Attending the 2022 NASPA conference was the fulfillment of a long-held desire to connect with and learn from student affairs professionals across multiple functions. Although I have centered my career around preparing students for professional life, I understand there are many activities and contexts that help foster the development that leads to their career readiness. Therefore, my initial goal was to attend sessions facilitating conversations about developing students in diverse yet meaningful ways. However, after scanning the conference program, I found myself drawn to the sessions addressing what leadership looks like for student affairs officers amid a global pandemic. This NASPA conference, as it turns out, not only served to reconnect the membership following a hiatus, but it also addressed the best practices, healing, and refining that should take place so we can do our best work in the current climate.
The irony of living during COVID-19 is it took an illness to show that we as a society had already been sick for some time. Swelling schedules, lost vacation days, toxic work environments are just a few ongoing issues raised in the sessions I attended. The message was loud and clear: to do well for students, we must also consider our own needs and those of our team members. These sessions helped me imagine ways to do that intentionally. In addition, I was able to build a new network of contacts and gain wisdom based on their experiences. Here are some highlights of my NASPA experience:
At the African American Women’s Summit, I felt inspired, validated, and supported. In addition to hearing from several Black women leaders, I was given the opportunity to take inventory of my programs and practices to identify areas for celebration and development. I was also exposed to research that chronicled the challenges of Black female leadership in the academy as well as provided with opportunities to participate in future research projects.
The themes of doing self-assessment and learning effective ways of working through challenges were reinforced in The Medicine Needed to be a Young Black Dean: A Dose of Reality panel discussion. In this session, panelists explained that doing and having it all at the same time is a fallacy and one must make choices about what they can commit to realistically in the moment. Participants were encouraged to consider the sacrifices they are willing to make to advance in their careers and the panelists spoke transparently about their own journeys and the costs and benefits of various career moves to illustrate this point.
At On Wednesdays We Wear Pink: The Impact of Mean Girls in the Academy the presenters discussed the mean girl phenomenon, a common but somewhat taboo topic in the workplace, especially higher education. It occurred to me that because student affairs professionals are so passionate about helping students, it is assumed we always treat each other with respect. The research suggests otherwise. After being introduced to mean girl behavior and classifications, participants were asked to work in small groups to discuss case studies. I enjoyed the intimate atmosphere of the small groups and the opportunity to problem solve together. The presenters emphasized there is no one way to handle these difficult situations, but the purpose of the session was to validate the experiences of participants and to explore different solutions. This session reinforced the notion that mental health is just as much of a concern for staff as it is for students; the people who contribute to toxic work environments may have issues causing them to behave in harmful ways, and by doing so, they perpetuate a cycle of mental illness in others at work. As a supervisor, I walked away with ideas about how to create an atmosphere where people feel comfortable bringing up sensitive issues such as stress and workplace bullying, knowing I would respond.
Additional ways I got to connect with others at NASPA are the Region II Lunch at a local pub and dinner at a Baltimore restaurant with fellow Montclair State University colleagues, most of whom I did not know previously. Lastly, I attended the Women in Student Affairs (WISA) Reception and met some wonderful members of this knowledge community, which also generously awarded me a Professional Development Access Grant to attend the conference. Speaking with people in these intimate, casual settings was both insightful and refreshing.
What I learned at my first NASPA conference is that while it is good to have plans, it is also sometimes beneficial to go with the flow. Meanwhile, I was reminded that more (programs, working hours, participants) is not always better. Student affairs professionals need to assess and evaluate their practices to determine what the priority is, pace the execution of programs, and set realistic goals according to the resources they have (including human resources). Does that mean we cannot be ambitious? Absolutely not! Yet perhaps we need to think differently about what it looks like to stretch ourselves. This can be an individual exercise or done with a trusted partner. These days, my ambitions include finding creative, efficient ways to accomplish the things I have committed to, leaving space for unexpected interruptions, creating space for passion projects, and cross training staff so we can cover each other in times of need. In the process, I hope to show gratitude, have fun, thrive, and heal. Modeling healthy, balanced work habits may just be the best way I prepare my students for professional life in this era.
Nadine Verna (she/her/hers) is the Director of Career Development for the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at Montclair State University. Nadine is a native New Yorker and proud daughter of Haitian immigrants. In her spare time, she enjoys journaling, traveling, and weekend brunches.
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