Looking Beyond Higher Ed For Professional Development and Networking

Some of the most influential professional development activities I’ve participated in have nothing to do with higher education. South By Southwest Interactive. Social Media Strategies Summit. American Marketing Association Analytics With Purpose Conference. Ungeeked Elite. Books by Jay Baer, Olivier Blanchard, and Chris Brogan. I believe these made me a more creative, innovative, and connected professional.

Following The Standard Path

When I chose to enter the field of student affairs in 2005, I fell lock-step in line with the traditional professional development sources: ACPA, NASPA, ACUHO-I (I was in housing), and StudentAffairs.com. Between annual conference attendance, intermittent webinars, and combing through journal articles for my graduate capstone, I soaked up student affairs knowledge like a sponge. I was in on the first-ever #SAchat, so the professional conversations never stopped! I relied solely on these sources for professional development for five years, and my expertise and professional network reflected that. I was all student affairs, all the time.

Making My Own Way

In 2010, everything changed—for a variety of reasons. I chose to attend an unconventional professional development event, started my doctoral program, and moved into a full-time campus marketing position at the end of the year.

I stumbled upon an inaugural local event, Ungeeked Elite—the first conference I attended that utilized the unconference format. It was for marketers and business owners, but I was compelled to check it out with a campus colleague from IT. Ungeeked changed the way I looked at my work and introduced me to smart minds I still follow today (like Chris Brogan, Sally Hogshead, Olivier Blanchard, and Jason Falls). I attended the follow-up event in 2011, and blogged about how I would apply the content to my work on campus.

I started my doctoral program at Cardinal Stritch Univeristy, which had summer common reads for our three years of coursework. They were never higher ed-focused, and introduce me to authors and ideas that made me think, like Switch by Chris and Dan Heath, Here Comes Everybody by Clay Shirky, and The Brain That Changes Itself by Norman Doidge. We also had guest speakers each summer from a variety of industries, including Howard Behar from Starbucks, Paul Loeb, author of Soul of a Citizen, Chic Dambach, CEO of the Alliance for Peacebuilding. Each of these books and speakers provided a different perspective on leadership, learning, or service that I could apply to my work on campus.

I moved from housing to campus marketing in December 2010. Like student affairs, the professional community of higher ed marketers, communicators, and web professionals is close. They have industry organizations and events like HighEdWeb, CASE, and AMA Higher Ed. But what’s different is the revolving door between higher ed and other industries. Former journalists abound in these positions, and it’s common for a Chief Marketing Officer (CMO) to be hired from a consumer-focused company. Many of my friends in these positions have moved into and out of higher ed throughout their careers, and they made me realize that I should be casting a wider net when it came to learning and networking.

An Emerging Trend

I wish it wouldn’t have taken five years for me to realize that exploring diverse personal and professional development opportunities would make me a more creative, innovative, and connected professional. However, I believe this realization has started to permeate our profession a bit more over the last few years. I’ve seen friends taking writing seminars from well-known authors that have nothing to do with higher education. South by Southwest seems to have a larger higher ed contingent each year. And, I was able to connect with about five higher education professionals at the American Marketing Association Analytics With Purpose conference in 2015. I am hopeful that these diverse learning and networking experiences are happening more and more, even if I can’t see all the learning artifacts in my Twitter feed.

At the same time, I’ve watched student affairs professional communities become more specialized, and—it appears to me—more insular. Put #SA in front of anything, and it seems you have a niche community for runners, moms, dads, sports fans, knitters, or foodies. I’m concerned that young professionals will use these communities as the sole extent of their personal and professional development, resulting in insulated and increasingly homogeneous experiences.

Tips To Expand Your Sources of Professional Development

Our core professional organizations still play an important role in the education and development of the profession, but they will be stronger and more relevant if we continue to infuse them with ideas from other industries. You, personally, will likely benefit from expanding your reading list to include thought leaders from the world of business, non-profits, K12, and technology.

Here are some action items you can consider:

  • Join an organization related to a professional interest that is relevant to multiple industries (writing, communicating, management, leadership, event planning, conflict management, or emergency response come to mind).
  • Actively seek out books and blogs from non-higher ed authors to add to your reading list.
  • Browse LinkedIn for professionals in other industries that you can learn from.
  • Listen to podcasts from other industries.
  • Participate in Twitter chats that aren’t higher ed-specific, and connect with participants outside of chat hours.

Have you engaged in professional development or networking opportunities that were not specific to higher education? Did you find them valuable? How did you apply them to your work in higher ed? Please share in the comments!

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