Tradition as an Excuse: Beyond Meetings

I must admit: this book was not what I expected it to be. For some reason I cannot explain, the title, Beyond Meetings, gave me the impression I would be learning how to navigate deep, intimate conversations with students outside of a formal meeting. While there are bits of this interspersed within the book, I was surprised to find the majority of it was related to advising for programmatic success (I suppose reading subtitles is important). Moreover on my mistakes: on page 8, before the book actually starts, there is a disclaimer that “reading this book from beginning to end is probably not going to be as valuable as looking at the Table of Contents and skipping ahead to the chapters that are most relevant to your current situation.” I did not read page 8 until I had done exactly what I was (supposed to be) warned about.

Regardless of my titular misconceptions and eagerness to get into the bulk of the book, I found this collection of stories to be supportive and reassuring, yet of little practical help. I truthfully have difficulty recalling any specific story or experience any of the contributors describe in the book, but I do recall how reading the stories made me feel inspired to maintain resilience in challenging and trying times. It was comforting to read about the honest difficulties other professionals struggle with and to recognize how commonplace they must be in our field in order to be published in a book. However, the vast majority of this book felt inapplicable to me—challenges might be similar between institutions, but no two sets of student organizations, advisor dynamics, or institutional parameters are exactly like.

However, I did find one story to be eye-opening; it begins on page 112. Annalise Sinclair began her role as a Greek Life programs advisor, a role I feel is similar to mine. She talks about how her first team of students was small, had limited institutional knowledge, and was too familiar with the phrase “that is the way it has always been done” when it came to planning events.  Her experience was that tradition, while valuable, was being used as an excuse to “keep to doing what is safe and what is comfortable.” I relate strongly.

Annalise’s solution was to encourage her students to think about programs differently in all respects. She began to see the successes, products, and even failures of innovation and creativity on her campus unfold in regards to campus programs and activities. She acknowledges the fear of risk and failure associated with deviating from tradition, but ultimately reflects on her experiences with gratitude and confidence.

In my current role, I struggle a lot with breaking away from the familiar and comfortable. It could be a number of factors: my limited time here, a team stuck in its ways, the culture of our town/institution, or programmatic learned helplessness. However, I am encouraged by this section in the book to continue working towards programs and solutions that are innovative and carry the ability to leave an impact on this campus. While I doubt Annalise’s experience can be directly applied to my situation, I am nonetheless inspired and reassured by her victories.


Lifelong Learning

Sonja Ardoin’s The Strategic Guide to Shaping Your Student Affairs Career

Chapter four is all about lifelong learning, which one of the contributors, Mat, describes as “capitalizing on opportunities and responding to the unexpected, even when it is extremely harsh, to create something positive.”

I reflect on this section of the book, specifically Mat’s anecdote, as I consider what committing to the process of lifelong learning looks like in my personal life and field. This season has been educationally atypical for me; though I worked full-time while in school, I temporarily have lost out on an 18-year-long routine of formal learning. It’s uncomfortable. Moreover, it can be tempting to convince myself I am not actually learning. But this section of the book helped reframe my perspective on what it means to be a learner.

Mat goes over three essential aspects of lifelong learning: risk, failure, and accepting help from others.

I have never been known to take risks; I am actually notorious for quite the opposite. My aversion to failure (more on that later) is plenty enough to scare me off from an opportunity associated with even minimal degrees of risk. But one note I highlighted in the book was that accepting risk does not equate to taking unnecessary risks—rather, accepting risk is doing everything reasonable one can do to ensure success. I was grateful to read this section because it encouraged me to acknowledge the ways I accepted the risk of coming to Adams and how it continues to pay off. I have had a longstanding love/hate relationship with my calculated approach to decision-making, but I think recognizing the acceptance of risk requires thorough preparation makes me love both my leadership and self just a bit more.

“Failure is an acceptable outcome.” It’s easy to say, especially to someone else, but not so easy to believe when it comes to my own performance. I’ve been conditioned to be averse to failure– I don’t fear failure as much as I hate the feeling of it. I grew up the youngest of four children in a Chinese-American home. My Dad was a pastor before eventually earning his third advanced degree and becoming an associate dean at a university. My Mom was my grade school’s foundation and PTA president. I recognize I was born and raised in omnipresent social pressure; if I did not feel enough pressure from my Church, teachers, and principals, my parents and siblings were there to finish the job. However, this section of Mat’s anecdote once again reframed my perspective. As an outdoor programs specialist, he writes there is a significant difference between someone being too lazy to make it to the summit of a hike and someone not making it to the top because he/she has been severely injured. While the outcomes are the same, they are caused by two very different factors. The point is to acknowledge that I might miss the success mark sometimes, but I have to evaluate whether I did everything I could to achieve it. We can’t control it all; failure exists within the process– not the outcome.

And lastly, accepting help from others is essential. I have a lot of room to grow in this one. While deep and intimate relationships are core to my being, I admit asking for help often feels impossible. My parents taught me to always serve others and to never be served. In ending this section, I rediscovered gratitude for the relationships I have, in which people break past the walls I setup to (try to) protect myself. I don’t think accepting help requires becoming a desperate case– but I think I can stop making it so difficult for others and myself when it comes to working together.

Note to self: learn to embrace risks, reconcile failure, & accept help.