5 Things I wish I had known before working in a collaboration

To graduate students considering participating in a collaboration project:

This summer I had the opportunity to be one of the graduate interns in the Humanities for the Public Good with the Obermann Center. Throughout my internship I have learned different aspects about collaboration and how academic life can be in conversation with the work of local nonprofits and organizations to help support our communities. As I reflect on my experiences, I would like to offer some advice to other graduate students that wish to participate in community engagement projects. Here is a short list of the things I wish I had known as a graduate student before participating in a collaboration.

1. Collaboration is about mutual benefit. As I started working and getting to know more about local nonprofits and organizations, it is important to remember that what we are providing should benefit the local communities. Anne Loehr wrote that “collaboration is “a set process, with people working together toward a common goal that supersedes personal, individual goals.”[1] There needs to be a mutual and clear understanding of the outcomes, the end project, the contribution of each participant, and the expected benefits of working together. In my case, it was about learning and getting additional training and experience outside of academia that is often not addressed in my departmental graduate classes.

2. Communication is key. In any collaboration, one should start by listening to the needs of the other person. In my case, as a graduate student, I am by default part of the university, whether I like it or not. It was my responsibility to listen to community leaders on how I can help them and from there have a conversation about responsibilities, objectives, goals and anything else pertaining to the project. There needs to be a mutual and clear understanding about what each party is putting on the table to achieve the set goals and what are they getting out of it. It could be experience, a set wage, or the satisfaction of helping the community. Whatever the reason for this collaboration it is important that everyone is honest about their intentions and that everyone understands them. Only then can a collaboration start, and a work plan can be set on motion.

3. Keep in mind that things happen. Yes, unexpected things can happen, good or bad. I am the kind of person that likes to make a work plan and to have a schedule to follow. The first two weeks of my internship went smoothly. I was getting training in video editing and oral history, as well as other jobs relating to the project, but by the third week I noticed that there was miscommunication in the collaboration that led to postponing steps in the work plan. When things do not go as planned, there is not much we can do. For anyone that is working on a collaboration and encounters issues, keep in mind that you are not only responsible for your part of the project. Even though everyone has different responsibilities, everyone is working on a common goal. If things are not working out, it is not only your fault.

4. You may not be a priority and that is okay. As I mentioned before, transparency is important at the beginning, but also through the collaboration project. In my internship, there were times where all that I was doing was waiting, either for an upcoming meeting or to have a green light to continue with the next steps for the project. Days passed without getting a response and as much as it frustrated me, I understood that I was not a priority. A reply was nothing compared to the immediate needs of others that were struggling to have a home, that were struggling with paying bills, that had suffered the loss of a dear one, and other things. The nonprofit that I was working with served communities that had emergency needs that needed to be addressed first and took priority, and that is okay. If you are a graduate student, do not hesitate to reach out to your supervisors and internship leaders. Everyone involved in the internship and the project should be aware of the things happening. Do not try to address everything on your own, rely on the support of others around you, including your supervisors. For me, one of my biggest support has been my peers, other graduate students that check-in on me and were willing to listen. My support group was wonderful and were there when I needed them, and for them I am thankful.

5. Don’t give up. Collaborations can be frustrating, stressful, can have unexpected issues, but don’t give up. As much as you plan for something, that plan can move into a different direction and that is okay. It does not mean that your project outcomes will not be successful. When there are issues, rely on your support team and talk with all parties involved to come to a mutual understanding on how to overcome those obstacles. Appreciate the experience for what it is. If you encounter issues, you will learn how to adapt and how to propose solutions. Katina L. Rogers wrote that students’ jobs outside of academia can “provide valuable job skills, an important network, and a sense of how the skills and knowledge they are gaining through their studies might be applied in a very different setting” (94).[2] This is your opportunity to demonstrate your capabilities and to prepare you for similar circumstances in the future. My last advice is to make the best out of it and learn as much as you can.

[1]  Loehr, Anne. Collaboration: How, When, and When Not To Do It. 17 May 2018, https://www.anneloehr.com/2018/05/17/collaboration-how-when-and-when-not-to/.

[2] Rogers, Katina L. Putting the Humanities PhD to Work: Thriving in and beyond the Classroom. Duke University Press, 2020.

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