Tips for the new professional’s journey by Yolande Graham

It is crazy to think that a little over a year ago, I graduated with my masters in Higher Education and Student Affairs. This first year in my role as a new professional has been both interesting and challenging. I have learned a few things over this last year that I want to share with new colleague who are launching their professional journey this year.

  1. Take time to observe the culture of your new institution

“Culture is the “social or normative glue that holds an organization together. It expresses the values or social ideals and the beliefs that organizational members come to share” (Birnbaum, 1988, p. 72; Smircich, 1983, p. 334). The culture of an organization comes through in the stories that they tell, the myths, the motto and even in some of the words they say. It is important that in your first few months of you position you are taking the time to intentionally observe and understand the culture of the institution and department that you are working in.

In my first few months at OU I made an effort to observe and start to get to know the institutional culture. There are a number of ways you can do this. The first and probably most common way is during your training and in conversation with your colleagues, especially those who have been at the institution for more than a year. Another method I used was attending a number of the 1st year student rituals of the institution. In these space you have the opportunity to engage in the passing on of traditions and cultural values.

If this is an option for you, it can provide you incredible insight into the experiences that many of the students living in your residential spaces have had or will have once they get to campus.Be sure to talk to you supervisor and your colleagues to see what these experiences on your campus are.

Also, keep in mind that on every campus there are spaces that are sacred to specific student groups. The last thing you want to do is invite yourself into a space and negatively affect the nature of that space or the experience of the students in it.


2. Allow yourself grace for the transition

In the same way that a measure of grace is given to first year students who will be moving on campus in a matter of weeks, you should give yourself a similar level of grace.


You are still learning what it means to be in this new place, with a whole new community and different rules and expectations of your role.

As questions arise, be sure that you make note of them and ask them in a timely manner in the appropriate space. Your supervisor and colleagues expect you to have questions. They can anticipate some of them, which they generally address during training. You may have questions about your department or your role based on your contextual experiences at your prior institution. Be sure to ask these questions, as they could help you to better understand the culture you work within.

Don’t be afraid to make mistakes.  When you do make a mistake, make sure that you address it with your supervisor and find ways to avoid it in futures. Understand that there may be consequences. Your supervisor and colleagues are a built in support system that you can turn to get new perspectives on issues that arise or ideas that you have.

3. Figure out your work-life flow

It’s all about work-life flow. A perfect balance of your work and life is generally unattainable, and aiming for it can prove disappointing in the long run. As housing and residence life professionals, it is important that we pay attention to our work-life flow.

There will be times when work responsibilities come at you full force as though you’re drinking from a fire hose (i.e. RA Training, Move-in, Move-out, etc.). It is important in these times to acknowledge your heavy work flow and make plans to take time away to replenish yourself when possible. Failure to do this could negatively affect the quality your work and could lead to burn out.

4. Find Communities of Connection

In this transition time, you have the opportunity to start afresh in many areas of your life. It is important that as you do so, you are seeking out communities to get plugged into. You can find spaces for connection in your work environment, religious or spiritual engagement, fitness communities or other hobbies.

Take time to think about how you want to spend your time. Now that you are not a grad student, a lot of the time that was devoted to academics is more flexible. Ask yourself a few questions: What do I enjoy doing? What kind of community am I looking for?

Start to think about what self-care looks like for you and develop a plan. Your time can easily be eaten up by your new responsibilities if you let it. How do you intend to take care of yourself in this period of transition so you do not get overwhelmed?

Even if you think that your current assignment is only short term, take the time to invest and be present in your community. You could be doing yourself a disservice by isolating yourself.


5. Develop your Professional Development

This does not only mean conferences, although attending or presenting at a conference is a great opportunity. Reflect on what your professional goals are, both short term and long term. Write them down and start to work through what experiences you need to have, knowledge you need to gain or practices you need to engage in to successfully attain your goals.

Professional development could look like joining a committee within or outside your department to gain a specific set of skills. You could also join a reading group focused on a certain topic, set aside time each week to engage in current student affairs literature, find a mentor to discuss your professional journey with or invest in communities of practice that support your goals.

Be an advocate for your own professional growth. Your supervisor wants to support you but you must take the first step and let them know what direction you want to go in.


6. It’s not about keeping up            

…with the Jones’, that is.

Comparison is the thief of joy.


There are skills you possess that are unique to you and are needed in your specific role. It is easy to look at your colleagues and see all of their strengths. Or you can look at the accomplishments of others from your grad program, which may lead you to discount the great work that you are doing in your space. Remember you were hired at you institution because they believe you possess the skills, experience and/ or personality necessary to get the job done. Don’t doubt yourself. In the event that you do, take some time to reflect on your own strengths, on why you are passionate about working in this field and on your own growth up to that point.

You have the capacity for great things. Do not downplay your own awesomeness.



Birnbaum, R. (1988). How college works: The cybernetics of academic organization and leadership. San Francisco, CA: Jossey Bass

Smircich, L. (1983). “Concepts of culture and organizational analysis.” Administrative Science Quarterly, 28, 339-358.

Taylor, K. B. & Baxter Magolda, M.B. (2015). “Building educators’ capacities to meet twenty-first century demands.” About Campus: Enriching the Student Learning Experience, 20(4), 16-25.

About the Author:

Yolande Graham is entering her second year as the Residential College Director for Dunham College at the University of Oklahoma. Prior to her time in Oklahoma, she completed her masters in Higher Education and Student Affairs at Baylor University (Sic’em Bears) and her bachelors in communication at the University of Maryland, College Park (Go Terps). Yolande is currently a member of the CHRL Directorate Board.

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