Almost seven years ago, a valued friend and colleague within my functional area informed me of a job opening on her campus. I naturally assumed this position was in Residence Life, a functional area I worked in during graduate school and for a little over six years after earning my master’s degree. I asked my friend, who was a Director of Residence Life, if she created a new Assistant Director position and was that the job opening. I can still remember the surprise I felt when she told me no, that the opening was a director position in Student Life.
Over my career in Residence Life, I worked directly with leadership programs, advised student organizations, implemented diversity programs, and managed large scale events. All of these functions relate directly to what we do in Student Life, but for some reason I never imagined leaving Residence Life. I probably felt that way for a number of reasons, including the fact that I was “brought up” in Student Affairs through Residence Life, but in reflecting back on this transition to a new functional area, part of what made it a little scary was that my network was largely comprised of people working in Residence Life. Do I even know anyone working outside of Residence Life?
In the state where I work, there are 13 four-year institutions and professionals within Residence Life meet yearly to compare notes and share resources. Residence Life departments were organized fairly similarly to one another, so it was easy to know who your counterparts were at the other campuses. Within my new functional area, the organization structures vary more so than Residence Life. The cohort group of people in the state wasn’t comprised of people in similar positions within the hierarchy. To this day, I think there are only one or two other people in my state with a similar title and responsibilities.
This transition prompted me to consider how one develops a network within a functional area especially for professionals who, like me, made a change and maybe felt a little behind. As I reflect upon my networking within a new functional area, there are three themes I believe are worth consideration for those who are making a transition to a new functional area or just starting out.
1. Professional Involvement: The bulk of my professional involvement in the formative years of my career was in a state organization affiliated with ACPA – College Student Educators International. Being involved in a generalist organization made me realize that although many of the members and leaders were working in Residence Life, there were a few individuals I had the opportunity to collaborate with who worked in other functional areas. Asking questions and taking an opportunity to compare and contrast how professionals within other functional areas addressed common issues helped to keep my eye on how functional areas are similar and not different. Becoming involved in functional area specific organizations is extremely helpful to building a network within your functional area, but taking an opportunity to foster relationships within generalist organizations (such as ACPA and NASPA) with people from all types of functional areas including your own increases the power and reach of your professional network.
2. Social Media and Online Learning: There are many professionals within Student Affairs talking about the use of various social media tools to advance our work through professional collaboration. At a time when professional development budgets are tight, engaging in different forms of online networking is an important part of continued growth and development as a professional. The Learn Forward blog series is one strong example of how networking and professional development can be done without the high costs associated with professional development travel. Student Affairs social media outlets often foster multi-functional area conversations; however, functional area specific hashtags can be used to find professionals talking about issues specific to a functional area. Following these people via Twitter and engaging in the ongoing conversation facilitated through social media provides an outstanding opportunity for professional connection.
3. Be Open and Adaptable: As I mentioned before, my transition from a highly structured network with my previous functional area to one that had some variance took some getting used to. Our state functional area annual meeting brings together professionals up and down the hierarchy who all sit in one room to discuss issues and share resources. This less formal structure is different from what I am used to, but it has been fun to network with professionals who have slightly different responsibilities and titles. Paying attention to the already formed networking opportunities and assessing how they function by engaging in them fully may require an openness and a willingness to adapt to something outside your comfort zone; however, these new opportunities can provide much needed perspective on how others conduct our shared work.
Networking within your functional area in Student Affairs provides valuable professional development opportunities that spur creative thinking and enable resource sharing.
Although I believe our work in Student Affairs is more similar across functional area than different, developing a network of colleagues within your functional area does provide a sense of community and is instrumental to ensuring you address function-specific issues in a way that is consistent with best practices. Intentional involvement in professional organizations, connecting through online networking opportunities, and maintaining an openness to different types of networking structures will enable professionals to build a strong and supportive network helpful in navigating our shared work to educate and develop students.
Missed a post? Read the entire Professional Networking Series here.
About the Author: Paul Shepherd currently serves as the Director of Student Involvement at the University of Wisconsin – River Falls where he is responsible for a diverse array of student engagement opportunities including leadership, student organizations, service/volunteerism, student governance, and campus events. Paul has served the student affairs profession for 13 years and is passionate about student learning and development through intentional co-curricular programming. Paul is currently pursuing a Doctor of Educational Leadership degree and is interested in researching student engagement and persistence to graduation among multicultural, first generation, and low income college students. Paul has served as a presenter, consultant, and speaker in the areas of leadership development, student engagement, bystander intervention, and learning outcomes based assessment. In his spare time, Paul enjoys spending time with his family and blogging at Renewing Leadership. Paul also loves engaging with colleagues and students via Twitter! Follow Paul @pshepRF.