World renowned author and poet, Maya Angelou (rest in peace), once shared a quotation that has become a very important motto in the lives of millions of people. She claimed “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” In essence, those situations and events that trigger some deep emotional response tend to be remembered better than random thoughts and acts. For example, if a friend of yours let you borrow a pencil, you may not remember, however if a crush or a random person walking gave you a pencil, you’ll more than likely remember that event because of the emotional response you experienced.
When speaking about Student Affairs, I believe this motto is important, because when we talk about access and enrollment, retention and persistence, and graduation, this principle should guide our practice. The Admissions Office at a university often serve as the initial contact (or first impression) a student has with the school. While word of mouth and research on the internet are important for students considering an institution, the visit from an admissions representative, college fairs, and campus tours serve as big factors when it comes to students applying and accepting admissions. Recently, I did an interview of current or recent undergraduate students on their college decision, and a general consensus was that the emotional reaction the student had with the campus heavily influenced their decision to apply and/or attend. Some even talked about things their admissions ambassador (tour guide) said or did that memorable.
As students enter into the university, they come in contact with Resident Assistants, orientation leaders, professors, advisors, and other professionals. Research shows that if a student is involved and connected to their institution, they’re more likely to stay and succeed in comparison to those who aren’t. As an undergrad, I was very tempted to transfer after my sophomore year. I felt that my racial identity was disregarded and I didn’t feel connected to the campus. Fortunately, I had a mentor who spoke with me and reassured me that making the most out of my time and staying was a great choice. That feeling of empathy and being more involved helped me to feel more connected was extremely helpful. What I mean is that, the opportunity to be connected to or invest in something outside of the classroom was extremely helpful. Now, I have many days of sadness, because I’m not feeling those same emotions currently that I once felt.
As professionals, here are a few tips that could help establish a connection with students that may help warrant positive emotional responses.
- Listen Actively. Students pick up on the cues better than you may think. If you’re not responding to what they say and following up on those conversations, that may trigger a negative response. Our job is to be student-centered, one-by-one. Every need and desire of each student is important and our feelings about other events need to be taken care of at other times.
- Holistically Care. As an extension of listening actively, it is important to know the whole student. What I mean by this is that if the focus of the student lies only on their academics, that emotional relationship won’t develop. Students are people, and they experience life just like you and I, so we need to pick up on what’s happening in their life. Whether it’s what sports team they like or that their grandma is terminally ill. All of these things contribute to student success and if we don’t pay attention to that, it may harm our rapport. The University of Kansas recently had an article about the investment advisors put into their students, which has seen fantastic results and has gotten amazing feedback.
- Personal Mottos of Satisfaction. Additionally, student satisfaction needs to be core to our practice. Disney has a motto of being the Happiest Place on Earth. We want that our students have a positive response when they meet with us. While I served as an RA, I would look forward to the one-on-one meetings I had with my supervisor, because she always made me feel important, welcomed, and happy. She gave me her undivided attention, cared about important things in my life, and was a people pleaser. Those interactions with her contributed to my desire to pursue student affairs and help students.
- Strengths-based Practice. People need constructive criticism, but really feed off of their strengths and what they’re told they’re doing right. This positive reinforcement often brings continued positive behaviors. As professionals, we need to be very attentive to what the students are doing and be able to play off of those strengths and accomplishments even if we have to have a difficult conversation with them.
- AGAPE. This term refers to unconditionally love. We have to put students as humans first in every instance. George Zimmerman killing Trayvon Martin, or the police killing Michael Brown, are examples where the threat of behaviors associated with a certain racial identities overpowered the acknowledgement of them as humans. “Criminals” are people who have been criminalized for doing adverse or illegal behaviors. If we attack the people doing the actions, we can’t expect to rehabilitate them. If we’re addressing the actions and behaviors themselves, and see people as people, we can incorporate love (agape) into our daily practices. This is the same for students. Students will make mistakes and do things they shouldn’t. This may include vandalism, plagiarism, or sexual assault. While their actions are criminalized by the university, our conduct should still reflect their identity as human beings. If we don’t love them as people, anything is justifiable.
All of these are examples of ways to show students that, above anything else, we have them and their best interest in mind. If it weren’t for them, we wouldn’t have jobs, so it is important that we’re providing them with the most exceptional customer service that money can buy. This student-centered approach/support should be prioritized over anything else. Our number 1 priority is to our students, not the institution.
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