The Top 7 Skills Student Affairs Professionals Need to Work in Operations

I used to scour job boards for titles that included words like “development,” “leadership,” or “student care.” 

I wanted to work in what I saw as the heart of student affairs — where personal growth and rewarding coming-of-age stories thrive. But then I saw an assistant director for campus life operations position and thought to myself, “Hey! I think my skills could align well here, too!”

You might be wondering, “What kind of skills?” And to that, I’ll say: Great question! 

Most folks hear “operations” and infer that it requires strong administrative capacities. That is absolutely true, but there are also many developmental skills required of someone in an operations role. When I first stumbled across the position I hold now, I assumed I wouldn’t be able to flex both my administrative and developmental muscles.  Turns out, working in operations is actually quite multifaceted.

Lucky me! I get to activate my procedural strengths and still work closely with students. 

Let me specify what I mean by outlining the skills I regularly tap into. In doing so, my hope is that you’ll be able to better understand the functional area of operations. And who knows; perhaps you’ll decide to pursue a career in operations, too! 

7 Skills

1. Project Management

I wear multiple hats in my operations role. I manage a staff of one graduate intern and about 40 students, oversee the event registration process, advise student organizations, and oversee the administrative components of the campus center and pre-orientation management. 

That means that although I may have my schedule set for each day, things could shift at a moment’s notice. Sometimes there is a pipe leak that needs my attention in the campus center but there’s a staff member who’s forgotten about their shift and I have to find coverage. Or perhaps a large-scale event is requesting alternative venues while an organization is navigating a tricky transition issue. 

Project management is a necessary skill to be able to prioritize which request needs immediate attention and to ensure that the other responsibilities do not fall between the cracks.

2. Technological Savviness

My position doesn’t require anything too technologically advanced like HTML coding or software development, but I’ve had to learn many new systems in order to do my job well. 

On a daily basis, I work in EMS, Presence (woohoo!), AudienceView, Sequoia Retail Systems, and many other institution-specific platforms. Needless to say, it was a learning curve when I first started. 

Once you get the specifics down, these programs should become easy to navigate. But be prepared to venture outside your Microsoft Office Suite comfort zone.

gif of someone typing on a laptop and happily saying 'this is good'

3. Relationship Building

Between facilities crews, student leaders, staff members, and campus partners, I am always collaborating with someone. 

When working in operations, it’s important to build relationships that are rooted in trust, reliability, and communication. If you do your job well and support stakeholders thoroughly when needed, they’ll then show up for you at times when you need it most.

4. Strategic Planning

20/20 foresight is critical when working in operations. For example, the building I work in is quite old. We need major upgrades — from furniture to technology — so I have to be proactive in determining how to advocate for those needs.

This includes having my student employees do rounds of the building every hour to record space utilization. I also pull together semesterly reports that highlight the discrepancies between student needs and what we can feasibly provide. 

For example, student organizations have the ability to reserve meeting rooms, but the supply often doesn’t meet the demand. We record the number of times we are unable to fulfill those requests in an effort to study trends that might allow us to justify building renovations to budget allocators down the line.

5. Staff Management

Because so many responsibilities fall under the operations purview, I have a wide range of student staff who work to support those initiatives. 

I supervise office assistants, building managers, information booth attendants, event staff, and social media assistants. Therefore, I’ve had to spend time building up my skills in large team management, as opposed to the smaller staff teams that many student affairs professionals are more accustomed to. 

This means that I’ve had to focus on more robust training programs, structured evaluation processes, consistent accountability, and strategic team development. Though I don’t have the capacity to form as close of relationships as I’d like to with each staff member (due to the nature of the position), I still get to play a significant role in shaping their professional experiences. I work hard to ensure it’s a supportive yet challenging one.

gif of Michael Scott from The Office holding a mug that says 'worlds best boss' and saying 'I think that pretty much sums it up'

6. Detail Orientation

Perhaps the most obviously helpful skill for operations management is the ability to have logistical oversight of a multitude of processes. 

This looks like memorizing cash denominations well enough to reset the register each day or remembering when you’ve scheduled a vendor to be in the lobby (and that they prefer to have the space closest to the game room). It’s also recognizing that it’s St. Patrick’s Day weekend, so late-night dining will probably be packed and you’ll need extra staff working that evening to manage the space. Or, it could look like charging the ticket scanners several days before an event, recalling specific space regulations (and not permitting certain activities to happen within them), and ensuring that the building opens and closes in accordance with the university’s academic calendar. 

Essentially, working in operations means that even the smallest of details need to be at the top of your mind at all times.

7. Customer Service

It’s my job to make sure that everyone who enters our building leaves feeling like they’ve had a great experience. From the micro-approach of fully stocking the chalk in meeting rooms, to the macro-approach of training my staff to greet every visitor with a warm disposition, I’m intentional about creating a space on campus that feels like the inviting hub it’s intended to be.

gif of a man saying 'that's the job'

Having worked on the frontlines for much of my student affairs career, becoming a behind-the-scenes boss was quite a startling transition. The outward affirmation isn’t always there, and the rewards aren’t always tangible, but I’ve realized that there is profound fulfillment in guiding others toward the spotlight. 

In other words, operations work is the foundation underneath the really beautiful building. And being the solid ground for folks to stand upon is a role I’ll continually be proud to serve.

What questions do you still have about working in operations? Connect with us on Twitter @HelloPresence.

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Chelsea Jordan

About the author: Chelsea Jordan is a student affairs jack-of-all-trades with a passion for women's leadership. She currently serves as the Assistant Director for Campus Operations at Tufts University, and if she could have dinner with anyone tomorrow, it would be with the woman who inspires her most: Brené Brown. Learn how we can help get your students involved.

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