week of class, which is why colleges and universities feel like county fairs for the first few days. Unfortunately, most housing departments cannot afford to hire people to move in residents’ things while mom, dad, and golden retriever sip mojitos. This might lean more toward making the students happy. But for most organizations, it is not financially feasible (and arguably not in-line with the mission). There are also liabilities, campus plans, policies, etc. that also impede on students’ wants.
For those that might be focused on student learning/development side of things is: What is most helpful students: Being happy or having to face challenges? If you have ever had to hold a student accountable (i.e. terminate them from a position, assign a sanction, give feedback, etc.) it is probably the time when there is the greatest risk for making students unhappy. However, when I think of development, I know it is a process and that one day (in an ideal world) the student may think “Wow! They were right for firing me! I learned I can’t slack off in my job!”. Maybe we are setting students up to be happy in the long run. If we don’t hold students accountable now they could ultimately go somewhere later in life that brings down the metaphorical hammer when there is more at stake, like a partner or children.
I think to make a student happy is to listen and observe the root of the issue and share your own humanness. How many times have you been on the phone with a help line and you feel like you are talking to a robot despite knowing the person on the other end is a human? Our students deserve caring humans in their lives, especially when we can’t make their wants possible. In the roughest of circumstances, we can help students on a road to ‘happy’ by being another human listening to them, and maybe sharing our thoughts/feelings/beliefs if it is appropriate to do so. Yes, I have to bill a student for a lost key. However, I can do so as a human that understands that things happen and mistakes are made.
We can’t force anyone to be happy.
That is a decision that the student makes. Student affairs divisions can offer excellent services, caring staff members, and opportunities for students to grow. But it is the student’s decision to be happy; to decide to turn the proverbial lemons into lemonade. And maybe, it is our job to help them be conscious of that option.
Back here in the airport, our fiery friend decides that maybe she is to blame for the conundrum. She begrudgingly decides to take a connecting flight. The staff member balanced the organization’s policies with the wants of the customer by giving options and practicing a little bit of human sympathy. I down the rest of my luke-warm beverage, toss the cup, and gather my things to stand in line (hoping for a window seat). I glance at my watch. 4:35. I guess learning does happen all the time.