One Semester In – Reflections on a VPSA Transition

Peter Konwerski, Vice President for Student Life, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

June 6, 2019

On January 2, 2019, I posted my first tweet as @RPIPeterK announcing my role as vice president for student life at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI). I’m honored to have served as the chief student affairs officer at two of the best universities in America, but making a transition is real work, no matter how seasoned you are. It also takes a growth mindset, boundless energy, a talented team, and in my case, the love and support of an incredible partner.

I am a firm believer that attitude is everything, a growth mindset is crucial. I set a goal to listen, learn, and then lead, realizing I had a great deal to understand about my new STEM focused institution. While I am only four months in, that openness to exploring has served me well as I learn about RPI’s systems, processes, people and platforms. I was lucky to have time prior to my transition which allowed me to meet many staff, student leaders, deans, cabinet colleagues, and our trustees. During those interactions I was able to observe, ask questions, get a sense of institutional priorities, and ask everyone about the expectations people had of me and my role. 

A second element has been expending the essential energy to acclimate as quickly as possible. Starting a new job can be a physical and mental challenge, but my style isn’t to sit on the sidelines. It’s been about action and engagement. As I strive to run at full speed, I have tried to build relationships with key student and faculty stakeholder groups on campus while expanding alliances with alumni and parent partners in the ten cities I’ve already traveled to. In an attempt to learn the campus culture, I attend as many events as possible, which expose me to the diversity of the campus experience. But all these efforts haven’t been without mistakes: I burned the candle at both ends a few times, struggling to manage work and life, but acquiring that balance comes with any adjustment.

A talented team is also assisting me in every element of my transition. For starters, I am fortunate to work for a leader from whom I learn every day and who challenges me to do my best work. In addition, my cabinet colleagues have supported my onboarding and the Institute has a highly structured process to give me the tools to be successful. My leadership team is adjusting to my myriad questions, patiently walking me through the updates I have asked for, and explaining important institutional protocols and traditions. And my administrative staff have adjusted to my preference for piling vs. filing, are working to understand my handwritten notes, and now appreciate my interest in bigger binder clips.

Lastly, I am fortunate to have an understanding wife who has given me unparalleled support throughout the search and transition. While we are currently living apart, we have increased our communication, upped our texting, improved our emoji game, and reprioritized our time together to ensure we work through the issues surrounding dual careers, different cities, and two places we now call home. Any good partnership involves great sacrifice and lots of love to make it work, but I remind myself every day how privileged I am to be in this specific situation, with such a supportive spouse.

While I still have a great deal to learn, I’m excited every day by this role at RPI as I watch our students, faculty, and alumni bring our mantra “Why not change the world” to life. The support of my spouse, encouragement from my teammates, an energy to explore, and my own willingness to grow have made this a terrific transition. I look forward to making the most of this opportunity as I end my first quarter and I race toward mid-year at Rensselaer.

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