On Student Leadership

17 Apr

I’m finishing graduate school in less than a month. This is simultaneously exhilarating and terrifying, and this weekend’s end-of-year banquet at the Landmark Center in St. Paul made it all that much more real. I’ll have a lot to say about my two years as a Gopher in the coming month, and I will also reserve greater judgment until I’ve had more distance, as I did with my Georgetown blog post some two-plus years after graduation. (Even now, upon rereading, that post seems overly critical.) But first, I want to reflect a little on my time as a student leader for two very distinct student organizations. I didn’t do anything earth-shattering with either one, but in retrospect, they’ll certainly define my time at the U of M more than anything else.

First, I served as President of the student group that represents my graduate program, the Planning Student Organization (PSO). This was one of the true highlights of graduate school. We dramatically ramped up the PSO’s capacity, and cleaned house and left as much positive institutional memory as possible. Some of the work I am most proud of was exceptionally boring, as it involved writing out agendas and doing a lot of bureaucratic slogging in the hope that my successors will be able to apply for larger budgets. Still, it rarely felt like work. I was fortunate to have an excellent team of people with me, all of whom I’d count as good friends, and we managed to have a fair amount of fun along the way.

My time with PSO was also my own little experiment in hyper-local government. I grumble a bit when I learn that both the Dean and Assistant Dean of the Humphrey School have no knowledge that we exist, even though we probably hold as many events as any group in the school. But in reality, we’ve rather intentionally closed ourselves off from the affairs of state in the broader graduate school. Often, a leaner operation with less oversight makes for a much more flexible, less fraught environment. We have the good fortune of having an exceptional new program director, and he certainly made the context easier to navigate. Instead of complaining to a dean when things went awry, we tried to solve them through internal capacity. If we think the admissions office is short-changing our program in its visit days, we politely work with them, but find our own way to rope in new students.  While I’m willing to sign on to a few things and certainly spoke my mind about things that bothered me from time to time, I prefer this only as a last resort. Give me direct action over grumpy letters to the dean any day.

The Humphrey School is at times fractious, its meetings full of controversy and intrigue. In our little wing of the building, there was no such drama. A small program size helps, and we have our own issues of homogeneity and groupthink to work through. Still, it’s an eclectic group with a wide array of academic and experiential backgrounds, but all unified by a vague ideal of community and a desire to have a stake in its future. To the extent that we could invite people in to that and further their goals along this path, we succeeded.

My other commitment did get me out a bit more, as I served as the Managing Editor of the Humphrey Public Affairs Review. We’re still wrapping up our spring issue, and I’m sure I have a few frantic late nights left. Once again, I put in most of my work behind the scenes, going through the same group registration process and writing a syllabus for a class that I kinda sorta co-taught. The day-to-day work involved incessant emails, keeping up with editing teams and tracking down authors and making sure the whole issue is ready to go to press.

HPAR hasn’t always been easy to manage: it’s a new publication still building up its capacity, and its members’ diversity of interests, in many ways a strength, means we’re often not in the same place as the others. Generating submissions can be a challenge, especially when the people who signed up to be PR people never showed up to anything. I’ve never been a salesman, and I probably could have lightened up on my pathological penny-pinching and sprung for a few more marketing materials. Still, we found creative ways to use editors’ talents and connections to fill the void.

A year ago, back before I served on anything, I reflected on how student organization leadership seems both a political training ground and little league at once. I still think that. I honed valuable management skills here, and at times had to work around disinterest, neglect, or just sheer obliviousness from higher-ups. The low-stakes atmosphere lets this come with ease, and students can run things in a low-key, somewhat irreverent way that lessens the stress of commitments and leadership. Without seeming to try very hard, it builds community through ease and proximity.

Half the battle seems to involve just keeping the lights on and constantly having an agenda, looking for ways to do more and achieve those fairly basic goals laid out in mission statements. After that, simply sitting down with people and getting them in the room does most of the rest of the work. This can be especially difficult when everyone has frantic schedules, and there’s something about the calendar-invite era that seems especially counterproductive to having quick, easy check-ins. If everyone part ways with clear roles and distinct action items, things will get done.

My HPAR experience even further underscored the value of human contact. In our paper review process, all our submissions are edited without names attached, so as Managing Editor, it was my job to correspond with authors. This meant a fair amount of softening the sometimes vicious copy-edits that are all too easy to slap on an essay when there’s no name attached to it (something I was just as guilty of the year before) into something more constructive. On a few occasions, this involved setting up in-person meetings with authors and sitting down with them to talk out issues, further humanizing the process. It’s amazing how talking out what points one was trying to make in writing can show exactly what changes are necessary in a paper.

Above all, it’s important to identify when things are sliding off course early and say something right away, otherwise one will be left in one of those situations where one is writing a grumpy or bitter letter. As prolific a writer as I am sometimes, all the pixels in the world can’t convey many of the things that we can share in a conversation. Constant awareness and communication skills, in the end, are what make it all work. By staying transparent in my own operations, I hoped to create an environment where others were free to be transparent with me. There are occasional moments when leadership demands bold stands or declarations, but on a day-to-day basis, it mostly involves the mundane work of gentle stewardship and guidance.

I’ll concede to feeling a bit strange as I close in on the end: I poured myself in for a very brief amount of time, and now I’ll be disappearing (though still in touch). I’m far from perfect; I had a few moments of trial by fire, and a few things that I’d do differently in retrospect. It’s a bit absurd to consider the amount of time I spent doing grunt work for which the only compensation is a bit of sap at transition events and year-end parties. Career ladders are such that leadership skills aren’t always the most relevant things to one’s first post-graduation position, as evidenced by any PSO curriculum discussion in which people worry about their lack of “hard” skills. But even though I’ve wavered, I still learned a lot more about how to work with people and get things done than I ever could have in a classroom. There was never a dull moment, and even if my time here was fleeting, the connections should endure.

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