“You can go through all the motions, but at the end of the day if you don’t want to do it, you shouldn’t do it,” says Hoi Ning Ngai. Ngai is the Dean for Academic Advising and Support at Kenyon College. She has taken an interesting path to reach this point, including earning her B.A. in Psychology from Dartmouth College, Ph.D. in Higher Education from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), and working a variety of gigs in between.
E: What led you to where you are today?
H: I grew up in New York in the projects and a big thing for me was being able to go away to a school like Dartmouth College that was tucked away, far from home, and idyllic. I was always a psychology major (except for a few days during sophomore summer when I thought I may want to major in biology…a few minutes of microbiology persuaded me otherwise). I was interested in psych because I enjoy knowing how the mind works physically and how people think. I was actually pre-med, too. I figured “why not?” I did enjoy pieces of it, but did not enjoy all of it and did not end up pursuing the med school route because I wasn’t ultimately all that interested. After college, I took a number of random jobs, looking for different ways to apply my major – you can practically do anything with a psychology major because most things involve interaction with people. My first job was at a nonprofit in New York that allowed me to work with students, supporting their advocacy and community work. I was simultaneously doing college counseling part time and going back to Dartmouth to work with the Asian Pacific American students as well as career services to help other students think critically about what they wanted to do after college. I realized that I really wanted to work into higher education, and chose to earn my P.h.D. at UCLA – this was a totally different context from Dartmouth, but I wanted to try out a big, public research university as well as the West Coast. My friend at UCLA suggested that I should apply to advising and started that my second year of graduate school – this is how I inadvertently, serendipitously found academic advising as a field. My first full-time advising job was at Wharton, an amazing three years. I was looking for growth and professional development opportunities, which is how I ended up at Kenyon. I also had never done the Midwest.
E: You have had such an interesting past full of diverse experiences. Nonetheless, how do you feel each of these still contribute to the work you do today in some way?
H: Life is too short. We should really take as much time as possible in terms of getting to know the world around us, taking advantage of and finding experiences that we come across. The choices I have made and continue to make are around that philosophy of pushing and challenging myself, doing things that aren’t necessarily on the top of my mind to do. Whatever I do, I am setting a strong foundation of skills, constantly adding new ones. For example, from my first job [with the non-profit], I saw it was important to help students figure out the kinds of causes they find really important and take advantage of opportunities to serve their communities in ways they want to serve. I learned to help students process their homes lives and challenges associated with their home lives that impacted their community and their own lives. From my job in human resources, I understood a corporate context; I think this also helped me get me the job at Wharton and really helped me in terms of working with Wharton students, many of whom are going into corporate contexts. I learned about workforce headcount reduction, compensation, and what it means when you end up getting comfortable in an environment because the benefits are so good and how to navigate that. One of my jobs was in a cookie store, where I learned about customer service. A lot of higher education is really customer service. This job helped in terms of understanding how to work with students. Finally, my job in event planning taught me how to focus on both details and the big picture by forming a strategic vision to do so. I developed my management and people skills, including how to deal with people not pulling their weight and intergroup conflict. I have found that many of these non-academic, non-institutional jobs involve pieces that transpose to everyday life and work. Everything that you have ever done at all may seem small and insignificant, but does have value. It is important for each and every one of us to think critically about how our experiences do add value.
E: Could you speak more about your research on diversity or student development at UCLA? How does this research influence your work today?
H: My dissertation looked at “border crossers,” i.e. students who took advantage of academic or organizational experiences where they crossed racial-ethnic lines. This was an exploratory study examining what student motivation was for engaging in these experiences, what the experiences looked like, and what the students deemed they got out of their experiences. Some students were really looking to explore things that they had not been exposed to, but a lot of students actually had pre-college exposure to diversity. A main finding is when you have someone serving as an “in” to a group across your racial-ethnic line, that person can vouch for you to join a group. It is interesting that I had made assumptions about students coming from homogeneous environments into the heterogeneous UCLA when more and more students are coming from backgrounds where they have already had exposure to diversity. Going into any interaction with any student, it is important to remember that you won’t know the reality until you hear their story. Students have a lot to share if you give them space to share. It is important to provide students a safe space to allow them to really speak honestly and freely.
E: Positive Psychology is a growing field that emphasizes topics like meaningful self-reflection and assuming responsibility for decisions as your advising philosophy focuses on as well. Do you find yourself engaging with this field and/or integrating it to your advising?
H: I have always been a promoter of critical self-reflection, informed decision-making, and self-empowerment, so I’m glad there’s a label on it now. I think it is really important because most college students don’t have any idea why they’re in college. If you ask the typical, random college student “Why are you in college?” many would say “Well, isn’t that what I should be doing?” Students are not pushed to be self-reflective in the way they really need to be in high school. Additionally, sometimes there is an expectation of students and parents that things will be done for you, situations will be resolved for you and you don’t have to navigate anything. Rather, we should be preparing you for a life that involves you taking responsibility for your choices. The reality is that sometimes children do not learn the lesson about the flame until they experience it. I can give you the necessary information, but at the end of the day you choose what you choose.
E: What is the most rewarding part of being an academic adviser?
H: I am proudest of a student that is able to take ownership. I will not take responsibility for either my student’s good or bad choices because at the end of the day, you need to own it so you could deal with it later. When students take ownership they get excited about things. When you see the lights change in the background, that’s really amazing. I also get a lot of fulfillment from helping students who are having a hard time academically, socially, and personally transition to a place of feeling more empowered, a sense of agency, and more control over their life and experience. Finally, to know that everything that you do is paid forward is an amazing feeling. They could be doing anything – you could impact the world so much more through that push and it is totally worth every second that I could possibly have spent with them.
E: What are some words of wisdom you have for students on their intellectual journeys? Specifically, can you highlight lessons that students can apply about choosing a best fit school, preparing for college, etc.?
H: It is going to be hard – you are planning a future one year out from who you are now. Given that we change with the seconds, it’s important to do a realistic investigation of who you are and what you want out of your college experience. It’s really important to spend some time on campus for the institutions you are very oriented towards. Beyond your first choice, make sure that your second, third, and fourth choices are as close to the first as possible. There is also the option of taking a gap year; talk to your parents about if you should go to college right now. Above all, remember that where you go to college is not necessarily the be-all end-all of who you are going to be and how you are going to turn out later. A lot of what happens later is actually self-constructed; constructed by you in the context of your network. Everyone thinks there is a direct path and that’s really not how the economy/society is operating these days – every day there are hundreds of more job titles and descriptions that did not exist ten years ago. If you think you know, you probably don’t know and that is not your fault. Try to think about the future, but live in the moment as much as possible. Be as flexible as you can be going into the future because the future will change in literally seconds, minutes, hours, days.
Contributor: Evangeline Giannopolous