I read an interesting “back page” article from the June 2014 Dean & Provost newsletter about an individual who began as a teacher of adult students and eventually moved into a role where she was administering programs for adult students. The author, Cynthia Gomez, interviewed Jennifer Wofford, now director of the Office of Extended Studies at Ithaca College, about her experiences as a teacher and administrator of programs for adult students. There are a number of gems from this interview that I believe are very reflective of how teachers, administrators, or the rest of us need to approach our work with adult students.
“You can’t assume that students are going to automatically understand those college systems and processes they must navigate.” College campuses and their policies and procedures can be overwhelming and intimating for adult students. For many students, they are simply interested in taking a course and for some they simply can’t understand why they need to fill out all these forms or why they need to go to all these different offices. It has always been my belief that one of the important missions for our offices is to be the high touch GPS for our students as they navigate the systems and processes. It boils down for me to providing outstanding customer service. I am talking about the customer service that moves well beyond having simply satisfied customers to creating what Blanchard and Bowles call “raving fans.” Raving fans are the people who will spread the good word about the work our offices do.
“What I like about continuing education is that you have your spoons in so many pots and you get to work with every single department on campus to build bridges and disrupt systems that don’t serve our students. I have to admit that the image of having our spoons in many pots is a new one, but it does encapsulate in many ways what we do in continuing education. For example, we had a meeting with our assessment folks the other day, and as we drilled down into what we do and how we assess it, we found that we have multiple layers. We provide advising, we provide instruction, we provide administrative functions from registration to marketing. At the end of the day, we simply cut across the full spectrum of what it means to take a college course. And I very much appreciate her point about having the opportunity to work with all academic colleges, departments and support department across campus in providing educational experiences for adult students. Having this opportunity to work with and to get to know and understand their challenges is truly one of my favorite aspects of working in continuing and professional education.
Ms. Wofford also mentions one of the most significant things we can do as a professional and continuing education units, and that is to be a disruptive force on our campuses. In an earlier post, https://shaeffersforays.wordpress.com/wp-admin/post.php?post=208&action=edit, I mentioned Michael Staton’s article “The Disruption is Here,” where he makes the point that the continuing and professional education colleges are the disruptive force in higher education.
He suggests our CE units are a “research and development startup in your university,” and to allow these units to operate independently exploring new models for programming and serving students. He suggests that universities hire the best, smartest, and most courageous people to run these units, and then allow them to innovate. Finally, let these units and their operation serve as a model for the larger campus. My message: continue to disrupt.
“At the same time, you can’t be so attached to the outcome of your ideas that you don’t allow others’ discussions and perspectives to be part of the process…” This bit of advice is true for any leader, that is, while we may have ownership of an idea or how things should be done, we make a big mistake by not listening to the input of others. One thing that I must continue working on is not being “Mr. Fix it.” You know how it goes, you are talking to (in too many cases talking to and not listening to) a colleague and before they can finish their sentence you have interrupted and provided them “the answer” or “the fix.” Related to this are creating avenues where different ideas and perspectives can be shared. One of the most important tools that we have as continuing and professional education units is the power of convening. Because we work across the whole campus, we can bring the appropriate departments to the table to discuss how best to move a particular initiative forward. For example, if we want to launch an off-campus degree program, certainly we have faculty and department heads at the table but don’t forget the support units (registrar, finance, student aid) and of course the library. If I’ve learned one thing over the years as an administrator it is to strive to be inclusive in all discussions.
“The students really wanted to learn, and they were so grateful for the opportunity to have someone engaged with them on a one-to-one level.” This is an observation that I’ve heard many times from faculty who have worked adult students. In this case, this is Ms. Wofford’s observation after having taught a class at a maximum-security prison. This speaks volumes about our mission of providing access to the power of education and the warm and appreciative response from our students.
Many thanks to Ms. Wofford and Ms. Gomez for their thoughtful article and their reminders of several important concepts related to being a professional continuing and professional educator.