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Cultivating a Culture of Professional Development

Womxn in Student Affairs
November 29, 2023 Dr. Wilmarie Rodríguez College of William and Mary

In reflecting on my own progression in higher education, I realized that professional development–an institutional commitment to it, an individual belief in it, and a willingness to devote time to it–paved the way at every turn. But there was a whole series of circumstances put into place long before I even entered the picture that ultimately led to me not only falling in love with student affairs but choosing to build my career here.

The pathway that ultimately led me to the position I hold today opened with a leap of faith–not by me, but by my first supervisor in student affairs. She saw something in me that told her she wanted me on her team and had the boldness to learn about the person behind the professional first. She knew her mentorship and guidance could help me develop the skills I would need to flourish on her team, and she had the clarity to identify core values and traits that can’t be taught and choose to pursue those. This made her an exceptional leader with an exceptional ability to gather the kind of talent you can’t teach and fill in any functional gaps with professional development.

However, her comfort in making this decision rested on the knowledge that she could provide professional development. She knew she was part of an institution that values both growing professionals and learning from them, so the idea of bolstering team members’ experiences with targeted training was nothing radical. These experiences taught me the importance of finding and supporting an institutional culture that is dedicated to professional development. So, how can we begin to convince those around us that such a culture is a worthwhile goal to pursue?

It starts with recognizing that instant gratification is not the sole measure of a successful program or goal. Being part of creating such a professional development culture requires a level of selflessness that recognizes today’s work can lead to improvements years down the road. When we strive to alter programs or increase performance, we are often eager to see the results of our work in a measurable form. However, those individuals involved in the very first steps in creating a culture that celebrates professional development may not see the fruits of their efforts while they are at their current institutions or, possibly, even still in their working years. We are all part of teams, departments, institutions, and fields greater than us; it’s okay–even vital–for us to work on changes and programs that will ultimately benefit these larger structures, even if we are no longer involved with them in the same way. 

In both my work on my research and my career, I have had the opportunity to research and reflect on what makes professional development so important. On an individual level, professional development helps us become well-rounded, honing strengths and bolstering weaknesses so we can complete our work as effectively as possible. With trends, needs, and challenges changing and evolving so rapidly in our modern world, professional development also provides us the opportunity to learn how the world around us is transforming and how we can best serve those trying to learn what it means to be a part of that world. Without this work, we may weaken or lose our ability to connect to others, the colleagues with whom we work and the students whom we serve alike.

On an institutional level, professional development is a tool for creating and defining your legacy. Professionals who feel well-supported and cared for during their time at an institution are more likely to speak of it favorably, even after they may have left or moved on to other opportunities. They may even choose to return to an institution where they were given the tools and opportunities to learn, grow, dream, and thrive later in their career, as was my own experience. On the other hand, an employee who had a bad experience–especially toward the end of their relationship with an institution–is much more likely to remember and talk about their experience in a negative light. We tend to trust the impressions of those with personal experience more than we trust materials and marketing created by the source in question. This means a large portion of an institution’s brand is out of its control; it is decided by the people who work within, learn within, live beside, or otherwise tangentially interact with it. Institutions may not have complete control over their brands, but providing programs and initiatives that are more likely to help students, staff, families, and donors remember meaningful and numerous positive aspects of their experience will go a long way in solidifying a positive legacy.

Finally, on an overarching level, professional development today helps form and develop the leaders who will, in the future, guide the field through inevitable changes, adjustments, and challenges. Being willing to invest in these professionals will create the foundation of retention efforts needed to keep their skills, expertise, and knowledge in the field at a time when so many are choosing to leave. Moreover, the investments we make today in time, funds, and effort help ensure we will have professionals trained in assessing student needs, thinking critically and equitably, and developing the programs and offerings future students will need to find their place not only in our institutions but in the world.

It’s easy for us to think about the impact of professional development opportunities in too limited a scope. Thinking about my own experience, I realized how critical a macro-level acceptance of and commitment to professional development has been to my own story, sometimes in ways that weren’t immediately clear to me even as they were happening.

Leaders, everything in this world is interconnected. Now is the time, and we are the people who will set the groundwork for the future of this field. We have been given the responsibility to develop and take care of the professionals entrusted to us. We must decide through our actions and the causes we choose to support what student affairs will look like five, ten, and even twenty years from now. Most of us entered the field of student affairs starry-eyed and ambitious, ready to take the world by storm and create the change we so clearly see needs to be made. Time and reality tend to temper those ambitions as reality and dreams find themselves in conflict. Dreams can be amended, but they should never be lost. Remember the dreams you had when you chose to dedicate your career to this field; the professionals you are welcoming to your institutions and to student affairs today likely come with similar dreams and ambitions. Help them see and believe their dreams are not only worthwhile but attainable. To do this, you need to be willing to dream, too. A shared dream can become reality more quickly than we might realize, so be willing and ready to listen, support, fight for your people and values, and never lose sight of the spark that excited you enough to draw you to this field in the first place. But most importantly, remember your journey started with the help of an array of individuals who believed in the investment of YOU!

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Dr. Wilmarie Rodríguez (she/her/ella) is currently the Senior Associate Dean of Students & Executive Director for Student Success at William & Mary. Dr. Rodríguez holds a doctorate in educational policy, planning, and leadership, specializing in higher education administration from William & Mary. Her research focuses on the retention of student affairs professionals and the implementation of program changes to support retention efforts.