#nuSLT or @TaylorSwift13? Parallels between 2014-2015 and 1989

Since 2014, Taylor Swift and the Student Learning and Transitions department have had two things in common: redefining our brands and subsequently, finding our greatest levels of success yet. We didn’t sell over one-million albums in a week, nor have we released a series of singles which all reached number one on the charts and our subconscious hearts, but, like Taylor, the SLT team decided that maintaining status quo was not enough and that while the next steps would be risky, we would dare greatly.

This blog will use the first four tracks of the 1989 album to mark the four phases of our journey since September 2014 and provide context for how we referenced T. Swift’s masterful approach to owning her story throughout her transition into the largest pop star in the world for the last year.

Welcome to new york

Much like the opening track on the album celebrating the Big Apple, the beginning of the 2014-2015 academic year brought new opportunities to the Student Learning and Transitions team. This opened up dynamic conversations (and sometimes debates) on our understandings of, and hopes for Canadian Higher Education and the contexts that we operate in as individuals, professionals, and ultimately educators. This was a new concept for some members of our team. Seeing each role as an educator required some reflection, challenge, and support.

Dispelling the historical understanding that our job descriptions were prescriptive, we reframed understandings of our roles and embraced the reason why we work as Student Affairs practitioners over the day-to-day tasks – the students. Throughout the year we reminded each other to stay “out of the micro/ out of the weeds” when thinking about our roles. I urged the team to consider that what we do isn’t as important to others as it may be to us; however, if we direct our thinking and storytelling toward why it matters, we will find greater opportunity to reach our goals and find allies in supporting student success.

The path ahead was uncertain and invigorating. We had new team members who had joined in September, bringing with them externally funded programs which would enhance our capacity to provide innovative forms of support for students’ academic and social integration to the Nipissing University Lakers’ community. We knew we wanted to accomplish big things, and “making the move” to a larger frame of reference would allow us this opportunity. We were eager to get started and just needed to figure out what our plan of attack would be.

BLANK SPACE

After a year of discussing the value of assessment in Student Affairs, the team had begun embracing the idea of learning and development outcomes informing programs, initiatives, and services to ensure the greatest impact on students. The emphasis on impact and supporting student excellence had us thinking of how we would recognize our own potential. Our previous year’s theme (“be intentional”) had us exploring areas of interest within our profession and looking to industry for inspiration. The team was focused on finding new ways for us to learn and understand students, to access their inspiration and how they were using their voices in asking to be supported, and we started connecting the dots between what we were being given in terms of capacity and scope.

Inspired by the writings of Patrick Lencioni and the Table Group, our annual strategic team retreat was focused on developing our thematic goal. After a day and a half of discussion and guided exercises to ensure that our mission, vision, and values best represented our interests and were something we could commit to, the team was able to agree upon and articulate our rallying cry: demonstrating value to the institution.

To be completely honest, I was blown away. Unbeknownst to the team, this is exactly what I had written on my page. I had hoped that at some point within the next year I would be able to lead the team in seeing the bigger picture and identifying that the gap we were facing wasn’t necessarily in student awareness of our services and programs, but was that the institution in the broadest sense did not understand what we do, why we do it, and how it impacts the other functional areas. We are a team, but are we truly harnessing our full potential? I didn’t think so, and I was a bit relieved to know that my team didn’t either.

Filling the all-too-literal “blank space” on our framework slide was only the first part of the planning process, now came the more difficult part: identifying our defining objectives that we would focus on in the year ahead to meet our stated goal. Fortunately, this was relatively painless. We knew that we needed to focus on relationship building and maintenance with stakeholders, reviewing our existing portfolios for efficiency and effectiveness, increasing student engagement across all platforms and pathways, and improving our marketing and public relations strategies.

STYLE

To improve the marketing and public relations strategy, we began with our relationships. We visited every faculty department and shared how we support their goals and the students’ academic skill development across our functional areas. We began sharing some of our innovative ideas and solutions to “old problems”. We adopted the institution’s branding for our marketing materials, redesigned our bulletin board spaces, and focused our social media efforts to increase effectiveness by ensuring we weren’t expanding ourselves into irrelevancy.

One night, likely watching The Voice, I thought to myself, “Self, Taylor Swift is literally everywhere right now.” That was all it took. I tweeted out to the SLT team that for that week’s meeting, I wanted them to start thinking about and exploring how Taylor and her team were marketing the 1989 album. Why was it that we all knew many of her appearances and branding exploits, but half of the team wasn’t even a fan of her music, or Top 40 at all? What about her made her so relatable to a world that would not be likely to be exposed to her life experiences in their own lifetime? To me, it was the commitment to maintaining her voice. So, maybe we needed to start by finding our own.

In that (and a few subsequent meetings) we dedicated time to sharing our findings. Some had read articles about her charitable work, others shared how she harnessed her strong social media following to host secret album launch concerts, a few dissected lyrics, some just wanted to dance, but we all had taken something from the all out approach. We discussed how she was always seated in the front row of any and every awards show that was ever televised – maybe even sports ones, I wouldn’t know. Was it because she was most likely to win? Maybe, but I don’t think so. It was because she was willing to be authentic regardless of whether or not the camera was on. She literally dances like no one is watching, even though millions are. She sings along to other artists’ songs (at the same time endorsing their artistry to her fan base) despite often getting the words wrong (I cannot help but notice that habit in people). This is engaging, this is entertaining, this is her brand.

Striving to be authentic is difficult. I often reflect on the careful balance of being my authentic self and the expectations upon someone in a managerial role such as mine. Despite this, I often rely on my confidence in myself to couch feelings of anxiety or discomfort – what if the real me and my instincts aren’t accepted or good enough? Who cares? Shake it off! (Snuck in another reference there, did you catch it?) Taylor does this too. She has been the target of many comedian rants, lots of ridicule from those who indiscriminately rally against anything that is deemed as popular, and likely the shade thrown by the girlfriends of her very famous lyrical treasure trove of lost loves. None of this stops her. She posts videos of her friends lip syncing to their favourite songs, pictures of her cats, and keeps on dancing to her own beats… again, literally. All of this is the fabric of her signature style.

We are currently determining what our department’s style will be. Our Peer Educators are developing a social media strategy across our existing platforms, defining our voice, and making recommendations for further growth and development. Through this process, they are all learning more about their own personal brand management and considerations they want to make regarding how its viewed by potential future employers and their respective networks. In the interim, we have embraced the #TSwizzleApproach: engagement in the most direct sense. We are reaching out to incoming students individually and extending invitations to our biggest summer event: New Student Orientation. We are congratulating our followers on their success stories as they appear on our newsfeed. We are sharing our stories with our networks via this website and promoting across our platforms. We may not be able to meet all of our followers in person at concerts or award shows, or give shout outs as we accept the Entertainer of the Year trophy, but we are looking forward to finding our followers during NSO and beyond and making sure we say hello and continue developing our relationships further. Students are our reason for being excited about our jobs, they’re our butterflies and new horizons in New York. These relationships work toward the University’s goals of creating global citizens who are agents of change amongst their communities, showing this and sharing how we do it fills the voids and reduces duplicate efforts across campus. Maintaining our desire for why we are here and staying motivated by our passion doesn’t go out of style. We have our plan of attack, and while we made great strides in 2014-2015, we have so much more to give in 2015-2016 and we couldn’t be more excited to share this with each of you.

OUt OF THE WOODS

All of this success and passion didn’t come without obstacles. Nipissing University approved an operating budget of an approximately $12 million deficit in 2014-2015 and we knew that this would mean significant program review processes and streamlining efforts across the department, division, and institution. During the year we were challenged with having three positions reduced, external funding agreements reach their end, and restructuring which saw team members moved to other areas of the university. By April 2015 our team had gone from 9 to 3 and we were left figuring out how we could possibly maintain our great successes experienced in 2014-2015. Somehow, the team maintained an incredibly positive demeanor and kept working incredibly hard to ensure as much momentum was maintained as possible. Exiting team members were gracious to complete their capstone reflections, my attempt to help create a space for dialogue of the impact of their efforts in their roles and the lasting effects of their work on the students and our team. We presented our impact out to the division, shared reports up, and continue advocating for resources to accomplish our goals without apology.

This year, the Board of Governors has approved a deficit budget of approximately $5 million and has announced plans to consolidate the Muskoka campus much like the Brantford announcement in the previous year. Tough decisions are being made and we are not yet out of the woods. We will continue to see budget reductions and streamlined resource allocations in response to the difficult realities facing the university. In times of adversity, it is easy to feel defeated and rest on your laurels. Fortunately, this is not a mentality that I subscribe to. With the support of the team, past and present, I have continued to brainstorm ways to further innovate our approaches to supporting student success and the institution in meeting its mission and vision. We have all focused our efforts in support of each other and taken on whatever needed to be done to keep us moving forward. We’ve made tough decisions and sunset programs and initiatives in order to maintain our commitment to excellence and ensure we continue enhancing the student experience and living our espoused values. 2015-2016 may not be as we imagined, but even with these unfortunate realities, it may be even better. Sometimes we need our comfort zones challenged a bit to inspire the best outcomes. With everyone’s effort and continued passion for why we do what we do, anything is possible. We have even secured additional external funding which will allow us to ensure we have sufficient capacity to maintain as many program, initiative, and service complements as needed to realize our leaner, directed plan for the upcoming year. The power of positive thinking and willingness to dare greatly leading the way.

I couldn’t be more thankful to have had the opportunity to lead the team I have, in its various incarnations, over the last 2 and a half years. Whether professional staff, Peer Educators, or colleagues from across our campus and beyond, all of the folks who have been a part of the SLT journey have helped us reach unprecedented heights. Our utilization and participation rates have increased significantly, our focus on assessment and outcomes have helped us find the language to articulate the impact of our work, and the team’s willingness to have me challenge their contexts and frames of reference have helped us all learn and grow more together. We may not be taking over the entire world like Taylor Swift, but, like her, we have taken the chance to own our story and have been building momentum ever since. While obstacles appear we don’t passively ask why they have presented themselves, we figure out how we will adjust our path to continue reaching our goal in the most effective way possible. As the Robert F. Kennedy quote which opened this blog says, in order to achieve great things, you need to be willing to fail just as greatly. The SLT team wouldn’t have it any other way, and that is what drives and inspires us all. Stay tuned, we aren’t done yet!