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Transforming Conferences — Transforming Ourselves?

A phrase those of us who work in the field of Higher Education regularly use with our students is to “think outside of the box.”  It’s a common enough idea — don’t stay with the ordinary, think of how you can do something newer/better, etc. — yet for the most part, the more you move up within an industry, the less this advice is preached to you.  Our work lives become more focused on administration and higher level tasks, so that the mundane invariably zaps us of our youthful creativity that brought us here in the first place.  Creating flashy bulletin boards becomes damage billing, devoting oodles of time to our students becomes putting out the daily mini-fires within our buildings/department, and so on.  It doesn’t have to be this way; we can transform our environment to be one that resembles the lighthearted, wholly worthwhile experiences we had as RAs/grads if we only break away from the insipidity that comes with having increasingly less time with students and more time devoted to managing.

I recently had the privilege of attending the inaugural Big Ideas Conference, put together by The Jersey Alliance.  One of the innumerable things that was refreshing about this conference was how it was so unlike any other conference I’ve attended.  Think about the unifying characteristics of all of the conferences you’ve attended.  Now create a conference with the guideline that you aren’t allowed to do those things.  Welcome to the Big Ideas experience.  I understood the basic premise of what this conference was going to entail, but what I didn’t know (and am starting to see after the fact) was the impact that two days would have on my overall frame of mind when it comes to Student Affairs.

I could continue on for paragraphs about how amazing an experience it was to attend this groundbreaking conference, but for space sake, take my word for it (and follow #bigideas12 on Twitter).  The brain trust that is the planners/organizers of the Big Ideas Conference understand that we hold within us the ability to transform our structured, traditional approaches into something much more dynamic and meaningful, not just for our own benefit, but for that of our students as well.  I don’t have to tell you that we are working with students who were born into the technology age (see: “Internet Generation”) and know much more about fast-paced lifestyles and communication than 98% of administrators out there.

Yet in spite of that, we — for the most part — continue to go with our normal approaches in our work with students, when deep down, our students are longing for something that speaks their language, something that they can understand and identify with.  Bulletin boards and brochures are archaic for our generation.  Anything over two paragraphs (or 140 characters) goes unread.  Emails go unchecked.  These are widely-used methods in our industry that just aren’t working for our current students.  What we as Student Affairs professionals need to do is to take a page from our Big Ideas colleagues and take part in what Higher Ed blogger and social media pro Eric Stoller calls “status quo deconstruction.”  Find ways to incorporate what our students use on a daily basis (texting, blogging, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest) into our approaches with them.  If you noticed, all of what was listed has to do with technology — think about it.  Come up with innovative ways to handle judicial sanctions, programming ideas, advertising, etc.  You have to step outside the box to think outside the box, so quit thinking like an college student administrator and start thinking like a college student.  What would you want to see from your residential/university experience?  How would you feel connected?  These and other questions are the building blocks to becoming a field that is truly student-centered.

What are some things that you and/or your department do to meet our college students where they are?  Are there any Big Ideas that you have developed that have resonated with your students?  Please share them below, and remember:

“It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets credit.” – President Harry S. Truman

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