Translating Resources Outside of Higher Education to Improve Practice

Jason B. Pina, Vice President for Student Affairs, Ohio University

May 5, 2017

Memorial Day Weekend 2004 is when it happened. On my way to a family vacation, I was informed that someone was going to be my new interim boss. So what? Our campuses are full of interims, and their appointments do not necessarily inspire others. For me, this appointment was a sign that many colleagues and certainly senior leaders at the institution did not view me as a potential senior leader. My assessment may not be accurate but I made myself a promise during that family vacation. For the remainder of my career, senior leadership would always know my career aspirations, skill sets and growth areas.

The last thirteen years have been full of fairly typical skill-building activities—a doctorate, publishing, new professional opportunities and giving back to our profession. Accidentally, I stumbled upon an activity that may have been just as helpful as any academic course. Reading and listening to materials outside of student affairs and, more importantly, the broader field of education has helped me develop translation skills that I use daily in my current role as a vice president for student affairs at a large and complex public institution in the Midwest.

Several years ago, I found my professional reading interests began to drift towards literature outside of mainstream student affairs resources. It began with taking deeper dives into the Association of American Colleges and Universities’ guiding principle of Making Inclusive Excellence, National Association of College and University Business Officers’ resources, and other sources that spoke to the academic and business higher education enterprises. While I know these examples are not frontier breaking, my consumption of this literature began to round out my understanding how presidents, provosts, chief financial officers and others spoke about higher education and at times student affairs. I also sought mentoring from leaders outside of student affairs. Coupling reading outside student affairs with the purposeful unpacking of my growth areas with leaders outside of our field uncovered my need to be a better translator. I was woefully unprepared to describe our work in language that was easily consumed by those not fluent in “student affairs.” Additionally, I often felt at a loss of truly understanding (and at times respecting) the positions colleagues held about our work with students.

The chief student affairs officer position is often focused more on the institution rather than the division. With that perspective in mind, I found using translation language was critical to understanding the larger institutional picture as well as communicating student affairs’ work effectively. My key to building this skill was consuming literature outside of higher education. From ultra-marathoner stories to Harvard Business Review articles and pieces by leaders such as Andy Stanley, I found the process of making these materials useful to my profession required understanding several “languages.” Aside from challenging me personally, the process of finding the applicability of such seemingly disparate sources helped me be a better leader. More importantly, I believe it has increased my value to my fellow vice presidents, the president and board of trustees.

All too often, we find ourselves relying on our sense-making skills. Making sense of ambiguous situation is where the “rubber meets the road” in our roles. Building my translation abilities has enabled me to consume material from other sectors of and outside of higher education and more easily make sense of it for my divisional colleagues. I also feel that this approach has helped me translate student affairs needs and philosophies into formats more easily understood by those outside of student affairs. My challenge to those reading this post is to seek resources outside our profession to better understand your work and improve your ability to translate our work to those colleagues outside student affairs.

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