Learning Like a First-Year

By @TriciaSeifert

I went back to school this year. Not literally but figuratively. On July 1, I began a new job as Head of the Department of Education at Montana State University (#montanastate). Ten days later I was in front of a classroom of new first-year students during summer orientation, doing what department heads do. I welcomed the students to MSU. I congratulated them on the brilliant choice to become a bobcat (the MSU mascot). I shared that becoming a teacher provides them a chance to leave a positive impression on the future students whose lives they will touch. I also confessed that I felt just like they looked.

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Underneath my confident persona, I was scared. I don’t know what it means to be a department head. I’m not sure of my role. There are new acronyms every day; buildings that I’ve never stepped foot in; meetings that I’ve never been invited to. I’m facing situations never encountered and supervising a staff who two months ago helped me operate the copier. I’m a first-year student all over again.

So I shared my fear and trepidation with this group at orientation. I let them know that we will learn together. We will struggle together. We will make mistakes together. I’m part of the Class of 2016. (It seems much more logical to state the year one matriculates then graduates.)

And I also shared what I had learned in my brief time on the job.

Stated simply, there are amazing people on this campus (and yours too) who will drop everything to aid in their success.

Let me provide a couple of examples.

  1. When I didn’t know how to access the university’s secure computer network, I asked the department’s administrative associate. She painstakingly walked me through the multitude of pull down menus. This was helpful but I also searched “access secure network” from the university website and bookmarked the step-by-step instructions for connecting from my Mac.

When students don’t know how to access the institution’s Learning Management System or other technology platform, who do they go to? Is there an IT Help Desk somewhere centrally located? Are there step-by-step guides on the university website? Are these guides searchable using several different terms? Because let’s be honest, it’s possible (no, more like probable) that not all new students will know that D2L has been re-named Brightspace LE.

It’s helpful to have a person be a resource but it’s just important to develop our resourcefulness.

One more example . . . .

  1. In my first month, I hired several full-time staff members and navigated university policy and procedure for crafting letters of appointment for countless sessional instructors and Graduate Teaching Assistants. The College’s personnel officer has been patient and kind despite me asking the same question 100 times. I am grateful beyond words.

As I observed the personnel officer’s fortitude in answering my repeated questions, I was reminded of the patience and kindness that academic advisors, financial aid administrators, and folks in the Registrar’s Office show to students every year. With each new class, they answer the same question 1000 times. It’s probably why offices have developed Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) webpages. But beyond the technology, it’s the care and consideration shown to students through conversation that make the difference.

There is comfort in knowing that someone is there to help guide through the post-secondary process.

And at the end of the day, knowing that I don’t have to do it alone is what has mattered the most to me. As a new member of the “Department Head’s Roundtable,” I have met others from across campus who confront similar questions and face related challenges.

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There’s a reason why protagonists in novels rarely go it alone. Rather, they are part of a “merry band of brothers” or the “sisterhood of the traveling pants.” There is strength in numbers and comfort in community.

As we begin this new academic year, I invite you to share how you found the community from which you gain strength and what you are doing to assist students in finding theirs. Please leave a reply so that we can learn how people are creating community on campus.

If you want to be part of the ongoing conversation, “follow” us @CdnStdntSuccess and “like” the Supporting Student Success Facebook page. We look forward to hearing from you.

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So You Think You Can Write?

So you think you can write? I never thought the title would attract such a CACUSS (@cacusstweets) crowd! If someone told me that 50+ people would attend the session, I would have thought they were telling tales out of school. A HUGE thank you to those who came to the session, shared their writing ideas with a partner, asked great questions, and tweeted about developing a CACUSS Community of Practice to support those who are committed to telling the story about our work.

Below is a link to the slides I used which were updated from the ones Carney Strange developed for our first CACUSS presentation on this topic several years ago. The interest in getting a hold of this slide deck was a clear indication to me that people are hungry to write. They feel a need to share what we do with others in the field, with students, with faculty, with parents and community members.

So You Think You Can Write?  – CACUSS 2016

I find writing is a difficult thing to do in isolation. It’s so much better to write as part of a community. So in that spirit of community, leave a reply sharing your writing idea. Leave a reply stating the support you need to move from “wanting to write” to actually writing. Leave a reply to celebrate actually putting word to page.

Let this be the time where writing intentions translate into written articles. Let us fill the upcoming Communiqué with the excellent work of this field. I’m sure that Mitchell Miller (@McGillMitchell) would love to hear from you. My hope is that in ten years, no one laments,

“We simply don’t have the research or literature on that topic from the Canadian context.”

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Working Smarter not Harder: Communities of Practice and Organizational Learning

If there was ever a time in which higher education administrators were asked to work smarter and not harder, it is now. One need look no further than to the numerous examples of institutions involved in some form of prioritization planning process (PPP) to see that efficiency and accountability to institutional mission and mandate rule the day.

Postsecondary institutions are in the midst of substantial organizational change, in large part as a result of financial constraints. Administrators are looking for ways to serve more students (I’m unaware of any institution recruiting fewer students) and typically students with more diverse backgrounds (first generation students, international students, mature learners, Aboriginal students, students with disabilities) but often with a budget that isn’t any larger than the previous year.

How to support a more diverse student body in achieving their personal and academic goals on a reduced budget (whether that reduction is in real or proportionate terms) while doing so in a way that is efficient and aligns with the institutional mission and mandate. These are challenging questions and ones that the Supporting Student Success research team heard at a number of institutions during our site visits.

It’s interesting how postsecondary institutions and postsecondary professional associations face related challenges in terms of meeting needs and expectations in ways that are flexible and nimble. Like many colleges and universities in the Supporting Student Success study, the Canadian Association of College and University Student Services (CACUSS) is in the midst of organizational change. From six divisions affiliated under a broad umbrella, CACUSS is responding to member interests and needs through the organic development of Communities of Practice (CoPs).

Etienne Wenger and colleagues (2002) define CoPs as “groups of people who share a concern, a set of problems, or a passion about a topic, and who deepen their knowledge and expertise in this area by interacting on an ongoing basis” (p. 4). They can connect people, provide a shared context, enable dialogue, capture and diffuse existing knowledge, stimulate learning, and generate new knowledge (Cambridge, Kaplan & Suter, 2005).

I had the opportunity to facilitate a dialogue at #CACUSS2014 about CoPs and how they can be effective in both meeting members’ professional development needs and advancing CACUSS’ goals. Similar to postsecondary institutions where an issue like supporting student paraprofessionals spans across functional areas like orientation, residence life and health promotion (to name a few), interest in this and similar issues spans across CACUSS divisions. Rather than duplicate the conversation across multiple divisions, the CoP model allows members from across the association to find one another, share practices and develop resources that inform and advance one’s practice.

The Supporting Student Success team heard about the power of CoPs during phase 1 and 2 data collection. At one institution, a respondent shared about the value of bringing people from across the division together to discuss student leadership development. The perspectives varied and from learning together the staff were able to work efficiently and synergistically to strengthen the support they provided student leaders.

At another institution, we experienced the potential forming of a CoP as a result of the focus group. In this situation, focus group participants learned that they both were involved in developing peer mentoring programs but didn’t know of the other person’s work. At the end of the focus group, they exchanged information and set a time to meet to discuss developing joint training materials.

I’m a big advocate of finding ways to work smarter rather than harder. For me, this naturally means looking for opportunities to partner, collaborate, share resources, and look for synergies of what I’m doing with what others are doing. I see Communities of Practice as a means for community members to learn from one another in ways that inform and improve practice. From a higher education administrator perspective, CoPs may provide additional knowledge and ability to leverage resources to best support a more diverse student body. From a CACUSS member’s perspective, engaging in a CoP (or several CoPs) may allow one to seek professional development and contribute to the professional development of others along the multiple facets of one’s professional identity.

I think we are in for many more days of fiscal restraint. In the current political climate, the pressure toward efficiency and accountability is likely to grow stronger. This has implications for both higher education administrators and the professional associations that aim to meet the professional development needs of those administrators. As Cambridge, Kaplan and Suter note, CoPs have the potential to help people organize, introduce collaborative processes, share existing knowledge and generate new knowledge — all important aspects in today’s world.

I want to hear from you! Please share your experience as a member of a CoP in the comments section below.

By Tricia Seifert, Primary Investigator for Supporting Student Success research study.