“Leading Students who Lead” with Jeff Jordan

Amanda Stubbert: Dr. Jeff Jordan is the vice president for Student Life at Seattle Pacific University, and responsible for collaborative planning with SPU’s academic leaders, student leaders, and Student Life staff. As if overseeing eight on-campus departments wasn’t enough, Jeff also recently launched a leadership studies minor where he serves as a professor and mentor.

Jeff, thanks for joining us today.

Jeff Jordan: It’s great to be here. Thank you.

Amanda: So my first question has to be, why higher ed? Why do you want to spend your life with college students?

Jeff: Well, I didn’t know that when I first went to college. I have an older brother and sister who went to college, so I’m kind of a half gen. Neither one of my parents went to college, and so I sometimes will refer-

Amanda: As opposed to first gen.

Jeff: Yeah, yeah, exactly.

Amanda: Just for people who didn’t get that reference.

Jeff: So technically, I’m a first-generation college student, because neither parent either went to college or has a bachelor’s degree. But I did have a little bit of an example with an older brother and older sister.

So I went to college. I had no idea that you could actually work in college. So when I first went to Houghton College, which was my undergrad, I got involved right away as the freshman class president. Went on my sophomore year to be an RA and then eventually I did other leadership and ended up as being the student body president. Little did I know at that time that Houghton had a great program as a two-year program with SUNY State University of New York College of Buffalo, and it was basically in student personnel administration. I figured if I could get into that, if nothing else, it paid for a master’s degree and who knows what would happen after that.

Got into college work, actually right away. My first job was at Seattle Pacific University in the mid 80s. I was here for four years, left for year 15, and 16th year back at SPU. Been times in my life where I’ve come to crossroads about whether or not I would stay in higher ed for a variety of reasons. Only thing I can say is that God had better plans than I had. I’ve continued to be able to be in a place that has been meaningful, a place that has had a great opportunity for me to feel like I’ve had a chance to interact with students’ lives.

Amanda: Well, one thing I notice when you are listing your journey, is that it’s very higher ed-related, but it’s also very leadership-related. Which do you think played a larger role for you?

“I’ve continued to be able to be in a place that has been meaningful, a place that has had a great opportunity for me to feel like I’ve had a chance to interact with students’ lives.”

Jeff: Well, if you asked my advisor from Houghton, it would definitely be leadership, because I wasn’t a very good student. So, if that’s any indication of my grades and my GPA.

Amanda: Take note, current students.

Jeff: Exactly.

Amanda: Not a good student, now has a doctorate. Just putting that out there.

Jeff: Got in by the skin of my teeth into grad school. Grad school, did fine, because I became focused at that point. But I think for me the opportunity to just to do a variety of different things was just freeing for me to be able to do that. So I think the leadership really kind of took me down some paths that I would not have expected to go down. But knowing that, you prepare to do your academics too or else you’re not going to be there. So it’s not just a one or the other, it’s a both, and the question is, is what’s the balance between the two?

So frankly, I think if you ask my staff now, they’ll probably tell you that I’m a little bit more of a geek out type of a person when it comes to looking at learning outcomes and higher ed and student development theory, and of course, now teaching. I have to geek out a little bit more. So it’s very interesting how the tables have turned out, I think, a little bit along the line. But as an undergrad, it certainly was probably a much more the experiential than it was what was happening in the classroom.

Amanda: Mm-hmm (affirmative). So when you think about raising up the next layer of leaders, right? You’ve been at this for awhile, so that’s layer upon layer upon layer.

Jeff: Right.

Amanda: What’s the number one thing that you would want to come out of each of those layers for each of those students?

Jeff: Well, it’s interesting. I’ve had the opportunity in the last couple of days, both to be with a number of folks from my undergraduate institution, and then just before I came here, I actually met with one of my former student leaders from probably about 30 some years ago. I think for each one, and as I think about this with our student government or whether it’s our RAs, whether it be ministry leaders, whatever the case may be, clubs, organizations, is trying to find out what it is that they want to explore and try to get better at and get deeper at, because it’s something that they have a passion about.

So, I think that’s the one piece that I think has been true throughout the 35+ years now of doing this type of work, is trying to figure out where students want to go and how can you help them get there that makes good sense. A lot of times students will have these great ideas, but it may not always make great sense. So you’re always there trying to give some sort of mirror, you’re trying to give them some sort of feedback that really will keep on taking them down a road. Of course, that’s a balancing act. That’s that advising/mentoring piece that can be very beneficial, hopefully, for them.

You don’t want to take the journey away, that’s never the case. But at the same time, you want to just make sure that the journey’s worthwhile for them. So how can you keep on helping them, make sure that journey’s worthwhile? Whatever that may be, in leadership in particular, that’s what’s really important.

Amanda: Sounds a little bit like counseling to me, in that you have the ultimate outcome of the individual, but you also have to think of the whole, of the household at the same time. Does that analogy ring true?

Jeff: It resonates. I was a sociology major with a psychology minor, so that kind of keeps you loose a little bit with that. I mean, the things that we all do is always within context. So you may be a student body leader, you might be the president, but if you don’t realize the context of which you’re in, that’s not always very beneficial. I mean, you might have your own goals and all the rest, but you can’t do it alone. I mean, leadership doesn’t work if you don’t have followers.

Amanda: Right, right, not in a vacuum.

Jeff: Absolutely. As a matter of fact, last week I actually taught a class on followership in the leadership minor. It was kind of a funny thing, but the truth is that, unless you’re not paying attention, it’s got to go both ways. I mean, the leader has to pay attention to the followers, followers need to pay attention to the leader. It’s a really dynamic phenomenon, frankly, and that’s really important. So there is a little bit of a counseling piece to it, there’s no doubt, a little bit of advising. Getting to know the person and what drives them, certainly there’s that aspect. But it’s also within the context of a community and a context of what an organization, how it works, all those things kind of come into play.

Amanda: Well, you just said 35ish years doing this work, but as we grow and change and society grows and changes, but the age of the students that you’re working with pretty much stays the same year over year. So as the parent of two college-aged kids, what would you say has changed the most in those incoming students as that class changes year over year? Then I have a follow-up question, but we’ll start with that. What has changed the most?

Jeff: That’s a hard one, because I think in some sense, identity development, student development, is a lot the same as it was 30+ years ago. So trying to figure out who you are, continues to be family of origin, continues to be who you are compared to your friends, there’s all this discovering self. I don’t think that part has really changed in the 35+ years that I’ve been doing this type of work.

“I think in some sense, identity development, student development, is a lot the same as it was 30+ years ago.”

Amanda: Because that’s being a human being, right?

Jeff: It is, it is. I mean, it’s developmental. I think this is the hard part that I see. For some of our students coming in, they have their AA degrees at age 18, they’re still developmentally 18, even though they may be of junior status. How do you get a chance to really experience some things still as a college student, that you might be truncated to a two-year experience as opposed to a four-year experience?

So those things become really important, I think, to the student, and frankly, should be to the family as well, in regards to what does that look like. Now, not saying there’s a problem being here for two years, but what do you do during those two years to make sure that you’re really working hard to get that experience that goes beyond just getting a degree? I think that becomes really very, very important.

The other thing that really has changed, I think over the time period, is just technology and access to information and data. I’ve had a chance to do a number of presentations on Generation Z. I think just last week, talking to the School of Business, Government, and Economics faculty, there’s this aspect in regards to so much data that is just … this is a 2014 data point, but at that point, 90% of what was online, so from 2012 to 2014, 90% had been developed in two years that was online.

So when you think about how fast students have access to data, then the question is, is it good data? Is it credible? Our librarian, Michael Paulus, talks about digital wisdom. So I think that’s a real interesting part at this point, I think it’s harder and harder for students to kind of know what is good and what is true, what is genuine, in regards to the data that comes at them all the time. I think that’s a discerning aspect.

Amanda: Knowledge versus truth.

Jeff: Correct.

Amanda: Right? Being able to look at that data and make some meaning out of it.

Jeff: Yeah, yeah.

Amanda: Yeah. Well, the other question, the follow-up to the looking at students year over year, is what is the one quality, that even though the obstacles that these students are facing may be similar or may be very different, but what’s the one quality that you look for in those incoming students and you go, “That one, that’s going to be a successful leader.”

Jeff: I think there’s a couple of things that I would look for. One is a student who’s willing to try something and experiment and is willing to step out. I think that’s important. Not necessarily in a cocky way or overstepping, but someone who’s saying, “Yeah, I’m willing to take a risk. I’m willing to do something that is a little bit out of my comfort zone.” I think that’s something that really goes a long way for students.

The other thing, and actually just in reading the number of pieces, in regards to this generation, the thing that I’m looking for, and I really hope that we find a resurgence in, is the issue of curiosity. I think we’ve really missed that over the last decade or so, for a variety of reasons. Most of them very good, but I think if we can find that students kind of have had that renewed curiosity, whether that be in academics … this is why I love the liberal arts, because you get a chance to experiment with so many different topics.

I didn’t choose my major until I was a junior and I was forced to then choose a major at that time period, because I enjoyed learning in a lot of different places. I would hope our students would do that as well and take advantage of all that’s offered to them. For the sake of just learning, not for the sake of getting a job. Not that jobs are unimportant, they’re very important. I have a 27-year-old and a 22-year-old, as well.

But at the same time, I would really love to see our students just keep on increasing the curiosity, imagination, kind of just thinking in that realm. I think that’s very, very important. I don’t think that we’ve done a great job of that in preparing students to come to college, but I hope when they get here, that they’ll take advantage of that fully.

Amanda: Kind of ignite that flame that lasts forever. I was just yesterday listening to a podcast about the newest, latest research with Alzheimer’s and memory care. I think the one thing that everyone can agree on is the more you’re using your brain in new and creative ways, the longer it’s going to last and the healthier it’s going to be. So the sooner we can start that habit, the better off we’ll all be, right?

Jeff: That’s what I’ve loved about being in higher ed for as long as I have at three different institutions, is the opportunity to see things in so many different ways and hear speakers and get a chance to experience music and theater and athletics, and just a variety of things, our lecture series, from different disciplines. What a great opportunity to do that. Again, I would just hope that our students will keep on figuring out that that’s such an advantage in a place like this, that they have while they’re in higher education. Because a lot of times you leave and it’s like, “Wow, I missed that.” It’s not always easy to get back to it once you leave it.

“I would just hope that our students will keep on figuring out that that’s such an advantage in a place like this, that they have while they’re in higher education. Because a lot of times you leave and it’s like, ‘Wow, I missed that.’ It’s not always easy to get back to it once you leave it.”

Amanda: It is a lot harder to go find those opportunities than to have them right here at your doorstep, right across campus.

Jeff: Often much more expensive.

Amanda: Absolutely. That is true, that is true. So the last question I like to ask everyone that we have on the show is, clearly there’s something different and unique about you or you wouldn’t have achieved what you’ve achieved. So if you could tell everyone in Seattle to do one thing differently when they wake up tomorrow, that if we all did, it was going to make Seattle a much better place, what would you tell them to do?

Jeff: That’s a great question. I think for me, and I’m not sure that I’m that unique, for one. I think for me, one of the things that was part of my doctoral work, I ran into a number of readings on leadership, and something that keeps on coming back to me is the first and last task of a leader is to keep hope alive. So, if there’s been something that I’ve tried to push for with our student leaders and actually now with our leadership minor, basically it’s a quick six-word biography for me: First and last, keep hope alive.

I think that’s the piece that I would just encourage all of us to keep on thinking about that. I think incredibly, that’s true with our Christian faith. I think that’s also true with what our world needs in many ways. I think in particular with leadership, that’s really a very, very important aspect of leadership.

Amanda: Well, since you said you weren’t sure if you’re that unique, I’ll end with my favorite quote by Margaret Mead: “You are totally and completely unique, just like everybody else.”

Thanks, Jeff.

Jeff: Thank you.


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