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by • February 12, 2014 • Assessment & Student AffairsComments (8)3615

We’re On A Mission

This post is inspired by a fantastic conversation with Tim St. John. Thanks friend!

Why are we here? Why do we do what we do? What brings us into work every day, day after day?

These deeply philosophical questions can be answered in many different ways and by many different behaviours. Our guiding mission in student affairs is written on plaques and pages, heralded as the ultimate ‘why’ for the long hours and endless emails. Our why is not only an internal motivator, but also an external validator. We may know why we do what we do, but do others outside of the institution, or, perhaps more importantly, outside our department?

In thinking about mission statements (or, more accurately, in talking about mission statements with Tim), we discussed how student affairs mission and vision statements are seemingly different from those that guide other professions. Ultimately, our mission statements may fuel the passions that brought us to the field, but they can also create a dangerously utopian view of what it’s like to work in student life.

Companies in the ‘outside world’ (in quotes for a future blog post topic), most mission statements focus on the goods and services the company provides:

“It is the Mission of Advance Auto Parts to provide personal vehicle owners and enthusiasts with the vehicle related products and knowledge that fulfill their wants and needs at the right price.” (Advanced Auto Parts Inc.)

Any reference to relationships, their clients and the ‘warm fuzzy’ we take for granted is often an afterthought, and in reference to the delivery of the ‘stuff’ they sell.

“Our friendly, knowledgeable and professional staff will help inspire, educate and problem-solve for our customers.” (Advanced Auto Parts Inc.)

Compare this to a Student Affairs mission statement:

“The primary mission of the division is to help students realize, develop, and fulfill their personal potential to better enhance their university experience. The division is dedicated to the well-being and development of all students, and helping students achieve the success they deserve.” (University of Windsor)

I will concede that writing a mission statement about selling car parts is a bit easier than trying to make student learning and development a tangible commodity. However, what’s interesting about comparing these two statements is where the emphasis lies.

In most mission statements, the emphasis is on what the company and its staff can do, provide, or sell. In Student Affairs, our mission statements focus on the same, but emphasize the people over the product. We highlight our commitment to our students, acting in service to them outright rather than through a customer service experience that wraps around buying auto parts or selling bedding.

In Student Affairs, our mission statements show that we’re in fear of being an office offering services, yet we praise, highlight, and demand service – to our institution, our department, and our students. 

Why is that?

Rightly so, we extol the virtues of a career in Student Affairs as being ‘in service to’ many things – namely, our students and their development. We work ‘in service’ to a higher calling to support and aid our peers, an attractive proposition for new professionals.

However, although we may deny it, we are also a service. Selling a locker to a student so they can keep their books on campus instead of carrying their heavy load around campus is as much ‘in service’ to our calling as it is to invite that same student to a leadership workshop. The service of our regular budget projections and report writing is in service of our charge to make data driven decisions on how to best spend money students have invested in us and our institutions.

Being ‘in service’ to a calling demands passion, energy, commitment and an unfailing sense of purpose. While admirable, taken together these same traits can be outright exhausting. When coupled with the service work we do on a day to day basis, it’s no wonder the picture we paint of following a passion to Student Affairs isn’t as rosy once a new professional begins their first full time job.

While I continue to see myself acting ‘in service’ of and for my students and my colleagues, I no longer shy away from ‘services’. A service (a transaction) is not a more lowly route to a higher calling, but rather a stop, a landmark, a way station on the path to achieving a mission meant to broadly cover the tremendous number of stories we will be privileged enough to share in. Could our disdain of the lowly services paint too bright a picture of what it means to be ‘in service’ as Student Affairs professionals?

Do you act in service, or as a service? Is one better than the other? Can we be both? Tell me in the comments below.

unrealistic expectations of service as a calling but services as ‘the hard stuff’

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8 Responses to We’re On A Mission

  1. joeginese says:

    As the increase in the amount of people seeking higher education who cannot afford the rising costs of higher education the tide will turn and go towards free, online alternatives.

    With that in mind, the only thing that campuses are soon going to be able to use to differ themselves (aside from majors offered and big name professors), is the service. This is why you see residence hall with rock climbing walls and specialty dining options.

    Student Affairs is, in some places, called Student Services and that is appropriate. We offer services. We provide services. Students who choose to use our services are the ones that often succeed and go further and are responsible for being the majority of the retention rate and graduating students.

    No surprise that those students who utilized the services are also those who are more than likely willing to give back years down the road if they are fiscally successful.

    One of my favorite things to point out is that if we start realizing that student services is becoming more and more about customer service. Stop being afraid of calling students customers and reframe your thinking. Once you realize that the person across from you shouldn’t be taken for granted “because students have no choice, they can’t get what I offer anywhere else,” you will be much more successful, students more satisfied, and you much happier.

    Loaded conversation Lisa but an important one.

    And no, considering ourselves as service providers does not distance us from faculty. Faculty are also providing a service in that they provide the opportunity and ability to spread and share their knowledge and empower students to create their own knowledge.

    • lmendersby says:

      I can always count on you to get me thinking, Joe. 🙂

      While I appreciate and can understand the need for differentiation in this business (yes, business) of higher education, these enticements and promotions can lead us down the same path that evokes ideals of ‘service’ instead of being ‘in service’. Rock walls are great (I’m a fan myself) but are we enticing students for the right reasons? Don’t get me wrong, amenities and other ‘perks’ aren’t in themselves a bad thing, and not everything needs to be ultimately educational with well written learning outcomes, but if we think students will only stay with us for a rock wall or speciality dining, are we then ignoring our educational goals at outcomes? Are we building around our core missions and values instead of building them up?

      • joeginese says:

        My interpretation of the culture, when it comes to students who have the means (see: money), to have the ability to apply to numerous colleges they are assuming that the education everywhere is the same. It is the (and we also have…) that is going to sway them one way or another.

        I am willing to bet very few students are looking at colleges or universities and saying, “I want to go there because the faculty seem really great, established, and published.”

        Top 10-15% will care about the mission, values, and curriculum experience.

        Middle 60-70% will go on “feeling” when they go on campus and hope everything else just sort of is what they expect.

        Bottom 15-20% are there because they were told they have to go there, only got into that place, are planning on transferring out or deciding that college wasn’t the right path for them.

        Survey students and give them the options
        “I chose XYZ university because of the academics.”
        “I chose XYZ university because of the campus feel.”
        “I chose XYZ university because they accepted me.”

        It doesn’t have to be so clear cut but in reality, we shouldn’t be afraid of making it clear cut. No more dancing around the bushes, either you are picking students who are amateur scholars or have potential to be, or you are picking students who will be happy customers on your campus and won’t break too many exit signs in the hallways.

  2. Tim St. John says:

    I agree 100% that we need to be thinking of customer service and to recognize what we do is services. That being said, I think student services is misleading. We provide more than just a service. Perhaps student affairs and services is better. The implication with both customer and service is that I will pay you for x and you will give me y. The complication with students is that they are a part of the “y” or end product, so it is a joint relationship, not just a transaction. However, I think many student affairs professionals shy away from using service for whatever reason. The more we think about and study customer service, the better we will be at a lot of the facets of our jobs. I have heard one too many professional get on a high horse about well we know what’s best for the students. Not true – they do and we need to adapt to what they want and think is best (to a degree) to survive. I teach all of my orientation leaders the Disney customer service principles because it helps them to be more patient, friendly, helpful and flexible. This helps our service to students and family, but also better helps to shape the experience. As a profession, we need to think more about this.

    Thanks for writing this Lisa. I was left with a big smile and a full brain after our chat and I look forward to many more!

    • lmendersby says:

      Thanks Tim! I agree that the term ‘services’ is misleading and can make our departments and work appear more transactional than transformational. It also seems to demote us from a ‘higher calling’ of supporting student learning and development. However, I agree with you that customer service is not a lesser way of viewing our work – treating students with respect, (truly) listening to their concerns, working with them in a solutions-focused mindset and helping them get what they need is, often, what we do, whether it’s from behind a counter or at an event. Considering how many of our students interact with us on a day to day basis, it only makes sense to more strongly emphasize an outstanding customer service experience. Many students may never come to an event or workshop, but many more will stop at our front desk. Why should their experience be any different?

  3. JChase82938492372389 says:

    Here’s my question….the core function of your job…is it educating? is it providing service? If the education piece disappeared, would you still be considered to be doing a good job? What about the service?

    There’s your answer to which you do.

    • lmendersby says:

      Great questions. Your wording seems to imply that we can separate education from providing a service. If a service is defined, in part, by providing a helpful activity or accommodation, how does or can education rise above this? I think part of the challenge is defining the ‘product’ of providing education as something more intangible (knowledge, skills) that isn’t usually quantified in the same, easy way that the product of a service is. Is the definition of a service tied to its product? Sorry to answer your questions with more questions. 🙂

  4. Craig Berger says:

    Thanks for this post, Lisa.

    I sense that I view our role in higher education differently than what you’re putting forth here. I don’t necessarily view my role (a coordinator in a student life office, advising the student government and partnering with students to create change) as being one of service as much as a partnership. I partner with students, faculty, staff, and administrators every day to create real environments in which students can discover their own power and learn to see the world they’re in as fluid and open to change.

    I think that if we want the students with whom we work to be critically thinking, culturally competent, and self-authoring people, we have to genuinely engage them as individual human beings, not interact with them exclusively based on the roles we assume them to be playing, as data points, or as if they’re “ours” to be had (something about the phrase “my students” bugs me). In the context of organizing campus change projects, many students tell me that the times when they feel most empowered or “alive” in their education is when their individual humanity is recognized, when the person with whom they’re partnering isn’t placating them with “What a nice idea!” brushoffs, but actually engaging with their idea, thoughtfully responding to it based on their knowledge of the person and their interests and talents.

    I think Tim is right in that we need to stop ourselves from assuming that we know what’s best for students. However, without knowing much about that training, I worry that using corporate customer service training may introduce an artificial quality to interactions with students that actually inhibits their development and learning. I wonder if there is a way that we can communicate with students and not worry so much about our roles or our scripts, but just about making sure they’re seen as human beings?

    I understand that you can’t simply erase hierarchy. However, I worry that if we view all of our work as being based on “serving” our students, we infuse a power dynamic into our work that 1.) isn’t actually necessary most of the time, and 2.) isn’t helpful in creating environments that truly allow students to own the work of solving wicked, complex problems (something they’ll need to be able to do once they leave our respective campuses).

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