written by: Taylor Jones, Chandler Stafford, & Mimi Benjamin
Elizabeth Whitt’s “’Don’t Drink the Water?’: A Guide to Encountering a New Institutional Culture” (1997) provides guidance to practitioners as they transition to a new campus. Using the travel metaphor, Whitt offers an overview of culture as well as travel tips for those entering a new campus environment. These tips can be helpful to new professionals as they start their student affairs careers as well as graduate students encountering a new campus and/or new roles. Dr. Mimi Benjamin, Professor at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, has shared this chapter with Student Affairs in Higher Education graduate students since she started teaching full-time in 2013 after serving as a student affairs professional.
In her first year of teaching, Mimi included Whitt’s chapter as a required reading in a student affairs administration course for second-year students. Students told her how valuable that reading was, stating that they really needed it when they first started the program as they transitioned to their graduate roles, many of which were on new campuses. When she started teaching the introductory course in the first semester of the program, Mimi shifted the reading to that class. While discussing the reading, she always starts the conversation with students by asking, “How many of you started your assistantships not long ago and thought, ‘This new institution or department is not doing this right’?”. Students laugh, raise their hands, nod their heads, and then engage in an enlightening conversation about how there are many ways to accomplish goals in the various functional areas. They begin to recognize that their experiences at one campus provided them with a view of just one of the many ways that student affairs work is done. This discussion opens their eyes and perspectives to various ways of enacting student affairs work.
This reading came up again recently, as graduating students talked about how it was on their minds during the job search. And while the advice is timeless, it seemed like a good time to look at how some of the “travel tips” might be translated for 2021. As a result, Chandler and Taylor, recent graduates of the IUP Student Affairs in Higher Education program, along with Mimi, came together to reiterate Whitt’s advice with a 2021 twist.
“Read the Guidebooks Before You Leave Home”
As Whitt (1997) noted, the importance of reading about an institution is crucial to your transition. This includes but is not limited to reviewing the mission statement of the university, looking into the core values held by the academic side of campus, and understanding the student affairs philosophy. However, reading is not the only way you can learn this information. It might be better to hear someone’s perspective about the campus culture. This can come in the form of setting up inquiry Zoom meetings with your future coworkers and supervisor(s), watching promotional videos for university recruitment, and participating in virtual or in-person campus tours. Keep in mind that professionals and institutional resources like these will be tailored to match the university’s mission. If you want to learn more about the students’ perspective of campus, watching YouTube or TikTok vlogs of their everyday lives is a great indicator as well. Look at what students are saying about their institution on social media. Twitter posts, Facebook statuses, and Tumblr posts (do students even use Tumblr nowadays?) can serve as great resources for a new professional trying to gauge student perception. Utilizing all these methods will aid you in receiving a comprehensive view of campus culture.
“Identify Your Own Cultural ‘Baggage’”
Take an inventory of your personal and professional values and how your beliefs and assumptions have been influenced by your previous lived experiences. Determining your own philosophy or beliefs about student affairs work and the type of environment you would be most successful in can assist in narrowing your job search and increasing overall job satisfaction. How much student contact do you want to have? Do you want to supervise undergraduate students? Would you want to work at a Historically Black College or University (HBCU), Predominantly White Institution (PWI), or a Hispanic Serving Institution (HIS)? These questions can be a starting point for better understanding your own values and how those can influence your work within student affairs. These questions can ultimately determine the level of “fit” that you have with a particular institution or position. And while there are concerns with the concept of “fit,” which can be considered coded language for enacting further inequities in higher education and student affairs (Reece, Tran, DeVore, & Porcaro, 2019), finding a place where your various identities are valued and can be expressed is important. You want to establish a list of “non-negotiable criteria” which will help you select the positions that you are going to apply for (Virtue, 2011, p. 24). There may be times when it seems impossible to find a place that meets all your non-negotiables, so a certain level of flexibility and perhaps prioritization as a new professional is likely necessary.
Workplace relationships and institutional politics can be areas in which you should conduct an inventory of assumptions and expectations. When beginning your search, thinking about your personal life as well may determine if you are limited to a certain geographical area. Although there is a certain level of fit that is needed when it comes to these personal values, there is still something to be said for most growth occurring when you are outside of your comfort zone. It is also important to take note of how your own identity on social media can impact or influence your new role. As important and valid as it is to maintain your own thoughts, beliefs, and opinions on social media, you also do not want to isolate or alienate certain students who may need to come to you for support or help.
“Get to Know the [Locals]” and “Find a Guide”
Getting to know your colleagues is a necessary part of transitioning into a new position. These colleagues can be within your office or outside your department. Virtue (2011) said it best, “Making connections both inside and outside of your division will be a priceless tool in helping make a smooth transition” (p. 24). This also applies to those who do not work at or attend the institution, as they might be important campus partners. In conjunction with these external stakeholders, try to create alliances with those people on campus who have influence. If you and your department feel strongly about something that needs to be changed or have concerns about a serious course of action, having an ally with more professional capital or political power is extremely helpful. This will aid in building your professional support system and encourage inter-institutional and external networking.
This support system, as noted by Dr. Kimberly Griffin (TEDx Talks, 2015), should consist of a group of individuals rather than one person you rely on. It is easy to fall into the habit of only consulting with your supervisor when you start a new position. However, you must branch out and create a “Justice League” of professionals to help you through your journey. Having allies in various functional areas and departments on campus will work in your favor if you want to shift responsibilities or even leave the institution for another. Making connections with those off campus in the surrounding areas will also benefit you just in case you want to work with them on a campus-specific initiative or a community service learning opportunity. Networking opens doors so you must put in the effort ahead of time considering your future career goals.
“Experience Local Color”
When beginning a position at a new institution, new professionals sometimes struggle with adjusting to an entirely new set of norms and expectations (Renn & Hodges, 2007). There are a variety of campus traditions or activities that you must gain a clear understanding of, or certain events that you may be asked to run which require you to conduct some research. We would be remiss to not mention the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on higher education and what that may mean for new professionals as they enter the field. What aspects of “normal” campus life will return? What new methods of interacting and working with students might remain? During this time, there have been certain resources that have made aspects of college life more equitable for students. For example, Zoom programs, classes, and events, virtual mental health or health visits with professionals have been available, and even attending professional conferences have become less expensive.
As we transition out of the apex of COVID, you may be asked to help reimagine or reinvent some of the traditions or cultural staples of a campus considering safety and health mandates; to do this you must first understand the programs you are being asked to implement. We recommend utilizing social media outlets to research and better understand campus cultures and the surrounding local area that you will be exposed to when you begin your position.
“See the Sights” and “Take Side Trips”
Knowing the environment is essential to fostering a sense of belonging, not only for students but also for new professionals. Take the time to get your bearings. Utilize virtual campus tours to find your way around campus if you do not have the opportunity to work or visit campus in person. If you are working in person, take a trip around campus whenever time allows. Where do the staff like to hang out when they are not in the office? Where do you see faculty members when they are not teaching? Where do residential students congregate? Commuter students? Understanding the space you are in will aid in any programming efforts or even decision-making when it comes to the use of space on campus.
Another indicator of student engagement with campus is assessment data. If you are in a position to do so, try to get your hands on any past assessment data that tracks student attendance of programming or any campus climate surveys that indicate how satisfied students are with the institution. This data will help you make informed decisions and operate efficiently in your office. While you are in the midst of taking your own trips around campus, keep in mind that students do the same thing. It is imperative for new professionals, especially new professionals of color, to “keep their door open.” This visibility of professionals of color on campus will help students of color feel seen and heard and encourage them to continue down their academic paths. Even putting signage on your door letting students know that your office is a safe and open-minded space will encourage students to engage.
“Learn the Language”
There are two distinct types of language that you must become familiar with when starting a new position at an institution. The first is the language of the specific campus and students. This could be the typical phrases, nicknames for buildings or areas on campus, clubs or organization acronyms, and so on. As a new professional, one way to begin to learn this information is to peruse various social media platforms of different organizations on campus and better understand what they are, the position they have on campus, and their values. During this social media search, you can also take a pulse on the students and their thoughts or feelings about the institution to better understand any issues or current events.
The next language that is important to note is that of the student affairs department that you will be joining. Although student affairs as a whole has some agreed upon terminology that is used among ACPA and NASPA, not every institution or student affairs office will be familiar with all of those terms. It is important as a new professional that you do not accidentally ostracize yourself from other offices by assuming that they are familiar with the specific language that is present within student affairs. Taking the time to observe and ask questions before assuming can make the transition easier.
“Seek Storytellers” and “Ask for Directions”
Whitt (1997) summarized both of these tips well, especially when seeking out the histories of institutions and asking questions when necessary. Do not forget that the administrative staff are some of the most valuable storytellers as they often have been members of the university community for longer than some professional staff. If your questions about how to operate within your department are not answered or you notice that some operations do not feel right, always go back to the ACPA/NASPA competencies to make sure those outcomes are being met. You can use these outcomes as a means of assessment for yourself but also those around you. If you have a question about the department itself, reflect on the CAS Standards for your functional area. Having a basis for your concerns about operation is necessary. You do not want to go into a campus culture and expect to change it because it does not adhere to your personal values. Use CAS, ACPA, and NASPA guidelines; that is what they are there for.
An area that many new professionals (and even seasoned ones) tend to struggle with in student affairs is self-care (Renn & Hodges, 2007). As you find a new job and transition to a new place that might be anywhere from one hour away from your home to completely across the country, it is important to have a support system. This support system could be your family, friends, cohort members or mentors from graduate school, or even former professors. These supports can be accessed for different reasons and at different times depending on what you need. Friends and family can be there for any personal struggles that you may be experiencing, and former professors or mentors can be there for any professional issues that may arise.
The impact of COVID-19 has shown us the increased availability for meetings and conversations with friends/mentors via platforms such as Zoom or video chats as well as texting, emails, or phone calls. What aspects of these virtual communications can you see yourself using to keep in touch with your support network? Self-care can be relying on your support system and seeking out advice or friendship from people, but it also is finding passions outside of the field of student affairs and pursuing those. If you love to sing or dance or knit or hike, take time outside of the office to do those things and refuel your own personal tank of happiness.
There is an expectation placed on us as new professionals that forces us to feel like we must be putting 150% into our work all the time to prove that we are happy or passionate about what we do, but that is not sustainable in forming a happy and successful life in the long term. Overall, we recommend that you establish and connect with a support system both during your graduate school experience and especially as you transition to a new position post-graduation. Find hobbies or activities that bring you joy and do them. Do not forget that you are not alone in the feelings that you have and that it is okay to ask for help when you need it.
“Travel With an Open Mind” and “Don’t Expect to Change the Culture”
When beginning our assistantships, we felt as though there were so many aspects that were not being done “the right way”. Many times, we enter new positions at new institutions and feel overwhelmed with how many differences there are in certain processes or in the culture than previously existed at our old institutions. These feelings cause us to feel as though we need to enact change and make things better. The problem with this is, we do not take the time to explore or ask questions about the department or the processes before judging them and assuming that other remedies have not already been tried. We have been guilty of this on more than one occasion in both assistantships and practicum experiences.
Every institution is different and has a different method that works for them based on a variety of internal and external factors that you must take the time to learn and understand. Expecting that you already know everything or have the magic solution to issues is a naive and problematic attitude. We recommend first, learning as much about certain processes or the culture as soon as you can and when you have done that, being open to different ways of doing things, and having conversations with colleagues or supervisors about how and why certain things that you find odd are done. You may not be able to come in and change the culture, but you can make small changes that can impact many people. Take the time to observe, learn, and understand before deciding that something is done improperly or unsuccessfully. Then use a helpful and positive attitude to assist your colleagues in making the institution a better place for everyone, especially the students we serve.
Change is not always easy and encountering new environments can be challenging. If you expect your new institution to be a similar version of your previous one, you will likely be disappointed. But if you are open to the possibilities present in this new place, with these new colleagues and students, you may find your journey to be incredibly enriching. Be open to the exciting possibilities and opportunities, and drink it all in.
Reece, B. J., Tran, V. T., DeVore, E. N., & Porcaro, G. (2019). Debunking the myth of job fit in higher education and student affairs. Stylus.
Renn, K. A., Hodges, J. P. (2007). The first year on the job: Experiences of new professionals in student affairs. NASPA. 44(2), 367-391.
TEDx Talks. (2015, March 15). Mentors: through research, in practice, and on reality TV | Kimberly Griffin | TEDxUMaryland. [Video] YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OkOhoUJhJV0
Virtue, E. (2011). Making the transition from graduate assistant to new professional. Campus Activities Programming, 44(1), 22–25.
Whitt, E. J. (2004). “Don’t drink the water?”: A guide to encountering a new institutional culture. In E. J. Whitt (Ed.), ASHE reader on college student affairs administration (2nd ed., pp. 649-655). Pearson Custom Publishing.
Taylor Jones is a 2021 graduate of the Student Affairs in Higher Education program at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. She is currently working in the Residential Life Office as a Residence Director at Johns Hopkins University.
Chandler Stafford is a 2021 graduate of the Student Affairs in Higher Education program at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. She currently holds the position of Transfer Admission Counselor at Illinois Institute of Technology.
Mimi Benjamin is a Professor in the Student Affairs in Higher Education program at Indiana University of Pennsylvania.