Practicing What We Preach | John Griffin, M.Ed. ’19

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“We dedicate time to promoting holistic and intentional practices, but in our efforts to champion this cause, we often forget to apply these lessons to our own daily actions. The processes, deadlines, and stress of our job responsibilities pull us all away from fully being there for our students in the ways that they truly need from us.”

As higher education professionals, our student affairs best practices rapidly evolve to meet today’s student and societal needs. Students face an increasing number of pressures during their college experience, and in response we have elevated our advocacy for wellness and mindful habits as the best tools for overburdened students. 

We encourage students to cultivate mindful and intentional practices, no matter how busy their life gets or how many projects they have on their schedule. We dedicate time to promoting holistic and intentional practices, but in our efforts to champion this cause, we often forget to apply these lessons to our own daily actions. The processes, deadlines, and stress of our job responsibilities pull us all away from fully being there for our students in the ways that they truly need from us.

Author John Griffin participating in VIMS new student orientation where they travel to their Eastern Shore lab and spend the day on the water

The stress and work requirements placed on higher education professionals increases with each year as the funding and support we receive dwindles. To stay viable, many institutions have adopted a results-oriented mindset that focuses on the quantifiable outcomes that we can produce. No matter our role on campus, we all have results and expectations that we feel pressured to achieve. These work outcomes that we now focus on are the low hanging fruits of our roles as they are the easiest achievements to express. For instance, when people check-in about the status of the current admissions season, they are asking about application numbers, GPAs, and test scores involved in the process and not the individual student stories or accomplishments. In admissions, these numbers and figures are the easiest results to express and our emphasizing their value pulls our attention away from getting to know individual applications closely. In contrast to the outcome focused mindset, the meaningful interactions we have with students are difficult to quantify. Paradoxically, the additional roles and responsibilities placed upon our work and the stress to prove our worth prevents us from achieving the most important part of our jobs: supporting students. We are asked to add value to our institution in a system that poorly measures the core components of our jobs.

These metrics we have adopted do not account for the times we check in on students and make sure they are doing okay, or when we sit and listen to a student talk about the anxieties they have about campus or their future. These are all things that we seek to accomplish each day, but these are not the things we are rewarded for or that consume most of our working hours. This mindset of achieving expressible outcomes shifts the focus of all student affairs administrators away from our most crucial responsibilities and it instead emphasizes the aspects of our roles that exhaust us.

Author John Griffin at a Marine Science conference highlighting VIMS along with other Virginia peer institutions

The work expectations in higher education that form our essential responsibilities have shifted away from student interactions and toward the number of emails we send, meetings we attend, and revenue generated. All that work is important for institutional success, but we cannot lose sight of engaging holistically with our students as we perform our jobs. We must consider students beyond the outcomes and numbers our job wants to frame them as. To do this we must disengage from the expectation of producing clearly defined outcomes as the purpose of our job and instead realign our focus on the intentional and impactful interactions we have with students as the top achievements of our day. 

As we advocate wellness and mindfulness practices to students, our best advice is to slow down and take experiences one at a time rather than get wrapped up in the stressors of student life. This mantra is the exact lesson that student affair administrators must embody in their work. My biggest piece of advice to all current and future higher education professionals is simply to place students at the heart of your daily work. You never know what small event will reverberate deeply in a student’s experience and we therefore must always be a catalyst for student engagement. This means that we must seek out regular student interactions and be present in their lives. Too often we get caught up in meeting our work expectations and spend our days hiding behind our computer monitors, eating lunch in our offices, and going the whole day only talking to work colleagues. If that is how we fill our time, then there is no difference between our jobs and a regular office job. Our roles are not meant to be simply office jobs though! We are in higher education because we sought out a career to support and develop students because that brings us joy and fulfillment. Therefore, if we center our work days around the actions of our jobs that give us purpose and energy, then we will be both practicing wellness and deepening the experience that students have with our campuses. There are many ways to practice wellness in our roles, but one of the easiest is to reallocate your daily energy back into the areas of your job that you love – engaging with students and being a presence on campus.


About the Author: John Griffin is a Colorado native who came to Virginia to earn his M.Ed. from William & Mary’s School of Education and graduated in 2019. He is currently the Assistant Director for Admissions & Student Affairs at William & Mary’s School of Marine Science at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science.

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