From the West Coast to the Midwest—Lessons Learned from Two Very Different Institutions

Barbara Avery, Ed.D., Vice Chancellor for Campus Inclusion and Student Life, University of Michigan-Flint

October 27, 2017

Transitioning from a more than 120-year-old liberal arts residential college in California to a Midwest regional comprehensive university of 60 years entailed a paradigm shift even for an experienced student affairs administrator.  One is not better than the other, just different.  Such differences may be seen in curriculum, policy, student life, practice and processes, and terminology as in “Regents” vs. “Trustees”.  Appreciating differences alone, however, fails to complete the picture.  A broader understanding of history and culture is essential for benefiting from the learning opportunities.

It was not an easy decision to leave an institution I had worked at for 10 years.  I knew the institution, understood the culture, and did good work.  With no pretense of modesty, I had the best staff.  I took time to build the team, but what a team!  Moreover, the students were phenomenal.  They questioned, tested, and challenged us.  Many of the questions they asked and issues they raised were legitimate.  Often we had to come to a compromise, if one existed.  I have always said higher education changed because students demanded it.

My liberal arts residential students were traditional-aged, diverse, politically liberal, and activists.  If there was discord in any community, whether locally or nationally, there would be discord on campus.  Students had the opportunity on this dynamic campus to interact with a diversity many had not previously experienced.  We, in Student Affairs, watched them figure out where they fit into this environment.  Some quickly got involved with an issue for which they lacked a full understanding of its scope.  Though many subsequently remained with the issue that initially caught their attention, others eventually found their true passion typically by the junior year.  This was after finalizing their course of study, traveling abroad, becoming engaged on campus and in the local community, broadening their circle of friends, and solidifying what was really important to them.

We were constantly on guard, ears to the ground, waiting to address any concern raised by students.  It was impressive that a campus with so much “energy” around so many unexpected issues could routinely come together to support students.  Few students ever got lost or fell between the cracks as the campus was small enough to afford personalized attention for all.  Student Affairs’ administrators were able to hear about individual students generally from faculty, other administrators, and even students in order to address each student’s concern.  Though the college had good retention as a residential institution, we nonetheless raised the retention rate through collaborative partnering with faculty and other administrators across the campus.  Staff in the division, though challenged, stayed focused on the success of students.

Every institution has its own culture, way of working.  I have been at my current university almost two years.  The impact of a region on an institution had never crossed my mind.  All of my professional experience in higher education had been in California.  Many of my new friends and colleagues in Michigan have since reminded me that the West Coast is not like any other place in the country.

Reminiscent of those aforementioned students who sometimes didn’t know what they didn’t know when embracing an issue or a cause, I foolishly made assumptions about the way things should be.  I had not worked at a university where the majority of staff in student affairs and across the campus were longtime employees with extreme loyalty to the university and each other.  This was a new phenomenon for me.   As recently described to me, it’s like walking into a family reunion or a small village.  It was also obvious new people had to prove themselves and understand the “way it’s always been done.”  People were welcoming, yet curious and questioning.  The challenge was to quickly move forward with a student-centered agenda mindful that some harbored suspicions of the carpetbagger or outsider.  

Many, though loyal to the university, had not actually worked closely with other departments—be it in- or outside the division.  “Silos” took on new meaning for me.  Established ways of working had continued for many years.  Why change?  I pulled several directors together, and swiftly realized it made sense to understand the work others were doing.  All agreed, it was important students remain at the center of the work.  Additionally, I immediately grasped administrators and faculty wanted to be asked their opinions.  Faculty and administrators wished to be part of the change that would affect how they supported and interacted with each other and the students.

Let’s be clear.  I have had to do some form of this at other institutions, but those universities were more used to change.  Though relatively hard, it was somehow easier than this last iteration.  Thinking about this, it may have something to do with the age of the institutions.

Compared to my previous institution, diversity took on a new meaning in the Midwest.  Over 50% of the students at my previous college were from underrepresented populations.  The reverse was now true.  My current campus has a less homogeneous international population, larger foster youth population, more first-generation students, a fully-functioning Student Veterans Center, students who were parents themselves, a larger transfer student population, and a greater number of nontraditional age students.  Did I mention the Midwest university is a commuter and regional branch campus?  Despite the student activism on the main campus, students were less active and often singularly focused on making their way through the university while holding down full- or part-time employment.   I recognized early on we needed a targeted first-gen program, strengthened services for transfer students, a dynamic administrator for our Veterans Center, and support services for the older adult student population.  Moreover, like many universities, students with food and housing insecurity were also deserving of increased attention and services.

My many years in higher education has been fed by my interactions with students.  Histories and cultures are unique to every institution.  Yet, regardless of the differences, we are often called as student affairs administrators to discover anew what the issues are and which new programs and/or initiatives may be implemented in the lives of students to ensure their academic success and attainment of their life goals.  A firm appreciation and healthy, if not guarded, respect for institutional history and culture offers the best prospect for optimal implementatio

Lessons learned from two different institutions:

  • Learn the culture of the institution
  • Get to know who the students are
  • Be patient with staff, especially those who have been at the institution for a while
  • Do not automatically think that what worked at a previous institution will work at the new one, learn from each experience
  • Continue to read and stay on top of best practice so you can create the next practice.

As Bruno Mars states, “That’s what I like.”  I love my work!

Opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of NASPA. If you agree or disagree with the content of this post, we encourage you to dialogue in the comment section below. NASPA reserves the right to remove any blog that is inaccurate or offensive.

To comment, you can login to your preferred social network. Comments are lightly moderated and we do provide the option for users to flag a comment as inappropriate.

Get in Touch with NASPA