#CSAM22 – Chief of Staff/AVP with Dr. Cebulski

Dr. Adam Cebulski, Chief of Staff and Assistant Vice President, reflects on his career journey in higher education.

Life is not linear, it is organic. We create our lives symbiotically as we explore our talents in relation to the circumstances they help create for us.

Ken Robinson

What made you pursue the work you currently do, and was that always the plan?

I always thought I wanted to be in higher education, but it was always going to be on the faculty side. As an undergraduate student studying psychology, I was intent on pursuing a Ph.D. in psychology to become a tenured faculty member. Much of that had to do with being a first-generation college student and not knowing anyone with a terminal degree. It was something to obtain that I could be proud of and know I had worked for. My undergraduate career was life-changing due to some serious health issues, and I got to know the university President and senior leaders in student affairs very well. They convinced me to think about a career in student affairs. When it came time to review my doctoral graduate school offers, I decided to try out the administrative side of higher education. Ultimately, this led to a career in higher education – both on campuses and adjacent as I worked in consulting and educational technology. I don’t have a linear journey, but I think that’s helped me become a better campus-based professional. Instead of the traditional path of working on a few campuses during my career, I have worked with over 250 on all kinds of projects with a variety of impacts. It has helped me know exactly what kind of institutions I enjoy, what challenges make me thrive, and how to better support my staff and, ultimately our students. Folks can learn a bit more about my journey on a podcast I did for NASPA.

In what ways does your role look similar or different to its historical roots? In other words, how has your role on college campuses evolved over time?

Interestingly enough, my kind of position is relatively new to higher education. I have two sides to my portfolio – the student engagement and success side (AVP) and the Chief of Staff (CoS) side. The AVP or engagement side is a relatively new way of splitting out what was traditionally part of a Dean of Students (DoS) portfolio. Many DoS portfolios now focus more on student well-being and support (like ours). Higher ed and corporate have adopted the Chief of Staff component from politics and the military. According to the Harvard Business Review, “The most sophisticated chiefs of staff also assist leaders in thinking through and setting policies—and making sure they are implemented. They anticipate problems and are especially sensitive to issues that require diplomacy. They function as extra eyes and ears by pointing out political potholes their bosses may not recognize (especially if they are new to the company). Importantly, a CoS acts with the implicit imprimatur of the leader—something that calls for humility, maturity, and situational sensitivity.” In many cases, it involves working on special and strategic projects, looking holistically at the organization, and creating intentional external partnerships. You become a master strategist and learn both breadth and depth as it relates to the functions of a university. I love the foundation it has given me, and I don’t believe I would be successful at it had I not had my non-linear carer journey.

What are the most important competencies someone needs to develop to be successful in your role?

A good chief of staff needs to be a good observer, inquisitive, and think strategically. In many cases, Chiefs of Staff operate small shops but have large impacts because they oversee strategic plans, critical priorities, or change management initiatives. You can’t be afraid of getting your hands dirty so you can understand the cause and effect of decision-making. It goes without saying you have to have a mastery of project management and organization. You also have to put your ego aside because it is not typically the work in the spotlight, but it feels good to know you had a hand in the organization’s success – even if most people don’t know how you contributed. Sometimes you are ghostwriting for others or acting on behalf of a leader – you have to be comfortable understanding how the people you support think, so you can make their lives easier.

Do you have any final thoughts for someone considering your role in the future?

Don’t be afraid to take risks. Whether trying out a new opportunity or taking on a project that seems a bit out of the left field. All these will expose you to new ideas, people, and experiences – ultimately making you a better professional. Think creatively about your job and educational choices. There are tons of non-higher ed pathways that can help you be a good chief of staff within a higher education context. Look at pursuing learning and organizational change programs or IO psychology. Think about business-oriented pathways. Just make sure where you land aligns with your own personal mission and the impact you hope to have on students; even if may be indirect.

Dr. Adam Cebulski
Dr. Adam R. Cebulski

Dr. Cebulski serves in a joint role as the Assistant Vice President for Student Engagement and Success and the Chief of Staff for the Division of Student Affairs. Dr. Adam R. Cebulski provides leadership for the Student Engagement and Success portfolio within Student Affairs which includes Student Center and Activities, Fraternity and Sorority Life, Social Change and Intercultural Engagement, the Women and LGBT Center, Office of the Student Experience (Leadership, Orientation, Parent Programs, specialty populations). Separately, as the Chief of Staff for the division, he also oversees Student AffairsAdministration (assessment, strategic initiatives, marketing, technology, staff development, etc). He also works on special projects for the Vice President and manages the execution of the divisional strategic plan.

He holds his Ed.D. in Higher Education Leadership from Southern Methodist University, his M.S.Ed. degree in Higher Education Administration and Policy from Northwestern University and a B.S. degree in Psychology from Loyola University Chicago. His background combines higher education, corporate consulting, and innovation technology. He has focused on strategic  planning and assessment, and he has helped many universities and non-profit organizations implement structural and procedural changes to improve operations. His professional expertise also includes process improvement, program evaluation, student retention initiatives, marketing, admissions and recruitment, and technology integration. Prior to SMU he spent almost ten years as an independent consultant for higher education institutions as the Director for Research and Strategic Initiatives for an educational technology company. Previously, he held positions within student and academic affairs at Illinois Institute of Technology and Northwestern University. Throughout his experience, he has worked with over 200 colleges and universities on student-centered initiatives large and small.

Dr. Cebulski also teaches graduate courses in higher education masters and doctoral programs. His course offerings have included classes related to leadership development, strategic planning and assessment, gamification in education, among others. His research projects include using gamification principles and human motivation patterns to increase student engagement and success, development of intentional student experiences, the intersection of identity salience of underrepresented students and leadership development, in-group bias against positive attributes, and the impacts and integration of technology on higher education.

Additionally, Dr. Cebulski engages in a variety of educational and industry professional associations. Most recently he has been active in conference presentations and publications with NASPA as well as serving as an AVP Cohort Facilitator. He also sits on the review board for the Journal for Student Affairs Inquiry. 

#CSAM22 – Student Activities with Dr. Norris

Dr. Dawn F. Norris, Executive Director for Student Involvement, reflects on her career in student affairs.

Dr. Dawn F. Norris is the Executive Director for Student Involvement with responsibility for student organizations and involvement, fraternity and sorority life, and the Hughes-Trigg Student Center. She advises the SMU Student Senate and is an Adjunct Clinical Lecturer in the Simmons School of Education. Dawn received her undergraduate degree in business administration cum laude from Centenary College of Louisiana, her master’s degree in college student personnel from the University of Dayton, and her doctorate in higher education policy and leadership from SMU. Previous positions include work with residence life, multicultural student affairs, community engagement and leadership, development and external affairs event planning, conference planning, human resources functions, and budgeting within business and finance. Dr. Norris received the “M” Award – the highest honor bestowed on a Mustang, and the President’s Award for Outstanding Leadership.

What made you pursue the work you currently do, and was that always the plan?

Absolutely not – no one dresses up as a student affairs professional for Halloween – I didn’t even know that was a job! My undergrad degree was in business, and I started my career in higher education finance. My alma mater asked me to come back as a part-time hall director three years out, and as a newly married, semi-broke young professional, I jumped at the chance to live on campus for free. That work led me to determine while I was right about higher ed, I was wrong about finance. I quit my two jobs, went back to school full-time to get my master’s degree, and a career was born. I later spent a year in development, further reinforcing that working with college students is my calling.

That work led me to determine while I was right about higher ed, I was wrong about finance. I quit my two jobs, went back to school full-time to get my master’s degree, and a career was born.

In what ways does your role look similar or different to its historical roots? In other words, how has your role on college campuses evolved over time?

Student organizations and activities have always been part of the college student experience. Over time, support for and advisement of these activities has professionalized and grown more complex. Campus leaders expect more oversight than they once did, and while advisors were once exclusively faculty, those roles are now predominately managed by professional staff, often in student activities.

What are the most important competencies someone needs to develop to be successful in your role?

Student activities and organization folks need to seek out opportunities during their graduate preparation to learn about the operations side of our work: budget, risk management, facilities operation, etc. Many of us choose this work because of our relationships with students. While often the most fulfilling part of our roles, we best serve our students when we develop expertise in the university systems that support their (and our) efforts.

Do you have any final thoughts for someone considering your role in the future?

I love my job in student affairs and have experienced such personal fulfillment in my career. Now that I have a college student of my own, I’m comforted knowing there is a whole team of student affairs professionals on her campus working to support her and create a robust extracurricular experience where she’ll make friends and memories.

Careers in Student Affairs Month #CSAM22

Careers in Student Affairs (CSAM) is a month-long initiative each October developed by a number of professional associations related to Student Affairs. CSAM is dedicated to the celebration of a career in student affairs, education and awareness in the profession, and engagement with professional associations and peers in the field. More directly, the goals of Careers in Student Affairs Month are to:

  • Celebrate the field of student affairs through opportunities to reflect on individual journeys and experiences
  • Provide professional development for student affairs administrators in higher education
  • Encourage and promote the profession in order to grow the field of student affairs
  • Cultivate spaces for dialogue related to pertinent topics within student affairs

Throughout the month, Student Affairs at SMU will be sharing reflections from functional leaders within the Division highlighting various career pathways and advice for those seeking to obtain those roles in the future. We will also host pop-up brown bag lunches for current staff and graduate students to have a more intimate conversation with functional leaders.

We are also hosting two open activities for graduate assistants within the Division of Student Affairs.

Thursday, October 13, 2022
Lunch and Learn: Professional Paths in Student Affairs
12-1, HTSC 226 – Lunch will be provided

Thursday, October 25, 2022
Resume and Job Search Workshop in connection with the Hegi Family Career Center
11:30am-1:00pm, HTSC 226 – Lunch with be provided

There are also a variety of resources available from professional associations during October.

ACPA – College Student Educators International

ACPA is offering a series of webinars throughout the month as well as discounts for Graduate students on membership and the Annual Conference.

Check out more information on their CSAM website.

NASPA – Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education

During Careers in Student Affairs Month, NASPA and NASPA Constituent Groups sponsor educational sessions for students and professionals of all levels. Unless noted otherwise, 2022 NASPA Careers in Student Affairs Month webinars are free for members and non-members. Check out the schedule online. Additionally, they are offering a discount on select books related to career trajectory.