Treat Student Staff Like Rubber, Not Glass

I had the pleasure of spending my Friday at MA-NASPA, MCPA, and BACHA’s Entry Level Professionals Workshop at Fitchburg State this past week. In addition to the opportunity to catch up with colleagues from other schools and to present a session on harnessing office creativity through design thinking, I had the opportunity to see colleagues and friends present their ideas, and I’m so glad I did!

I am incredibly thankful to Mike Lynch for his thoughtful presentation on supervising student staff, a process I’m always seeking to learn more about. Knowing full well that student employee roles can fast turn into a mill to create junior administrative assistants (or worse, a paid space to do homework), I constantly look for ways to make the process more constructive.

Now, my crusade against the needless ubiquity of the short-sighted term “millennial” gave me understandable pause as Mike started his presentation, but I was pleased to see that my worries were directly managed by the structure of his presentation- informed by Managing the Millennials, a book by Chip Espinoza, Mick Ukleja, and Craig Rusch written specifically to turn the ugly stereotypes and assumptions about the millennial generation on their respective ears. So thank you, Mike- I needed this 🙂 Check out his slides here- slide game recognize slide game.

As I listened intently to what Mike shared, taking in comments and questions that presenters asked, I couldn’t help but think about the student staff that I work with each day. Some, in our office (including my own), work in a project-based capacity: there are certain ongoing tasks, hopefully associated with their major or areas of interest and developed competency, that guide the work they do. Others do do the work that supports our administrative professionals, providing an extra hand where needed. And still others never really seem to land on defined tasks of any sort- perhaps for their own reasons, but also possibly for ours.

Think for a moment: are there tasks in your office that are off-limits to students? Cash-handling, parent conversations, database access?

A follow-up question: why?

Legal issues like liability or confidentiality may be the answer in some cases, but in others…maybe we don’t know that we can trust them. Or we feel like they’re outside their level of competence or understanding.

Like Cary Grant in People Will Talk, I’ll continue to ask: why?

Of the nine perceived orientation traits that Espinoza, Ukleja, and Rusch identified (See Slide 11 above) and that Mike shared with the group, I feel like three inform our fear (yep, fear) of handing over control:

  • Self-Absorbed (leading to a need for attention);
  • Unfocused (leading to a tendency to multitask); and
  • Indifferent (leading to a search for meaning)

IMAGE CREDIT: Wikimedia

We worry that students will be too self-absorbed to care about the work they’re doing, too unfocused to carry the task through, or too indifferent to do work that doesn’t mean something to them. The result is students who are insulated from the challenges associated with meaningful and challenging work- not unlike how we pack glass ornaments in newspaper or tissue to protect them from the elements that could crush them.

But in a world now finding a need to impart lessons of resilience to its future leaders, I see an opportunity to do just that, in real time and in practice. To sum up the thesis of the article shared above:

We have raised a generation of young people who have not been given the opportunity to learn how to solve their own problems. They have not been given the opportunity to get into trouble and find their own way out, to experience failure and realize they can survive it, to be called bad names by others and learn how to respond without adult intervention. So now, here’s what we have. Young people,18 years and older, going to college still unable or unwilling to take responsibility for themselves, still feeling that if a problem arises they need an adult to solve it.

The question is: how can student employment help solve this issue?

In her latest book, Mindy Kaling alludes to the importance of associating work with a named “plague” of millennials – entitlement – to buffer the worrisome lack of resilience we see so often:

People talk about confidence without ever bringing up hard work. That’s a mistake. I know I sound like some dour older spinster chambermaid on Downton Abbey who has never felt a man’s touch and whose heart has turned to stone, but I don’t understand how you could have self-confidence if you don’t do the work.

So in Mindy’s estimation, and I’m inclined to listen to her, there are elements of resilience that are tied up in doing work. Not failure-proof, insulated, relatively impactless work- but real work. Work that solves problems. Work that serves others. Work that allows them to “bounce”, or find moments where they’re on the ground and have to find their way back up. Like rubber.

When I think about who on campus utilizes their student staff the best, I am drawn to two nontraditional areas- Facilities, and Information Technology. In both cases, I have found that work orders or troubleshooting requests are responded to not by full-time staff members, but by student staff. They are armed with the tools to solve problems, the resources required to answer questions, and (this part’s important), the rightfully placed confidence that their task is achievable. Implied in that last bit is something else essential to building resilience- an understanding that not all problems have simple solutions, and the resources to fill in knowledge gaps or procedural failures. They are encouraged to be attentive to the task at hand, oriented in the moment, and asked to interact with the beneficiary of their tasks.

Where can you allow students to “bounce,” rather than wrapping them so tightly that they can’t break?

  • Simulatory training: scenario-based training like Behind Closed Doors, skit development/response, or “Secret Shopper” experiences let you find the struggle in practice (rather than theory), and respond accordingly.
  • Prompt and detailed feedback: when you embark on initiatives like this, you will need to be timely and specific in your feedback- when performance is poor, but also when its effective. This will allow students to course correct in the moment, and get used to reviews of their experience.
  • Peer-led transition: while students may shy away from getting feedback and struggling with us, they may have an easier time hearing these things from friends, who will generally value them as individuals regardless. Create opportunities for students to train one another. This values the growth of the more experienced students, and eases the transition for the less experienced ones. Their friends and peers can help pick them up when they fall, in a manner that professionals may not be able to.

So, I am issuing a challenge to you: your students are made of rubber, not glass. Except in extremely rare cases. What are you going to do today, this week, this semester, to let them bounce?

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