Heather Sorrell’s first experience with the Virginia Community College System was as a student at John Tyler Community College. She eventually obtained full-time employment at John Tyler and worked there for almost seven years developing and supervising the college’s tutoring program. She also worked as an instructional designer at JTCC before joining VCCS in early 2013. She has a BS in Psychology and a Masters in Library and Information Science.
1. Your title is “Coordinator of Student Affairs.” What exactly does that entail?
Well, interesting you should ask that! My role is a bit hard to define. In the general sense, you could say I deal with anything that falls under the umbrella of “Student Services”. In a practical sense, that means I deal with areas ranging from student activities, admissions, registration, domicile, disabilities, veterans, academic advising, threat assessment, related policy questions, student issues, and more. One of the larger parts of my job is coordinating the Virginia Placement Test and its implementation at our 23 colleges. I also am involved in planning training, workshops, and conferences for college staff in the various Student Services areas. Our office is responsible for a 500-attendee Student Leadership Conference and putting that together takes a large chunk of time throughout the year for myself and my supervisor. As a result of the large number of areas we cover and that there are only three of us, I do have to travel to touch base with college staff, gather information at conferences and meetings, or attend other events quite often. A typical work day might include questions, projects, or tasks related to all of the above areas. I never know what will come my way, which is one of the reasons I enjoy my work. It is never routine and allows me to constantly learn new things.
2. A lot of people may not be aware that you’re also responsible for another critically important job – responding to online inquiries from students and parents who are sometimes frustrated and desperate for answers. What is the nature of the questions you receive and how many do you typically field each day?
This is one of the more challenging parts of my job, actually. If I know the answer, I take care of the inquiry myself. If I do not, I figure out who is the expert in that area and ask them to respond. Inquiries vary so widely, I’m not sure I can define them. I can tell you that I am most often asked about whether we offer a certain class or how to register for a certain class. Sometimes, a current student will submit questions to us instead of their VCCS institution. In those cases, I ask the college to respond because they have much more detailed background and information on the student. Additionally, VCCS institutions operate semi-independently, so the procedure at one is not the same as at another. This means I may need to refer students to an institution they are interested in because I literally don’t know the answer – only the school does. I do sometimes field complaints from students who have been “bounced” around from person to person. In those cases, I just want to make sure I listen and try to help resolve whatever issues are happening. It can be very frustrating to a parent or student when no one seems to be able to give them a good answer. I try my best not to refer them out, though in some cases it is a local institution that must answer the question. Because of this complexity, each question that comes in may be handled differently. Fortunately, I work with a great set of people who are always willing to help and extremely dedicated to student success.
3. Looking back, what was the easiest question you responded to and conversely, what was the most difficult?
I’d say the easiest type of question is an inquiry about course offerings. Because all of the VCCS classes for all of the colleges are on our website, it is very easy to direct them to the appropriate link and share how to look up classes and colleges. Difficult questions usually involve complaints, simply because it takes a bit of time to get all the facts from the student, the college, and anyone else involved before there can be a resolution. It becomes more complicated because you are trying to parse out what happened and how to help. However, I will mention that occasionally I get an inquiry completely in another language, usually Spanish. Since I don’t know anyone who can speak Spanish in my office, I take to translating them myself using my very limited Spanish knowledge and Google! I’m particularly proud when I can manage to get the gist of the email and get the person to someone who can help them in their native language. I even occasionally respond back in very broken Spanish when needed, just so I can get them where they need to go. Even though those probably qualify as difficult inquiries, I also rather enjoy them.
4. To respond to some of these questions, you’ve had to really broaden your institutional knowledge. What kind of challenge has that presented for you?
There was a huge learning curve when I first started this job, even though I came from a local community college, John Tyler. I realized there was just so much I didn’t know. When I was asked to take over the online inquiries for our department, I could probably only answer about 25% without consulting others or researching extensively. That was especially challenging when traveling since I didn’t have all the resources from my office on hand. However, now I would estimate that I am able to answer about 70% of the inquiries myself. The remaining 30% get routed to a college or a colleague in the VCCS with more expertise. I definitely still have more to learn, but I know a lot more than when I started. The constant learning curve is one of the things I love about my job. I’m never bored! The other big challenge was figuring out who the experts were, both at the VCCS and at each of the 23 colleges for various issues. An inquiry about a hold on a student’s record would need to go the college who placed the hold, but who at the college should I send it to? My supervisor, Jennifer Allman, was a great help in directing me to the people I needed for various questions. In fact, without her broad knowledge I wouldn’t be able to do my job effectively. She really should get a lot of credit for being the primary source and my “wikipedia” of knowledge.
5. Some may liken your role to that of a digital traffic cop. Do you feel that’s a fair assessment? If so, why?
I suppose it is somewhat fair, in the sense that I do serve as a sort of “Gatekeeper.” Questions end up with me first and I decide if they progress further and who they progress too. However, I like to think of myself in more of an advisory role. I answer the questions I can and find resources for the ones I can’t. I give instruction when needed, but I also want to empower you to answer your own questions. Achieving your educational goals can be a complex road, given all the choices, procedures, and career requirements. My job is to make the trip go a bit more smoothly in hopes that you will arrive safely at your destination. Hmm, I suppose that does make me a traffic cop after all!
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