What Every New SA Pro Should Know – Q & A with Gavin Henning

I had the opportunity to interview ACPA President, Gavin Henning, on Tuesday, September 8, 2015. Gavin has been in the field for 22 years, and began in 1993 as a Residence Hall Director at the University of New Hampshire. It was his first job out of graduate school after attending Michigan State University. Gavin told me that he’s been connecting with other Student Affairs bloggers in order to get more connected to new professionals [and] help amplify the voices of new professionals.

Since the release of my free eBook, Two Thousand Hours: Advice for a New Student Affairs Professional, helping other new professionals to develop has been one of the top items on my wish list. As someone with one year of post graduate experience in the field, I find it valuable and exciting to provide resources to others because I get to learn at the same time.

I’m hoping at least one piece of advice from Gavin is able to help you provide even better quality service to your students and institution. It’s certainly been helping me.


What is one thing many new professionals get wrong when they start a new job? 

New professionals assume they know much more than what they do. If you think about it, it is pretty natural. You do an assistant ship that’s pretty intense. You come out of that pretty confident in your abilities. They have not had the seasoned experience. I’d challenge new professionals to check the assumptions on how much they know, be open to learning, and not assume they know everything. 

What is something new professionals need, but aren’t getting enough of?

Mentoring. I don’t think we do a good job of personally and intentionally helping new professionals get mentors. The ACPAGROW program is primarily for graduate students and new professionals. It helps them to formally connect to a new mentor. We are not as intentional as we could be in providing that kind of connection and support for new professionals.

We need to provide the tips for them to get their own mentor as well. Unless you’re really outgoing or assertive, that connection generally doesn’t happen. Mentors provide that realistic reflection. They give you honest feedback so you can grow. At one point, I was young and uxexperienced. I didn’t know what I didn’t know. 

What were some things that helped you to succeed during your first several years as a full time Student Affairs Professional? 

Connecting with my Staff – There were two hall directors in the area in the buildings next to mine. They became my guides during the first two years of my career. If I wasn’t sure of what to do, I’d contact one of them. It’s critical to build that connection. Additionally, connecting with staff provides an outlet. For instance: for Residence Life folks, their home is on campus. Connections are important, because they have moral support and an outlet for when they need to complain, yell, scream, or release anger. Their peers understand what they’re going through. It’s good to have someone in the field to empathize with.

Getting Involved on Committees – Joining committees provided me with the opportunity to connect with people and learn different things. On a wider scale, I was able to connect across campus.

Never Stop Learning – One of the things that helped me during my first years as a new professional was the desire to learn and not to stop learning. That curiosity helped me learn how to do my job better, helped me learn how to serve my students better, and where to go next in my career as well as how to get there. Learning helps us to continue to become better and demonstrates to our students that we need to be learning our entire lives.


What is something you know now, that you wish you knew then?

A few things. First, mentors are going to be your mirror, your guide, and your stepping stone. Second, getting involved professionally is important. I didn’t get involved in ACPA until I had been in the field for 10 years. I would have gotten connected to others outside my institution had I connected earlier. Third, it’s important to understand the politics and learn the organizational culture of your institution through observation. When I move to a new institution, it’s important to learn who the leaders are. I didn’t really learn that in graduate school. I worked in a Residence Life office where they intentionally shielded us from the politics so we could be better hall directors. It didn’t help us overall, however, because we didn’t understand how things worked outside of our departments. 

Lastly, you shouldn’t fear failure. I often talk about getting lost when I’m driving. I try not to get upset unless I’m missing an appointment. I learn more by getting lost than not getting lost. I go places I’d never go and the experience is different. To quote Erik Qualman: the goal is really to “fail fast, fail forward [to actually take something away from the process], and fail better[the more often you fail, the more you learn].” Anyone that does research on innovation talks about how important failure is in helping them succeed. In today’s society, we shield kids from failure. Everyone gets a trophy. If we fail, mom and dad are their to fix things. The whole goal there is to make it easier, but it’s not easier for the individuals in the long run. Failing is part of learning. We have to be open to embrace failure, do it quickly, and learn from it many times. 

What is the biggest thing you learned during your first year of work?

I learned what my strengths were and what my weaknesses were. It was a year of self-awareness. My strengths were mainly in administration. I was really good at it, along with programming, teaching to groups, and doing research. During one of my ancillary appointments, I got to spend 10 hours doing something that gave me experience. I did research. I learned that I loved research while doing applied research. I realized that it was a career path for me. 


What are some qualities or characteristics that have helped you get to where you are now?

Grit. It’s idea about resilience, optimism and persistence. It’s helped me with a lot of things in my life. I was in a cohort of 25 people and I was the last person to get a job. I didn’t get a job until after I graduated. The job  got helped propel me to where I am now because of the experiences. I had to be optimistic that I’d get a job. Persistence is what helped me get into ACPA in the first place. I signed up for a commission and never heard back. I contacted the chair and never heard back. The next year, there was a different chair. I ended up attending the Carnival the next year, and talked to another directorate member and got signed up for the Commission. The new chair did get me connected. 

The whole idea of grit has been helpful. What’s also helped me to get to where I am now is the curiosity piece of loving to learn. I’m always reading something (books, social media, etc.) always trying to learn something new. I’m always curious. Pure hard work has helped too – being willing to put in the time to get the work done and get it done right. It’s been about not being afraid of the long hours, and keeping in mind that it’s for a greater purpose.

I’d also like to add that I’ve been fortunate to have a lot of support from family and support from my wife. and I’ve had a lot of privilege. I had the money to go to grad school even though I had to take out loans. I haven’t had to deal with micro-aggressions or other aggression. As a white heterosexual male, I’ve been very privileged. I don’t want to make it sound like it’s these individual characteristics that have helped me succeed. I’ve had some health issues along the way, but they are still not the same challenges that a lot of others have had to face. 

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