by Sydney Freeman, Jr. Ph.D. and Wendy Bruun, Ed.D.
It is hard being a college administrator, staff, or faculty member right now. We have faced two raging pandemics, COVID-19 and racism on our campuses. We are often asked to do more with less and given limited resources for our own professional development. In the midst of that, many of us are charged with or requested to work with student workers. This can take the form of work-study students, students who are graduate assistants, or students requesting internship sites, etc. For the sake of this article, we will describe students in such roles as student employees. However, many of us are not formally trained to manage students or have the time to think about student learning outcomes when serving as student supervisors.
In recent interviews with graduate assistants, we uncovered a variety of concerns including supervisors not having a plan for what the students would be doing; not being provided with appropriate guidance on how to complete tasks; students feeling that they were just hired to do the grunt work within the office without meaningful tasks given to enhance their learning and career; And then on the opposite end, students could be given tasks too advanced for their limited skill set that should have been given to someone who was a full-time employee or seasoned professional. Overall, there was a disconnect between what was hoped for/intended and what was experienced. Often the disconnect hinged on how their supervisor understood their student employee role.
Too many student employee supervisors are under-equipped to meet the needs of their students. As we talked about the need for improving the ways in which we facilitate high-quality student employment experiences, we came up with the term, ‘supervisor educator.’ A supervisor educator is someone who sees themselves as a facilitator of professional growth and advancement for students seeking to connect theory to practice within a particular field and work context. Often students are assigned to serve in internships or assistantships to gain real-world experiences. However, the person that is assigned to supervise them has little preparation regarding the ways of socializing them into their organizational context besides using a sink or swim approach.
In talking with students, we are learning that they want to connect theory to practice. They do understand that in most cases there will be a need to do small tasks and prove themselves before gaining the opportunity to have larger ones. However, it is also important that the educator supervisor be a facilitator and coach that shows interest in the student’s interest and development and ensures that they are exposed to the core competencies the student will need to succeed in their field.
Given that we have identified these challenges. We believe that what we are describing as the supervisor educator can be an approach that both addresses the professional needs of the supervisor and supports and enhances the development of the students. In the section below, we will describe some of the concerns and desires that student employees identified as important to their advancement and development:
- Clarity and alignment: Student employees want clarity on the guidelines, expectations, and standards for their work experience. They also want to ensure that the work assignments they are given actually prepare them for the roles that they plan to seek in the future.
- Experiences: Student employees compare their treatment, level of responsibility, and extra opportunities with their classmates. If professional staff are offered flexible schedules in your department, graduate students want fair and equitable treatment, too. If some student employees are offered the opportunity to serve on departmental or divisional committees, be sure those opportunities are available to all of them.
- Balancing expectations: Student employees want flexibility and support for academic demands. Because students are juggling multiple roles and expectations, which may also include second jobs to pay their bills, significant relationships or caregiver responsibilities, or emotional support for extended family members, they want supervisors who are supportive of these multiple demands on their energy and time, especially when it comes to their academic demands.
- Equity: Student employees want fair compensation in relation to their classmates, which means that supervisors in the same department or division could coordinate their compensation model or be able to explain any differences in base pay or additional remuneration (room and board, professional development funds, etc. ).
- Knowing about academic programs: Student employees expressed concern when their supervisor was not knowledgeable about their academic program curriculum and unable or unwilling to discuss the connection between curricular learning and application in the workplace. Supervisor educators should spend time familiarizing themselves with the curriculum and program learning outcomes.
Here are a few ways in which a person can become a strong supervisor educator:
- Know your strengths and limitations: Supervisor educators are experts in their field. However, we all have areas in which we have strength and other areas in which we have less expertise. Reflect on that and be clear about the ways in which a student employee might complement your strengths and the strengths of your office.
- Evaluate the capacity of your office: Although it may be great to have an extra set of hands to help with the workload in your office, it is important to make sure that you have the time, energy, staff member buy-in and support, and financial resources to ensure that a Student employee’s experience would be meaningful.
- Balance the needs of the office with the needs of the student employee: A well-designed student employment experience offers opportunities for the student to learn about your department, its projects, and the organizational culture, while contributing to the meaningful work of your department. Start by identifying office needs and ways that a student employee might contribute to those needs. Be sure to inquire about the potential student’s learning objectives to ensure a well-suited match.
- Avoid giving students work beyond their capacity and knowledge base: Spend time talking with the student employee in order to understand their academic and experiential background. This will allow you to assess their capacity to successfully complete any projects independently versus identifying opportunities for support, coaching, or developing further knowledge. If you provide projects beyond their current knowledge or skill level, without adequate support, they might feel overwhelmed or anxious about achieving the level of performance desired, and you might be disappointed with the product or performance.
- Reflect on ways in which you might support a potential student employee: It is always wise to carefully think through the task and expectations that you would have for a potential student employee. It is also important to think of the ways that a supervisor educator might support a student employee: providing background reading materials, arranging for them to meet with key stakeholders and department staff, inviting them to team meetings, and offering to fund attendance at webinars or professional conferences.
- Manage student employee expectations: Spend some time inquiring about their experience, individually or in a focus group. Be clear about your expectations of them and what they will gain in return.
- Remain up to date on your knowledge of the field: Students are often looking for ways to connect theory to practice in these internship experiences. It is important that supervisor educators continue to update their knowledge and skills through formal and informal learning opportunities. Continue to read trade journals for the latest research, attend workshops and webinars to hear about trends and promising practices, attend professional association conferences, etc.
- Become familiar with the backgrounds of potential student employees: Many of our current undergraduate students and beginning graduate students are members of Generation Z, which means their lived experiences have been shaped by different life events or technological advancements than you may have been shaped by. Having sensitivity to the difference in backgrounds potential interns may have are very important, whether they be class, race, color, gender, sexual orientation, disability, age, religion, national origin, and/or veteran status, and the impact those identities may have. have on their experience in your department.
- Provide regular feedback: As you embrace the identity of supervisor educator, remember that student employees are learners. They need frequent doses of feedback: praise for excelling in a project – either the process or product, as well as constructive input on their performance and opportunities for improvement.