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Reflections from a Student Affairs Professional

Region IV-W
May 6, 2020 Peter Smithhisler Valley City State University

Reflections from a Student Affairs Professional

In Quarantine with His Family in Spring 2020

Who Misses the Daily Habit of Going to His Campus Office 


Have you ever seen the 2013 movie The Way Way Back?  I recently watched the film with my family during quarantine.  There is a lot to unpack in this coming of age comedy-drama, especially for us student affairs professionals. Admittedly, I love this movie. I have seen it many times and discover something new each time I watch it.  Here are some of my take-aways specific to all of us in higher education:

THE POWER OF MENTORING – the film’s lead character, Duncan, experiences a transformational summer when Owen takes him under his wing and becomes his mentor.  Duncan’s confidence and personality blossom as a result of connection, understanding, and a whole lot of care.  It is clear at the end of the film that Duncan will forever be better because Owen invested in him. 

Each of us likely has a story about how mentoring changed our trajectory, both as individuals and professionals.  Mine harkens back to my own Dean of Students Nell Glynn Koester.  She was always there for me with a challenge to do more or be better, a note of congratulations or encouraging words, and a genuine smile meant to say, “I believe in you.” Nell is the reason that I chose Higher Education as a career.  It was one brief, but powerful moment of reflection created by Nell, that eventually lead me to this career.

Mentoring is a long-term investment in someone.  We know this.  For me, it is that enduring commitment that distinguishes mentoring from other forms of advising/coaching.  We build mentoring relationships using trust, empathy, commitment, and mutual benefit to ignite all that is beautiful within someone. Each mentoring relationship grows in its own organic way that is based in the needs of the moment, the serendipity of time and space, and character of the people in the relationship.

When asked to reflect on the most significant parts of my tenure in higher education, it is easy for me to point to specific mentoring relationships as crucible moments that define my “why.”  Whether that was with a student, a colleague, a fellow board member, or volunteer, it was all based on the opportunity to use my skills, passion, heart, and influence to create meaning and opportunity for someone that I cared deeply about.  Just as Nel did for me, I can do for others.

AFFIRMATION MATTERS – All the characters in The Way Way Back have a complexity that compels the viewer to really pay attention.  From the lead characters to the supporting cast, there’s something unique or awkward or maddening or wonderful about each of them.  And each of them has a moment of awakening that brings the viewer closer, creating empathy and connection.   Ultimately, they’re looking to be affirmed for who they are.  They find that affirmation from family, friends, lovers, and mentors in their own ways throughout their individual journeys.

How often are we each in the position to affirm the value and completeness of our students, colleagues, and family?  Just as importantly, in what ways are we seeking affirmation from those same groups of people?  Especially in this time of quarantine, we need that support and encouragement.  We need to know we matter.  Some of us crave the touch of other humans.   Some of us need experiences that make us feel…whether it is joy or frustration, compassion or connection.  All of us need to be affirmed regularly.  Make sure affirmation is part of your personal and professional practice.

COURAGE COMES IN MANY FORMS – Duncan courageously finds his voice.  It is a moment that makes the viewer want to cheer in support and encouragement.  For Duncan’s mom, her moment of courage is when she acknowledges her own value.  For Owen, it’s the courage of vulnerability, openness, and commitment.  There are many moments of courage throughout the movie.

It makes me think of all the acts of courage that occur in the lives of our students, colleagues, friends, family, and leaders.  Do we spend enough time encouraging courage?  Do we spend time in moments of reflection about our own acts of courage?

Big or small, every act of courage creates a ripple effect and encourages others to dig deep and find the courage within themselves.  This is very much present throughout The Way Way Back.

DON’T DIE WONDERING – this is a mantra spoken by several characters throughout the movie but becomes pivotal to the ending.  I’ve tried hard not to create any spoilers for those that haven’t seen The Way Way Back, so suffice it to say, Duncan makes a decision based on this mantra and provides the viewer with a wonderful sense of hope and destiny.

I’m not sure how I personally feel about the phrase, but what I do take away from the sentiment is that we should be fully present, seize moments of joy and exploration, encourage growth and discovery, and enjoy life as it comes.