Why I Work in Higher Ed: Sabrina Small, Human Resources

 Marketing Director   April 11, 2024  Career Advice

Why I Work in Higher Ed: Sabrina Small, HR Director

The “Why I Work in Higher Ed” series features people working in higher education to get an inside perspective of what they do and what inspires them.

Sabrina Small is the Director of Human Resources at the School of Social Work at Columbia University in the City of New York. Born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, Sabrina graduated from SUNY at Stony Brook with a Bachelor of Arts in Sociology and earned a Master of Arts in Organization and Leadership from Teachers College at Columbia University. Sabrina currently lives in Queens, NY and enjoys spending time with family and friends, attending live music events, and trying new foods.

Can you give an overview of your career path that has led you to where you are today?

Shortly after completing my undergraduate degree, I started in passenger service for an airline at JFK Airport. Moving forward in the ranks over a 2-year period, I became the training coordinator for that station, equivalent to the headquarters for that airline. My role entailed organizing and facilitating open houses, setting up and conducting interviews and training sessions, onboarding, and processing hiring forms. So that was my introduction to Human Resources.

Working in the airline industry was exciting but unpredictable and, as I began to plan for my future, I sought opportunities that could provide more stability.

A close friend reached out to me about an opportunity at Columbia and it happened to be as an HR coordinator at SIPA, the School of International Public Affairs. This was my introduction to academia and I have enjoyed being a part of the community for over 20 years.

What initially sparked your interest in pursuing a career in higher education?

Previously, I had not thought about HR work in a higher education setting, but when I began working at SIPA, I realized that I enjoyed it. Since I was relatively new to the workforce, I didn’t have a lot of information or comparisons to make. I was just excited about the prospect of working in an academic setting because of the positive experiences that I had in my time as an undergraduate, and working at Columbia was a chance to prolong that experience. SUNY Stony Brook was an amazing 4 years! I met my husband there and many of the friendships that I formed during that time remain today and are now considered extensions of my family. I enjoy the energy of the academic environment and the opportunities to have an impact and make significant positive contributions, not just to the university, but to society at-large.

How would you describe the main responsibilities and challenges you face in your current role?

What I have observed over time about the role of human resources offices within an organization is that, traditionally, the work was heavily transactional, process-focused, and task-driven. The current function of HR roles has significantly evolved, and we’ve been called to serve a much broader purpose that considers the organization holistically, particularly since the COVID-19 pandemic. We’ve been required to do and balance more with respect to individual employee needs as policies and guidance change at levels that are not within our control. Keeping the HR toolbox current and ready, for application to a wide variety of situations to achieve the best outcomes, is the biggest challenge that I’ve recently experienced in this profession.

What I’ve learned over time is that there are varying definitions of human resources across industries. The purpose that HR serves at an organization is tied to the mission of that organization and the vision for leadership’s plan.

What are the most satisfying and fulfilling aspects of your job?

I remain motivated by any positive impact that I’m able to make, whether it be as simple as implementing a basic system or process that helps to streamline and increase productivity, or if it’s career guidance that I offer to someone that allows me to see their career progression. I am particularly grateful when I can offer this kind of help, because I understand and have appreciated the benefits of being on the receiving end of that guidance.

At this stage in my career, I seek opportunities that align why I’m working with what I’m doing. The societal contributions that the Columbia School of Social Work (CSSW) continues to make, will benefit generations to come.  This motivates me to keep pushing, even when the work can sometimes be challenging.

Is there any advice you received early in your career that has stuck with you and influenced your approach to work?

I think that what helps me the most is reminding myself to pace myself. There’s much to do and many needs to be met, but it’s not possible to meet them all at the same time. Frequent readjustment, recalibration, and reorganization of your work are necessary to avoid burnout.

HR offices are often small units that serve a large number of constituents within an organization. Currently, I am on a team of 4 that manages the HR needs of a school of approximately 500+ employees at any time. The work of an HR practitioner requires that we lead with compassion and understanding as we engage and interact with people in our respective employee populations.

Is there anything else you’d like to share about your career journey that we haven’t covered yet?

At every level you achieve in a career, there’s always something new to learn and these are growth opportunities. Remain open, particularly in higher ed settings, as there’s a lot of flexibility to be leveraged. I’ve seen people discover new skill sets and create a need around them, which can cause a new position or unit to emerge.

Lastly, one piece of advice I received that has stayed with me, is to trust myself and not be afraid to be me. Building trust as an HR Practitioner is of critical importance to one’s success in that role. Generally, I’ve found that people appreciate authenticity as it may help to make you feel more accessible and relatable to them, which allows for lines of communication to open and for meaningful connections to be formed.

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About the Author: Marcia Silva is the director of marketing and communications at the Higher Education Recruitment Consortium. She strives to create engaging, research-informed content that empowers job seekers and employers committed to creating inclusive workplaces. She is passionate about using digital media and technology to encourage participation and strengthen communities.