Volume 79 | Issue 6
November 2011

Guest Column: Appreciating the graduate assistanship experience

Takiyah Dixon

Being a graduate assistant in student affairs has provided me with both skills and practical experience in theory and development. With that in mind, I’m compelled to share the positive effects of my working role so that others appreciate the importance of the assistantship experience within this profession. I want undergraduates to give special consideration to graduate programs with available assistantships in the college union. Current graduate assistants can do more to continually reflect on what they are learning through the hands-on experience provided and how those skills will help them later on as a professional. Student union professionals can advocate for new assistantship positions and create more opportunities for the graduate assistants they currently employ and mentor. We can all do more to better union and activities assistantship programs.

Students in assistantships are in the unique position of being partially a student and partially a professional staff—a hybrid role that supervises student staff, programs, and initiatives. Not only are students in assistantships able to provide the student affairs department with fresh new ideas, but also through this work, the assistantship helps produce effective and holistic professionals in the student affairs field.

University of South Florida’s College of Student Affairs program requires students to have a program-related assistantship to apply lessons learned in the classroom. I am currently in my second year in the program, and the volume of skills, knowledge, and wisdom I have gained thus far is immeasurable. My assistantship is in the Marshall Student Center. At the time I became a member of the Marshall Student Center team, it only had been open for three years. I don’t think I realized at that time how rapidly things would grow—not just the building, the staff, and events, but also growth in myself.

The list of skills I obtained during my assistantship also continues to grow. Balancing school and work is the first skill I learned. I worked during my undergraduate years, but the level of graduate schoolwork and assistantship workload is on a different level. I quickly discovered that multitasking is common and beneficial.

My assistantship provides me with experience in managing a staff and effecting change. My position requires that I supervise approximately 70 student employees. Being a new supervisor is not always easy, and making changes for the better is not always appreciated, but by developing relationships with my student staff and explaining why I chose to make the changes, I am able to improve morale and eliminate resistance.

I am gaining experience in group dynamics and diversity. The student employees are a diverse group, and they are required to work as a group effectively to be successful. Being able to appreciate each student’s similarities and differences while initiating programs within our department is beneficial to everyone’s self-development, including mine. Right along with my student employees, I am fine-tuning the type of leader and professional I want to be and helping to develop strong leaders with skills that can be used in any profession.

My experience as a graduate assistant in the Marshall Student Center also provides me with skills in operations, as it is a heavily trafficked building. My operational duties consist of strategically choosing furniture for the building that is comfortable and adaptable for our students, developing policies, working on renovations, budgeting, and sitting on committees for improvements. I am treated as a professional staff member with professional expectations.

Additionally, I enjoy being mentored by great individuals in the College of Student Affairs program and others in the student affairs field, and I have the opportunity to act as a mentor to my students. There are obstacles and challenges, and no one has all the answers, but mentors provide support that is crucial to all development. I am honored and humbled when students ask for advice regarding academics, occupation, and life skills. 

The combination of different professional experiences allows graduate assistants to develop holistically, have a better understanding of the field, and gain transferable skills that can be used in their career. These are foundational tools that can help students prevail and feel confident entering the profession. I am grateful for all that I have learned and all that I will learn as my assistantship continues, and I hope many other graduate students will be able to say the same of their experience.