Creating Meaningful and Intentional Opportunities for Staff Development:
A Campus Approach
Kristin Fouts, Western Michigan University
Professional development for Association of Fraternity/Sorority Advisors (AFA) members and volunteers need not be a burden on one’s time or wallet. Creating simple opportunities for staff to learn new concepts and engage in conversation about controversial, timely, or student-focused topics is the key to maintaining a positive work environment; one in which staff feel valued and prepared for their work in the immediate and near future. AFA, NASPA – Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education (NASPA), ACPA – College Student Educators International (ACPA), and other associations encourage ongoing training and development in their professional competencies. Additionally, being intentional about professional development keeps you continuously engaged and on the leading edge of innovation and advising trends (Binder, 2008).
One example comes from the professional development plan created by staff members in the Office of Student Activities and Leadership Programs (SALP) at Western Michigan University (WMU). The plan engaged every member of the staff from the office coordinator to the director. It fostered a global perspective on the field and encouraged shared responsibility, diversity of thought, and collaboration with other departments.
The SALP office at WMU includes five graduate assistants and five professional staff dedicated to fraternity and sorority life, campus activities/programming, leadership and volunteer services, student organization development and finance, and faith and spiritual development. Given the range of functional responsibilities, professional development is varied, but all opportunities are primarily focused on student affairs and higher education.
Three key points should be highlighted about the professional development plan created by SALP staff: (a) it is consistent, (b) it is shared, and (c) it is strategic. The plan came about informally between the leadership team, but was designed very intentionally.
Professional development occurs on a consistent basis. A schedule is created at the beginning of each semester, whereby staff members sign up for at least one weekly staff meeting at which they will lead approximately 15 to 20 minutes of discussion on a chosen topic. Less-regular opportunities are also opened to all staff, including the AFA Virtual Seminar Series and other web-based programs, interesting articles from The Chronicle of Higher Education shared via e-mail, and invitations from other departments to attend webinars, workshops, or interview presentations. This last practice is especially important to mention; professional development should not be confined within one’s own office or department. Sharing resources, especially where learning and growth are possible, can help break down silo walls and create fruitful potential partnerships for future endeavors.
The responsibility for presenting a professional development opportunity at each staff meeting throughout the year is shared among all staff. Graduate assistants may choose to share and lead discussion on an article they are currently reading in a class, a viral video with professional implications, or any number of other forms. Some of the following resources have been shared by staff in recent months: discussions on articles from The Chronicle of Higher Education and Perspectives, a panel on placement exchanges and interviewing tips by professional staff for the graduate assistants, a news story about the cost and value of a graduate degree in the current economy, innovative assessment strategies, and a review of the university’s funding structure and the role of student fee dollars. Staff also regularly present on their experiences at off-campus and campus-based conferences and retreats. These experiences give young and veteran staff members the opportunity to hone simple presentation and critical thinking skills, and encourage strong connections between classroom learning and practical experience.
Finally, professional development is strategic. SALP Director Chris Sligh, in partnership with other full-time staff, created a budget for professional development to ensure that it would not be lost in the current economy. All of the opportunities mentioned above are free or are available at little cost to the department (webinars typically cost about $50 per registration). However, a separate plan details the process by which staff can request professional development funds in order to attend conferences and regional meetings. All staff must submit a “wish list” of desired programs to attend, as well as detailed information on associated fees, travel costs, and reason(s) for wanting to attend. This process helps ensure accountability and intentionality, which are key in a time when department budgets are thin. Funding is allocated to graduate staff and professional staff, and those who attend conferences return and offer presentations to the team, bringing learning full-circle.
Whether you work in an office of two or twenty, your professional development can and should be regular, shared, and strategic. Sharing articles from association publications, discussing current political and student development trends, attending local or out-of-state conferences, or even simply calling a colleague to chat about challenges and opportunities within your community are all opportunities for personal and professional growth. In larger teams, particularly those with graduate student staff members, shared responsibility for group learning and development opportunities are essential. Large budgets are not necessary to achieve significant learning and growth; simple intentionality and a dash of creativity can make professional development meaningful.
Binder, R. (2008, January). Creating a professional development plan. Essentials
. Retrieved on January 6, 2010, from the Association of Fraternity/Sorority Advisors Web site http://fraternityadvisors.org/Essentials/200801/PD_Plan.aspx