When I finished my master’s program and began working in my first education abroad gig, I was exhausted. I had studied, volunteered, interned, worked, and interviewed my way through two degrees and into that coveted entry-level position. I’d achieved what I’d been working toward since I was five, and I wanted to savor my success for a hot minute. But people kept asking, “What’s next? What’s your 5-10 year plan?” Couldn’t a girl catch a break? I wanted to soak up as much as I could in my new position and take a break from the “extracurriculars.” But if you’re a career-driven and goal-oriented gal (or gent), those “extracurriculars” (better known as professional development opportunities) are vital in helping you move up. Check out my 5 easy ways to stay on track professionally:
#1: Conferences and Workshops
Okay, this one’s pretty obvious. Attending professional conferences allows you to network with and bounce ideas off of people in your field, learn about best practices from other institutions, complete workshops on focused topics of interest to you and/or your office, and present sessions yourself (which gets your name and bio in front of hundreds of other folks in the profession).The big ones for EA, of course, are NAFSA and Forum on Education Abroad, and while both offer fantastic opportunities for growth, they aren’t always realistic options for some people. Small office budgets or tiny graduate school budgets can be a major roadblock (although lower registration fees for full-time students and travel grants can subsidize costs – always check for those!). Other conference possibilities are NAFSA regionals, state international education associations, Lessons From Abroad (LFA) for recent study abroad alums, software companies, and other specialty areas in higher education that somehow connect to the work you do in EA. All of these are great ways to slowly get your feet wet if the national conferences are out of budget or just too overwhelming. For example, LFA offers one-day, regional conferences with registration fees as low as $15, and those looking to enter the field could volunteer to help with conference coordination and present a session for the students.
#2: Human Resources Courses
Employees (and sometimes graduate assistants) at universities can take advantage of courses offered by the Department of Human Resources to enhance current skills or learn new ones. They may be offered free of charge or for a lower rate than what you would pay elsewhere. Possible examples include Introduction to Microsoft Excel, How to Supervise, Using Myers-Briggs to Improve Team Dynamics, SafeZone (trains university personnel on how to create safe environments for the LGBTQQA community), Active Shooter Response, and C-CERT (Campus-Community Emergency Response Team).
As you can see, some courses are geared toward general skills applicable to many situations while others focus on the acquisition of precise skills or knowledge. All of these contribute to continued development as a professional and may help you explore a new area or build on previous training. For example, for my current role, I had to be trained specifically on managing international travel crises, but Active Shooter Response builds on that training by allowing me to view crises response from a different perspective.
#3: Tuition Benefits / Auditing Campus Courses
Many institutions offer their employees the opportunity to take courses on campus for free or reduced rates. Even if you’ve already completed one, two, or three-plus degrees, you can add another area of specialty to your knowledgebase by earning a graduate certificate. Another option would be to audit a class related to your current position, which means you wouldn’t take the class for credit but could attend to learn about the subject. Would some aspects of your position be easier for you if you had a basic understanding of writing computer code? Take a class in IT. Need to produce new marketing materials for programs? Brush up on your graphic design skills with Intro to Graphic Design. Would you like to write a grant for the office but not sure how to start? Take a class on grant-writing. The possibilities are numerous.
#4: Campus-Wide Committees
This option was a bit of a surprise to me. I came into my role thinking I’d work in a specialty, so to speak, that would collaborate with other specialties (offices and departments) on campus when the need arose (co-sponsoring events, inviting guest speakers, etc.). But there are other offices on campus whose responsibilities include implementing campus-wide initiatives, which requires coordination with multiple offices in a variety of disciplines / specialties / locations. Actively seek out these types of opportunities because their benefits are many: network with people across campus that you wouldn’t have met otherwise, expand your knowledgebase with the addition of unique skills that may grab the attention of a future search committee, and learn about what different offices and departments value and how you may be able to collaborate with them on a project in the future. Examples of campus-wide committees on which I currently serve are the ePortfolio Project, housed in the Office of University Writing, and the Green Dot Bystander Intervention Program Committee, run out of Health Promotion and Wellness Services.
#5: Create Your Own Adventure
Once you’ve explored all of the options listed above and are ready for a new challenge (or didn’t find what you needed in those suggestions), get creative. This one is sometimes a struggle for me because I’m more detail-oriented and less think-outside-the-box. But you know you – what your interests are and where you’d like to end up (if only vaguely). Do you see a future where you’d be asked for teaching experience? See if your campus allows administrative staff or graduate students teach a freshman-level success strategies or study tips course. Want to learn more about the day-to-day workings of another office? Ask to shadow someone in that office for a day or for an hour a week. Feel closed off in your workspace and need a brainstorm session with your office team? Propose an office retreat where you and your team can get away from the same four walls you see every day. A change of scenery does wonders for productivity and team morale. And this doesn’t have to be a big production – it can be as small as taking an extended lunch off-site.
Regardless of what you need / want, the key to getting your supervisor on board is to figure out a way to connect your participation with benefits for the office. While professional development opportunities allow individuals to grow and gain increased knowledge of their field, the assumption is that the individual will bring that knowledge back to the office with the hope of improving services and sharing ideas with the team.
What other professional opportunities would you add to my list? Anything from those who may not work in a university setting?