John Fierst ’17 – Flexibility is Important

In celebration of the contributions made to undergraduate student success by graduate assistants working with our learning communities, we will be visiting with former graduate assistants to find out more about their experiences during their assistantships and where they have gone in their careers since. So, where are they now?

Men and women standing under collonade in business attire
John Fierst ’17 (at left) with his colleagues in the Office of Academic Advising at Rice University. Photo provided by John Fierst.

John Fierst ‘17

John Fierst ‘17 worked as a graduate assistant with FOCUS Learning Community and then with Century Scholars Learning Community while completing his master’s degree in Education Administration with a Student Affairs Administration in Higher Education (SAAHE) emphasis.  Fierst now works at Rice University in Houston as an Assistant Director of Academic Advising.

What was it like to begin your graduate assistantship with FOCUS? At first, I felt a learning curve. As we often joked, the “C” in FOCUS stands for change, and of course with a large learning community program, there are a lot of moving parts that take some time to master. But like most things, with time, I learned exactly what I needed to do and got the hang of it! I spent the vast majority of my life in Indiana before moving to Texas A&M for graduate school, so I was also getting used to Texas culture – I had my first ever kolache with FOCUS!

4 young men stand together and grin
Celebrating a successful year with the FOCUS Peer Mentors in April 2016. Photo provided by John Fierst.

Why did you want to work with the learning communities? When I was applying to graduate programs in higher education and student affairs, I knew I wanted an experience with an academic component to it. Learning communities were a perfect fit, as they incorporate both academic success courses with peer mentoring and student programming. I really value the way that student affairs practitioners like myself can encourage student development in ways that extend both into and outside of the classroom.

How did your graduate assistantship help you with your graduate work or later career? In the Student Affairs Administration in Higher Education (SAAHE) program, students are required to have a graduate assistantship because we apply what we learn in the classroom to our work and we bring our work experiences into the classroom to help us discuss our course material. Of course my experience in LAUNCH: Learning Communities provided great experience for my time as a graduate student in my classes. When you work with a variety of students as GAs do in LAUNCH, you are able to bring a large variety of examples and cases to the classroom.

Man and woman in business attire standing in front of a projector screen
LAUNCH: Learning Communities Graduate Assistants John Fierst and Maggie Mendoza presented a session at the 2016 National Learning Communities Conference in Atlanta GA. The presentation was about how to successfully use peer mentors in a first-year success seminar (the long way of saying that FOCUS is great!). Photo provided by John Fierst.

What did you most enjoy about your graduate assistantship? I most enjoyed working with a great team of peer mentors, fellow graduate assistants, and LAUNCH staff, as well as making a big difference in the college experience of our students by providing them with resources and tailored support.

What lessons or skills did you learn? I learned a lot about working effectively with students in a bunch of ways. First and foremost, I learned about the challenges that first-generation college students face and the ways that we can best support these students. I also gained supervisory skills, as part of my role was to supervise teams of peer mentors. Being a trusted and approachable staff member is really important when you work with undergraduate students, so I think I was able to sharpen my skill set there.

Casually dressed group of young adults smiling
John Fierst ’17 with his O-Week Peer Academic Advisors at Rice. O-Week is orientation week and all Rice freshmen go through O-Week the week before school starts. This group of Peer Academic Advisors were specifically helping incoming freshmen at Lovett College, one of the 11 residential colleges at Rice. Photo provided by John Fierst.

Where has your degree taken you? Since graduating in May 2017, I moved down the road to Houston to work for Rice University as an Assistant Director of Academic Advising. Much of the experience I got as a GA in LAUNCH was highly applicable to my current role. I had worked with students with academic difficulty, supervised a team of peer mentors, and created trainings and presentation when I worked for LAUNCH, and I do those same things (or very similar things) in my current position. In fact, I have some resources from my time as a GA that I still keep saved to use with students at Rice!

Man explaining information at a desk to a student
John Fierst working with a student at Rice. Photo provided by John Fierst.

What advice would you give to a current learning communities graduate assistant? Always keep an open mind, be flexible, but also be organized. You will learn so much in  your time with LAUNCH, and you will gain so many skills that no matter your future career plans, you will come away with a valuable experience. Flexibility is important because learning communities will always undergo change, from minor one-time things to bigger scale things that may greatly impact your work. Because of this dynamic nature, I also add in organization. Reflect on your style of how you organize yourself and that will help you in the role.  [If you keep yourself organized] that will help you in your role because you can focus on helping students and growing as a GA rather than worrying about where you saved your last document!

Man looking down at desk top for information
John Fierst advising a student at Rice. Photo provided by John Fierst.

What “pearls of wisdom” would you offer to undergraduates considering graduate study? Start with your own big picture and work backwards. If the values and goals you have set for  your future require graduate study, then go for it, but don’t pursue graduate study as a back up or because you aren’t sure what to do next. Graduate study will always be there, so no need to rush into a graduate degree. Finally, always reach out to your mentors and advisors (particularly ones who have gone to graduate school themselves) as they can help guide you!

LAUNCH: Learning Communities · FOCUS Learning Community · Century Scholars Learning Community · Texas A&M University’s Master of Science in Educational Administration, Student Affairs Administration in Higher Education emphasis (SAAHE) · College of Education and Human Development ·Office of Academic Advising at Rice University

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