After eleven years of working as a college administrator, I decided for a variety of reasons to quit my job and embark on something completely different. The path to “completely different” resulted in me going to back to school for a Masters of Social Work. So in the course of eight months, I went from “dean” to “student” at the same university. It’s been an incredible ride. Here’s a few of things that I’ve learned in my first year.
Millennial graduate students don’t always love technology: Most of my professors posted our readings online. My classmates then printed out the readings. Yes, they all have laptops and smartphones. But they would prefer to read articles on actual paper. Many of my classmates use non-electronic calendars, prefer printed textbooks, and enjoy real face to face conversations. Sure, we also plan outings using social media and exchange class notes via Google docs and Dropbox. But we still would prefer to take in person classes and ignore our phones to enjoy time with friends
Being in the classroom will make me a better teacher: Along with being a full time student next year, I’ll also teach an undergraduate class in Public Policy. Over the years, I’ve read about new teaching methods and attended a few trainings. I have learned so much more about excellent teaching by sitting in the classroom, as a student. I must give credit to the fantastic instruction I’ve received from my faculty. Whether tenured, clinical or graduate student, they all managed to hold my attention during our three hour classes and I’ve learned a tremendous amount. But I think there’s something about putting myself back into the shoes as a student that gives me a better viewpoint about what works in the classroom and what doesn’t. Countless powerpoints and meandering discussions are out. Carefully constructed simulations and short media clips are in. Faculty members who email us after class to clarify key points because we all looked befuddled are worth their weight in gold. And faculty who may not know all the answers but are enthusiastic about the material are more effective instructors than those who have more publications but are lukewarm about the classroom.
You can teach an old dog new tricks: In my former position, I heard many faculty express the belief that older students could not “hack” the rigors of graduate level studies due to family responsibilities and years out of the classroom. While it is true that I had less time to devote to my studies than many of my classmates, I found that my time management skills and experience in the workforce helped me to excel. I may have been the oldest student in the full time program, but I had no problems keeping up with my 23 and 24 year old classmates. So take a chance on us “old dogs”, you might be surprised.
I’ll never be a “normal” student: The program has done a fantastic job treating me just like any other student. My original plan was to pretend like I’d never been an administrator and be vague about my previous employment. All that went out the window when a faculty member accidently addressed me as “Dean Manning” during orientation. That slip up caused several of my classmates to Google me and thus the cat was out of the bag.
There have been both drawbacks and benefits due to my former position. I took a class that I probably should have asked to be exempted from but I was overly sensitive to the perception that I was requesting “special treatment.” On the other hand, I’ve had the opportunity to use my skills to advocate for my classmates and to help them advocate for themselves. The school has occasionally used me for questions about the workings of the greater university and advice for handling certain student situations. It doesn’t diminish my “student” experience in any way. The program and I have learned to accept that I never will be a “regular” student, but it’s perfectly okay.
Melinda Manning is a rising second year student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Social Work. In her previous life, she served as Assistant Dean of Students at UNC. In both lives, she likes to travel, talk about ethics, and garden. She also is an Adjunct Assistant Professor in Public Policy at UNC. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.