By Nneka Walson

Coordinator for RSO Support, University of Tennessee – Knoxville

Student Organizations & Activities Chair, Commission for Student Involvement


Supervision in Higher Education does not follow a one size fits all model. Supervision deserves an intentional approach as it shows up in different shapes and sizes.  Graduate Assistants in particular are student employees who need a different set of professional tender love and care than their counterparts. However, one thing supervision generally requires is selflessness. Keep these four elements in mind as you practice selflessness while supervising Graduate Assistants.


  1. Wellness

At the core, we are first humans who need to prioritize our wellness to best show up in the workspace. Obtaining and maintaining wellness alone is its own challenge; try pairing that with a career, spouse, family, or other passion areas! It presents multiple boundaries to balance. According to Indeed Career Guide, companies that encourage wellness in the workplace lead to these employee benefits: Increased productivity, improved employee attendance, enhanced engagement, better staff morale and teamwork. Consider all the dimensions of wellbeing and how you can be intentional about wellness checks, starting wellness initiatives, or how you can be a champion for holistic wellness. When thinking about the wellness of Graduate Assistants, supervisors must also keep in mind that not only are they people first, but are also students first before they are employees of the office. They are not robots who take classes! They’re humans with life stories and experiences that shape how they think, act, and feel.

  1. Relationship Build

Work and relationships have always been an interesting partnership. As a supervisor, you must navigate how you build both personal and professional rapport with your team. Where do you start? How much of yourself do you share, how formal/informal should you be, how do you show that you care? Authenticity is the best approach to forming a bond with your Grad Assistant. Find ways in your authenticity to relate to who they are and set clear expectations for how you plan to work together. A selfless approach is one that prioritizes understanding the supervisee first.

Relationship building helps with understanding the “why” behind a person’s thoughts and behaviors, also aiding with trust and dependability. This is why you may find advisors of student groups planning leadership retreats to bond as a unit. The supervisor/supervisee relationship warrants a certain chemistry that organically develops through intentional meetings and conversations.

Through this, you’re better able to understand your supervisee’s passions and not only better advocate for them, but gain insight to their likes/dislikes and how it impacts their performance. You may even decide to tailor their Graduate Assistantship to the professional outcomes they have! Relationship building to create a work environment that benefits them!

  1. Mentorship, Development, & Guidance

One thing to note about Graduate Assistants is the level of professional guidance they may need. Often times, graduate students in Higher Education programs may enroll directly after their undergraduate program ends. This means that they may not have had many past professional experiences that shaped their professional identity. Supervising a grad requires that you guide them through different “first” professional experiences. You may also be tasked with creating a professional development plan for their success. How much do you value your staff member outside of the work they do for your office? How, as a supervisor, do you intend to invest in their development outside of their departmental work? Graduate Assistants may not know what they need jumping straight into work experiences.

  1. Educational Theory to Practice

As a supervisor of a Graduate Assistant, you are also responsible for helping graduates connect the dots of what their learning in class to their practice. More times than not, Graduate Assistants are the “scholars” of their department. They are they most current staff person obtaining relevant Higher Education knowledge. As a supervisor, you can use this as an opportunity to empower your GA to provide research-based insight on industry topics and trends! Help them take ownership of what they’re learning and replicate it in practice. Perhaps there’s a student developmental theory they favor. You could have more 1:1 conversations about infusing that theory in their day-to-day tasks with students.

As you develop or re-vamp your supervisor philosophy, keep these four things in mind! Also understand that you might find yourself re-writing and tweaking your Graduate Assistant role as different graduate students cycle out. Supervision starts with the removal of self and focus on the other. To fully consider the necessities of the person your oversee. There is a way to balance professional care for employees while amplifying and accomplishing the mission of the department. That is your challenge to discover!

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