College is fun. It can be a lot of fun. I even tell the students I work with that, in my opinion, they are in college to do three things: meet people, develop as people, and have a quality experience with other people. The reason I choose these three experiences to focus on, is because if students and faculty focus on them they will (hopefully) begin to self-perpetuate and improve our institutional cultures. Our cultures on campus are what we allow them to be and I believe it is time that we as student affairs professionals take back our cultures.
“Hi My Name is…”
My hope is that as a Residence Hall Director and formerly as a Resident Assistant, is that I am helping the students I work with to network and make friends. But not just any friends, I want my students to develop a network of friends who are positive influences and who will challenge and support them on a peer level throughout their experience. The way I have always attempted to do this is by introducing individuals who may be having a difficult time integrating socially, to already established students who I knew I could trust. At the very least, I knew that these less integrated students were gaining another person to say “Hello” to in the hallway as they walked to class. At the very most though, these students were gaining friends that would last them throughout college and that would help develop their confidence, self-esteem and overall social support system.
I do this with students of both sexes however; it seems that young men are more in need of this assistance. This is because, in my experience working with first-year and other young college males, male students enter college timid and nervous like most other students; or, they may enter college with an off-putting bravado that can get them into trouble. Student’s friend groups often determine how they will behave, thus the importance for getting our younger students intentionally involved with potentially more positive influences from the beginning of their college careers.
Monkey See Monkey Do
As mentioned above as young men are entering college, or even if they have been around for some time, they are quite impressionable and particularly influenced by social pressures. As student affairs graduates or professionals, we see our students joining groups of people, whether it’s a club or organization, residence life, student government or simply a group of friends; the point is, students are always going to be facing social pressures good or bad. What I attempt to do as a new professional/recent graduate, is utilize my story and my potential influence to show young men that it’s okay to go to class, get good grades, be a leader on campus, and to be respectful. I expand upon this concept in another article I have written, but the main idea is that to make an impact and to have social influence with our students we need to have a connection with them, and show them that we care. This idea can be tailored to your unique style, but my style is to become “one of the guys.” This may require some self-disclosure and a higher comfort level in certain discussions on my part; but ultimately I have found when I am able to make a connection as “one of the guys,” I am then able to enter their lives as more than that, then I am able to become a mentor.
Changing from the Inside-Out
Many theories of psychotherapy emphasize the relationships between individuals as the catalyst for change. Rogerian Person-Centered, Adlerian Individual, Glasser’s Reality, are just a few of the many concepts in therapy and counseling that really look at relationships as key to development and change. I am a strong proponent of Carl Roger’s Person-Centered therapy, and believe in a modified version of his core conditions. I believe college students develop via the relationships they form, for better or for worse, and the quality of these relationships determine the path students travel. I believe quality relationships (in my opinion of course) possess the “3 C’s,”: connection, caring, and change.
I believe if students are able to make real, genuine connections with others, that opens the door to the rest of the process. However, this is the hardest part. This requires initiative and a high level of comfort, particularly for a new student on campus. How many students are really going around introducing themselves and saying “Hey, I don’t know you, but let’s be friends.”? Not many in my experience, because it’s uncomfortable and takes time. What we can then do as staff members is facilitate that connection. Whether that is taking the initiative to say hello to a student and have a conversation on move-in day, or to help a student who looks lost, I believe it is our responsibility to bridge that gap for the students. Let’s start to take a more active role in relationship building rather than waiting for students to pop into office hours.
Next, we need to genuinely care. I know this sounds obvious but I don’t mean just caring for students as students, but rather caring for students as people and individuals. This can be difficult when our lives are so busy; however, that’s no excuse. We made a decision to enter this profession; therefore we must be here because we enjoy it (hopefully). Every student has a story and they want to tell it, we need to allow them to do so and not pass judgment over their experiences. It is absolutely necessary for this to be modeled with young men, because they are already socialized to restrict emotion and to not have close relationships with other males. This greatly limits their potential and we may be missing out on some amazing young leaders, staff members, or even friends if we allow this binary, male stereotype to perpetuate itself.
Finally, once the above mentioned components are in place, we can begin to watch change occur. Change is bi-directional and should occur in both ourselves and our students. Use the caring relationship you have with students to allow them to teach you, give the “power” and “authority.” This will only increase their respect for you and will ultimately strengthen your relationship. We are the professionals, but we certainly aren’t the experts (at least I’m not). Encourage and empower your students to try new things. Help them join positive groups on campus that will increase their self-esteem and self-efficacy. Help them help themselves, but really help them help you.
One of the best moments of my professional and personal life to this point was recently when a young, male, staff member came in for an evaluation with me where we would assess how we were both doing so far in the semester. After we did his evaluation, we went into mine and it was a very positive evaluation quantitatively. However, what numbers couldn’t explain was what he wrote at the bottom of the evaluation which was: “Jake is a very talented individual. He inspires me to be the best I can be. He passes no judgment and I know that I can always go to him with anything I need: personal or professional. He truly cares about his job, his staff, and the residents. It is in his nature to help people and he truly succeeds at that every single day. I am proud to be his friend and to be able to call him my mentor.”
The fact that I was able to become a “friend” and a “mentor” is why I love this job and this field, and I hope these ideas help some others feel the same satisfaction I have the privilege to!
This post is part of our month long series #MenInSA, which looks to highlight men working in student affairs. Contributors of diverse backgrounds weigh in on what it means to be a man in student affairs, the challenges and opportunities, and their personal experiences within their career. For more information, check out the intro post by Sean Eddington.
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Podcast With Paul Pyrz on Leadership Programs