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Five things early-career professionals can do as they transition to an SCU

Small Colleges and Universities Division
June 16, 2017 Todd Porter The Juilliard School

Within the next month, most of our institutions will be rolling into a new fiscal year and many new professionals will be starting new roles at institutions of all kinds. Many of these professionals may have just graduated from masters programs at larger schools and have made the transition to a small colleges or universities. To them I say, “Congratulations! You are about ready to embark on an amazing journey.” For people who have never worked at a small college before, you need to know this: it will be very different from what you have known, and that’s amazing.   Small Colleges and Universities operate in very different structures and have different capacities than our larger counterparts in a way that will mold you into an incredibly unique professional.

So, to those of you taking the leap and starting your new position, here are five things you can do to ensure that you are wonderfully successful as you move into this role and institutional type:

  • Culture, culture, culture.  Culture is everything at small institutions. Large institutions have their own culture and identity too, absolutely.  But if you think about the marketing strategy of many small campuses, it is not just about academics or prestige.  No, it is about community and how the culture of that campus shapes a community where students belong.  One school I worked at prided itself on having students’ voices just as important in the decision-making process as any one else on campus.  Did this create challenges for me as an administrator? Absolutely. It took me a long time to learn on that campus that the culture was centered around the student voice and that always needed to be the starting point. Learn what the driving mechanisms are on your campus.  Who do you need to know to get stuff done? How do the programs fit into the institutional mission?
  • Live for yourself. As my friend Laura put it, “if you are not living for yourself, you are not living for your campus.”  If you transition into a job and your job is consuming your life to the point where you are not feeling content, that’s not okay.  You need to be finding ways to connect to the community outside of your job.  Join a sports league, make non-higher education friends, volunteer for a local non-profit, whatever you can do to not be consumed by your work, because it will if you let it.  This is particularly true if your job requires you to live on campus.
  • Don’t expect a full and comprehensive training.  When I started my job as residence director at a larger university, we had basically a month of training for all-levels of staff to learn how to do their jobs.  When I made the transition to a small school, we had two days of training, now that I am at an even smaller school, the training is much more on-the-go learning for entry-level staff. At SCUs, there are often not only might your supervisor not have the time to spend weeks training you, but also our institutions are ones where we often mold policies and protocols to the needs of students, and they are a bit ever changing.  I tell my staff that we are often “building the car as we are driving it,” meaning that there are constantly evolving processes, policies, and protocols that we are shaping as we go.  You were hired because you are smart and can be adaptable to these situations.  Extensive training is not always the best use of our time, but your ability to be adaptable will help you navigate these obstacles.
  • Ask (the right) questions. At many small schools, we tend to have done things the same way for x number of years, and occasionally do not always fit into standard best practice (even though it may be the best practice for the school).  It is okay to ask why.  We want you to come in and ask what the institutional history is for why things are they way they are.  Additionally we want you ask questions about things that may have been overlooked.  It is okay to be critical of the practices.  Just make sure it doesn’t cross over into judgment. 
  • Get to know as many students on an individual basis as possible. Many students choose smaller schools because they want to be seen, they want to have a close-knit community, or maybe have some experiences where they have trouble interacting or acclimating to larger environments.  Getting to know as many students as possible is a major benefit of working at an SCU. Don’t forget that students are a valuable resource and want to be engaged with you, especially at a small school.

We know that you will be amazing as you begin your new journey.  Small schools have an amazing capacity to shape you as a professional in multiple different ways. Always use the NASPA Small College and University Division as a resource and contact us if there are ways we can make your professional journey better. 

Todd Porter has served as Director of Residence Life at The Juilliard School in New York City since 2014.  He serves as Social Media and Website Coordinator for the NASPA Small College and University Division. Have an idea for a blog posting? Contact him at [email protected]