Never Say Never (And oh by the way, God has a sense of humor)


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Author
Kate Mueller, Ed.D., Vice President of Student Services, Coastline Community College

Published
August 20, 2018


Hindsight can be a great thing. It enhances reflection, and forces us to wrap our head around situations that didn’t make sense in a particular moment. And that reflection is key, to take past experience and lessons learned, and apply them to the here and now, and help us be even better professionals (if not just better human beings).

The transitions I write about here are not necessarily in chronological order. Because life lessons are just not that linear, as far as absorbing and applying them!

Two years ago I made a lateral move at my college, from Dean of Students to Dean of Enrollment Services. It took my Vice President asking me twice, before I embraced the fact that this move would help my college, and would expand my knowledge, experience, and portfolio. In spite of the fact that I vowed to never work around Financial Aid again. (Make a note of that …)

I adore directly interacting and engaging with students. That transition was difficult, on an emotional level. Leaving a role and position I truly loved, and moving into a job that is so very different – a job that I had little expertise in – along with much less direct student contact … well, it wasn’t until I found my purpose in this position, that I felt like I had my sea legs again. I realized I do not like feeling ignorant, and not having answers when people need them – but! I very much enjoyed focusing on my managers and their teams, in addition to what benefitted students on a broader spectrum. One of the things that helped me in the transition was successfully negotiating that I remain a core member of the college’s Behavioral Assessment Team, which anchored me within expertise, consoled my ever-curious soul, and fed the threat management geek in me.

Backing up the calendar a bit, in October 2012 I took an unpaid leave of absence and moved halfway across the world to the United Arab Emirates. I arrived there thinking that I was meant to gain experience and knowledge in curriculum development, faculty oversight, and higher-level leadership skills, given that I was the equivalent to a president of a small college. And well, yes, I did learn those things. But in hindsight that is not why the cosmos had me there. The most powerful lessons that I came home with were a deepened self-awareness; strengthened stoicism and game face (two things I never thought I had of ounce of in me); increase in my level of patience with bureaucracy and politics; and brought to the forefront my desire to have my team’s back.

Now I am a new Vice President of Student Services. A position that I have applied and interviewed for about fourteen times over the years, at various community colleges. I got to the point that I thought I would retire as a dean. (And that would not have been a bad thing! It just wasn’t my end-game goal.)  Given that my current college is 80% online, the three previous positions I’ve written about in this post prepared me for several things that I never saw coming:

  • Yes, it’s about rolling with it when a day or moment goes incredibly sideways on you; and recognizing that you have such little control over your own calendar.
  • It’s about a mindshift regarding the convenience of living (uh, I mean working) on a single campus, and instead appreciating the benefits of 3 different campuses in three adjacent cities so that we meet students where they work and live. (Besides the additional appreciation of a 30 minute drive to a campus, after experiencing 3.5 hour drives to some of the UAE campuses.)
  • Yes, I learned about content areas of enrollment services, faculty hiring and evaluations, and enrollment management. But it’s what you do as you focus on your managers and their teams, and the broader impact you can have on student success.
  • No, I don’t have as much direct or constant student contact as before, but I recognize and embrace the impact of my decisions and conversations on students as a whole.
  • Yes, I learned about curriculum, the growing pains of new institutions in a new country, and learning management systems that literally have quite limited bandwidth to work with. But it’s what you do with your newfound levels tolerance for politics and bureaucracy, and determination to react with calm, professionalism and stoicism in the face of what can be interesting decisions outside of your control, which matters and makes the most difference.
  • No, it’s not weakness to acknowledge where you need to grow and where you absolutely need the help of mentors and colleagues, to push and raise yourself to a new level … not just professionally, but more importantly as a human being.
  • It’s about never saying never. Whether we’re talking about swearing you’ll never live in the hot desert again, and then go live in an even hotter (and humid!) country halfway around the world. Or about learning more than you ever expected to about financial aid – and the unique challenges that come with mostly online courses and students – after adamantly stating you never ever want to deal with that level of occasional angry students again. And then embracing it because of the awesome people who have a passion for financial aid and empowering students.
  • That transitions become easier each time as long as you are open to a college’s culture, to previous lessons learned, and not being so hard on yourself when you don’t know as much as you’d like, at the beginning of a new adventure.

See - God has a sense of humor, especially when you say “never”.

After serving as Dean of Student Services and then Dean of Enrollment Services at Orange Coast College (CA) for fifteen years, Dr. Kate Mueller recently joined Coastline Community College (CA) as Vice President of Student Services. She is also adjunct faculty in Brandman University’s Ed.D. program. Kate has worked in higher education for 32 years, at public and private, large and small, secular and non-secular, four-year and community, and international institutions. She has also served in NASPA through various capacities, including Director of the Community College Division, and finds joy in being a mentor. Connect wtih Kate on Twitter at @drkatemueller.


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