3-minute mentor: Take risks; get uncomfortable

June 10, 2019
  • Leadership and Management
  • Professional Well-Being
  • Mentoring
  • mentorship
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"3-Minute Mentor" is an occasional Connect column delivering bite-size career advice from higher education leaders, writers, and researchers. If you or someone you know can offer insightful professional development tips, please contact the  Connect editor

For many people, comfort and familiarity are preferable to risk-taking in personal and professional life. But to Steven Smith, University Registrar at Adelphi University, seeking out professional development is one of his highest priorities -- even when it means disrupting his routine.

Smith’s early life didn’t necessarily predict that: he grew up in West Virginia, which he loved, and attended Glenville State College, never considering living outside of the state, happy with his friends and lifestyle. Like many professionals in higher education, he never envisioned himself in higher education, having majored in business management. But when he graduated, he found a position as a transcript clerk at the community college in his hometown -- hired after an interview with a former professor.

“Always sit up on the front row!” he laughed, recalling the positive impression he made on Ragina Copeland, who hired him and later became a major mentor in his life. And having so much to learn about records/registration laws along with admissions in his joined office, Smith was deeply grateful for the mentorship.

Lack of upward mobility

Smith was promoted to Assistant Registrar and for six years was happy in his role at West Virginia University at Parkersburg. But soon enough he ran into a problem faced by many higher education professionals -- lack of upward mobility. It’s a common story especially at smaller institutions where many of the employees stay in their positions until retirement.

At the cost of leaving his home state, Smith pursued professional development, moving to become the Registrar at Raritan Valley Community College in New Jersey.

The move was difficult, from leaving his home, family and friends to having to deal with a new office culture, managing staff older than himself, and leading an office on his own for the first time.

To others in a similar situation, Smith advised, there’s no need to feel like you have to prove yourself in showy ways. For example, he once made the mistake of helping at the front registration desk, only to realize after a bit that all his staff had left him to pull the weight of the office. Learn how to balance helping, but also earn the respect of your staff.

Advancing downwards

Although Smith had been promoted to overseeing three additional offices, he left Raritan to be the Registrar at Saint Peter’s College, a private four-year institution. Though he took a lesser title, he saw the value in what he could learn at a differently run institution--the newfound freedom, lack of red tape in running departmental reorganizations and more. And in the six years he was at Saint Peter’s, he worked his way up to Executive Director of Enrollment Services.

During his ten years in New Jersey, Smith found a true home just across the river in New York City, and despite leaving for a four year stint at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, he made his way back to his current position today at Adelphi University.

His twenty-six year long career is best highlighted by his willingness to put himself in different professional environments, all for the sake of his own development and pride in the accomplishments that he can leave behind. Smith likes to put himself in new positions where he can reorganize and reengineer processes, determining improvements by asking staff questions about why things are done a certain way.

As he eloquently puts it, “Don’t look at the glass as half-full or half-empty -- ask ‘if that’s all you’re going to drink, why did you get such a big glass?’”

Make your mark where you are, but don’t be afraid to make major professional changes in order to advance to the next great opportunity.