Shine Your Light! The Importance of Our Work

I started the Office of Parent and Family Programs at Western Michigan University in 2006 and built it from the ground up. Prior to 2006, we had a dues-based Parents Association that had about 400 members. The current database of family members connected to the department is over 17,000 and it is now known as the Office of Family Engagement. I was a one-person office up until this past year when I was given a graduate assistant who works 20 hours per week. I am sharing this insight with you from the perspective of “lessons learned” in the hope that you can find a nugget of advice from my experience.

I worked tirelessly (as we all do) to build my program. As practitioners, we have two main avenues of reaching families and building lasting relationships – speaking to large groups (orientation, recruiting events, scholarship competitions, etc.) and working with individual families and students to address and resolve specific issues and concerns. The “big” events require that we work with other areas of the institution to include us in active roles, such as admissions and the orientation office. I spent much of my time in the early years building bridges with these and other offices so that Family Engagement (me) could present to and get in front of prospective and incoming families. In these encounters, I shared personal experiences with my own kids to build trust and authenticity, emphasizing the care and support that students and families would find at WMU and my approach resonated with our families. They appreciate my honesty and my commitment to serving them.

In my one-on-one communications with families, I learned to listen from the heart, asking probing questions, and showing compassion (with patience!) for each question, problem, or challenge presented…and I do my best to find an equitable resolution. I document each exchange in detail, so I have the information for any follow up that might be needed down the road.

I DO A GOOD JOB! These five words are incredibly difficult for me to say or write. They sound boastful and self-serving and that’s not who I am. For those of you in a one-person or small office, you likely understand my discomfort with singing one’s own praises. It is difficult to separate the person from the office or the office from the person, especially if you started the program from scratch. While I take much pride in the impact I have on the lives of our students and families, it doesn’t feel comfortable to talk about it.

I am retiring from my position this month and sadly, engaging with and supporting families has been assigned to a colleague who already has an overflowing plate of responsibilities. Family Engagement will no longer continue as a stand-alone office. This was a huge blow to the many years I have devoted to building a strong and solid program. Yet upon reflection, I bear much of the responsibility for this decision, because I was reluctant to share my successes and “shine my light” about my accomplishments.

Here’s my life lesson for the day: Let your colleagues and your leadership know what you are doing to serve your families and students. Share your successes widely and consistently. Whatever data you are collecting and documenting – questions of the month, surveys, individual communications, attendee feedback at your presentations – make sure others know what you are doing and how your work is impacting student recruitment and retention, as well as building affinity for the institution. Let others know how they can support you to be more effective and also find ways to intersect with other areas to support their efforts.

We know the value of our work with families. We live it every day. We also live in an environment of data-based decision making and budget reductions. Broadcast your successes widely and make sure everyone on your campus is well-informed so you can ensure the continuity of your legacy. Your families will thank you for it because they need you and the dedicated services you provide.

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