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A Unique and Fulfilling Adventure

A day in the life of Mazhar Mohsin Chinoy, former Director, Office of Student Affairs, LUMS, and consultant in education management.
Published 28 Feb, 2024 10:17am

The world of higher education is riveting and constantly in evolution mode, and few professions demand a blend of empathy, organisational skills and, if I may add, a dash of humour quite like that of a student affairs specialist. These specialists are mostly unsung heroes who navigate the tumultuous seas of student life, armed with policies, paperwork and an unwavering commitment to making campus life a smooth ride for everyone involved. Especially students.

My day begins not with the clichéd ringing of the alarm bell, but with the flamboyant morning choral chittering of my pet budgerigars, all 27 of them. As I get ready for work, I know well enough that any qualms or hopeful intentions of sticking to a planned schedule for the day may soon fall by the wayside – hopefully bedlam not eagerly waiting in the wings, ready to pirouette onto the stage.

The 12-kilometre drive to campus is pleasant, and as soon as I reach the office, I tackle emails first. Overnight, the inbox has become a breeding ground for student queries or issues that need to be addressed. Happily, these may also include late-night epiphanies from students, ranging from existential crises to inquiries about whether a ghost sighting in the hostel room and a resulting high fever can be petitioned for a missed exam.

The student demographic and profile differs greatly across Pakistani universities – and Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS) is fortunate to comprise brilliant, talented, scholarly, and innovative minds that make up most of the student body. With nearly half of the student population resident on campus, this is a national university with a very diverse and vibrant environment – all cultures, religions, social strata, languages, etc., are represented across undergraduate, graduate, and doctoral students. The endless travails of talking to such a dissimilar group of students (and occasionally their parents) and managing expectations, is always challenging but satisfying as well.

Armed with a cup of liquid sanity in the form of tea, and some old-fashioned classical music to create a ‘zen’ environment (and soothe frayed nerves), I run an open-door policy to take on student queries, clarifications over policy, approvals for events, and occasionally, requests for clemency when exam petitions are declined. Although an excellent team is at hand to handle such queries, the idea is to establish that the office of the director is always accessible and the student is at the centre of the ‘universe-ity’.

A typical day will have its fair share of external meetings. As director, one can be part of over a dozen committees. Avid participation in committee meetings is a wonderful way to keep in touch with other critical departments and develop comradeship with peers, all the while focusing on central university-wide issues. My personal favourites are the Financial Aid Committee where a senior team assesses the financial needs of applying students, and the Examinations and Standing Committee which assesses special circumstances for enrolled students seeking relief over examinations or their status on the academic rolls. I hardly ever break for lunchtime, preferring instead to turn off the lights in my office and take a 15-minute power nap, which does wonders in terms of boosting energy levels halfway through a hectic day.

A key task for a student affairs professional is to be totally committed to developing student leadership skills, and the nurseries for this are student societies. The idea is to allow students freedom in channelling their interests and hobbies into student clubs, planning and executing their own seminars, conferences, vigils, exhibitions and assorted events – stumbling and learning in the process while constantly being counselled and guided by us. Always, a latent focus is on community support to develop humility and empathy among students for the less privileged, and create awareness for the environment.

Apart from meeting students to discuss and green-light upcoming events for many of the nearly 50 societies thriving at LUMS, inter-society disputes over turf and event sharing can crop up, requiring my sliding into the role of peacekeeper between passionate factions.

As director, one has to serve as the first point of contact for students and their parents over a range of situations, such as student terminations, discipline, illness or accidents, or other oblique matters. With all the days spent in my 16 years of experience at LUMS, I have found four essential attributes that must define a student affairs specialist in a senior role. These are empathy, communication, patience and composure – critical in advancing positive interactions within diverse environments with multiple stakeholders.

A mainstay aspect of higher education is the internationalisation of any university and this is a cause that is very dear to me. We are constantly communicating with universities in the top 700 of the QS Global University rankings (the same as LUMS), seeking out mutually beneficial student and staff exchange opportunities. For this, I regularly check in with my team to chart progress – which is already nearing 50 zero-tuition fee partnerships and is hugely popular among students. I am especially elated by our successful proposal to the EU-sponsored European Region Action Scheme for the Mobility of University Students (Erasmus) programme to set up a state-of-the-art, fully-funded International Centre at LUMS, designed to elevate the academic environment to a global level, preparing our students for international collaboration and competitiveness.

Throughout the day, I meet my managers and team leads to discuss progress and troubleshoot on core student areas such as housing, sports and wellness, the medical centre, student societies and clubs, and yes, student career placement.

Student careers is another key area that requires meetings with the corporate sector, both on their turf and ours. Meetings with corporate executives are about seeking their feedback on LUMS graduates working in their organisations, prospecting for job or internship opportunities, and inviting their seniors for mentoring and mock interviews.

Finally, with the day’s challenges adequately mapped, I head home. To avoid burnout, it is important to leave the office on time, although student affairs are hardly ever done for the day. I won’t be surprised if I am on the phone late in the night with a student or two, and occasionally even the vice chancellor.

Back home, quality time with the missus and my daughter, followed by dinner, music and Netflix, not necessarily in that order, and finally a quick recap of the day. All said and done, one cannot help but chuckle at the capricious nature of student affairs. In the end, it is the ability to ‘roll with the punches’, appreciate the quirks of campus life, and find humour in the chaos that makes being a student affairs specialist a unique and fulfilling adventure.

Mazhar M. Chinoy was Director, Office of Student Affairs, LUMS and is currently a consultant in education management.