My boss took me to lunch on the first day of my graduate assistantship at Penn State Career Services and said, “We’ve completely ended the diversity program we’ve been running for about ten years. It wasn’t working out. Our recruiters weren’t getting the point of it, although they did enjoy it. So, it’s going to be up to you to create and implement our new diversity program. Welcome to the team!”
I almost choked on my appetizer.
I knew that the older program, a speed networking session for students with diverse backgrounds, was one that my institution loved. I knew I’d get a lot of questions about why the program was ending. Yet, this was a task I was happy to take on, although I was completely unsure of what would happen.
I looked at the structure of Penn State University and I thought about how it was decentralized, in certain respects. Each major was within a particular college, i.e. The College of Business, the College of Arts & Architecture, and so on. Each of these colleges had various goals and aligned career paths. I thought that maybe I could do a series of programs: one for each college. I would bring in 1-2 professionals from related field to come and give some professional tips. I drafted up a flyer and started taking my proposal into meetings with boards, committees, and diversity councils. They were very polite. Yet there was something in their eyes that told me they were a bit wary of the program. My gut feeling was confirmed when they’d ask, “So… why is the old program ending again?”
The deans for diversity initiatives did what they could. They sent out the electronic invites to students. I sent out electronic invites to students through our technology system. Then, we all waited.
The program spanned for about a week, with 4 different sessions. Five recruiters / employers came, interested in talking about their company, their company’s diversity initiatives, and offering some tips for success. 10 students came… in total. Night after night, I sat at my desk with bated breath, hoping that there would be more students next time. After the third one, my ego was really taking a hit. A coworker noticed my silent disappointment and said, “It happens to the best of us”.
The program didn’t work and I wanted to know why. The good thing was that there wasn’t too much money lost; only what we spent in pizza and water. The recruiters offered their services generously since we’d booked them the night before the Career Fair and they would have the opportunity to network.
So, I talked to my boss, told her the dismal numbers, and waited for the stern disapproval that I knew was coming. However, it never came. She congratulated me for being fiscally responsible in the circumstances and then suggested that I work with the assessment office to create a survey and send it to those who came and those who did not. She suggested focus groups so that we could understand what students wanted / needed most at this point in time. She also suggested that I trust my instincts and try again.
Her belief in me was part of the fuel for success. The surveys told me that the times of the programs were off. I had checked the academic calendar to make sure that I was steering away from exam weeks and other hectic times. However, I did not look at was going on within the institution socially: a rookie mistake that I promised myself I’d never make again. I knew I would do things very differently the next time.
Creating things is what I do and I’ve learned that failure fosters a certain level of creative thinking and troubleshooting. The next semester, I asked a group of students to participate in the planning of the new program. I reworked the format to be a progressive dinner with a multicultural acting troupe that would act out scenes regarding diversity and the workplace. Students, recruiters, and employers were all invited. Positive feedback came in after the event and it is something that I’m still very proud of.
It took me multiple tries to get to a comfortable version of success. It took me a lot more time in networking and planning than I’d ever anticipated to get the participant number where we needed it to be. Yet, over time, this story became my favorite fail, because of all I’d learned.
So, what did I learn?
I. Don’t take it personally
This is probably the absolute hardest thing to do. We’re invested in our work because our work can speak volumes about who we are. However, it is important to remember that we are not solely defined by the work that we do. When I started talking to colleagues about the programming fail, I learned that I was not the first person to ever have this experience (and I would not be the last). That helped me to redefine my ideas of success to include content first, then student buy-in, and then program participants. For example, the first time around I was solely focused on networking how-to’s and resume boosters, which was good content, but it was content that they could get at many of the other workshops across campus. The second time, I changed my content for diverse audiences i.e. discerning a diverse workplace, wearing natural hair to interviews, transitioning during your interview process, being asked illegal questions pertaining to marital status, or navigating the visa questions as an international student. This shift in the content, made for more student buy-in, which in turn, prompted more people to participate in the program.
It’s very tempting to shirk back and heal your ego by doing some negative navel-gazing. But that’s not effective. Don’t write any invitations to your pity party… start strategizing towards your next success.
II. Strategize Towards Success
I’m grateful for a supervisor who taught me this skill: to use the tools at your institution to craft successful initiatives. At that point, it meant looking at our student affairs research branch to gain answers about why students had not participated and what they were looking for in their next experience. At other institutions, it means including student leaders within the planning process, so that they can organically offer qualitative feedback on everything from the format, to the time, to the marketing materials. It also means asking various stakeholders good questions at the beginning of the process. It means having meetings with faculty members to talk about the work they are doing, their learning outcomes, and how my programming can assist them in creating these outcomes. This builds rapport, relationships across the institution, and allows for stronger programming experiences.
III. Look at what large social activities are going on, on campus
If there is one thing I learned, it is to pay equal attention to the social calendar. Yes, it may be December, and graduating seniors may or may not know how to maximize their break. Yes, the Career Fair might be coming and exam week might be the week after. However, do not neglect that students will also invest in their own work/life balance, as well, especially at institutions where over-programming is a salient feature. Sometimes, they will choose to go to the large philanthropic event or the featured artist concert that coincides with the timing of your program. And that’s okay. Just make sure that you go into these scenarios with eyes wide open. Ask your students what else might be going on during the time of your initiatives. You’ll be surprised at what you learn! (Disclaimer: you also may have to interject when the details of the social calendar get too “real”. Boundaries, boundaries, boundaries!).
IV. Don’t duplicate efforts
This can be quite the challenge if you work or intern at a larger institution. I did not know that students were already making use of similar programming initiatives, within their own college, and tended to be a bit wary of stepping away from those. I only learned this when I started to have lunch and collaborative brainstorming sessions with professionals from other colleges and departments on campus. In this way, I could see if there was something similar that existed already within the institution because if it did, the chances were that students would gravitate toward it, instead.
Failing forward is all about gathering information and managing our emotional responses. No matter how many pretty words we can think to wrap around the concept of failure, it still…well… stinks. However, it is the way in which we fail that tells our colleagues about our character, our ability to gather information, and our willingness to persist.