Emphasizing our strengths
This fall, I began my tenth year working in higher education. When I graduated from NNU, I had no idea that I would find a passion in higher education, but here I am, and I love what I do! My first three years were at one of our sister Nazarene schools, Trevecca Nazarene University in Nashville, Tennessee. I had the unique opportunity to relive my college glory days from the perspective of a resident director.
I made it my mission to do whatever I could to help students feel connected and loved so that they could have an amazing college experience. I found myself up at 1 a.m. Rollerscamming dressed as Sporty Spice, wondering how I got so lucky to get paid for this! I had my first taste of mentoring and developing student leaders, and I was hooked. I worked as a resident director at Trevecca for three years, worked in college readiness programs for economically disadvantaged and first generation college students for six years, and am now an academic advisor at a community college in Texas.
In my second year working in higher ed, I had a déjà vu moment. I was being introduced to a personality inventory by Gallup called CliftonStrengths to use for student leaders. My mind wandered back to my last days at NNU when I was developing my final project for my social work degree. Our assignment was to write about the theory or perspective that would guide our future work. Looking back at all I had learned in my time at NNU, one perspective resonated with me above all others: the Strengths Perspective.
According to the Encyclopedia of Social Work in the Oxford Research Encyclopedias, “Instead of focusing on clients’ problems and deficits, the Strengths Perspective centers on clients’ abilities, talents, and resources.” As I look back at the various jobs I’ve had both in higher education and working with at-risk youth, I can see how I was able to use this perspective to approach my work. Even now, being reminded of the foundations of this perspective excites me. When I followed this viewpoint, it became less about what I could do to help my clients and more about what strengths they already had that would allow them to reach their greatest potential. All I had to do was ask if I could help develop and grow those strengths.
I loved this perspective then and continue to love it now because it empowers people to see the strengths that they have, gives them hope and to helps them choose careers and opportunities they will be passionate about. When people are operating in their strengths, they naturally pull others alongside them and help them find their strengths as well, so the ripple effect to impact generations to come has limitless potential.
I specifically love utilizing the Gallup CliftonStrengths inventory with students in high school and college because that is the time when they are cementing what their passions are and looking for direction for their careers. Many are still in self-discovery mode and benefit greatly from a tool that can help draw out their strengths and give direction to express those strengths in a career.
One of the students that I saw the most growth in during my time at Trevecca was one of my resident assistants, Andrea. When I met her, Andrea was soft spoken and a little unsure of her potential. Her top 5 Strengths are Empathy, Includer, Belief, Restorative and Developer. I saw Andrea blossom during her time at Trevecca and while serving as an RA for three years. I do not give full credit to StrengthsQuest for this transformation as I know God used many mentors, experiences and friends to shape Andrea, but I believe that knowing her strengths helped her develop into a confident and compassionate young woman. It helped guide her passions to find a career that used each of her strengths on a daily basis.
I saw a passion grow inside of her for underserved students in our community. Andrea became a teacher in an economically disadvantaged school district right in the Trevecca neighborhood and has taught and loved her students for almost ten years. She has received numerous recognitions and awards for her work. Her strengths are used each day as she invests in children’s lives and helps them to find their full potential in an environment that can be very unstable at times. It is obvious Andrea is exactly where God has gifted her to be. The relationships that she develops with both her students and their families is inspiring. I’m so thankful I had a tool like StrengthsQuest that influenced a soft spoken and unsure student to find her voice, her passion and the confidence to do what God called her to do.
Looking back at my time at NNU, I can recall a long list of names of people who invested in me and gave me an opportunity to develop my strengths like I have been able to do for students I work with.
Professor LeAnn Stensgaard was one of my main social work professors. She invested in me both educationally and personally, and she introduced the idea of Strengths Perspective to me. She helped draw out my desire to help people and gave me practical skills that I would need to invest in others. She deeply cared for her students, which allowed us to learn and thrive in a safe environment.
Dr. Jerry Hull, another one of my social work professors, instilled confidence in me and helped develop my passion for assisting others. His encouragement of me to step out of my comfort zone influenced me greatly in future decisions.
Dr. Mike Kipp and Dr. Gary Waller were professors that I loved so much; I would take just about any class they were teaching because I loved to be under their influence. They both demonstrated the importance of loving people where they are and in creative ways. They also instilled in me the importance of pursuing a personal relationship with God and equipped me with practical ways to do this.
Tim Milburn, director of campus life, was my student government advisor. Tim helped me realize my potential for leadership. He never micromanaged us in student government but allowed us both to succeed and sometimes fail but always learn and grow. I do not believe I would have known I was capable of many of the things that I was able to do in student government had I not had a mentor like Tim.
Clearly the Strengths Perspective and CliftonStrengths test can be applied well in the university setting. This approach can also be used effectively in the workplace. When I managed a college readiness program, my staff each took the CliftonStrengths test, and we processed the results both individually and as a team. While managing this staff, I intentionally aimed to use people’s strengths in various projects and tasks. Working from this perspective created a positive environment that allowed me to see the potential in staff rather than to focus on the deficits that may exist.
Regardless of our career or position, God brings people into our lives whom we can influence, see the best in, and whose strengths we can nurture. We may not formally follow the guidance of a test like CliftonStrengths or a theory like Strengths Perspective, but, as I was shown at NNU, we can make a practice of approaching our interactions with people by looking for their God-given potential and by using their innate strengths to empower them to live their best lives.
Carrie Hays served as Student Government Association president the 2003-04 school year at NNU as a capstone to her roles as SGA social vice president and a representative on class councils. She currently works at Lone Star Community College in Houston, Texas, as an academic advisor. Her Top 5 CliftonStrengths are Maximizer, Strategic, Developer, Relator and Responsibility.