Losing Trust: From staff support to helicopter parenting

This post was written for the Student Affairs Collective blog series #SAEvolve. You can check it (and all kinds of other great stuff) out here: The Student Affairs Collective

We knew the parental tide was coming. And now it’s here.

My career in higher education began in 1999 when I took my first job as a residence life coordinator (RLC) at a small, private college in the Mid-West. At 24 years old, I supervised a staff of 11, six buildings housing 300+ students and allocated the budgets for each one. The majority of that money came from students and their parents. At the time, I didn’t bat an eye at the level of responsibility I was given. No one else did either. I was given an extraordinary amount of autonomy and much was expected of me. Looking back on it now, I am struck by two things. One, I am stunned that this level of responsibility was entrusted to someone so young and inexperienced. And two, I cannot believe that students and their parents shelled out so much money to the institution and then walked away to let the staff do our jobs. That’s how it was then.

In my three years as a RLC, I had one conversation with a parent. It was opening day, my first year. A father gently pulled me aside and introduced himself. His daughter was living on the first floor of the building. She was blind and deaf in one ear. He wanted to explain to me that she had an aide. He introduced me to his daughter and her aide and explained what her role was. The aide had a key to the room, helped the student dress, navigate the dining hall, attended classes with her, etc. etc. He also asked me what my staff and I were going to do to meet her needs. I am sure I stumbled through my answer and feebly assured him that we would do our best to be helpful. I never heard from or saw him again until move-out day.

My second position in higher education was as an Assistant Director of Student Activities. At that institution the VPSA successfully lobbied for a quadruple increase in the student activity fee; my programming staff and I were given 50% of that to establish campus traditions and late night programming. The increased monies allowed us to improve the weekend campus culture.The only parent contact I had was in the form of thank you notes.

I have worked as an academic advisor for almost four years. I get to work with compassionate, smart, hard-working students who aspire to be nurses. For the most part, I enjoy my work. I get to help people. However, there are times when my work is challenging because I have to interact with parents. I have had more parent interaction in the last four years than in all of my previous years combined. In that time I have been:

  • verbally abused by an angry parent (to the point where he hung up on me and then called a week later to apologize);
  • participated in countless meetings with incoming students and their parents;
  • had parents go over my head questioning my decisions (and really it wasn’t my decision, it was someone else’s & I relayed the message).

I actually like talking to parents because on many levels I can relate. In just eight short years my oldest son will go off to college and I will be where they are. I know how much I love my sons and how hard it will be when they leave our nest. On a very basic level, I get it. Parents love their children and want what is best for them. What I don’t get is the short-sighted nature of some of these parents. By fixing things for their children, they have taught them that they cannot be trusted and they have taught their children that campus professionals also cannot be trusted. The disrespect with which parents have spoken to me (and my colleagues) is astounding to me. Their willingness to go right for the jugular- calling the Dean, President, or Board of Trustees, all of which happened this year in our College- has been perpetuated by our profession’s obsession with appearances, our need for tuition dollars, and our willingness to cater to consumer satisfaction.

When hope and fear collide, one of the first and best current student “trends” books, was published in 1998. Parent centers and parent programming started cropping up in the early 2000s. Big questions, worthy dreams by Sharon Daloz Parks was published in 2000 as was Howe and Strauss’ seminal piece on millennials, Millennials rising. Millennials go to college was published eight years ago. We knew this onslaught of helicopter parenting and over involved decision-making was coming.

I knew that I would have to deal with parents eventually. But I underestimated the coming storm and now I find myself wondering how I got here? I recognize that for the most part, it is only about 20% of the population that makes 80% of the work. But, wow! Some of those interactions are exhausting.

I fear this post will make me sound old or worse, jaded. I don’t see myself as either of those. I do feel myself getting frustrated though because I am unprepared to deal with parents, especially angry ones, and there is no sign of this current flood abating anytime soon. While I recognize that my experience doesn’t represent everyone’s, twitter conversations and venting sessions with colleagues tell me one thing:

I am not alone.

Treading water

This is the third guest post in the #SAMid series. Thanks to Sara Ackerson for adding her voice to this important conversation.

Each year, as professional development opportunities come up, I see them: the “Mid-Level” institutes or seminars or conference presentations and I ask myself…”Do I fall into this category?” As Chelsea explained in her previous post, checking a box is just really not that simple. I go on to read the descriptions of these workshops and see the following text…

This curriculum is for those with at least five years of experience as a full-time professional and who are currently responsible for the direction and oversight of one or more functions and supervise one or more professional staff. (NASPA WRC Mid-Level Institute https://www.naspa.org/events/2015-naspa-western-regional-conference)

Or this…

Your responsibilities include staff supervision, budget management experience, and designing and implementing programs. (NASPA Alice Manicur Symposium)

Well, I guess that answers my question. Each day I struggle with how to describe where I fall. I’ve been working, in a professional capacity, as a Higher Education Administrator for ten years; 5 years post-Masters. Ten years is clearly not a new professional. I’ve advanced in my positions as much as humanly possible, given the opportunities provided to me at my various institutions. What I lack is the supervision of full-time professional staff members. This really impacted my last job search as I hoped to move into an Assistant or Associate Director position but didn’t meet that one minimum qualification. How do you get past that? The basic logistics of it, but even deeper, the feeling that you’ve been treading water. I’ve supervised students, chaired committees consisting of professional staff members, and trained faculty. Still, I doubt myself because of sheer lack of opportunities.

Some of this is my own fault. I’ve worked at smaller institutions where the chance to move up just doesn’t exist. You can’t create a position out of thin air (and clicking your heels like Dorothy doesn’t work either). I managed a budget of quite a large amount as an undergraduate student running a student organization, yet I haven’t had that experience as a professional. How does that make sense? I chose to work in Academic Advising, where it is more difficult to move into a higher-level position, than say, in Residence Life.

So what do I do?

I’m constantly looking for opportunities to develop and grow my portfolio. I’m connecting with upper-level administrators at my current institution to network and simply learn from them. This has opened up opportunities to sit on task forces and our upcoming strategic planning committee. I keep my finger on the pulse of our department, our needs, (most important, our students’ needs), and ask about possibilities. This is really all I can do to keep from getting jaded. I’m asking “why?”, “how?”, “what can I do to help you make that happen?” Even more important to me, is that I’m helping other advisors and higher education professionals grow themselves. I’m chairing the Vancouver Advising Committee Professional Development committee which is giving me a unique opportunity to help shape our advisors, and then by default, our students’ experiences.

What opportunities are you grabbing ahold of to add to your own professional development? How are you filling the gaps in your portfolio? How do you get to supervise professionals if you’ve never supervised professionals?

Will I ever stop treading water?

This is me.

This is me.

Sara Ackerson spends her days as an Academic Coordinator in the Carson College of Business at Washington State University Vancouver. In her role, she creates new initiatives to best serve their unique student population and to craft meaningful experiences for all students on campus. In her free time, she is usually found snapping pictures of food, dogs, or other pretty things and hanging out with her two Cavalier King Charles Spaniels. Connect with her on Twitter: @sara_ackerson

Introducing #SAMid

Mid-career is a nebulous time in one’s life. We’re not new professionals but we’re not yet senior. Some of us have terminal degrees, some don’t. Some mid-career professionals are always job searching, while others intend to stay mid until retirement. “Mid-career” and “mid-level” also get used interchangeably. Are they the same? Does it matter?

All of this happens concurrently with significant life decisions and issues: children (or not), marriage (or not), terminal degree (or not), care for aging parents (or not), stay or leave.

The lack of research, professional association knowledge communities, conference themes and sessions, and overall understanding is counter-intuitive and frustrating. The current state of affairs led me to my dissertation topic, Mid-career women student affairs administrators with young children. That was five years ago. Not much has changed since then.

As student affairs professionals do, some colleagues and I took to the twitter-verse and found each other. We started sharing stories and found solace in the “I am glad it’s not just me” feeling that resulted from our conversations. To keep the momentum going, I suggested a series of blog posts focused specifically on mid-career issues. With that, I present the first #SAMid post from Chelsea O’Brien, What box do I check? Thanks, Chelsea!

Be sure to follow #SAMid on Twitter for more conversation and check back here every Friday for a new post! If you’d like to contribute, please do! Your mid-career voice is important. You can connect with me on Twitter @monicamfochtman, LinkedIN, Facebook, Instragram, etc. etc.

Happy reading and happy Friday!