You may think this is going to be a blog post about not spreading yourself too thin, and not committing yourself to too many things, but that’s actually a skill that I’ve already been able to improve over the past few months. This post is a little bit different…(and long. And complicated. So, beware.)…
I’ll begin with one of the best pieces of advice that I learned as I prepared for Graduate School, exactly one year ago, from a great mentor named Dr. Ed Spencer. He told me that, “In undergraduate work you are accepting knowledge; receiving it. In graduate work, you still learn but you prepare to and then create knowledge, and share it with others,” when I asked him what, he thought, was the biggest difference between the two tiers of education. I took this and carried it with me – and still do.
I also interpreted that dichotomy as being able to take advantage of the opportunity to impart knowledge upon others, particularly students, in our field of higher education. You know, taking the time to teach others, to erase their information deficits (as referenced in one of the videos on the left side bar of this blog). This founding tenant has definitely played a role in my success in life thus far. This following quote by Malcolm X that I discovered on social media yesterday reminds me of how important it is to help others learn new things if they are seeking knowledge and greater understanding.
Don’t be in such a hurry to condemn a person because he doesn’t do what you do, or think as you think. There was a time when you didn’t know what you know today.
– Malcolm X
On that note, one of my favorite news journals/blogs/publications to read within the profession is The Chronicle of Higher Education. Most accurately described, The Chronicle is a smorgasbord. They consider themselves “the top destination for news, advice, and jobs for people in academe.” I get a daily digest of popular Chronicle content on the daily and today one article that came across my inbox really resonated with me due to the aforementioned, but underlying, takeaway that I had from a piece that I read.
In his column titled “The Point of Grad School is to Learn to Say ‘No’,” the author, Brian Croxall, writes “I was finishing my undergraduate work, I found myself looking forward to grad school as an opportunity to stop writing research papers where I reported on others’ thoughts and instead began creating interpretations of my own.” This is almost identical to the advice that Dr. Spencer gave me as a rising graduate student back in 2012.
I have to admit; this is where the similarities between Mr. Croxall’s experiences and my own stop for a moment. In my higher education administration Master’s program, I find myself citing the work of others a bit but I also find myself relishing in the opportunity to create my own interpretations of those works, and my own interpretation of my development, all while also producing experiences, presentations, and literature of my own. I thrive on this; I’ve never been much of an intense reader but I do love to listen and will occasionally take the opportunity to share my own reflection, opinion, or idea on something that clicks with me. Mr. Croxall, on the other hand, felt as if he was citing and receiving more and more, and not really gaining the freedom to “set his own direction.”
This is a lesson that I learned very quickly in grad school – this idea of setting your own direction. People may give you suggestions, but it is really necessary to learn how, when, and why to say “no” to some of those many suggestions. After all, one of the first things we learn to say in life is, “no,” isn’t it? Allll the way back in our terrible twos. But this kind of no is a bit deeper, more consequential, and consequently more important, in my opinion.
In grad school, just like undergrad, each student gets an academic advisor who has been there and done that, and helped students who are in their advisee’s shoes. They give you the opportunity to be intentional about the outcomes you have for yourself, but of course they are always offering their own advice as well. One thing I realized, very quickly, was that learning how to say “no” was all about making sure that I had a clear vision of what I wanted for myself.
For example, many in my profession of higher education take numerous internships and jobs in different functional areas and at different institutions in order to make themselves “more well-rounded.” But I’ve realized over the past few months that me, myself, being well-rounded and marketable and employable isn’t at the top of my to-do list. What IS on the top of my to-do list then? That would be focusing on making meaningful relationships, bonding with students, and impacting their development in a positive way. That is what is most important to me. While the grass may be greener on the other side, I find that difficult to do if you are absent-mindedly hopping from job to job, either/both within or external to an institution, not taking the time to stop and build deep, meaningful relationships with the students around you.
Side story: as I planned to craft my summer plans this past winter, I was thrown quite a few life curveballs that didn’t really make it a viable option for me to take on a rent payment in another location, to relocate with Charlotte and I, or to make an unstable home for anyone involved. So I made the bold decision to branch out in a different way that would satisfy people around me. I wanted to make my advisors and mentors happy. I had a feeling that when I sat down to tell them of my plans, others would be like “Oh. So you’re staying at Tech? Again?” Sure, this would be my sixth straight year at Tech, and I would have absolutely *ZERO* long-term experience at any other institution. Boldly enough, though, after a few weeks I realized that I didn’t really care about those reactions of others.
I realized that, while I did enjoy doing those things I was planning, I was doing it for all the wrong reasons. I realized that while I could travel the country, and meet and connect with people in other areas, and present at conferences, and give motivational speeches, and continue to get to know others and make relationships with those weak ties (I’ll talk about this term, “weak tie,” in a later blog post) - it had to be something that I was intrinsically motivating myself to do. I shouldn’t be getting that motivation from or relying on it from others. When I realized this, it was most certainly my bread and butter – I felt like I had found my sweet spot.
For example, my summer internship working in University Studies and Academic Advising will get my feet wet and establish relationships with the students that I’ll be an academic advisor for, myself come the fall; just like I did last year as a Summer Research Experience intern for the McNair Scholars program, ahead of serving as their GA Mentor for the entire year. Instead of knowing them for 8 months, I got to know them for 12 – and those relationships continue to this day.
As I continue this great work, I can only hope that the quality of my work may pique the interest of those who may be hiring me someday, outside of Virginia Tech. Because it certainly won’t be due to my vast experience at many different types of institutions with the sole purpose of making a diverse resume. I want diverse relationships, not diverse lines on a piece of a paper that only serves my own individual achievement and advancement.
So, as Mr. Croxall implied, learning when to say no is important. While his frame of reference seems to be more closely associated with preparing for a comprehensive exam, I think that this principle is closely related to academic advising, also. I think that life couldn’t be any more about taking calculated risks (ironically enough) and knowing what you want for yourself. You need to know where you want to go, how you get there (or how to ask for help!), and, when you think you are there, knowing that you CAN relax for a little bit (but not for too long, just long enough to gather yourself and set a new goal!) These opinions may receive input from others, but they certainly should be molded by no one but yourself.
Because if you don’t know what you want for yourself, then there is certainly no way that anyone else can advise or help you.
I may have just realized this for myself, but you better believe that it is this mentality, exactly, that I’ll carry with me into the advising of my freshman students this coming fall, just like Dr. Spencer posited last year. I can not wait to encourage them to really look at what they want to do; not some check sheet, not what their friends are doing, not what their parents want – but what THEY, as individuals, want. Can. Not. Wait.