A paradigm shift for a department, division, or institution is hard work! Coming to the decision alone is a difficult one. But once the decision has been made, where does it go from there?
My residence life department recently decided that this was a transformation we wanted (and needed!). We wanted to focus less on the day to day and administration and devote more time on our students and building a community. Community development needed to be the most important thing we did, and all actions needed to relate back to that.
Moving forward seemed easy at first, as almost all of us were on board immediately. This wasn’t a new or revolutionary idea, just something we had fallen out of. A license to make changes was something we didn’t even know we were craving. We had always made small changes here and there, but – almost across the board – so much of what we had been doing was operational and efficiency based. We had become used to cut-backs and budget constraints.. What would we do if we could do anything? This, as you can imagine, was a lot easier said than done.
Like many beginnings, we started with a conversation.
What did our staff and student staff currently do? What did we want them to do? How were those two things different? From there everything was on the table, and we assessed whether it needed money, time, resources, or buy-in. If we could do anything towards this end, what would it be?
My advice to anyone going into a paradigm shift or looking to start one on your campus would be the following:
- Dream big like we did. It’s easy for us to be realistic, thoughtful, and budget conscious. Student affairs professionals have spent entire careers learning to do those things. But a large scale shift in culture takes large scale changes and (possibly) a shift in the your department’s priorities.. Eventually the real world and the budget will be important. But how can you know what you need if you are restricting your thoughts on what you think will get you there?
- Start broad. If your institution is used to being operational, throw all that out the window. It’s hard, trust me! As my institution’s training chair, we spent years even before my time checking boxes (judicial, counseling, fire safety – check!). We had to pull back and continue to remind each other in our early stages that we were not planning sessions just yet. We were planning intentionality and content areas. We were trying to infuse community development into every aspect of our training. For the first we months we had to stay broad.
- Brainstorming doesn’t happen once. Conversations happened weekly during our paradigm shift. We brainstormed at every committee meeting, during staff meetings, informally at lunch, everywhere! We surveyed each other. We surveyed our staffs. Thinking outside the box and thinking creatively can be challenging. It’s important to remember that this is a process and it’s an adjustment even if everyone is on-board. Don’t take offense to an idea that might end up changing or replacing any work you did previously. Everyone has to keep an open mind for this to be successful.
- Understand your time frame. A paradigm shifting change doesn’t happen overnight. Many of our plans were long term and subject to trial periods. We accelerated some plans and put others on the back burner. Moving back into being realistic: you cannot do everything at once. Priorities, as we said, will change but things must still be prioritized.
- Buy-in is key. Moving too fast or with too much at once may lead to a lack of buy-in from your students, student staff, or even department staff. For a culture to shift, everyone has to be on board and no one can be left behind. Be transparent. Keep everyone informed of what is going on. Do keep in mind, however, that the nice part about the microcosm of higher education is that your students, for the most part, will age out in four years. So if you are seeing some resistance on something you feel strongly should stay – if you can hold your ground for a few years – the next generation of students will not even remember the shift.
Paradigm shifts are anything but easy, but they are worth it. For us, it wasn’t that we were not focused on community development but it didn’t permeate everything we did. Our shift was one of intentionally and wanting to shake up things that had gone stagnant.
While we are still just in the beginning stages, this is an exciting time. Something we weren’t even thinking about in October and November of last semester is now part of our daily thinking and conversations. Start your conversations, remain student-centered, and be open-minded. My favorite thing to do is throw the phrase “this is the way things have always been done” out the window!