The search for competence: it’s the framework I have used for this blog since its inception just over a year ago. The ongoing quest to be our best is a part of a career in student affairs. Through the simple search for competence we actually can become better and more confident in our work.When we become better we are more equipped to serve our students. The best student affairs professionals I know put students first, but they don’t sacrifice their own learning: they are deeply committed to ongoing professional engagement and development.
However, I believe that the majority of student affairs professionals do not focus on developing the entire set of skills and prefer often to focus on only a few at a time (and possibly only a few at all). I am convinced that our pursuit to be really good at one thing will ultimately be a downfall in modern-day student affairs work. We can’t afford for you to rock at advising when your understanding of legal issues is dismal. We can’t afford for you to be a great supervisor but have zero concern with assessment of your programs.
Student affairs is an ironic field: those who come into the field through a student affairs preparation program, are typically taught to be generalists but new professionals often go into functional area positions that are specialists such as residence life, advising, fraternity/sorority life, and career development. While our generalist skills might come in handy now and then, we default to what defines us as specialists: advising residents in your learning community, helping students schedule their classes, aiding leaders in managing complex organizations, and counseling students as they determine potential career paths. We focus so much on specific skills that those we don’t (or choose not to) use routinely just go by the wayside. The best athletes practice all parts of their game and work all parts of their bodies – therefore, shouldn’t the best student affairs professionals practice every part of ours?
Enhancing our competence in all areas of student affairs work requires an intention that many student affairs professionals lack: as we are so responsive to the demands of our students, we often forget to take the time to determine pathways for strengthening our competence and confidence in all the skills necessary to student affairs work. We are not bad professionals for this, in fact if the metrics that people around us care about is how accessible we are to students, then you might be perceived well; however, are you truly developing the competence you need to interact with all of those students? What skills would make you even better at serving your students?
Well-rounded student affairs professionals are important to our field. We have to create environments in which all staff are clear that expertise in an area is good but some level of understanding in all areas is expected.
At the University of Memphis, we have been intentional about creating a framework for ongoing professional development. All training sessions tie back to the ACPA/NASPA Professional Competency areas. Next week we will have our annual Spring Break Professional Development Challenge; participants are encouraged to take part in as many sessions as they can fit into their week (it is spring break) and each session addresses at least one of the 10 professional competencies. I love this week and almost 40 of our staff must also appreciate the opportunity because they have signed up for at least one training!
It’s our hope that this intention will help our staff realize what they know now, what they need to know, and how they can fill the gaps between what they are expected to do and their current skill set. To help others, I have highlighted those I find to be most engaged in their work and ongoing professional development in our weekly newsletter. We can all learn from examples and aspire to be like those who are the most focused on high levels of professional engagement and ongoing development.
We also have developed an individualized professional development plan, using the Competency areas, that can be used to help staff figure out how to accomplish their professional goals. The value of professional development has become an ethos here: coming down from our VPSA, through her AVPs and permeating the director/associate dean level.
Personally, I believe we can do even more! I’d love to see all staff be held accountable for demonstrating at least the basic level of the ACPA/NASPA Competency areas. What if we had to prove annually that we worked on one attribute within the basic level of each competency area? What if our work was evaluated on our demonstration of each competency level? It would require a high level of intentionality and we’d be laser focused on being the best we can be in order to make a difference in the lives of students. We have to be more intentional to become the well-rounded student affairs professional we are needed in modern day higher education.
What are your professional goals? What competencies do you need to work on to reach your goals? How would you rate yourself in each of the 10 Professional Competencies?