The Balancing Act:  Tips for Navigating a Multi-Campus Experience

naspa graduate associate program gap

Megan Theesfeld

May 3, 2019

Graduate school for folx in student affairs can certainly be – you guessed it – a balancing act.  Between classes, assistantships, practicums, and the ever-looming job search, it can very quickly feel like there are not enough hours in a day to accomplish everything on the good ol’ to-do list...or in my case, even enough caffeine to make it through the lunch hour.  This feeling can often be intensified for students who move between multiple campuses during their time in graduate school.  Additional logistics – like going from one campus to the next, coordinating when to come to campus for a group project, and catching the right bus on time – can further add to the busyness of the graduate school equation. Before I go on, I want to clarify what I mean when I talk about a “multi-campus experience”.  In some student affairs (SA) masters programs, students may take classes on one campus, while holding an assistantship on a different campus.  This could also describe a student who takes classes/holds an assistantship on one campus, while having a practicum experience on a different campus.

To provide some insight about the institutional contexts I’m addressing, I want to briefly describe the campus climates of Marquette University, where I’m enrolled in my student affairs program and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, where I hold my assistantship.  Marquette University is a mid-sized, urban, Catholic-Jesuit, residential, predominantly white institution, while UW-Milwaukee is a large, urban, public research institution with a significant non-traditional student population (commuter students, adult students, etc.).  Coming onto both of these campuses were new experiences for me as I attended a Big Ten school for my undergraduate education.  As I look back at my time on each campus, I can see that they’ve all given me a different perspective on how higher education can operate, and has also allowed me to critically see how different campus climates shape their student’s development.

 When I started out in my program, I wasn’t too concerned about moving between multiple campuses for my assistantship and classes.  While I didn’t intentionally seek out a multi-campus program (my program offers 2/17 assistantships on different college campuses), I specifically sought out my current assistantship in Fraternity and Sorority Life (FSL) as it allowed me to pursue my passion for the FSL community.  When I realized that my assistantship would be on a different campus, I was really excited about the opportunity to view my SA experience through two different lenses.  In addition, as someone who values segmenting my time in order to accomplish my tasks, having my classes concentrated to one campus and my assistantship to another helped me stay organized.  Because of this, I thought that my “superb” time management and organizational skills would serve me well in my dual-campus experience.  However, I quickly realized that while I was gaining a lot of knowledge about different campuses, some of these supposedly “superb” skills would have to be adapted and amended.  Moving between two campuses caused me to check in with myself and learn how to be more flexible with my graduate school experience.

 As I’m now halfway through my program (seriously, where did that time go), it’s clear to see that both of my campuses have truly shaped and prepared me for a variety of experiences.  Having insight into multiple campus dynamics has exposed me to different campus climates, student interactions, and knowledge bases that have certainly proved beneficial in the development of my professional practice.  Though it took adjustment at times, I now know what I want out of my time in graduate school, and I know how to intentionally seek out the opportunities that will most benefit me.

 When I brought the idea for this post forward to my fellow multi-campus cohort-mates, they were excited to share their thoughts and insight to help fellow students adjust to the experience.  None of us would trade our time on either campus, but we all felt that creating a guide for students in our position could provide some insight that might make the adjustment period a little easier.  Below is a collaboration of my own experience along with those of my cohort-mates:

Set clear goals and expectations

In graduate school, you’ll be exposed to a variety of classes, workshops, and volunteer opportunities that can really help to shape your professional journey.  However, it’s just as important to intentionally seek out the opportunities that will best benefit YOU based on your goals.  That’s why it’s important to clearly outline your goals and break them down as much as possible so you know what types of opportunities will benefit you the most. 

 These goals can definitely be professionally-based, but they should also be personal to you and your graduate school experience: if you want to attend some basketball games to cheer on your school, cheer away!  If there’s a on-campus program that peaks your interest, make time to go!  If you want to set consistent study time on campus to feel a deeper connection with the community, make that time! 

It’s important to communicate these goals with your supervisor and program advisor so they can also support you in getting the most out of your multi-campus experience.  The more transparent you are, the easier (and quicker) you’ll find a balance.

 Be intentional – and strategic – with your time management

Along with setting goals, it’s important to apply action items to those goals based on your availability and schedule.  In order to accomplish the steps towards your goals, develop time-management strategies that work for you, and look for ways to be strategic with your time: form a study group to help refresh your memory before class, listen to your readings on audio while commuting between campuses, or spend certain days on certain campuses to connect with a greater variety of students.  These could help you make the most of your time without overwhelming you throughout one specific day.  While these specific strategies may not work for everyone, it’s okay to trial-and-error with different strategies to find what works for you.

 While it’s important to logistically manage your time (be it a planner, daily to-do list, online calendar, etc.), it’s also important to continue seeking out opportunities that will most benefit YOU.  This is YOUR grad school experience, and YOUR opportunity to develop yourself as a professional.  That’s why it’s important to confidently say yes to things that interest you, but also feel comfortable saying no to the things that overload your schedule.  It’s all about striking – you guessed it – a balance.

Capitalize on your unique experience

Though it can certainly feel like a lot at times moving between multiple campuses, it can be helpful to put in perspective the amount of experience you’re getting – and how quickly you’re getting it as well.  This might seem simple, but realize how valuable your multi-campus experience can be with understanding student affairs as a whole!  You can bring a different perspective to the table, which can certainly help enrich your class discussions (go you!). 

 My fellow cohort-mates and I who work at UW-Milwaukee have all found that working with a nontraditional student population allows us to bring unique insight into our classroom environments.  In my own experience, it was especially helpful to keep my students in mind when learning about various student development theories in order to assess where (and if) these students fit into traditional trajectories of development.  This mindset helped me be more cognizant with my students and more intentional with meeting them where they are in my work as their advisor.

Connect with similar peers

No matter how many campuses you move between, it’s important to intentionally seek out spaces and people that make you feel included within each of your campus communities.  One way to foster this inclusion is by touching base with others who also share a multi-campus experience. Connecting with previous students in your position could be helpful as they provide some hindsight guidance on how to navigate multiple campuses in graduate school.  I’d recommend first touching base with your supervisor to see if they have information regarding previous students in your position (such as an email, LinkedIn profile, etc.).  You can also reach out to your program advisor or the administrative offices of your college to see if additional contact information from previous students can be acquired. 

Along with past students, it can also be beneficial to make time to check in with fellow cohort-mates who move between multiple campuses.  These students are navigating the same dynamic as you, so it can be helpful to connect with them on a regular basis to talk about your experiences and gain support as well. 

You can also get in touch with multi-campus grads at other campuses to create a network of support.  Using Facebook groups and professional organizations (like NASPA!) are just a few of the ways you can get in touch with fellow multi-campus grad schoolers.  By establishing connections in a variety of places, you all can encourage one another as you navigate your multi-campus experiences.

Don’t compare yourself

Finally – and most importantly – this is YOUR time to develop yourself into the type of professional you want to be.  While it can be easy to start comparing yourself to your fellow students, it’s important to recognize that everyone is on a unique journey.  Graduate school is all about forging your own path, and whatever that path looks like is up to YOU and YOU alone.  As long as you’re feeling satisfied in your experience, then that’s what really counts.

While a multi-campus experience may look different for each student, at the core lies initiative:  make the experience what you want, and as long as you’ve found your balance, you can take heart in knowing that your time in graduate school is being well-spent. smile

Many thanks to my Marquette cohort-mates who helped make this post possible:

  • Zachery Cramer:  Graduate Assistant for University Housing and Leadership Programs - UW-Milwaukee
  • Amanda Gallo:  Graduate Assistant for Campus Activities Board - UW-Milwaukee
  • Katie Kramer:  Graduate Assistant for Center for Community Service - Marquette University
  • Jasmine Nelson:  Graduate Assistant Hall Director - Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design
  • Eric Lira:  Graduate Assistant for Student Organizations - UW-Milwaukee
  • Anna Wilks:  Graduate Assistant for Living Learning Communities and Campus Traditions & Events - UW-Milwaukee

Megan Theesfeld is a first-year Masters Candidate at Marquette University where she studies Educational Policy and Leadership with an emphasis in Student Affairs in Higher Education.  Along with being a NASPA GAP, she also works as the Graduate Assistant for Fraternity and Sorority Life at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.  Megan would love to discuss anything related to this post, NASPA, or student affairs with you!  If you’d like to connect further, you can reach her on LinkedIn, or by emailing her at 1[email protected].

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