April 10, 2017
This past Thursday, I went to my weekly hangout session with my good friend from graduate school to unpack and unwind about the week’s events. We were at our normal hookah bar watching the basketball game before we dove into each other’s lives. My friend, let’s call him Rus, told me about a student he had met with earlier that day. To make a long story short, the student went into Rus’ office to talk about what college to attend, but eventually turned to the student’s family situation and how they were coping with it. I was happy Rus was able to connect with that student in their time of need, especially since it was their first meeting. After swapping stories, we parted ways and went to our respective homes. During my drive, I couldn’t stop thinking about the student Rus was talking about, along with the countless number of students I had worked with during my time in education.
I thought about the stories I heard, the experiences lived, and the life-changing moments my students had endured. For some, it solidified the person they knew they always were; for others, it completely knocked them down and made them reevaluate everything they thought they knew. Regardless of which route life took them, I thought about what I had said or done for those students who trusted me with their story. I wondered if they were happier knowing they shared their story with me, if it had actually benefited them, or if they had any regret doing it. I would overthink, overanalyze, and obsess so much to the point of worry about those potential answers, basically the bane of an introvert’s existence.
Since I wasn’t able to track down every student I ever worked with to answer those questions, I thought to ask the students who were in my office on a Friday between helping students. I gradually pulled them in one a time and asked,
"When you’re at school, what does someone (faculty, staff, admin) have to say or do for you to feel you could trust and open up to them?"
“It’s about your personality; it’s about feeling comfortable with yourself.”
The focus here was entirely on the recipient of the story, rather than the student themselves. The feeling of being comfortable is hard to establish and easy to lose, but essential in being one of the first steps in establishing that rapport. It’s also about being comfortable in who you are and how you portray yourself to students.
“I want them to go the extra mile, beyond the job description.”
Immediately after our conversation, I went to check my own job description. I wanted to see how much of what I do was needed vs. what was required. While I feel I passed my own test, what’s more important is how we show our students that we aren’t just doing the ‘required tasks’ of a job description?
“They need to know WHEN to go the extra mile with us.”
The emphasis on the word when is what really got me reflecting. With time and rapport, it gets easier to recognize those moments. However, it’s also a sensitive process because it can easily be received as forced, awkward, or even rude.
“It’s nice when they share something about themselves. When I know they’ve gone through something similar, I don’t feel like I’m the only one who’s had to deal with this.”
Similar to what a counselor/therapist does in regards to self-disclosure, the way we connect with others in conversation is by sharing stories and experiences. That leads to inquiry, investigation, and insight to how others have dealt with comparable situations. We naturally open up to those who share common experiences.
Even with this insight to a student’s thinking, people still might hesitate on taking that step to connect with students or what should happen after they’ve opened up. Should we even be involved in the affairs of students? How do we get involved without either side feeling like it’s forced? Am I capable of making a student feel ‘safe’ enough to open up? What are we supposed to do after they open up? How do we maintain that professional line with our students, but still encourage them to see us as more than a person only doing the essential job duties? Before we drown in the negative, we should shift our focus away from our own worries and concerns and back on helping students. Let’s start thinking about the new ways we can be a resource for students BECAUSE they opened up to us.
So moving forward, let’s be genuine about who we are, let’s go beyond what’s required of us, let’s go beyond when it’s required of us, and let’s share a story to engage our students in conversation. We all know that positive feeling we’ve experienced when it happened to us, so let’s pay that warm, fuzzy feeling forward and help our students create their best success story. I think one of the greatest compliments and accomplishments we receive in student affairs is even after that student has left our respective institution, we’re still remembered as ‘the one’.
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Christopher Perez serves as the Student Activities Coordinator at El Camino College Compton Center. He completed his master's degree in Counseling with an emphasis in Student Development in Higher Education. He currently serves on the leadership team for the NASPA Region VI New Professionals and Graduate Students Knowledge Community.
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