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Understanding My New Normal with the Help of a Five-Year-Old

Small Colleges and Universities Division
November 9, 2018 Jesse L. Grant, Ph.D.

For those of you who know me, one of the things that I am most proud of is being an uncle. I have 10 nieces and nephews, and I am pleased to have been the person who has helped seven of them traverse through higher education to degree completion. For this blog post, I will merge my role as an uncle and a conversation that I had with two of my nieces over the past two weeks.

Allow me to set the background for you. My youngest niece's name is Emerald. She is five years old. You cannot convince me that she has not been here before in the human form. The conversations I have with Emerald always astound me. Most recently, we were having a conversation with her sister who is a college sophomore. Emerald asked me, "Uncle Jesse, what is your new normal?" I then asked her what do you mean by new normal? She positioned herself looked at me square in the eye and said, "What are the things that are different, but still the same for you? You know, your new normal.” Then she asked me, "How are you handling them?”

As I looked at her in disbelief, I still was not sure what she meant. When I sat back and looked at the computer screen (yes, this was a FaceTime conversation), I was in awe. Before I knew it, I was explaining to her all of the things that I had new this semester. That being two more professionals to supervise, the complete charge of university retention program, chairing a search for an executive-level position, more emphasis on town-gown relations in addition to some personal accomplishments I was in the process of achieving. As I went through my list and looked at her, she understood what I was saying. As I always do, I turned the question back to her and asked, "Emerald, now, what is your new normal?” She began to share with me all of the activities she was involved in such as cheerleading, church youth choir, and her karate class.  I then began to answer her second question explaining how I was handling the things in my new normal as if I were in my one-on-one meeting with my supervisor. I explained my plans articulating them and thinking about my institution's priorities, strategic plan, master academic plan, and the up-and-coming facilities plan.  I was thinking about how these plans impacted one another and what my role was in ensuring all objectives were met.

For a brief moment, I forgot I was having a conversation with a five-year-old. Emerald looked at me and said, "Good job Uncle Jesse," much like my supervisor would.  Emerald then asked her sister Kimiera what her normal was. Kimiera began to talk about her new classes this semester and how she was halfway through them and was having difficulty in one of them, then discussing whether or not she should get a tutor. Believe it or not, the five-year-old looked at her and said, "you better!" Now for those of you who know me, that is something that I would say to a student. Am I in the process of making a future student affairs professional at five? Well, I started at seven, so I don't see this to be an issue. As I thought about the conversation, I thought about the number of transitions that have happened ever since I stepped into this associate vice president role. For example, I had a new place on the president's cabinet, I was being called upon for more consultation around university issues, and I was seeing the art and science of higher education as my doctoral advisor, Andrea Beach, would say.  I also thought about executive presence and would that meant and how it greatly impacted my leadership style. As Emerald, Kimiera, and myself ended that FaceTime conversation, I thought, “did I just have an executive coaching session led by a five-year-old.?” I then began to think about the conversations I have with those I supervise. I thought about self-care, and leveraging social and political capital in my current context and how I wanted that to grow in their roles as directors and coordinators.

For those of us who are employed at small colleges and universities, our "new normal" changes just about every day does it not?  We are asked to do more with less, and somehow we can manage to make the outcome even better. Let me ask you a few questions: What is your new normal? What are the things that are new yet still the same (your new normal)?  And how are you handling them?  How are you working through the changes you have set before you this semester or quarter? How has your leadership style been impacted by this, along with the goals you have set for yourself personally and professionally?

I encourage you to think about the above questions within your institutional context.  I also want you to think about self-care, social/political capital and how it can be leveraged in your current position. While not all of you have a five-year-old executive coach as I do, you do have colleagues and people in your network with whom you can have these types of conversations and improve your professional practice. I encourage you to reach out to your colleagues and begin to examine your new normal and your plan to address it effectively.

Dr. Jesse Grant currently serves as Associate Vice President for Student Life and Success at Bemidji State University in Bemidji, Minnesota.  He has been there since 2017.