Tuesday, February 24, 2015

I hang out with college kids for a living

Two weeks ago I was talking to my boss (he's great, this isn't about him). We were talking about changes to a seminar we run together for all first year students. It's nothing new in higher ed, but it is becoming seemingly more difficult to find a curriculum that lands with students. We were chatting, going back and forth, when I made a comment about getting older and how it's going to keep getting harder to identify with students and for students to identify with me.

I said it very casually and off the cuff, but I haven't stopped thinking about it since.

Some background:

The title of this post, "I hang out with college kids for a living" is exactly how I used to describe my job to friends and family. (Filling this out on tax forms is also very strange.) In all honestly, that's why I got into higher education. As an over-involved college student I was good at connecting with my peers and helping people get what they needed out of a team/event/experience/class etc.

Law school plans were out. Higher Ed was in. I wanted to be an orientation leader for the rest of my life. I wanted to feel those connections and see the look of relief in a parent or a students eyes every time I got to answer their questions. It's an incredibly selfish aspect of the call to service. I wanted to help people during this trying and confusing time, but I wanted to do it more because I was good at it and because it made me feel good to make them feel good. Still, it was easy and I didn't have to work too hard to do it well.

That's not a humble brag, it's actually a pretty damning self reflection on the first few years of my career:
I relied much more on my personality and ability to connect with people than I did on my work ethic or knowledge of the subject matter. I made people feel welcomed and valued, but I didn't have to do much in order to make that happen.

I should have.
Who would trust a guy who shaved his head in the hallway, only wore free shirts, had that goatee (look close), wore any rubber-band he found on the ground? Everyone. That's who. Everyone trusted me. Isn't Nickel adorable, by the way?

That's how it went for a long time. Too long. I spent almost six years at Newbury College. I made some great friends, great connections and helped a lot of students by merely being there for them. There were some students who inspired me and I stepped up for them, but in general I phoned it in and relied on people liking me to get the job done. My half ass was often more noticeable than others' full ass, so I got by pretty well, often with praise I craved, but I know I didn't deserve.

The move to SUNY Geneseo changed that. I was learning new things. I was pushed to make a plan for my future. The initial question I was asked by my boss during our first meeting was,
What do you want to get out of this job and where do you want to be in five years?
I eventually got thick glasses and started to part my hair on the side to prove it.
Skinny tie helped.
I answered that I wanted to be a director again. At the time I had no idea what that meant. I think I wanted to be in charge for the sake of the praise and the autonomy my ego needed. Still, in spite of myself, I started to accomplish the things I didn't know I wanted. I still relied on connecting with students, but I used that to make my program better, not to make me look better. I got better. Far from perfect, but I got better.

Fast forward to now, my time here at Nazareth College. I still feel a connection with many of my students. I love working with first years and teaching that class because I still believe I have something to offer the students. I'm 14 years older than most of them, but I can still identify the points of reference they need to connect with or the missing link they're searching for.

When I mentioned connecting and identifying with our students to my boss I originally thought it was just getting older. I mean, I am. That's the truth, but the more I thought of it, it wasn't the reason. I started to ask why. I've spent a lot of (enough of) my life dissecting old terrible decision and accepting others for theirs, hopefully we all have (we haven't). In light of this, I don't know if I've ever critically thought about my personal connection to my work outside of: I'm good with people and I'm good with college students.

I hope I am, I mean I think I am. I think those things are true, but it's different now. When I took my new job almost a year ago, I gave up a caseload of 72 students. One-on-one academic counselling connections that filled up my schedule along with about 120 peer tutors, a summer welcome team, and a committee for advising the tutors. I was worried I was going to miss the connection, so I was excited to teach my first year courses. I'm glad I did. My students still say they like me and they can relate to me and it still makes me happy, but, if it makes sense, I don't care anymore. I care that they're happy and successful. If making real connections with them leads to that: bonus! The difference is I used to need them to like me. I used to want so badly to be the cool guy everyone could count on, at work and in my real life. In some ways I was (I just deleted a diatribe about what it means to be cool), but it was shallow and in many ways superficial.

Sad Keanu is just thinking about life man.
Life and sandwiches.
Things are different now. What, at first, was a scary notion that I wasn't going to be relevant or connected for my students anymore turned into a serious bit of self reflection and realization. Again, this is funny because I encourage my students to do this stuff all the time, yet here we are, life epiphanies coming from heeding my own advice to others. Having my students feel connected to me helps me do my job, but I no longer need it. I'm good at my job, or I'm at least trying to be good at my job, because of the work I put into it. I try to look at my programs from what the students need, even if they don't know it. I can't look at my programs from the lense of what I needed when I was their age any longer. I had no idea what I needed when I was that age.

So what does this all mean and how does it help any of us. Well I don't know if it does. It helps me. It helps me a lot actually. I know I have felt like I was doing good work at Naz since I got here, but I guess I know what that means a little more now. My work isn't for the praise or my advancement, like it had been for so much of my adult life, it's for the students. They don't need to need me, but I know they need the programs I'm offering; even if they don't. They don't need my help because it's me, they need my help because the programs I'm running are designed to benefit them and make their college life better. This is what's going to to lead to the praise and advancement I still crave. I've decided it's okay to want something, but needing something can really mess a guy up when it's not really needed at all. No more of that. I work hard because I like working hard. I'm good at my job because of that hard work.

We all need to grow and adapt through life. It's the most obvious thing in the world, so why is it so hard to do? We jump to point out when others are making choices based on settling and comfort, but we're blind when we're doing it ourselves. There is nothing wrong with getting comfortable as long as you know things are bound to change and you are ready for that. It's going to happen soon and it will always happen. We need to keep pushing, we need to keep learning, we need to keep reflecting and asking why. We can do it in our jammies or on our couch with a beer and friends, but we need to do it.

When you ask me what I do now, I still don't know how to answer, but it's something more straight forward.

I'm a dad, that's pretty great. In my downtime I'm the director of a student support center.

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