It's All About the Relationships for CUPA-HR Wildfire Participant Katryn Stewart
February 8, 2017

Thanks to CUPA-HR's Wildfire program, six early-career higher ed HR professionals have been immersed for the past seven months in all that is CUPA-HR and the profession. Over the coming weeks, we'll be profiling this year's Wildfire participants and hearing their stories firsthand. We've already heard from Kristina Gravellese and David Elliott. Here, we'll meet Katryn Stewart.

My name is Katryn Stewart, and I'm the employee relations specialist at Virginia Tech. I began my career in private industry human resources and then moved into a faculty role, teaching HR and business courses at Shepherd University in West Virginia and Carroll Community College in Maryland. When my husband accepted a position with Virginia Tech and we moved our family to Blacksburg, I decided higher ed HR was the perfect combination of my two career paths, and I joined Virginia Tech in May 2015 as equal opportunity compliance specialist, focusing on EEOC and Title IX concerns. This past August I transferred into my current position.

I figured out very quickly that there is a world of difference between private industry HR and higher ed HR (state government employees!) and that attempting to approach my new role in the same fashion as I had approached HR in the past would cause more problems than it would solve. I applied for the CUPA-HR Wildfire program because I realized that the most effective way to gain the knowledge I needed to be successful in this role was to learn from those who were already experts in the field.

My first Wildfire experience, the Association Leadership Program (which brings together the association's national, regional and chapter leaders for three days of learning, planning and connecting) and then two months later the annual conference provided me with intense and immediate higher ed focus. The relationships I've gained through my participation with Wildfire have continually broadened my knowledge in the field - as well as my knowledge of my own ignorance in the field!

For me, one of the most beneficial aspects of the Wildfire program has been the relationships I've formed within my cohort. HR can be a lonely place - everything is confidential; every relationship is suspect for political agenda; every conversation carries with it the weight of future perceptions. The Wildfire program placed me into a cohort of intelligent, like-minded individuals to whom I can go with even the silliest of questions and from whom I can receive the broadest range of well thought out answers. Each member of my cohort has a unique history, experience and perspective, and each has provided me with invaluable insight, laughter and support. I am truly grateful to CUPA-HR staff and leaders for the time they have  put into developing our Wildfire group and for providing me with the opportunities to build relationships that have had a positive influence on both my professional and personal development.

In conversations with my Wildfire cohort and with the HR professionals I've met through this program, I've come to realize that the choice to be a higher ed HR professional is not a closed decision, limiting myself to one career path; instead, the experience and knowledge I gain through my association with CUPA-HR and my role within higher ed HR has already and will continue to provide me with additional skills that will prepare me for any roles I may want to take on in the future. Through my involvement with the Wildfire program, I've been encouraged to tackle challenging new projects and have benefited immeasurably from the advice, support and encouragement provided by Wildfire program lead Mark Coldren, the CUPA-HR staff and my Wildfire cohort.

This program has given me, above all else, a level of confidence in the resources, support systems and shared knowledge within higher education HR. It has shown me an open door into conversations with HR professionals (chief HR officers in particular) who I would have hesitated to contact in the past. It has provided me with a comfort and security when it comes to acknowledging my weaknesses, because I know that within this environment my weaknesses are simply opportunities to create new strengths. I am so grateful to be a part of the Wildfire program and CUPA-HR, and I am looking forward to the opportunity to serve as a mentor to next year's Wildfire cohort.