Size Matters:  Transitioning from Big to Small Institutions

naspa groups & divisions small colleges and universities division

Dr. Anna K. Gonzalez, Dean of Students, Lewis & Clark College

September 23, 2016

I write this blog as I enter my fifth year as the Dean and SSAO of a small private liberal arts college. Before coming to Lewis & Clark College, I worked for almost twenty years at two large research I universities, one of which had its own marketing department with videographers, editors, photographers, speechwriters, and designers.  

Like students who chose to attend small colleges, I appreciated the ease by which I was able to be a part of the community, to be known amongst students, faculty, staff, and alumni, and to engage students in deep and meaningful ways because of the physical structure of the institution.  Unlike my experience in big universities, I learned the names and basic background of students I taught before the first class concluded. And during the graduation of the cohort in which I entered occurred, I knew at least one story of almost every student who walked by me and gave me a hug on the commencement stage.

For all the beauty of working at a small college or university, I also want to provide some words of wisdom to those who want to transition or recently did so from a mid or large sized institution.  

a)    Regardless of your position, there are many times when you will wear different hats at one event. I quickly learned that while I serve as the SSAO, I am sometimes the AV tech, social media coordinator,  photographer, and keynote speaker for the same event.

b)   Collaboration is key. Because of the many one-off departments and offices we have at small schools and smaller budgets and less staff than what you may have had at larger institutions, you and your programs can have greater impact if you collaborate with other student affairs and academic departments.

c)    Embrace the values, culture, and infrastructure of the small college. You will most likely not have a bowling alley, movie theater or even multiple eating venues that serve food 24 hours a day at the institution. You may not find multiple stand alone centers but rather only one student or campus center where multiple offices and services are housed.  And having a program with 40 people may already be considered a large number. 

d)   You are now in a fishbowl. Just as much as you know the names and stories of your students and colleagues, they will also know you. The community knows the name of my dog, the cafeteria workers know I love bacon and that I start my day with a decaf soy latte. People know  your accomplishments and  failures.  The things that you do will have greater impact to you and others at small schools than perhaps at larger institutions.   

Transitions can be among the most transformational experiences we give to our students and ourselves. If we allow ourselves to embrace and learn from the transition from big to small schools, I believe that we can be better servant-leaders and educators for our students.  And, we can enhance our own sense of self and resilience to change.  And isn’t that in large part what makes for a more holistic and complete educational experience?

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