As I think back on my recent conversations with senior student affairs officers at small colleges and universities about challenges and opportunities at their respective institutions, I left those encounters understanding how powerful and amazing things are happening at small places. In general, like many of us in student affairs, through the ebb and flow of each day, we find ourselves moving from issue to issue and handling a multiplicity of challenges. Nevertheless, through it all, these small colleges and universities have a unique and personal approach in positively shaping the experience for countless students.
Before I mention these unique qualities, I have to acknowledge the major headwinds that many student affairs officers shared that impacts their work at small institutions. Some leaders talked about budget cuts and how they have to do more with less resources. Others talked about the need to address diversity, equity and inclusion in more effective ways. A couple of key themes that came up in my conversations were handling student protests and their challenges navigating a diverse multi-generational workforce. However, the biggest and most common area of discussion was meeting the needs of students with mental health issues.
All of these challenges bring about a plethora of opportunities to which we can come together to figure out new ways to support our students and each other. I recall many of the student affairs officers sharing that the challenges are many, but small colleges and universities are equipped to respond positively and successfully. One leader stood out to me by saying that “small colleges are small, but mighty” because everyone knows everyone and the communities are strong. The officer shared that this sense of community makes it easier to navigate through challenges in ways that are not always possible in larger institutions. People tend to have a greater sense of belonging and understand that everyone’s contribution is critical to the overall success of the whole community – it feels like a close-knit family.
While my talks with these different leaders taught me the significance and power that small colleges and universities have in higher education, it also gave me opportunities to reflect on the space we occupy as student affairs professionals. We get to positively influence the student experience and witness their development into citizens who ultimately change the world. That is a big deal! After all, it is easy to focus on our challenges and lose sight of all the wonderful reasons why we do what we do.
The lesson from those interactions is to have a positive attitude in the midst of challenges but, more important, have an attitude of gratitude. Brian Tracy, author and motivational speaker, explains why gratitude is so important:
“Develop an attitude of gratitude, and give thanks for everything that happens to you, know that every step forward is a step toward achieving something bigger and better than your current situation.”
This is a powerful quote and one that helps me in tough times. During this season of gratitude, let us remember that we get to play a key role in changing the lives of our students. I hope that this serves as a friendly reminder to student affairs professionals at small colleges and universities (and beyond) that we are making a positive difference, and in doing so, we can always say, “We are small but mighty!”