Perspectives on an Ethic of Care: Reflecting on the Jon C. Dalton Institute 2014

In February of 2014, Louisiana State University (LSU) Department of Residential Life granted the funds for a delegation of two entry-level staff, a first year graduate assistant, and three undergraduate resident assistants to attend the 2014 Dalton Institute at Florida State University.  The title of the institute was Promoting an Ethic of Care: Student Well-Being as a Priority in Higher Education.  The delegation focused on the goal of developing a more holistic understanding of student well-being and bringing that learning back to the department.  The delegation was intentionally diverse in life and career experience so that we could share different perspectives of an ethic of care as we each actualized the concept differently.

As we returned and reflected upon our experience we identified three specific areas where we felt an ethic of care impacted our professional practice.  The first way was in caring for students and how we relate to them and create safe emotional spaces for growth.  The second was creating an environment to manage both the personal and professional functions of an ethic of self-care.  The third was in redefining expectations and reflecting on a new model for mentoring.  As we each experienced the conference differently, each staff member chose one area to reflect upon in depth.  Our perspectives collectively represent our holistic conception of an ethic of care and how that applies to work in the field of student affairs.

Students: Zach Mills, First Year Graduate Assistant

As a first year graduate assistant, an ethic of care is a concept that I only recently became familiar with.  As I have discovered it though, I realized that in many ways it is the essence of what drew me to the field: a deep caring for students’ well-being, growth, and a desire to see them thrive.  The Dalton Institute 2014 was a very formative experience in that it challenged me to understand an ethic of care at a deeper level and what that looks like in interacting with and serving students.  Although much could be said about the myriad aspects of caring, one way I want to specifically reflect upon is how emotional intelligence and managing emotions (to draw upon the language/vector of keynote speaker Arthur Chickering) affects our ability to connect with and care for students.

“When emotions are mentionable, they are manageable.” Presenter Tyler Bradshaw of Miami University, in his presentation about emotional intelligence and how emotion permeates the college experience, used this quote from the beloved Mr.  Rogers.  To understand and care for college students we need to be both aware of their emotions and understand how those affect their actions, and also help them to be aware of the same thing.  One concept that Bradshaw expanded upon was the idea of vulnerability and creating a space for students where they can share their emotions and express their ‘authentic self.’ In creating this safe space we create an environment for development and well-being where students can express themselves, learn about themselves, and develop self-esteem (Bradshaw & Rusbosin, 2014).

In reflecting on this presentation, I began to think about Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and how when we create a safe place where students can explore their emotions we allow them to explore the higher levels of Maslow’s hierarchy and develop self-esteem, confidence, and eventually self-actualization (Maslow, 1954).  In sharing her experience of the conference, one of the RAs we brought, Jacque Hoeft, shared this: “I learned the impact of talking about a situation or even crying and how much that relief may mean to someone when he or she has someone there listening to them” (personal communication, March 4, 2013).  This quote and her discussion around it was powerful to me in that it showed both that she felt sufficiently cared about and comfortable sharing this, but also that she was self-actualizing enough to be able to turn around and then create that same space of vulnerability with her residents.

Emotion does not exist in a vacuum separate from the other factors in students’ lives (as evidenced by the fact that Chickering has six other vectors).  Emotion is a powerful mitigating factor in the development of other vectors.  A student who is upset or angry is a lot less likely to share productively than a student at ease.  In his keynote address, Chickering raised this point for thought: what if instead of viewing conflict as boxing match, we viewed it as a barn raising?  In contrast to the zero sum game of boxing, a barn raising is a deeply communal event requiring trust and understanding.  Each person must understand the intentions and actions of each other person for the walls to be raised and for the barn to have structural integrity.  This sentiment expressing an ethic of care is what I believe we need to strive for in interactions with students.  Only when we understand and value our students’ emotional well-being can we begin to understand and support them holistically.

Self: Colby Kinder Englund, Third Year Entry Level Professional

Working in residential life as a 3rd year professional, the idea of caring for the self is sometimes a daunting topic to ponder.  I have surpassed the learning curves of year one and two, but still am learning about integrating my daily life into my daily live-on expectations.  Living in your working environment can dictate decisions and create different expectations and perspectives for students and staff.  Managing the personal self and the professional self is frequently viewed as this balancing act, but describing what a balanced life would look like is almost undefinable.  Channeling stress and harnessing the simplistic level of happiness can create environments that can produce productive emotions and actions.  These assist in your level of self-care that you are able to operate with even in times of grief and negativity.

This thought transcends through all levels of higher education from Chief Executive Officers to Resident Assistants.  Sidney Brinson, a 1st year Resident Assistant made a profound statement after his experiences during the institute.  He stated “As a student leader you are going to face stress, but it is important to find time for yourself and simply be happy.  People nowadays try to complicate happiness when being happy is truly simple in itself” (personal communication, March 10, 2013).  Even though the student leaders from LSU were the only undergraduate members in attendance, they were still able to take tangible experiences and profound knowledge from the institute.   Arthur Chickering spoke to identity development and operating under an ethic of care.   His vectors, as developed in his theory, tie in direct correlation with the ongoing need to focus on self-care.  The vector entitled “Developing Purpose” is defined as

[when] an individual develops commitment to the future and becomes more competent at making and following through on decisions, even when they may be contested.  It involves developing a sense of life vocation.  It may involve the creation of goals, and is influenced by the family and lifestyle of the individual.  (Evans, Forney, Guido, Patton, & Renn, 2011, p.  36)

It was an inspiring moment to have the creator of this theory and his wealth of knowledge standing in front of the room.  His development of this vector was easily weaved within the constructs of the institute and the world of higher education as we work to develop the holistic self which has a large emphasis on self-care.  As we become more comfortable, that self-care has a unique definition for every individual.  What successful self-care may look like could be vastly different in each individual and we are each able to chart our own vision of what it looks like.

Their own direction, their own purpose, and their own mission for themselves define the ethic of care that individuals operate with on a daily basis.  The Dalton Institute focused heavily on various topics deriving from self-care.  Self-care is the first step as it is just as important for the individual to practice self-care as it is for those they interact with.  To-do lists, busyness, and competing priorities can lead to gaps in personal well-being.  We are only able to sustainably battle the constant priority shifts, busy moments, and constant need to care for others by understanding how to center our thoughts and make ourselves a priority.  If we don’t take care of ourselves, who will?

Coaching Over Mentoring: Scott Lundgren, Second Year Entry-Level Professional            

One of the most impactful things that I took away from the 2014 Dalton Institute is the concept of Mosaic Leadership when it comes to helping students have a successful collegiate career.  One of the things that I have learned in my previous experiences is the model of mentoring students, but during Tina Erzen’s presentation on Mosaic Leadership I learned about the idea of coaching students.  This change of an approach of how to interact with my students was an approach that I never really thought about or learned in my involvements in leadership and residential life.  Before the institute I was a strong advocate of the concept of mentoring and believed it was the best approach to student interactions.  The fault that I always saw in mentoring though was the time commitment that went along with it.  With mentoring, the dedication of time with the amount of students you are mentoring can play a huge impact on the success of the role (Erzen, 2014).   This was not a big deal in my past since I was a mentor to a maximum of five students.  Now in my current role, and overseeing approximately 730 students and 25 Resident Assistants, I am unable to give the amount of time needed to be a true mentor.  This leads me to what I learned about coaching at the institute.

Coaching is a more direct approach to being a mentor to students.  It is asking students direct questions of their success and allowing them to create their own action plan through self-reflected questions.  What coaching also does is gives the student the opportunity to talk through their problems or issues, while just giving them an ear to listen.  What I learned from Erzen about coaching is that it truly empowers students and those students then have a stronger grasp on what they need to be successful.  Also, coaching takes a lot less time but is just as effective as a typical mentor role (Erzen, 2014).  This is especially effective in my role as Residence Life Coordinator as I oversee a large staff and student population.  With everything I learned during the Mosaic Leadership presentation, I now feel that coaching could have a huge impact on student development and it strongly related to the main theme of the 2014 Dalton Institute: Promoting an Ethic of Care: Student Well-Being as a Priority in Higher Education.  Effectively coaching students will lead to students’ ability to create their own ethic of care.

Conclusion

An ethic of care is a very broad and expansive term and it can look many different ways, but these collective perspectives represent a window into our conception of an ethic of care and its implementation.  First, a view of students that holistically considers emotional well-being and creates safe spaces for growth fosters an environment for student development to emerge.  Second, a greater self-awareness of personal well-being allows for greater self-care and in turn a more healthy relationship to professional responsibilities.  Finally, reconsidering our expectations allows us to see new ways of doing things, such as the Mosaic Leadership style of coaching over mentoring, allowing for better entry into the ethic of care conversation.  Overall, the Dalton Institute was a formational experience and one that comes highly recommend by us.  Our experiences shaped our conception of an ethic of care and we hope our perspectives and invitation to attend Dalton Institute 2015 will provide a similar experience to that of resident assistant Carrie Williams who reflected: “Gaining information from various student affairs employees from all over the nation expanded how I viewed my role as a [resident assistant].  I hope other [resident assistants] in the future will get a chance to experience The Dalton Institute” (personal communication, March 8, 2014).

Discussion Questions

  1. In considering an ethic of care and integrating that concept into practice, what does it look like in your position to create a safe emotional space for students? What intentional things do you do to better understand your students’ emotional well-being and how does that impact your actions or even your role? Are your students aware of your actions to create emotional well-being?
  2. What do you do to take care of yourself? How do you integrate work and life commitments and create a space for yourself to explore your own needs? Do you model self-care to students and would a student be able to articulate how you engage in self-care? What happens when you neglect self-care?
  3. Does the distinction of coaching over mentoring resonate with your personal practice? How do you balance to the need to supervise many students with the desire to invest in each one individually? Is mentorship a reasonable model in your role with students? If not, how can you explore coaching in your practice?

References

Bradshaw, T., Rusbosin, B.  (2014, February).  Won’t you be my neighbor? The Rogers model & student affairs practice.  Jon C.  Dalton Institute on College Student Values.  Lecture conducted from Florida State University, Tallahassee, FL.

Chickering, A.  (2014, February).  Untitled keynote address.  Jon C.  Dalton Institute on College Student Values. Lecture conducted from Florida State University, Tallahassee, FL.

Erzen, T.  (2014, February).  Mosaic coaching.  Jon C.  Dalton Institute on College Student Values.  Lecture conducted from Florida State University, Tallahassee, FL.

Evans, N. J., Forney, D. S., Guido, F. M. Patton, L. D., & Renn, K. A. (2010). Student development in college: Theory, research, and practice (2nd Ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Maslow, A.  (1954).  Motivation and personality.  New York, NY: Harper.

About the Authors

Colby Kinder Englund is originally from Winston Salem, NC where she received her Bachelor’s Degree from Western Carolina University in 2009.  Colby went on to receive her Masters of Education in College Student Personnel Administration at the University of West Florida. Her background originates in student involvement and student activities, leadership and Greek life but has moved towards residential life as she has developed a more grounded understanding and appreciation for working with on-campus students.   Colby started her professional career at Louisiana State University with a three-year stint as a Residence Life Coordinator. Colby currently works as a Residence Coordinator at UNC Charlotte. As Colby has progressed through her entry level career, she has found a deeper meaning and appreciation for supervision focusing individual and group development.  Her passions extend from these topics and have developed into a stronger understanding of what it means to operate under an ethic of care.   

Please e-mail inquiries to Colby Kinder Englund

Scott William Lundgren Jr. is currently working as a third year Residence Life Coordinator at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, LA where he oversees an all-Freshman Residential College Complex. He earned both his Bachelor’s Degree in Business Marketing and Master’s degree in Higher Education from Western Carolina University in Cullowhee, NC.  Scott’s background stems from leadership programs, residential life and Greek life, while his research interests and passions include student success and leadership development. In his spare time Scott enjoys playing with his 2 year old Scottish Terrier puppy, “Scottie.”

Please e-mail inquiries to Scott William Lundgren Jr.

Zach Mills is now a second year graduate student at Louisiana State University, working as a graduate assistant in the Department of Residential Life.  His title is the Graduate Assistant for Front Desk Operations and he oversees, schedules, and staffs the 13 front desks in the residential halls, comprising approximately 165 student employees (Desk Assistants and Lead Desk Assistants).  He is pursuing a master’s degree in Higher Education and Administration and holds a bachelor’s degree in Elementary Education from Grove City College.  His research interests are still developing, but he has a strong interest in student well-being and a budding understanding of an ethic of care.  He would like to pursue a career in housing.

Please e-mail inquires to Zach Mills

Disclaimer

The ideas expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the Developments editorial board or those of the ACPA Governing Board, Leadership, or International Office Staff.

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