Your Focus Pit

As a kid, I used to spend part of every summer with my extended family in the foothills of the Adirondacks at my grandparents’ home. It was a great place, complete with a swimming lake, canoe & sailboat, rope swing into the lake, campfire, sing-a-longs, and s’mores. We called it Camp Wilson for good reason. But if the rain kept us inside, or if we needed a late evening activity, we played games. Lots of games. One of the cousins’ favorites was Pit.

Pit hand

If you have never played Pit, let me try to explain. It’s a raucous game that replicates the Stock Exchange floor. You try to trade cards (in 1s, 2s, 3s, and 4s) with other players to accumulate all 9 in one of the grains (oats, flax, etc). It’s loud, and arms are criss-crossing every which way while people are yelling numbers and swapping cards, until someone yells, “Corner on Wheat!” The older cousins managed to master a silent game of Pit, after the younger cousins were in bed. Even then, it was pretty crazy.

My husband (then boyfriend) managed to alter the game dramatically. Apparently tired of the frenetic pace of the game, he approached one round at a snail’s pace. He didn’t yell. He didn’t rush. He simple stated, “Two, would anyone like two?” at a normal voice level.

A funny thing then happened. We all had to slow down.

We couldn’t barge on with the game if he was holding three of my Flax and two of my cousin’s Wheat. it just didn’t work. We all had to take a breath and play the game his way.

I was reminded of my husband’s playing this morning, when I read an article by Peter Bregman on Two Lists You Should Look at Every Morning. Bregman reminds us that we often rush right through because we can. We need to take a breath and focus. There will always be distractions, but we need to focus on what’s important and (more importantly) what’s not.

I would challenge you to refrain from explaining away the lack of time or the last-minute approach. Of course, there will be emergencies that arise and demand your attention. However,  I would encourage you to stop, focus, and get the important work done. You have more control over the pace than you give yourself credit for.

What things are on Your Focus list?

Twitter Taught Me to Stop Apologizing

“Well, I was thinking that we should…”

“I believe that we could…”

“I think that it might be better if…”

Do any of those sound like statements that would stop you in your tracks?

My name is Niki, and I am an apologist. Actually, a reformed apologist. I would couch my statements with about 15 more words than they needed, often using “I think” or “I believe” as a way of saying, “Well, this is just my opinion, but…” I remember getting a paper back eons ago, where the professor slashed through the “I think” with red ink, adding, “We know it’s your opinion. You don’t need to remind us.”

I have spent many years, many faculty and staff meetings, many presentations, trying to erase the uncertainty from my statements. Then along comes Twitter, and “I think” and “I believe” are a waste of characters. You cannot present a disclaimer and a statement. 140 characters is just enough space for the presentation of the idea.

In addition to brevity, Twitter offered me a fabulous network of professionals that supported my voice, and the apologies fell away.

So, make a statement. We value your opinion.


When I first heard of the challenge to define a resolution for 2011 in one word (courteous of some of the great women of #sachat), I didn’t have to think very long. In fact, the word came to me as if I had already spoken it. Next.

And then I laughed. It sounded like such an impatient word, as though I am hurrying into something else without enjoying the now. Truth be told, I am actually a pretty laid back person. I find it easier to simplify than worry, but there is something about 2011 that reminds me of when President Bartlett, in The West Wing, tells Josh Lyman, “When I ask ‘What’s Next?’ it means I’m ready to move on to other things. So, what’s next?”

2011 may very well be a year of great change for me and my family. In considering William Bridges’ model of Transitions, I may very well see many Endings, Neutral Zones, and Beginnings during this year. That excites me. That gives me energy that I haven’t felt in a while, toward my profession and myself.

I am going to enjoy revisiting this post in December 2011 and check my accuracy. Am I in the same role? Am I returning to my hobbies after becoming Dr. Rudolph? Am I even living in the same state?

I am blessed to be sharing 2011 with an amazing partner, who is ready to see what’s next with me. It is because of Brent and my two beautiful girls that I am facing the next with excitement, not trepidation. Next is possibility and potential. Next is what could be, and 2011 could be amazing!

Learner Observer: Why Stacy Oliver was right.

Stacy Oliver’s timing is impeccable. Granted, I also believes she is a machine. While I have random notes in a blog draft about Corey Booker’s leadership during the Newark snowpacolypse, Stacy pumped out a lesson for student affairs administrators on the value of using social media to connect with students. But my awe of her timing has more to do with her post on the The SA Blog yesterday, appreciating her colleague’s skill in working with students.

I am writing this blog in the middle of orientation, where I play more of a Girl Friday role to support my advisors meeting with new students. For our late orientation sessions, we relocate to a classroom across campus. Claiming a student desk and stringing laptop cords in MacGyver-like fashion, we meet with students in our makeshift bullpen. Since I monitor check-in lists and field questions, I have the rare opportunity to watch my advisors meet one-on-one with these incoming students.

And these advisors are amazing.

Minus the cape, they reach superhero status with how much they explain (over and over and over again with the patience of Job), how sincerely they listen, and how deftly they navigate the university’s bureaucracy for these students. If you just watch the non-verbal communication from the students, you can see them visibly relax their shoulders. In full disclosure, I had a hand in hiring all five of these professionals. All were directly out of their masters program, and all have grown in ways I could never have imagined.

But more than being impressed with their skill in welcoming and guiding students, I am humbled by how they have guided me. They have pushed me to reevaluate my own advising skill set. They challenge the status quo in ways that set me back on my heels and say, “Hmm, I’m not sure why we do that.” Their indignation at how they system fails students and their dedication to making sure the impact on students is minimal is phenomenal.

I am not perfect, and neither are they. However, we easily tease each other about our quirks. We find humor in every staff meeting. I am very blessed to work with such a great crew. And if you are looking for an incredibly spirited game of Apples to Apples or Uno, we double dog dare you to join us for lunch.

**To learn more about the machine, Stacy Oliver, please go here.

You are who you tweet

About six months ago, my brother-in-law asked me, “So, what is sac hat?” More importantly, he tweeted the question to me. Many of us in student affairs spend various holidays explaining to family what it is we do for a profession. I was now trying to explain to my brother-in-law what I tweet about my profession. For him, #sachat was just good fodder for ribbing me. For me, #sachat has become my go-to place for collaboration, learning, and professional development.

Therefore, in tribute to the theoretical framework I used in my comprehensive exam for my Master’s degree many years ago and to pay homage to the #sachat community, I offer my application of William Perry’s Stages of Twitter Development (I am truly sorry, Bill):

(Me, early 2009) Twitter sounds ridiculous. It is just people telling other people what they had for breakfast. Isn’t it really just Facebook updates? What’s the point? I’ll stick with Facebook. All of my family and friends are on Facebook.

(Me, March 2009) Okay, so I hear a lot of my students talking about Twitter. That’s great for them. I’ll create a Twitter profile, but I don’t see the big deal. I follow about 30 news organizations, which feeds my news junkie side. But really, what would I use this for?

(Me, late 2009) I searched “academic advising” and came across a few other advisors on Twitter. That’s pretty cool. This @EricStoller called me out for not including student affairs in my profile. Apparently, I have a lot to learn. Maybe I can connect with a few other student affairs types on here. Whoa. What is this #sachat thing?

Commitment to Relativism
(Me, March 2010) Ok, I just got more out of a conference than ones I have actually attended, and all of it by just following #naspa10. This #sachat is amazing. There are so many student affairs professionals. I now have to figure out these lists things, given how many people I am now following. We’re talking about first year experience and orientation and professional development. So many ideas flowing, and hilarious people.

So, Tom and Debra, thank you. Thank you for providing an environment where I have moved from clinging to the wall, to tapping my toes, to busting a move right under the disco ball. I have connected with amazing people and ideas. I have received books in the mail from Teri, skype conversations from Rey, and LOL direct messages from Eric and Stacy. I have been inspired by so many, including some incredible women like Julie and Cindy. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg, and I am looking forward to all that’s next.

As @tbump once shared (via @scottmonty), “you are who you tweet.” Good to know, since I am now keeping some pretty amazing company.

Mom's Council

It started when I was pregnant with my second child. Two other advisors from my office were pregnant with their firsts. Additionally, three other advisors across the campus (two of whom were in my Ph.D. program) were also pregnant. And after careful chemical studies, no, there wasn’t anything in the water.

In sharing advice and baby product reviews with the two new moms-to-be, I realized it would be great to connect the first time moms with those of us returning for a second, and in one case, fourth trip to the land of Lamaze. So, we began to go to lunch together once a month. Imagine the waitress’ fright upon seeing the table of five of us on one such monthly gathering, ranging from 5-9 months pregnant. I believe that other tables questioned if they should eat the same food as we were.

The group has evolved. At times, lunch includes a baby in a carrier. Sometimes we are 7 strong; other times, it’s just a trio. We have a private Facebook group. We’ve gained friends of friends. We’ve had additional pregnancies, including a fifth for one. We talk about our kids. We talk about our jobs. We talk about our Ph.D. research. We talk about house refinancing. It doesn’t matter really. We just talk.

Having four brothers, I was very slow to recognize any need I might have for a group of female friends. I had mixed groups of close friends all through high school and college, despite my affiliation with a sorority. However, I was now able to connect people: women who didn’t have sisters or moms nearby, who are trying to juggle similar demands, who didn’t have time for girls’ night, but mom’s lunch worked perfectly. And here is what I have gained from our Mom’s Council:

1. Yes, we talk about diapers and teething. I know that non-parents can tire quickly of conversations about developmental stages and potty training. Frankly, so can parents. However, having a safe environment to question who you are as a mom and brainstorm what is and is not working, is just as valuable as being a student affairs professional and having a peer group or supervisor who allows you a safe space to make mistakes.

2. No obligations is the best support group. We get together once a month, second Monday of the month, to be exact. If you can make it, great. If you cannot make it, we will see you next month. Because the attendance is different every month, it means that cliques haven’t formed, and we just enjoy the company of whomever is present.

3. Sometimes an hour is all you need. Many of us in student affairs, kids or not, don’t have enough hours in the day to catch up with all of our friends, or network like we want to. Sometimes, even planning lunch turns into a major calendar upheaval. Using an hour at lunch with friends, rather than sitting at your desk and answering yet more email, can be the most therapeutic and productive time of your week.

4. It takes all kinds. We probably represent every stereotype of mothers, and every stereotype of student affairs professionals. But we also represent different economic backgrounds, different religious affiliations, and different political views (ok, so this last one isn’t completely true, but we at least represent a spectrum, albeit short, of political views). But when you need someone to balance you, there is nothing like having a person across the table provide, “Well, when that happened to me, I just…”

5. Laugh. A lot. On any monthly gathering, someone is having a rough time. Although we have come close, there has never been a lunch where all of us are at our wit’s end. We laugh at ourselves and at our kids’ antics. We laugh at the desire to have lunch at Grand Traverse Pie Co more often than not because we want to have a reason to eat pie.

You may connect with a group because you are all planning for your weddings, or studying for comps, or really like to golf. Whatever the connection, keep them. Most of us in Mom’s Council, we have a short history together (although one was my RA from 10 years ago). We don’t have the long list of memories from which to pull out a myriad of inside jokes. We have been doing this for a little over two years, and we love it. We look forward to it. We appreciate the comfortable place each month to sit down with no agenda and enjoy some time together.

When you give of yourself to your students on a regular basis, a simple lunch group can be just the sanctuary you need.

Us versus Them

For most of us in student affairs, we have either overheard or contributed to a conversation that expressed frustration with Them. They don’t get students. They only care about what goes on in their classroom. They don’t appreciate what we do. They never want to collaborate. You know Them. They are faculty.

While in residence life, I felt like faculty members were living on a different campus. I rarely crossed paths with them. Approaching them for programs in my building felt like climbing Mt. Everest. However, when I moved over into academic advising, housed within an academic college at my campus, I realized how misguided my assumptions were. Now, as I listen to peers discuss the need for collaboration between academic and student affairs, I am reminded about how integrated those functions are within my role now. I sit on curriculum committees to help faculty develop the most effective and logistically viable delivery of their content. I often have faculty pop their heads into my office more than the students who need me to help plans their lives. And although we may each interact at differing levels with faculty on campus, here are a few things I have learned:

1. Faculty care about students. And not just in terms of students completing homework or not complaining about grades. Most faculty are genuinely concerned that students have a valuable experience both inside and outside the classroom. They are training their future peers in their industry, but they also truly enjoy students “getting it.” You don’t have to look further than the growing body of literature on the scholarship of teaching.

2. We are not the only experts on students on campus. Although we may think we understand students better than most, faculty understand what’s important for students academic and professional development, as well as their personal development. Many have been working with students for a while, and they are pretty smart people. They may not know all the identity development theories, but then again, I don’t understand the difference between glycolysis and gluconeogenesis.

3. We can learn a lot from faculty. Yes, we can learn quite a bit from what they know about students, but we can also learn from faculty. Ask them about their research. Sit in on a class of theirs. If you have an interest in nutrition (possibly for a program in the halls?), sit in on a Food Science course. Next thing you know, you are inviting that faculty member to have dinner with your students in the caf.

4. That being said, Faculty don’t need to be put on a pedestal. I would be hard pressed to find faculty members who would be willing to return to the 1880s manner of faculty serving all roles to all students: teacher, house mother, career counselor, etc. Most faculty are content to stick with the teaching, and let us handle the resume reviews and late night duty calls.

5. Earn their respect as being experts in our own right. Rather than see the faculty/student affairs relationship as a competition for “who knows students better?” take the opportunity to demonstrate what you bring to the table. Faculty may often get consumed with their individual class or research, so know the campus incredibly well. Be there to offer resources that they may find helpful. Help them find solutions to what they would like to do in their class.

On a regular basis, I can be heard saying, “I am not an expert on [content area X], but I do know how we can make this work.” The more we do to develop an integrated approach to helping students through their experience, the more we will be seen as partners and collaborators. Faculty lead lives where their recognition and reward (read: promotion and tenure) is often dependent on their individual efforts. We live in a world where teambuilders are as regular as late night phone calls. The silos aren’t getting us anywhere, so look for the solutions that we can be a part of. Also, having a faculty member explain what gluconeogenesis is may prove helpful in a trivia game.