Last week was one of those weeks. You know, the kind of week when I said things like “I miss grad school, when things used to be simple and easy”. Which must mean that I was delusional, because grad school was neither simple nor easy. I returned from the beautiful lull of a three day weekend, with fresh memories of  sand, surf, seafood, and late summer sun, and BAM. Tuesday was basically a brick wall. And the rest of the week followed suit. I wound my way through a labyrinth of mental health concerns, conduct meetings, roommate conflicts, confrontation, awkwardness, and tears shed on my university-issued office couch. Even when I was just trying to do an innocent door-to-door program, I found students smoking pot.  By Friday afternoon, I was making wagers with colleagues about how long building improvement projects would take (which is obviously a form of reckless escapism).

But guess what? I DID IT. I did it. Issue after issue, and I just kept going. It was like a whack-a-mole game and I nailed every single one of those moles right on the head. I know that’s a really weird analogy. And yes, things happened that are outside of my control. Not everything ended up rainbows and unicorns last week because my job is about real stuff that happens in young people’s lives. Human emotions, impulses, conflict, identity crises, transition, transformation, and life are never going to be clean and pretty.

My job is not clean and pretty. Sometimes it seems thankless. Other people in the “outside world” ask me if I want to be doing what I’m doing, as if it’s impossible that I went to grad school with the goal of becoming a residence hall director. Yes, I went to grad school so that I could do this challenging, time-consuming job that requires I live in a residence hall at age 24.  And last week was the kind of week that makes you ask “Why exactly am I doing this, again?”. Thankfully, I have answers.

After dealing with a mental health concern, I told a colleague “I went into this field for a reason; because I want to help people.”  I said it off the cuff, as an explanation for my calm and focus under pressure, but in that moment, I realized that is my explanation. That’s my reason. When the chips are on the table, when I’m tired, when I’m going “above and beyond”, I’m not doing it because I think it’s going to advance my career, get me recognition, or even a thank you. I’m doing it because I feel an intense obligation to make other people’s lives better. I’m doing it because there are people who helped me in college, who listened to me when I was upset, who offered me opportunities and hope. I do it because I don’t want anyone to ever feel alone. I do it because I want these students to make it through college. I don’t want anyone who feels like they need help to not have help.

I’ve said many times that my philosophy in life is to ask myself at the end of each day if I’ve helped someone. And that’s it; at the end of the day, after all of the student development theories, history, law, organizational context, educational philosophy and what have you, it’s about helping people and doing the right thing.


Why Motivation Matters: What we can learn about supervision from “Drive”


While reading Daniel H. Pink’s Drive this week for the #SAChat book club, I had a few moments of clarity about supervision and personal practice. Sometimes I feel that there is always a question of “How do we get student staff to do what we want them to do?”. We, as professionals, similarly ask ourselves “How do I get myself to this meeting/to finish this project/to get out of bed?” (admit it).

Now, some student staff, whether they are RAs, office work study students, orientation leaders, or others, consistently blow our minds with how freaking good they are at their jobs. I’ve had times during grad school when I’ve looked at students I supervise or work closely with and feel inspired by their rockstar-ness. And there are students that you know are not really engaged with the work, who don’t want to put in the work to get the benefits, who are just checking in and checking out as necessary. I do not file these students into “good student worker” and “bad student worker” piles, but try to realize that there are some pieces missing in the experience of the students who struggle. The rockstar students love what they are doing; they are personally connected and engaged to the work  in some way; they see that there are immense benefits to themselves or a community they care about from their work.

Extrinsic v Intrinsic

Pink’s framework on motivation is all about intrinsic v. extrinsic drives and rewards. The idea is that extrinsic rewards and systems, in which you work explicitly for the purpose of getting a tangible reward or avoiding punishment, ultimately act as a demotivator, reducing someone’s long-term potential to achieve creativity, productivity, and derive meaning from their work.  Systems that recognize intrinsic motivation, however, allow for individuals to engage actively with their environments, exercise their creativity, feel valued, and turn out better work, better ideas, and better lives.

Pink introduces the idea of “flow” to describe the optimum creative/productive/happy state that people achieve when they are doing something for intrinsic reasons. Here’s the Wiki on flow, which was discovered by Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi, a psychologist Pink interviewed for this book. It’s about focus, rapture, intense commitment to a task; you gain enjoyment from doing what you are doing. Pink draws on the arts and athletics as some examples of flow; I’m sure many of us can relate to that analogy. Flow is a central part of what drives intrinsic motivation. The flow is the drive, in fact. It’s a performance high. It’s being in the zone. It’s feeling great about what you are doing.

Four T’s

Pink suggests that people exhibit intrinsic behavior when they have autonomy over the four T’s: task, time, technique, and team. As an artist or athlete, for example, you typically have a lot of control over these things. UNLESS someone starts messing all up in your flow, giving you lots of schedules, deadlines, specific compensation for your performance, and telling you who you have to collaborate with. Boom. Demotivated.

Now, we don’t do that in Student Affairs…right? Crap. Crappity crap crap. You bet we do. I think that these extrinsic factors (which pretty much all of management in the history of the U.S. has been based on) are the grounds upon which all of our pre-semester great ideas, brainstorms, and lofty, innovative, exciting plans go to die.

A Student Affairs Scenario

Here’s how it works (more like, doesn’t work): It’s the beginning of a new semester. Our students (in my case, RAs) are getting their flow on. They are all ready to meet new residents, build relationships, foster community, help people be more safe, secure, and smart. In addition to the room and board, that’s why most of them are here; they realize that this job has some pretty good intrinsic payoffs in terms of impacting the campus and others’ lives. And the first thing we do with this intrinsic drive when they arrive is schedule the living crap out of them. Be here at 8am. Sit in different rooms all day. Go along with these blocks of time and presenters and then make sure you stay up late to complete this checklist that I have for you. I’ve seen it happen every year. It’s deflating. We do exercises like coming up with a community programming model, which is a creative, intrinsically-driven process, and then we make it into a checklist. Do this much of this every week/month/semester. Bring in this many people. Check off all of these boxes. While we are at it, I’m also going to assign you to play nicely with others on a forced team. And most of the time, when we do this, we aren’t even extrinsically motivating them with a reward, but with a punishment. If you complete the programming requirements, keep your hall decorated, collaborate with X number of resources, report on conversations with this many residents, etc, then you won’t get put on probation or an action plan.

Ugh. I love my previous department. I worked there for 5 years and it changed my life. I love the RAs I worked with and my coworkers. But I think that they would all agree with me that these guidelines, timetables, checklists, spreadsheets, threats for underperformance, and so forth are exhausting, energy-killing, and creativity-quashing. But this is how I’ve always worked. I had the best damn program tracking spreadsheet you’ve ever seen and a rubric, checklist, or guide for pretty much everything. My RAs would gasp when they saw my Google calendar because it looked like a colorful game of Jenga, scheduled discretely for every single hour of my week.

How Can we Harness Intrinsic Motivation?

What Pink is saying though, is not only that this isn’t how it has to be, but not how it should be. In fact, working this way is completely against our natural human tendencies and behaviors. I’ve had many moments of “flow” in my ResLife work. Leaving a program to counsel a student about homesickness and having an amazing conversation. Brainstorming something exciting and innovative with my team. Talking with people over lunch or coffee about important issues in higher education. Seeing my student org members work together seamlessly to pull off an event despite challenges. There are so many more that I can think of. Drive has inspired me to think more about what makes those kinds of moments so meaningful, productive, and intense (in a good way) and how I can rethink the way I structure the every day to optimize my own and my supervisees’ intrinsic motivation and rewards. Students need to have a sense of autonomy over the four Ts (task, time, technique, team) to be their best, most driven selves. We need the same thing as professional staff. And we need to rethink how systems of accountability work (or they don’t work) to allow for that intrinsic motivation to flourish.

Food for thought: How can you maximize the intrinsic potential of your staff members?

An Open Letter to SA Grads…

Dear Student Affairs Grad Student:

Hi, I’m just writing to tell you that it’s going to be okay.

What is going to be okay, you ask? Well, whatever is bugging you right now. Whatever is stressing you out, keeping you up at night, filling your planner, your email inbox, and your brain. It’s going to be okay.

Now, I’m not going to make false promises, hold your hand, or tell you things I can’t guarantee. I don’t really know you, after all, so the specifics are irrelevant. I’m not sure if you are going to get the job that you are really pulling for. I don’t know how late you are going to have to stay up tonight to finish that paper. I can’t say for sure how your NODA or ACUHO-I phone interviews are going to go. I don’t know how many more times you will have to edit your research design, whether your student staff will listen during staff meeting this week, or if you will have an emergency on-call situation in the middle of the night.

I can tell you that your family probably is still a little foggy about what exactly it is that you do for work. Some things you just have to accept…

I can also tell you that in spite of it all, you can do it. And you can do more than just scrape by.

You can help people. You can make students feel like they are worth it. You can save someone’s life. You can offer a helping hand to a colleague. You can inspire a student to stay in school. You can help someone discover their passion. You can share your knowledge with the field. You can teach  and learn. You can build relationships, manage conflicts, give the occasional hug, and change people’s lives. So thanks for that, by the way. If no one has stopped recently to tell you that you are doing really important, great things, I want to tell you that you are. I appreciate it.

Furthermore, you are going to get through grad school and become a great new professional. All of the bumps in the road are part of the journey. I say this as no stranger to rejection, late nights, early mornings, long weekends,  and tearful crises.

When it’s all said and done, you are going to be more than okay. You are going to be awesome. And why shouldn’t you be? Do you feel awesome? I think you’re awesome. I believe in you.



P.S. I would like to specifically dedicate this to the UMaine HEd class of 2012 and to Cory.