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Young professionally dressed woman speaks to group of students with books
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Following my graduation in 2021, I immediately returned to the world of higher education. No longer a student, I moved directly from one institution to another, but now as a full-time employee. And as anyone could imagine, the transition came with a pretty steep learning curve.

Getting myself out of the student mentality was one thing, but I didn’t anticipate the number of times that I would be mistaken for one by my colleagues. Impostor syndrome rears its ugly head every time you sit down in a meeting and are greeted with the common exclamation of, “Oh, I’m sorry! I thought you were a student!” While that mistake happens less over time as colleagues become more familiar with you, that nagging voice in the back of your head perseveres in telling you that perhaps you are too young to really belong here.

When I started out as a higher education administrator, I worked mainly with people who were a good bit older than I was, but during the past year, my position expanded to include the supervision of our student tour guide program. I now oversee 30 student workers, the majority of whom are closer to my age than most of my colleagues. I found myself questioning whether I was capable of taking on this new responsibility, and that voice in my head kept coming back to one question: How am I supposed to lead a team of students when I’m constantly being mistaken for one of them?

But while this new responsibility brought yet more job challenges, it also gave me rewarding opportunities to learn as a professional. Although I had previously viewed my age as a hurdle to overcome in my position, my work with the student team allowed me to embrace my age and use it to guide my management style.

Generation Z has distinguished itself from those who came before; we’ve experienced major events through a different lens than our parents and grandparents. We’ve been defined as the first digital natives, we’ve watched our parents struggle through the Great Recession and we’ve faced the COVID-19 pandemic during some of the most pivotal years in our lives. Such events have shaped our mindsets and attitudes, and I’ve found myself using those shared experiences and views to inform my management style with my student team.

Over the months since I stepped into this management role with the tour guide team, I’ve worked to find the right balance between building a relationship with my students through highlighting the events or approaches we share as a generation and earning their trust and respect as their supervisor. Along the way, I’ve learned lessons that I’ve found to be successful and want to offer them to other recent college graduates out there who are managing a student team or intern.

  • Listen to feedback and be transparent. I’ve always been more connected to and trusting of my supervisors when I’ve felt heard. I went to those people when I needed help, because I knew they would listen and be honest in their answers. Over time, I’ve found that commonality within my team: being Gen Z, we search for trust and stability. When students come to you with questions and feedback, listen with open ears and an open mind. They want to know that they are being heard, and they want transparent responses. If you know something isn’t possible, don’t lead them on with maybes. Even if it’s an answer they don’t want to hear, they’ll appreciate that it’s an honest one.
  • Provide direct and concise communication. Studies have shown that Gen Zers suffer from anxiety in higher numbers than people in previous generations. I have personally struggled with managing anxiety in my life, so one of my biggest goals has been to create a team structure and communication style that would avoid adding any additional feelings of anxiety or stress to the lives of my students.

I’ve learned that direct and concise communication with my team has worked to help reach that goal. You need to set structured expectations, communicate those expectations clearly and make sure that students understand them. While it might feel like you’re micromanaging, your team will feel more confident when performing their job duties if they know what’s expected of them.

  • Don’t just allow memes and GIFs—encourage them. You already know that cellphones are Gen Z’s best friend. I’ve found that group chats ultimately work better than email threads when you’re looking for engagement. I always have my cellphone on me, and I know most of my team does, too. Keep it streamlined and keep it accessible. And remember to have fun with it when appropriate.

Case in point: I wanted to set an early precedent with my team for having fun in our communications. The first time that we came together as a group was during our annual training at the start of the fall semester. As I was putting together the training slideshow for the team, I created college-specific memes that accompanied the different topics we covered. The students engaged with them more than I had anticipated, and some even created their own versions to share. Now, such memes have become a staple in our group chat, along with reaction GIFs to different updates and reminders that I send.

  • Follow through and have tough conversations. What’s the point of communicating clear expectations if you’re not going to enforce them? That was definitely one of the biggest challenges I faced—and still face—when I work with my team. When you’re so close in age, you have a strong urge to want to be their friend. Naturally, you want them to like you. In the end, however, remember this is an opportunity for both you and your students to grow as professionals, and you need to set boundaries.

It’s really hard to have tough conversations, and it’s easy to duck behind the safety of a screen and address a problem via email or text message. As a technology-driven generation, Gen Zs like you and your students feel more comfortable in that space. But you should step out of that comfort zone and have tough conversations face-to-face. Your students will be better prepared for similar conversations in the future, and you can push yourself to become more comfortable as you continue to grow in your career.

Words can’t begin to describe how nervous I was when I met for the first time with one of my students to talk through some issues with their work. I have to thank the colleagues around me who were willing to share their tips and advice in that situation. They helped me find the courage to sit down with the student and develop an effective approach to our conversation. In the end, the student didn’t realize that their actions were causing problems, and talking about their responsibilities face-to-face left both of us feeling that we were on the same page about the expectations for the position. It also helped to develop a strong rapport between us to talk through other challenges as they arose throughout the semester.

  • Share experiences. As I touched on previously, while it might not seem like it, you are better suited to connect with students who report to you than you may think. One of the best ways to build relationships with them is by tapping into shared experiences. Relationships often come from a place of understanding each other. Your life experiences are going to be relatively similar to theirs because of your shared generation, and finding areas of common ground will likely come with ease. After all, you were just in their shoes! I find that I often have conversations with my students in which I’m able to find parallels between something they’re going through and similar situations that I navigated not that long ago.
  • Own your mistakes. The work that your students do will help build their résumés after graduation, and your role in supervising them as an administrator is building your repertoire for promotions or future roles. My team appreciated that I emphasized that their campus job is a learning experience and professional development opportunity for both of us. Make sure your students know that you don’t expect perfection from them, and they shouldn’t expect it from you. They should understand that mistakes are bound to happen, but you will do everything you can to correct them and do better moving forward. They’ll respect the effort you put in and trust that you’re trying to do what’s best for them.

Finally, while the approaches above work for my team, always recognize that no two students or teams are the same. It’s ultimately all about trial and error and finding the right combination of creating a personal connection and making sure your expectations are heard. Just use that shared Gen Z mentality to your advantage and take it one step at a time.

Megan Finlan is assistant director of enrollment marketing at York College of Pennsylvania.

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