Introversion in student affairs

I had a conversation recently with our graduate intern about life as an introvert career counselor.  He’s just starting his life as an introvert in the world of student affairs, and our conversation lead me to reflection of the earlier years of my professional life.

I told him to be aware and be intentional in his consideration of how his introversion is or is not an issue as he learns to navigate his professional life.  When I first transitioned from registrar-type work into my first counseling role it took me a while to understand my introversion in that generally-extroverted context.  In fact I think for about the two years I did a horrible job of balancing my needs as an introvert and the demands of the work.

As an academic counselor in a setting with ludicrously high advising ratios (try 5500 students to 4.5 counselors!), there was no down time, no time to re-energize, no time to contemplate or rejuvenate.  There was only go, go, go.  Next student, next student – typically 10 per day, in half-hour increments.  My evenings became more solitary.  My outlook, considerably more grumpy.

It took me years to understand why I was (and am) more productive in the morning than in the afternoon; why many of my ideas wouldn’t be pursued because they didn’t feel fully formulated until after the brainstorming session had ended; and why I preferred not to go out to lunch with my colleagues each day.

Now, not every student affairs position will demand this hyper level of interaction and outward-facing energy.  But, they all will have varying degrees of the same, and I believe that even for lower traffic student affairs offices there is a relatively steep on-ramp for the new introverted professional.

New professionals need to understand that these things are okay, while simultaneously learning that being in student affairs sometimes means putting on your “extrovert mask,” even when it doesn’t feel natural (it becomes entirely comfortable for me over time, I’m happy to report).  Here are a few other tips and thoughts for the introverted new student affairs professional:

  • Don’t feel guilty about needing time to yourself.  If that means foregoing lunch with colleagues or occasionally skipping out on that office social, do it.  But of course, you must strike a balance to make sure that you don’t accidentally develop a curmudgeon label.
  • If you know the subject of a particular meeting, make notes and write down some of your thoughts ahead of time. It may help you to feel like you can participate more actively, having thought through the issues ahead of time.
  • Find the ways that are most accommodating for you to “become” an extrovert when it is needed.  Some skills like public speaking or working a room may not be natural, but you need to make them become comfortable. So, practice, practice, practice (then sit quietly for a while!)

As a profession, and indeed as a culture, we tend to prefer extroverts.   Extroverts often make more-immediate impressions and many qualities associated with extroversion are thought of as positive in the workplace.  But, our students are represented across the introversion/extroversion spectrum, as should be our student affairs professionals who will work with them.

Fellow introverts, I’d love to hear your thoughts and perspectives.

Gary Alan Miller

Cross posted on The Student Affairs Collaborative Blog

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2 Comments

  1. Sue

     /  September 14, 2009

    Great insight – as a career advisor, I often use my own experience as an introvert in an extroverted field to explain to students the differences between introversion and extroversion, and how you can adapt to your environment. It helps them see that no career field is closed off to them based on personality type.

    Reply
  2. useyourhed

     /  September 17, 2009

    Great post. I think the key thing for introverts is to remember that “alone time” is important to recharge and refresh! During busy recruitment or advising seasons it can be challenging to find the time for it, but I think without it we can quickly burn out.

    Oddly enough, I think this profession has brought out more extrovertedness (I always thought myself to be intensely introverted) and I’ve become more used to being around people for longer stretches of time.

    Reply

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