The responsibilities and duties of an assistant or associate director vary at each institution. The International Student Advising Network interviewed three panelists at the assistant or associate director level to share their experiences and provide some insight on how they navigate a multidirectional work environment with a network of colleagues above, below, and at the same level.

The Knowledge Community for International Student and Scholar Services (KCISSS) would like to extend its gratitude and thanks to the panelists for their insight and participation: Susan Cuffee at Fairleigh Dickinson University, Christina Lehnertz at George Mason University, and Lily Zhang at University of Pennsylvania. View bios of all three of these panelists.

Time Management: What Works in Your Office to Help the Staff Stay on Task and Maintain Productivity?

Susan Cuffee: Communication is the best tool for productivity in my department. We have weekly staff meetings where we each discuss current assignments and upcoming projects. The meetings hold each person accountable for their assignments and tasks.

Christina Lehnertz: I oversee an advising staff of eight people and team is responsible for immigration compliance for F and J students, as well as faculty and scholars on J, H-1B, TN, O, and Permanent Residency processes. I report to the Executive Director of International Programs and Services and we are part of the University Life group, which is comprised of most student services units. Organization of the office hours and use of technology are key to staying on track.

We use Yahoo IM for inter-office communication, and important information or announcements are sent out via our Listserv or through our Facebook page. We are working to put many of our important orientation and employment modules online to increase accessibility for students and scholars so that we maximize the time we spend with them during walk in hours or appointments times, similar to “flipping the classroom” in academics. We train and maintain close working relationships with our front desk staff so that they can best manage the flow of traffic, help with our assessment and tracking responsibilities, and communicate efficiently between the customers and the advising team.

Our office conducts an all-staff meeting each Monday afternoon to brief on current projects and events, upcoming deadlines, and for each advisor to provide an update as to what they are currently working on. Every Thursday morning, the immigration advising staff meet to discuss logistics, projects and presentations, staffing of additional duties, such as weekly advising at a branch campus, late office hours, or OPT presentations offered bi-weekly. In addition, we discuss cases that need us to put our heads together, as often a case may cover several different visa issues.

Lily Zhang: From a management point of view, it is very important to develop a good daily/weekly/monthly routine. With a framework of routine, there are tasks associated with many specific time slots. Once the tasks are well defined and clarified, it will be possible to monitor and measure productivity. At the individual level, I make sure that every staff is proficient with Outlook and utilize the reminder and task tool within Outlook to keep track of important meetings and projects deadlines. I also find it is helpful to develop a good backup plan. In case of sudden workload increase, I shift the staff’s responsibilities around right away to help each other instead of waiting for work piling up.

Building Relationships Inside and Outside the ISSS: How Do You Help Those Around You Work More Effectively?

Susan Cuffee: I believe in asking critical thinking questions. Whether I am in a meeting with other professional staff or advising a student organization it is important to ask the questions that get the participants to consider and discuss all of their options and thoroughly understand the decisions they are making.

Christina Lehnertz: I have been in my current position for about 2 years, but previously I was the International Faculty and Scholar Advisor. I was able to establish important relationships with high level administrators, human resource liaisons, and faculty while working on employment issues. Those relationships have helped me with the current position in that I am able to help my team interface with academic advisors, departmental employers, human resources, and outside agency contacts. Knowing who are the “Go To” people is half the battle when working on behalf of a student or faculty member. The “Help” and the “Working More Efficiently” terms go both ways, as the knowledge and expertise of the advisors help me to do my job more efficiently on a day to day basis, as well as keeping my supervisor in the loop.

Lily Zhang: In a work place, there are three key elements to this matter: initiative, collaboration and positive attitude. Initiative makes people more open to changes; collaboration is a cornerstone of any effective working relationship; positive attitude is a glue to charm the people around you. When my staff ask me about building relationships and work with each other more effectively, I often ask them to think about these components.

Professional Development: How Do You Develop Your Own Skills As Well As Those of Others?

Susan Cuffee: As an assistant director it is vital to have the support of your supervisors when it comes to professional development. I am fortunate to have a director that supports creative thinking and ideas. This has allowed me to participate in a variety of opportunities both on and off campus. Because of the support I receive I am able to actively look for or help create opportunities for others to explore and develop their talents.

Christina Lehnertz: I am a big fan of all NAFSA training opportunities. Pre-conference Workshops at the Regional and National Conferences, especially the NAFSA Management Development Program, have strengthened my skills as an Associate Director. Online workshops, webinars, the NAFSA Manual, and eCFR are essential tools to helping your staff receive the in-depth training that they will need. Volunteering to become a NAFSA Trainer has deepened my body of knowledge in my profession and helped me manage my team effectively on a day-to-day basis. Training and managing a team that does everything from pre-arrival orientation and document issuance to post-degree employment with international students and scholars can be daunting, but cross-training and communication are key to insuring the success of your team. Not only will you be able to continue your functionality when employees are out, each employee will be a stronger advisor in their own right. Compartmentalization does not work in an environment in which a student could theoretically attend English Language Training, several degrees, OPT, H-1B, and Permanent Residency over a number of years.

Lily Zhang: There are many opportunities provided our Human Resource department and the NAFSA network. In addition, try to find wise people around you to be your mentor. I reflect on the daily operational and management challenges often. Thinking with others is a good way to find better solutions. I also actively look for short-term training opportunities for myself and my staff. I do spend a lot of time to coach my staff and encourage them to invest on professional development. I do it through identifying those learning opportunities in our daily life, (such as a tough case, an unreasonable customer, running against deadline, etc). We use those moments to discuss cause and result, and any possible improved alternatives for a similar situation in the future. Always ask us to think how we can do it better next time.

Top Three Tips: What Three Things Would You Suggest to a New Assistant/Associate Director?

Susan Cuffee: Being new to the assistant director role myself I would say these three are important:

  1. Establishing a strong line of communication with your supervisor is very important. This will help you to determine what the roles and expectations are within the department and in the institution as a whole.
  2. Stay open-minded. I find that part of the importance of the role assistant or associate director is at times acting as a mediator between support staff and upper management. You have to have the ability to consider all sides of the situation and articulate it to others.
  3. Make time for the projects and ideas that are important to you. In the business of the day we at times forget why we joined or considered the field in the first place. Developing your own ideas and seeing them through to fruition can help you determine what kind of future leader or director you would like to become.

Christina Lehnertz: The three I would suggest are:

  1. Maintain awareness of how your office is viewed by the entire university and outside agencies. What are the Vision and Mission of your university, your unit, and the colleges you work with? This will help you to know how to best interface with outside stakeholders. Maintain regular communication with your own supervisor and know what their needs and goals are so that you can be sure that the whole office is not working at cross-purposes.
  2. Insure that you have had all supervisory and management training offered by your employer, meet with your employees often, formally or informally, to be sure they are on track.
  3. Give your staff the tools they need to come to work and do their best job each day. This includes training, logistics, support, and an environment that fosters teamwork and cooperation. Find the hidden talents in your group and leverage them, as well as learn from them.

Lily Zhang: I would suggest these as items to focus on:

  1. Understand your boss’ priority: it is important so that you can align your roles and responsibilities with your boss’ priority.
  2. Understand your staff’s strengths and weakness: it is important to understand and master the resources around you. Your staff is your true asset and resource.
  3. Empower the people around you: it is extremely important to know you are not going to be able to do it all by yourself. Empower the people around you, your boss, your staff, and your colleagues on campus. They will help you to achieve your goal if you can influence them to see your vision.

Susan Cuffee began her career in international education as a work-study student in the Office of International Student and Scholar Services at the University of Toledo in Northwest Ohio. In 2008 she was promoted to an International Student Advisor and International Education Specialist taking on a role as a study abroad advisor in 2011. In 2012 Susan accepted a position as Assistant Director of International Student Services Fairleigh Dickinson University in Teaneck, NJ. In addition to her role as assistant director, Susan also serves as the advisor for the International Students Association at FDU.

Christina Lehnertz is the Associate Director for Immigration Compliance at George Mason University, a public University in Fairfax, VA, hosting more than 2,400 international students and scholars from 134 countries. Her expertise is in the areas of immigration regulatory services for international students and scholars. Christina supervises a team of eight international student and scholar advisors. She has worked in the field of international education since 1991.

Lily Zhang has worked in the field of International Education for more than ten years. Currently, she is the Associate Director for International Student and Scholar Services (ISSS) at the University of Pennsylvania. For her daily job, she plans, manages and directs administrative areas as well as supervises the information system for the office. She is an active NAFSA member and has conducted various immigration workshops and IT presentations.