Thinking About Skills

To advance in student affairs, it's important to focus on issues beyond job titles, writes Owen Sutkowski.
August 24, 2011

While moving up through the ranks, serving in three very different higher education positions has taught me the importance of developing a tangible skill set. I started as a residence hall coordinator, then worked as an assistant director of campus recreation, overseeing the campus fitness center at a four-year college, and am currently the director of a transfer advising office at a two-year college. These three very different positions are all connected by a set of skills. Many professionals think about their career path by looking to the next position, title, or institutions. It is important to step back and assess the skill set you want to grow. Then, seek the position(s) and institution(s) within which these skills can be developed and valued. You can begin this project at any point in your career and it should be revisited regularly.

So, where do you begin? Start with the launch of your professional journey. Many of us started working in student affairs or other higher education fields because of our own college experiences. My senior year of college I become student president of the residence halls; therefore, housing was my first calling because that was the most comfortable transition for me. Yet, it was the skills and activities I did within residence life as a student that I enjoyed the most. Working with student government and the logistics of programming shaped my last year in college.

As you reflect about your journey to this field, think about the skills and actions that brought you here, regardless of the first department you worked in, and write them down. Was it managing the budget for an event or hearing cases on a student judicial board and handing down the decision? What were the skills and actions that you enjoyed enough to make this a career choice? Some of you may say, "it’s about creating the same experiences for students that I had as a student."

But, what roles and actions within the experience did you love the most? Be as specific as you can. When I was president of the residence halls, the enjoyment came in advising and mentoring residence hall presidents as well as developing various programs and budget plans.

In a second column, write down all the skills and actions you utilize in your current position. Now go back and do this with previous positions. How similar, or different, are they? Do you see several skills that can fall under a broader set such as planning, managing, creating, etc.? After doing this exercise, I realized I had moved away from some skills and actions I sincerely enjoyed (advising), carried several abilities with me through different positions (process development), and even noticed new skills (strategic planning).

Now it's time to see, how do your skills match to your current position? Many of you may see clear connections between your current position and the skills you have listed. However, I have noticed that beyond entry-level positions the connections may not be as clear. For example, advising and counseling have always been important for me to use in all three of my previous professional positions. As a residence hall coordinator, this skill was used in almost all facets of my work. I advised a student programming board and a staff of residence assistants. Now, working as a administrator in academic advising, my time with students is balanced with managerial responsibilities and I have had to find new ways to use my advising skill set. I work with a staff of four advisers and, although they are not students, I regularly advise and counsel them in their professional development. I have also stepped up to mentor and advise other colleagues.

My role as a fitness center manager opened my eyes to a set of skills I may have always had and never thought to label: strategic planning. When I took on this role, I was asked to create a five-year equipment purchasing plan as well as begin the process of offering fitness classes. My manager talked with me about these plans being part of one large "strategic plan" for the fitness center. I had never created anything like this before. Over my first year in the position I learned about creating such a plan. Although it was operations- and fitness-related, the skill set has been valuable throughout the rest of my professional life. In my current role, I have used these skills to think about and create plan for the growth of the advising office I manage.

It’s your turn: How are your skills matching your current position, and are there ways you can implement skills you have not utilized in a while? Moreover, what new skills may have emerged? See into your responsibilities and reveal the skills and actions you use to successfully work through them. In seeking feedback from colleagues, I have learned to ask, "What actions or skills did you see in me during this committee, project or initiative we worked on together?"

I hope you have a concrete list of skills that you currently possess, as well as some you want to grow. It is time to think about how you will continue developing these abilities. As many higher education professionals understand, the “duties as assigned” section of our contracts can grow very large and you have the opportunity to see this area as one way to grow a new skill set. When I become assistant director of campus recreation, I really wanted additional experience in writing and editing. The professional role did not have very much in this area, but our department published the campus e-newsletter. I sought out the role of managing this newsletter and my manager at the time agreed. Not only did my writing and editing improve, I also became self-taught in the use of social media. I now use this skill in my current position.

On the surface, campus recreation and academic advising have no relation to one another; however, when professionals examine their skills, instead of only focusing on their titles and positions, professional growth will be seen through a whole new lens.

Lastly, a strategy that will see several unexpected benefits is collaboration. I sincerely enjoy presenting and knew I would have limited opportunities to do so in my current role. However, several departments, including TRIO, student life, and faculty training, offer all kinds of student-centered presentations and are always looking for presenters. I volunteered my time and it has allowed me to continue utilizing this skill, connect with students across the campus who may not know about the office I work with and how it impacts them, and get to know other staff whom I may not have interacted with. After one presentation, a staff member who had seen me speak asked me to join a committee that is currently working to evaluate online classes and curriculums at the college, and, although I am new to the content, it fits well with my interest in strategic planning and process development. Keeping my skills at the core of my professional development continually helps not only me, but also my office and the campus community.

How does a professional go from working in a residence hall to managing a campus recreation center and now directing an office of transfer student advising? I know the contexts in which I want to work with students and campuses and I keep the skills I have always been enthusiastic about utilizing, as well as the ones I want to grow, at the forefront of my professional path. Moreover, I seek out collaborations in the departments I work with, and the campus as a whole, to use apply and grow skills for the betterment of the campus community. Each challenge has been a potential new skill to cultivate, or a means to use what I already know in a different way. This method has continually benefited the students and campuses within which I have worked, as well as opened professional doors for me. You may already be doing the same thing without taking the time to reflect on it. Now it’s your turn to revisit your skills.


Owen Sutkowski is director of the Transfer Resource Center, and an adjunct faculty member, at Central Piedmont Community College. Follow him on Twitter.


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