Unpacking My Invisible Suitcase: Skills I Learned to Assist in my Graduate School Journey
Je’nell Griffin, University of Georgia
There are many experiences and professional/personal relationships which motivate individuals to enter the world of student affairs and more specifically a career as a fraternity/sorority professional. No matter the reason, there is a certain amount of preparedness that catapults someone into the position. As a graduate student coming to the end of my first year in the College Student Affairs Administration Program at the University of Georgia, I realize that if there is one experience I would attribute to my aspirations in student affairs, it would be my time as a traveling staff member for Alpha Chi Omega. All the plane trips, campus visits, alumnae events, chapter meetings, and suitcases led me to graduate school.
When I decided to accept a position as a traveling staff member, it proved to be a defining moment. After finishing a semester as a chapter leader, 18 units of coursework, and preparing to enter a teaching credential program, I thought I needed a break from the academic world. Little did I know the benefits I would gain as a traveling staff member would significantly impact my life. Traveling across the country for a year-and-a-half immersed me in conflict resolution, supervision, fundraising, and program development. The experiences opened my eyes to student affairs. I saw campus officials as agents of change, committed to the success of their students through the promotion of values congruency and leading with their letters. I knew this was the career path for me.
After my time traveling and with encouragement from mentors, I realized my professional development necessitated my return to school. Often, the role of a graduate assistant is blurred as they straddle their role as student and that of working professional. My experiences as a traveling staff member taught me supervisory skills, conflict resolution, crisis management, and prepared me to manage expectations as a graduate assistant and fraternity/sorority professional.
My experiences leading up to graduate school were a text book case study of Schlossberg’s Transition Theory; my ability to cope depended on what Schlossberg deemed as the 4 S’s: situation, self, support, and strategy (Evans, Forney, & Guido-DiBrito, 1998). As Evans, Forney, and Guido-DiBrito (1998, p. 113) indicate, “An individual’s effectiveness in coping with transition depends on his or her resources in these four areas.” I owe many of my successes to the opportunities and experiences I learned as a traveling staff member. Today, some of the most important skills I learned are carried with me every day in my invisible suitcase.
Always be prepared. While on the road as a traveling staff member, I could be on a visit for a risk management presentation and notice that the executive board needed training as they did not understand their roles as leaders of the chapter. As a fraternity/sorority professional, I understand that no day is ever the same and you must be flexible. Learning this has prepared me both in my assistantship role and as a graduate student.
Decide where to draw the line. The opportunities as a traveling staff member are endless. Meeting alumnae and campus professionals and working with students from all over the country provides extensive learning experiences. Luckily, the chapters I worked with saw me as a resource and a point of contact for event planning, policy questions, and even housing issues. At first I wanted to tackle every issue and was readily available to take any call. Three months into the experience, I showed symptoms of burnout. Mentors and supervisors gave me great advice that I use every day: use the word no. Although I have not mastered the art, I now understand how easily the lines blur. There are some things I will tackle and there are some things I know I cannot handle with course work, practicum hours, and a personal life. Learning to draw the line and say no has been important for me.
Advise appropriately. Two weeks after graduation, I traveled to the Alpha Chi Omega Headquarters Office in Indianapolis, Indiana to begin training. At the time, I was still living in San Diego, California with college roommates and wanted to enjoy my summer before I hit the road. Summer plans quickly dissolved when I realized I was now representing Alpha Chi Omega as a staff member. I had many friends in the three Alpha Chi Omega chapters in the San Diego area that I now advised. I had to have tough conversations with friends and women who were my peers about why they could not host certain events that violated FIPG or Alpha Chi Omega policies. My experiences on the road helped me set a standard for who I wanted to be as a professional and shaped how I supervised, advised, and mentored the student leaders with whom I work.
Work independently. While on the road, some of my administrative responsibilities included booking flights, managing my schedule, budgeting expenses, and writing reports. As my experiences warranted more responsibility and freedom, I learned how to be my own day-to-day boss. Learning how to manage my time, set priorities, and take time for myself was an integral part of the job. Most importantly, I was taught not to be afraid to ask for help. One of the best parts about working as a traveling staff member was knowing that I had others to call on both within my organization and from other inter/national organizations. Although I set my own schedule, I had a responsibility to my organization to promote and support the policies and overall mission. Whether I am in class or in the office, I find myself working on projects and tasks independently. However, I understand the importance of promoting the mission of the department, division, and university when I work with student leaders and other staff members.
Be yourself. Whether I was leading a recruitment workshop or speaking with alumnae, I developed a sense of confidence in my work. I had the liberty to facilitate workshops in a manner that fit my personality. It was important then and even more important now for me to have ownership over the work I do. Encouragement from other staff members to be creative and reenergize myself really kept me going in my second year of traveling. As a graduate assistant, knowing what is important to me, my strengths, and my values places me at ease in the office. I feel that I can contribute perspectives and ideas to the office or community and I know my thoughts are taken in to account. Ultimately, staying true to who I am has given me confidence in the classroom and in professional settings.
Without a doubt, I will unpack and add many skills by the end of my graduate program. So far, I have gained perspectives about student development theories, the importance of assessment, and understanding institutional policies and their implications. As I continue to become more involved in the field, I know the skills I’ve learned while a traveling staff member have prepared me to meet any new challenge the road may bring.
Evans, N. J., Forney, D. S., & Guido-DiBrito, F. (1998). Student development in college. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.