Being a young, male, professional in student affairs I have very recent experience with navigating the demands of college and all the scrutiny and expectation that comes with being a “real man” in a hyper-masculine setting such as college. Young college men are under the proverbial microscope in nearly every group or interaction they are a part of. Many of the social expectations of masculinity in college (and often society as a whole) typically result in a slew of self-destructive activities.A seemingly “real man” in college is a hypersexual, alcoholic who establishes him dominance by unapologetically proving his competence in both of these areas. These social expectations are then juxtaposed with the academic experience they are having which, as enlightening as it may be, is alienating them from the college community at-large and ultimately the stereotype of the “college guy” becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. The “inside-out” approach relies on the belief that we, as student affairs professionals, must meet students where they are at developmentally if we hope to make any headway on challenging and changing cultures. Then how do we do it? Here is a step-by-step breakdown of inside-out:
1- Own your personal experiences: College is a time of turbulent transition for most students. They are being ripped away from all that they have ever known and are thrust into a new life where they have to essentially start over. That’s not easy. Many times students just want to make friends, that’s why they are going out to parties and overdrinking or engaging in other reckless behaviors.When a student feels as though they have made a mistake from the night before based on a poor decision they made, I want them to feel comfortable coming to me to figure it out. I know that when I was in undergrad I wouldn’t have conversations about my personal life with some guy I didn’t know, so we must make the effort to connect with students and sometimes the only truly effective way to do so is by self-disclosing. Everyone has different comfort levels with self-disclosure, which is fine, however I believe that any relationship involving trust requires some level of self-disclosure. This means that you as a professional must be comfortable, at some level, discussing the experiences, good and bad you had as a student. I don’t mean you necessarily have to tell the story about how you could do a keg stand longer than anyone else, but you do need to empathize in some capacity with students to form that connection.
2- Be real: Stuff happens. In life. In college. Things happen and we make mistakes. Building off of our personal experiences as mentioned above, we have to enter conversations with students without judgment. You may disagree with the decision a student has made but that disagreement won’t change the feelings they are feeling. Holding onto that disdain is more time and energy spent not being spent on serving the student to the best of your ability. Unless the concern involves a police report I don’t typically harp on how the student got themselves into a situation, I tend to focus on how we can move forward with where we are at the moment. Right here, right now.
3- Make the time: We are all busy in student affairs. If we’re grad students we have class, an assistantship, and meetings. As a professional there’s committees, boards, task forces etc. That’s not taking into account all of our personal activities and obligations as well. Often times we find ourselves overextended and overcommitted. Unfortunately, our lack of time doesn’t make our students issues go away. A lot of people in the field tell students who procrastinate “Your failure to plan does not constitute an emergency on my part.” Well, our packed schedule is no excuse to drown out the concerns of the people we literally work for: students. Most of the time we need to initiate conversations with students and to do this we need to have developed a connection with them, both of which require our precious time. I believe that weekly or bi-weekly check-ins of 15 to 20 minutes with students is enough to gauge what is happening in their lives and to ultimately avoid a major crisis which would result in the use of even more of our time. The time invested in our students initially will pay dividends in the future when we know exactly when to step in.
4- Challenge is a privilege: If you have followed the aforementioned steps to this point you may have earned the right to challenge your students. But it’s imperative to understand that without earning this right challenges are high risk and low reward. No one wants to be told they are wrong by someone they barely know. People are naturally more responsive to the feedback of people who genuinely care for them; you need to become one of those people for this to work. You don’t need to become their best pal, but they need to trust and respect you before you start challenging them otherwise they may clam up and never come out again.
Just One of the Guys
My style in interacting with students as a residence hall director is to try and become their friend.Many people are critical of this idea and think it doesn’t work, but in my time working with students it’s seemed to have worked quite well. Just recently here at SUNY Plattsburgh it was move-in day. Yay! The most stressful day of the year for residence life professionals, but hey, we made it! The building I supervise is very diverse in terms of student standing. We have first-year students, transfers, international students, sophomores, juniors, seniors; the whole shebang. With this dynamic comes positives and negatives of course, and one of the negatives is having primarily older students who are already engaged in our community, then reconciling that with the first-year students we have who are yet to find their niche.
During move-in day I like to make myself very visible and accessible to students. Later in the day when we were winding down check-in for students, one of our residents, a first-year student, came to me and asked if we could talk. I pulled him aside to my office and asked what was up. He went into his concerns about meeting people and said he was invited to a party but didn’t really want to go, and he wanted to know my feedback. I told him to give college a shot. It was only about four hours into his experience and I told him I would help him meet people outside of parties as well, a sentiment he truly seemed to appreciate. We went on to discuss why he chose Plattsburgh, and he said I was his tour guide for his campus tour and I made Plattsburgh sound fun and different from other schools! Unfortunately, I had forgotten him but he remembered me putting the extra effort into a brief hour long tour of campus. That is something I won’t soon forget! Now, the student and I meet regularly and talk about any concerns he has about the anxieties of college, particularly being a man in college and what that means to him. Now he and his friends call me “just one of the guys.”
The Little Things
I always do my best to live in the moment and enjoy the little things. The conversations I have with students happen so often that to me they have to seem little. I have maybe 300-500 conversations, big or small with student per week. But, I have to always reframe the conversation to what they are experiencing. Maybe my 200th conversation of the week with a student is their first ever with a campus professional. Maintaining this perspective has helped me to stay focused and excited in interacting with residents, because although I may have done many of these things before, many of them are figuring all of this out for the first time. I am honored that I have the opportunity to help them become the people they want to become simply by having conversations with them and genuinely caring for them. That’s what makes this a career and not a job.