When Being a Visiting Scholar Doesn’t Feel Like You’re Visiting: 10 Things I Learned on My Sabbatical

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Levon T. Esters

This past semester I had the opportunity to spend my sabbatical leave from Purdue University at the Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions (CMSI). Having never had a sabbatical, I had no idea what was in store for me, especially considering I was going to be working with world-renowned higher education scholar, Dr. Marybeth Gasman. Soon after I arrived, Marybeth and I sat down and reviewed my sabbatical goals and came up with strategies that would help me achieve them so that I could fully maximize my time at the Center. During our initial and subsequent conversations, Marybeth shared several things about the workplace culture at the Center and what contributes most to her staff being productive. As I reflect on my time at the Center, I’ve realized that my official title was that of “visiting scholar” but at no point during my time at the Center did I feel like I was a visitor. Though I could spend a great deal of time sharing numerous examples of what I learned and how each of the Center staff impacted me, I think it would be best if I shared the ten most important things I learned from my sabbatical experience.

  1. Bring Your Whole Self to Work

One of the first things I learned was the importance of bringing your “whole self” to work each and every day. This meant that each person could be who they are and feel comfortable knowing that the personal narratives and diversity they bring to the table would be respected. This was especially important considering the racial, ethnic, and cultural diversity of the Center staff. A more subtle yet equally important aspect of the workplace culture was that we referred to each other by first names. At no point did Center staff or students refer to me as “Dr.” or “Professor.” This subtle expectation was very empowering, especially for students, and contributed to a more equitable organizational culture. Another key element that I appreciated was the “work hard, play hard” mentality of the Center staff. Being able to work with individuals who valued what it meant to put forth their best effort toward the completion of a project but also work equally hard at enjoying themselves after a long day or week was refreshing and contributed to a pleasant workplace environment.

  1. Enhanced Skills as a Researcher

My sabbatical experience enabled me to become a better researcher. In particular, I was able to further develop my skills as a researcher by co-authoring journal manuscripts and book chapters; leading and contributing to the development of Center research briefs; participating in seminars and workshops on statistical software programs such as Stata; and developing qualitative research skills (e.g., interviewing, coding).

  1. Enhanced Skills in Teaching and Learning

I was able to enhance my skills as a teacher by observing Marybeth teach her History in Higher Education course. Recognized as one of Penn’s most outstanding teachers, Marybeth engages students using a variety of instructional approaches that are student-centered and being able to observe her was a unique learning experience. However, what I gained most from my observations was the manner in which Marybeth challenged students, both in terms of causing them to think more deeply about issues impacting higher education as well as the personal biases students held related to issues of power and privilege.

  1. Directing a Center

My sabbatical experience provided the opportunity to gain insight into how to direct a research center. I was able to learn first-hand that serving as a director does not require one to be a micromanager; rather, an effective directorship requires collaboration and empowering others. Marybeth was excellent at hiring exceptional and highly competent staff and then letting them do their jobs. This enabled her to be even more productive because less of her time was spent managing. I also observed how Marybeth cultivated a culture that was highly supportive, where people held each other accountable and the culture of “we” was the dominant and guiding organizational philosophy.

  1. Becoming a Better Mentor to Graduate Students

As one who is firmly committed to mentoring graduate students, I was able to glean from my observations of Marybeth how to become an even better graduate mentor. In particular, I learned that challenging students is a necessity and will serve them well as they prepare for the workforce. Marybeth was masterful at holding students accountable, coaching them for higher-level experiences, building their confidence and intellectual capacity, understanding their growth potential, and providing opportunities for professional growth and development.

  1. Mentoring Undergraduate Students

Though my prior experience mentoring undergraduate students has been positive and contributed to my growth as a faculty member, I was still able to gain insights into how I could be an even more effective mentor to this population of students. For example, I was able to learn the art and craft of using mentoring practices that were developmentally appropriate for use with undergraduate students. More importantly, I learned much from my interactions with students who were from culturally diverse backgrounds that prior to my sabbatical, I had not had the chance to mentor such as those from the Latino/a, Hmong and Filipino community. Taken together, these interactions provide me with culturally rich mentor experiences that will serve me well as a faculty member.

  1. Use of Social Media

The ability to use social media effectively is no longer an option and must be embraced across all levels of the higher education landscape. Prior to my sabbatical, I used social media infrequently and strictly for personal use. However, working at the Center has enabled me to better understand the need, importance, and effectiveness of social media and how it can be used to communicate my research, highlight the work and accomplishments of my graduate students, and disseminate the outcomes and products of my grant projects. Through the collective guidance of the Center staff, I am more confident in my use of social media and better understand how it can help contribute to the development of my professional identify.

  1. Effective and Efficient Use of Time Management

Working collaboratively on projects is commonplace at the Center and occurred at a much higher rate than what I was used to at my home institution. However, the collaborative nature that was present at the Center allowed me to learn from individuals who increased their productivity through effective and efficient time management practices. Working on projects made up of different groups of individuals has contributed greatly to enhancing my capacity for managing multiple tasks while at the same time increasing my productivity.

  1. Grant Proposal and Concept Paper Development

My sabbatical experience also afforded the opportunity to learn from Center staff on how to develop large multi-million dollar grant proposals. Many of the grant proposals I developed during my career were federally funded grant proposals. Conversely, many of the proposals that supported Center projects were from foundations and often required that a concept paper be developed. Because foundation grants are often by invitation only, the conceptualization process of the proposal idea was in many ways different than what I was accustomed to for my work. Thus, being able to attend ‘brainstorming’ sessions with Center leadership team was not only a tremendous learning experience but also inspired me to re-think some of my previously held beliefs on how I could fund my research and programmatic efforts.

  1. Increased Knowledge and Understanding of Issues Affecting of Minority Serving Institutions (MSIs)

One of the primary goals of my sabbatical experience was to increase my knowledge and understanding of MSIs. Without question, this goal has been realized and I will continue to study, work, and advocate on behalf of these institutions. Most importantly, through the mentorship provided by Marybeth and her staff, I have been able increase my knowledge related to issues of educational access and equity, social justice and activism, and women and students of color.

For the better part of six months I engaged with individuals who were thoughtful, passionate, and committed to uplifting MSIs. Moreover, I made it a priority to learn from everyone—staff, faculty, graduate and undergraduate students. Understandably, most individuals would feel dejected for having to leave behind colleagues who are both wonderful and inspiring. However, because I was never made to feel like a visitor, my time at the Center will forever be remembered as a second academic home.

———–

I’d like to offer my sincere thanks to Marybeth Gasman for helping provide me with an exceptional sabbatical experience. A special thank you also goes to the amazing Center staff and students who contributed to my growth and development as a scholar, colleague and friend —Paola ‘Lola’ Esmieu, Andres Castro Samayoa, Alice Ginsberg, William ‘Casey’ Boland, Chris Jimenez, Temitope ‘Tope’ Ligali, Melanie Wolf, Jennifer Yang, Briana O’Neal, Marietess Masult, DeShaun Bennet, Sephanie Mayo, Amanda Washington and Carolyn Karolczyk.

Levon T. Esters is an associate professor of youth development at Purdue University and a visiting scholar at the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Minority Serving Institutions. Levon’s research focuses on the STEM career development of underrepresented minorities (URMs), mentoring of females and URM graduate students in STEM, and the role of historically Black land-grant institutions in fostering the STEM success of females and URMs.

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