Something I Learned in Grad School

By Jim Mullen
Emergency Management, Once Removed

Attention emergency managers: aside from the noteworthy announcement that I learned anything in school, there may be something in the following upon which you might reflect.

As I completed my bachelor’s degree in English at what was at that time Western Washington State College, a variety of personal circumstances led to my entry into the master’s program in student personnel administration, under the auspices of WWSC’s Department of Education. Merely deciding to choose an M. Ed over a Master’s in English was less difficult than actually gaining admittance to that program: I literally had to “talk” my way in because of an under 3.0 grade point average!

Much of the education master’s curriculum was foreign to me because of my prior concentration on the BA coursework. My graduate advisor, who I learned was furious with the admissions folks for admitting me to his program, “kindly” offered to place me in an elective class entitled “Social Stratification 501” for which there were a couple of prerequisites I had not met.

This course was especially difficult. Following midterms, too late to drop the course, the instructor summoned me to his office to tell me that I had no chance to pass the course, and to ask “why in heck” did I sign up for it? After we spoke on a couple of occasions he realized that I had been set up to fail, and that he had been set up to be the arbiter of that failure.

Fortune smiled, and what followed is literally the one takeaway from my graduate experience that I used time and time again in my life and professional career.

He gave me an incomplete, with the proviso that I would complete his special requirements the following quarter in addition to the 12 graduate hours I would carry. My assignment: deliver 130 abstracts on what motivates people to volunteer, often working harder for free than they would work on their job.

I fulfilled the assignment. My advisor had to eat crow, and I received the degree on time.

But that was only the launching pad for the most important lesson from that experience. Because what I discovered about what makes people work as volunteers, or as underpaid employees enabled me to have success in a number of areas, for example:

  • Coordinating local political campaigns in two states, convincing people to work evenings and weekends, without pay or even the promise of a future job;
  • As athletic director of a Catholic Youth Organization for my parish for 22 years, convincing a number of talented volunteers to dedicate their time to uniform and equipment acquisition, fundraising, coaching, refereeing, overseeing other adults;
  • As a supervisor in emergency management, where often underpaid personnel needed to be encouraged, supported, and praised, as they went well beyond the call of duty time and again (hint: don’t hog the credit when they did much of the work!).

What motivates such people? There is a form of currency for volunteers, and that is the self esteem they feel for giving back to a cause, or a community. In fact, many would not accept financial remuneration for their selfless efforts, but they do appreciate being thanked, and empowered to contribute.

With those underpaid, often ignored staff, I could never influence public personnel officials to compensate them for their work, sometimes in very stressful environments, and I often ran afoul of human resources philosophies that tended to denigrate the work of “receptionists” or “clerical” workers. But, just imagine trying to handle an emergency with only the so-called “elite” (highly paid) personnel.

Emergency managers are skilled at finding the type of people who will go the extra mile, not just in a disaster, and not for money, but because they understand theirs is a calling to serve and serve well.

That’s true in academia, and private industry, too. We’d best not forget it and be thankful and express that thanks to those with whom we could never do without.

Jim Mullen
B.A English
M. Ed Student Personnel Administration
An Emergency Manager, Once Removed

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