In my relatively short higher education career thus far, I’ve run the gamut as far as school types. I started at a large 4-year public research institution in the Midwest, moved to a mid-size public 4-year institution in the South, and eventually made my way to two small professional schools (one in the Detroit area and now in Southern California). The differences in geographical culture could be a blog post of its own!
At each university, I’ve held some type of student affairs title (housing/res life, admissions, or student engagement), but the populations of students I’ve served have been vastly different – especially the professional students. Typically, students who attend a “professional” school are earning some type of practitioner license (e.g. psychology, law, pharmacy, nursing, veterinary, etc.).
I’m a fast learner and generally pretty adaptable, but the culture shock I experienced really caught me by surprise. Here are a few tips to help you, a student affairs professional, make the transition from undergrad to professional school.
1. Learn the Basics
No matter your title, you’ll need some sort of foundational knowledge regarding your school’s programs and the associated career fields. Curriculum, timeline, and licensing cheat-sheets have been awesome ways for me to learn the basics when I work with students in different programs. It’s also very helpful to have some kind of clue when interacting with faculty and administration– they’re more likely to take you seriously!
Ultimately, as a student affairs professional on campus, you should have some kind of idea what students are experiencing academically per semester/year enrolled. It will help you plan much more interesting and effective programs and initiatives.
2. “Professional” Above All Else
The “buttoned and tied” culture of professional schools was probably the hardest transition for me. Still in full-on student development mode and fresh out of my master’s degree and Hall Director role, the first thing I wanted to do was decorate my fancy new office. My supervisor almost choked when she saw all the gadgets, pictures, signs, and paraphernalia from previous schools. What I was going for was an inviting, conversation-starting office to make students feel comfortable. Instead, she saw something that screamed, “Don’t take me seriously!!!!” Our awkward conversation regarding appropriate versus inappropriate was my first crash course in professional school culture. Bless her heart.
Generally speaking, the same idea goes for programs and dress code. No more provocative programs or presentations like “Sex Talk in the Dark” and certainly no more work uniform consisting of nice jeans and a polo shirt. It took some time getting used to injecting my personality into the vanilla-flavored ways of doing things, but now I prefer the general formalities.
3. Sink or Swim via Politics
Politics exist in every organization, even if they’re understated. In my experiences, navigating political culture at a professional school is like being in a highly-choreographed ballet. Everyone has their exact role and purpose in the production. Typically speaking, there is a rigid organizational structure and specific vertical flow of communication directed by title and seniority (both within departments and across campus). My current supervisor is a rockstar when it comes to leadership. From the moment I started, she took me under her wing and helped me learn who, what, when, where, and why.
If your immediate supervisor isn’t helpful, find yourself a coworker who can give you the 4-1-1 regarding campus culture. Put yourself out there by volunteering to help colleagues (especially in other departments) so you quickly learn the ropes from a variety of perspectives. The old adage, “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know” rings so true in these cases.
4. “Busy” is an Understatement
Okay, so you thought undergraduate students were busy? Professional students have extremely rigorous coursework, demanding experiential requirements, co- and extra-curricular obligations, and varying licensing exam commitments. Professional students generally have increased personal responsibilities as well (spouses, children, aging parents, home ownership, etc.).
Trying to schedule any kind of program or activity makes you feel like an air traffic controller. I try a lot of lunchtimes or late-evenings. Weekends are an absolute no-go. Any job or work-study opportunities have to be low-maintenance and extremely flexible.
Do your best to offer different days/times/opportunities. Variety is the best way to attempt to include everyone.
5. Career is King
To a professional student, their career is king. They probably won’t attend a Disney movie night, but they most definitely will attend a resume/cover letter workshop. They probably won’t attend an 8-hour RAD certification, but they will sign up to participate in a Leadership Certificate Program. If you offer some kind of professional experience or help them learn a marketable skill, professional students are all in.
Aside from academics, career prep/development, leadership opportunities, networking, and mentorship are most important to professional students. They just don’t have a lot of time for the fun stuff. It’s still important to do low-maintenance fun things, but professional students will prioritize career-related opportunities. The trick here is to figure out a way to combine the two!