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Be Like Mr. Rogers: How Student Affairs Professionals Can Learn from the Life of Fred Rogers

Small Colleges and Universities Division
October 1, 2018 Peter Smithhisler Valley City State University

The movie Won’t You Be My Neighbor?chronicled the life, lessons, and legacy of Fred Rogers and his iconic children’s television show. Released in summer 2018, the movie explored various aspects of Mr. Rogers’ character, passion, and impact on society.  With a little self-reflection, the movie also provides insights for student affairs professionals about why and how we do our work.   

Let Passion Guide You– Mr. Rogers always knew he wanted to work with children. His career was born from that passion.  Passion guided his work and ultimately helped influence the lives of many, especially children, thus fulfilling his mission and vision. Many of us come to the student affairs profession because of our desire to create an environment where students can learn, grow, thrive, and positively influence the world.  Never lose sight of the passion that brought you to this work.  Let that passion guide your decisions about how you do your work.  And allow that passion to refuel you when your energy wanes or when you might question the impact of your work.  Mr. Rogers felt “called” to do his work.  Many of us feel the same.  That calling compels us to be our best self and to focus our work on the students we influence.

The Neighborhood is Big Enough– Mr. Rogers created a neighborhood that was inclusive, creative, positive, educational, and intentional.  He made space in the neighborhood for all to feel welcome. He challenged norms.  He encouraged awareness and growth.  He “lived” in the neighborhood.  We must do the same by creating environments that encourage the same lessons for our community.  Each of us must “live” in our community and be part of it.   Create space that encourages growth.  Use creative teaching methods to enhance our living communities.    Don’t shy away from the difficult learning moments.  Lean in and facilitate learning.

Speak Up. Speak Out. Be Kind.– Mr. Rogers learned to be an advocate.  Mr. Rogers used his influence to accelerate change.  Mr. Rogers was gentle and kind, never raising his voice or shouting at the world.  We can learn from Mr. Rogers and emulate his style and compassion.  Be direct in communication, while being sensitive with words and tone.  Speak your truth, while listening for other’s truth.  Allow yourself to feel and feel deeply, however, never use feelings as a reason to lash out. Practice.  

Appreciate Silence– Watch any episode of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood and you’ll witness how he used silence to facilitate/encourage learning and growth.  He did not fill the void, instead he allowed us the space to think, reflect, and respond in our own time.  It is in the silence that the self-exploration and learning occurs.  That “silence” is created in many ways.  It can be incorporated through the intentional use of self-reflection in programming.  It occurs when we allow others the opportunity to answer a question we’ve posed, versus continuing to pepper them with our thoughts and new prompts. Silence can be uncomfortable and awkward.  That’s okay. Embrace it.

Take Care of Yourself– Through daily swimming sessions, prayer and meditation, attention to diet, and making time for his family, Fred Rogers gave attention to his well-being and health.  Because of long hours, demanding schedules, and our compassionate outreach to others, student affairs professionals often sacrifice their own well-being and health.  Be intentional about carving out time for self-care.  Allow others to learn healthy habits by witnessing yours. Love yourself as much as you love others.

There are countless other lessons that student affairs professionals can learn from Fred Rogers. How is today’s society different because Fred Rogers lived?  How would today’s society respond to Mr. Rogers’ low tech, sensitive style?  Can we build a neighborhood like Mr. Rogers did? I like to think that each of us does in similar ways through our daily work and our ever-growing relationships. None of us are Fred Rogers, however, all of us can learn from Fred Rogers.

Peter Smithhisler has served as Vice President for Student Affairs at Valley City State University in Valley City, North Dakota since 2016.