While getting ready to graduate with my master’s in Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis from the University of Missouri at Columbia, I stopped to reflect on my learning journey. I pondered my main three takeaways from everything I have learned (beyond the seminal theories).
Student Affairs professionals are cultural navigators
The first lesson I learned was during my first lecture. The class met at the Missouri Theater to listen to a talk by Dr. Terrell Strayhorn from Ohio State University. Much of his presentation focused on the idea that higher education was its own alternative culture. In other words, colleges and universities have their own traditions, structures, vocabulary, etc. Students from diverse backgrounds—particularly first generation students—have difficulties being successful in an environment to which they have not been socialized. Socialization responsibilities often fall on student affairs professionals. Therefore, they share their expertise and knowledge to advise students.
Dr. Strayhorn argued that we, as professionals, should start thinking of ourselves as cultural navigators instead of advisors. That made me realize it was important for student affairs professionals to know what it’s like to be the outsider. To be successful in my future career, I will continue to experience new environments and step outside my comfort zone. I will always consider higher education as a subculture of its own. Having my assistantship at a different institution and having learning journeys at institutions in four different countries worked to my benefit!
Being reflective about my practice makes me a better professional
From the very beginning of my program, I’ve had to assess myself based on the core competencies laid out by NASPA and ACPA. I had a class that focused on assessment and evaluating ourselves and programs. I realized that having clearly articulated goals and measurable outcomes allowed me to be more deliberate about how I grow as a professional. Throughout my journey, I paid attention to professional development and the link between theory and practice. Additionally, I’ve been learning to achieve a good balance between both. In the end, I came to realize that the theory-to-practice relationships is not one-sided. In other words, I discovered that practice could (and should) inform theory.
One class that has enabled me to reflect on myself as a professional was “Difficult Dialogues in Counseling Psychology”. This seminar got media coverage following a long list of grievances and issues on the University of Missouri campus. Throughout the semester, I met with a small group of students to check in and develop strategies to engage in difficult dialogues in a more meaningful way. It was a challenging class, but it provided me with the space I needed to explore my identity and learn important soft skills beyond the theories covered in class. As I resume my higher education leadership career, I will build time in my practice for professional development and reflection. I will look for settings that provide me with opportunities to engage with colleagues in small groups to reflect. In addition, I will find outlets—such as this blog—to share my learning moments.
It’s crucial to be part of important national and international conversations that are taking place
Lastly, I learned that to be a better professional, I needed to go beyond self-assessment and reflection. It is important to be aware what other leaders are doing and talking about at different institutions. When I connected with my mentor, a NAFSA Board of Director Member, she urged me to engage in research and consider doctoral studies. Empirical data and published studies helped her push her ideas forward and allowed others to approve. She felt like connecting her own research agenda to her professional endeavors worked in her favor. In my case, I have been able to focus social media customer service in higher education and influence the policies in my department. Additionally, she encouraged me to become more involved outside of my institution.
My experience in the Study Missouri Consortium was invaluable! It allowed me to not only connect with other students and staff members from higher education institutions from across the state, but it allowed me to connect with House representatives, employees of the Missouri Department of Higher Education. Throughout my master’s, I also paid attention to current events and how they have impacted international students. Being engaged in these issues and aware of how the situations unfold have made me better equipped to support students.
> BONUS <
Podcast With Stacy Oliver-Sikorski on Professional Development