Success Within the Mess

by Donald Abels

If there is one piece of advice I value the most from my student affairs experience thus far, it is this: no program or event is guaranteed success and we should always be prepared for the possibility of messy results. This does not mean that we should expect for our programs to fail, rather we should prepare for the possibility. Higher Education and Student Affairs is constantly changing and we have to be willing to address the changing needs. Often times, this process results in new programs or initiatives. The implementation of a new program can be overwhelming, especially for a first-year with a heavy workload. Despite the challenges, these are the things we live for in student affairs-- opportunities to develop students and enhance their college experience.

Being a first-year graduate assistant, I have learned more than I ever thought possible--literally. Before graduating I had the impression that being a student leader in undergrad wasn’t much different than being a graduate assistant. I was wrong. Like most graduate assistants in student affairs, I practically majored in campus involvement during undergrad. I was chapter president of my fraternity, participated in community service, served on SGA as homecoming director, and worked during the summer as an orientation assistant, all in hopes of landing a graduate assistantship that was a perfect for me—which I did. Don’t take this out of context, my undergraduate experiences paid off tremendously, but the role a graduate is far different than the role of a student leader.

Within the first semester of being a graduate assistant, the reality of programming letdowns hit me like a brick wall. Like many other institutions, student retention became a major focus for campus administrators. My passion for student involvement and my past experience with freshmen orientation provided me with an opportunity to lead efforts in creating a new freshmen experience program. Of course, I eagerly accepted the challenge. After months of performing research on similar programs, countless hours of planning, etc., the groundwork was laid for the first annual Traditions Day Freshmen Experience Program. We all have those programs we take an unhealthy amount of ownership over. This was mine. The name was catchy, the logo was perfect, and the response from students during summer orientation was promising. I even remember the staff discussing the possibility of reaching the registration limit of one hundred students. After all, with an estimated enrollment of four thousand incoming freshmen for the fall, this is a likely problem, right? You can imagine my surprise a week out from the event and a total of twenty students were registered.
Naturally, the deadline was extended and we hoped for at least thirty. Finally, the big day arrived and we’ve managed to get twenty-eight freshmen signed up for Traditions Day. Then, out of nowhere, the brick wall of disappointment hits after less than fifteen students show up. I was embarrassed beyond belief. Other staff members and student leaders were as well, but at the end of the day, Traditions Day in large part, was my responsibility.

I would be lying if I said all programs can be great success. The truth is, in the field of student affairs, programming can be messy. Often times, especially with new programs, programming is a game of trial and error. In order to achieve effective programs, we must learn to recognize the success of the program, and disregard the mess.

At the time, I considered Traditions Day to be my worst experience. Looking back, this was one of the most beneficial learning experiences I’ve had yet. When our programs turn out to be a big mess, it is easy to overlook the success within it all. Yet, these are the blocks we must build upon. Yes, participation was low, but the intimacy of the program made for even better results. The success of this mess: Traditions Day impacted the lives of students. Even if it was only a handful of students whose college experiences was enhanced, a difference was made in the life of at least one student,. Seeing students get involved with Freshmen Council, Greek Life and Area Government makes all the effort worthwhile and is a constant reminder of the reason I do what I do – the reason we do what we do.

It easy to become overly concerned with numbers when we are constantly tracking attendance, swiping student ID’s at events, and being reminded of retention efforts by administration. Retention is of vital importance at any institution, and tracking attendance at events can provide us with great insights, but we can’t let ourselves forget the fundamental purpose of student affairs—the development of students, even if it is one student at a time.

Student Affairs - the First Years

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