We’ve all seen them in our local convenience stores – the “Give a Penny, Take a Penny” trays. The idea is simple, if your purchase requires an extra penny or two, and you find yourself short, you can take a penny from the tray. In return, if you buy something and end up with a penny or two in your change, you can drop them in the tray for someone else. No one keeps track to make sure you give as many as you take. There might be a string of visits where you find yourself needing a penny over and over. You might always drop a penny without never actually needing to take one yourself, but you do it because you have it to give.
In student affairs, mentorship plays an important role in our work. It’s often characterized in the relationships we build over time. One professional takes another one under their wing. Sometimes it can be heavily one-sided or last for a defined period of time. Other times it can be a lasting relationship, offering reciprocity where both individuals learn from each other at different moments. But mentorship can also happen in brief “give a penny, take a penny” moments. It can happen when someone sits with you for coffee at a conference. It can happen when someone takes the time to hear you spit ball a new idea. It can happen when someone coaches you for an upcoming interview in a functional area or school type you might be unfamiliar with. You might be in a time of your life where you need to keep taking a few more pennies than you can give. No one is keeping track, though. Just remember to give a little back when someone else can utilize what you have to give.
Time and experience are both precious commodities. When we choose to invest either, the returns are immeasurable. I know I have benefited tremendously from those willing to share both with me at various moments in my career. I try to do the same whenever I’m in a position to offer guidance or advice. Mentorship doesn’t need to be ongoing to still have an impact. Sometimes all you need is to make yourself available.
There’s pennies in the tray. Take one if you need one. That’s what they’re there for. Just don’t forget that when it’s you who has the pennies, to leave a few behind.
As I head home from one of the most innovative conferences I’ve attended, I’m taking some airport time do some reflection of not just this past ACPA, but of my conference experiences as a whole. I’ve attended some sort of conference every year since my first year of graduate school in 2000 and this year I was fortunate enough to have had the opportunity to attend both ACPA and NASPA. While I could probably write an entire post on how different the two experiences were (and maybe I’ll save that for another time), I’m thinking now about the one strong component they have in common for me.
Each of the conferences had sessions and conversations that provided me with resources, connections, and ideas for implementing new approaches for my work. It’s safe to say that my mind has been sufficiently nourished! I have notes I will review and contacts I will reach out to in the next week to continue conversations and ask for additional resources. But at the moment, as I scroll through my pictures, look at the Instagram and Facebook posts, I’m reminded of how conferences also nourish my soul.
I know there are some who criticize the conference experiences, and there is definitely validity in that criticism. There are some who believe conferences are merely institutional sponsored socialization. While I can attest to the fact that what I have learned over the years either directly or indirectly through my professional engagement, I also believe that the social aspect of conferences DO play an important part in our work.
The work we do occupies a significant chunk of time in our overall lives, and it’s invaluable to me to have a network of individuals who nourish my soul by being advocates, challengers, sounding boards, cheerleaders, or just….there. These are the people who know my vernacular and understand the acronyms. They get the frustrations that may seem trivial to the outsider and understand the significance of the triumphs that overcome them. These are the people who feed my ideation and provide me the space to dream.
I promise you, a lot of work happened in between the pictures and laughter. But I won’t shy away from the fact that there was celebrating as well. If we are to call conferences, meetings, trainings, etc “professional development” then why shouldn’t they be holistic? My students, my co-workers, and my institution benefit from having me returned energetic, hopeful, and renewed. I’m grateful for the people who help make that happen. Thank you, my friends, for making me a better professional and for feeding both my mind and soul.
This past week’s #SAChat topic was on social media conduct as a student affairs professional. Unfortunately for me I wasn’t able to join in until the conversation was winding down. Even thought social media is no longer “new”, it still can be a vexing issue for student affairs professionals, especially because it can embody how each of us approaches our overall work/life integration. On social media, the boundary lines can be more difficult to navigate, particularly if you are less about integration and more about separation.
While, as I already mentioned, social media is no longer new, it IS an area that is still very new in our professional discussions. The literature guiding our profession traces back almost 100 years. We’ve developed theory and ethics of practice to guide our work. While they can most certainly be applied to how we use social media in the work we do, I think it’s safe to say that none of our theorists had even a notion of the concept of social media at the time. This means that we’re left to develop our approaches largely on our own, which also means there’s room for new experts and “best practices” on the topic, some of which was heard during the conversation, and can be heard regularly at our national conferences.
At some point, as often happens in these conversations, the idea of authenticity was connected to how we use and appear on social media. I struggle with this connection, not because of the idea of being authentic, but because inevitably there are some who decide to define what authenticity means for others. I mentioned that the conversation about authenticity could be a case study for Perry’s Stages of Intellectual Development. It’s surprising for me to see how many folks approach the conversation from a place of dualism. In fact, some can sound downright self-righteous as the proclaim “Well, I have one account for everything because I have nothing to hide” which of course insinuates that someone who has two accounts is obviously hiding or embarrassed or living some dual existence.
I was one of those “two-accounters” on Facebook. In fact, if Facebook did not offer the list function as it does now, I probably would still have two accounts. I have always been more of an early adopter when it came to social media. I had both Friendster and MySpace accounts the moment I discovered them and once Facebook opened up to anyone with an .edu account, I signed up for one too. Of course, since you had to have a college e-mail address, most of my initial connections were the students at my own institution. It was an easy coexistence until I faced the day where I became aware of a policy violation via Facebook. Because it was all still new, there was no precedent for addressing the situation. I was still a newer professional, still learning how to react to a lot of situations, and this was no different. Once I moved on to my current institution, I decided to start fresh and open a brand new account just for connecting with students and co-workers. I would get grief from some colleagues, but this was how I decided to navigate my spaces in the social media world.
Once the Facebook list function came live, I then decided to discard my second account (which is, yes, a violation of Facebook TOS). I still pick and choose very carefully which posts are seen by whom. Most are able to seen by most of my friends, but there are other posts that I limit from students and coworkers. Why? Well, for one, as any friend will attest to, I use humor quite frequently in managing the world around me. My humor has many levels, and at times it can skew a little sarcastic and snarky. Until someone finally invents the sarcasm font for social media posts, it’s easier for me to keep those comments from those who might not understand my sarcasm as well out of context. I am also quite opinionated about political issues. While I generally share posts that are related to issues of social justice openly, other posts that are obviously partisan in nature I try to limit to certain audiences. I want all of the students I work with to feel that I’m open to them and to their opinions. I’d have no problem being honest with them in person, but in a situation where we can have an active dialogue. Commenting on posts can get out of hand and uncontrollable, and I’d rather keep that to the people I’m just as likely to have yell at me from across a dinner table.
Those are just a few examples, but I’m sure there’s probably more. So does the fact that I only let certain people see certain posts make me less “authentic” – less real? I believe that there can be contextual relevance that applies to authenticity. As I mentioned during the end of #SAChat, if I invite coworkers over to my house, I’m not going to be walking around in my bathrobe and slippers. Does that mean I’m not truly being authentic to them because I won’t let them see how I am in my own house 90% of the time? It’s not a either/or situation. Authenticity, like so many other aspects of our lives, has multiple dimensions. Most importantly, no one can define what authenticity is for me, but me.
A friend of mine posted this quote on his Facebook page (and even made it his profile picture). I told him then I was planning on writing a blog post about this concept. Fast forward to today and a conversation I had via twitter with Mallory Bower and Courtney O’Connell about how we don’t share our failures as easily as our triumphs…and that was enough to push this post out of the queue.
I have a saying that I’m quite fond of – “If you’re not making mistakes, you’re not trying hard enough”. Playing it safe is easy…it’s comfortable. The environments we work in do not make it any easier. Success is measured through “A’s” – the word failure is equated with the big red F at the top of a paper. When we’re asked to compile our annual reports, it’s often framed as a list of our accomplishments. At the end of the day, it’s about what we achieved.
One time I heard an administrator say at a meeting “the way to make sure you don’t get thrown under the bus is to make sure you’re riding on it”. It wasn’t the most inspiring of messages, but it did set a tone. How often is that tone affirmed at our institutions? The people who get recognized and rewarded are those with longevity and who made the fewest waves. We celebrate those who hit the mark…but do we ever celebrate those who tried and didn’t?
Celebrating failure may seem counterintuitive. For those of us who preceded the much maligned “millennial generation” we often bristle at the thought of everyone getting a medal. But recognizing attempts, even those that failed, is different. When I started running, I heard the saying “you’re still lapping those who are sitting on the couch” over again. Being the fastest or the first wasn’t as important as just getting up and doing it, even if you spent most of your journey walking.
We can start by setting the tone in the offices we supervise. Don’t just publicly recognize the people who “won” – remember to also honor the work of those who tried something different; who tried to forge a new path or think differently, even if the result didn’t match the desired outcome. We also need to lead by example and be honest about our own mistakes. At our recent club fair, I handed out a simple one-question survey to those who attended. It asked attendees how they became aware of the event. I included all the different ways I publicized the program: flyers, digital signage, calendars distributed during welcome week, e-mail blasts, and Facebook posts. The almost universal response was that students heard about the event simply because they saw it while walking past. All of work I had done to publicize had failed to make a mark. I decided to share this data with my colleagues at a division meeting. While it made clear that my promotion did not work, there was a valuable lesson for my colleagues about how best to reach our intended audience.
We value our role as “educators” when working with our students. Yet when we, at best, ignore failures and, at worst, punish them, we lose an opportunity to educate our staff members. We also create a culture that discourages innovation because, if people fear being wrong, then they will fear trying something that might not earn them recognition. Many of history’s innovations came as a result of countless trial and error. We need to make sure our offices and institutions are laboratories and not factories. We need to balance the endless litany of “best practices” with “earnest attempts” because the lessons can be just as, if not more valuable. Imagine seeing the title of just one session at a conference have (after the colon of course) “a failed attempt at…”
I close with a quote from Mauro Porcini, The Chief Design Officer at PepsiCo, from this month’s issue of Fast Company:
It’s important to have a culture that doesn’t punish you if you make, eventually, a mistake. It’s part of the innovation process. I always joke, saying “What scientists call experiments, marketers call failures or mistakes
A little over 2 weeks ago, my daughter went through what is a rite of passage for many children – the removal of tonsils. The procedure is routine, taking a little less than an hour and the patient is home that day. But, this being our first our “baby” although at 4 1/2 not so much a baby anymore) just the concept of surgery was harrowing for my wife and I. Leading up to the procedure, we did as much preparation as possible – met with the doctors, read every entry we could find on Google, WebMD, Wikipedia, etc, and asked friends who’s children had been through the experience for tips. We bought and read this wonderful book, Good-Bye Tonsils, to our daughter and tried to prepare her as well. The day of the surgery, we were as ready as we were ever going to be.
Prior to the surgery, my wife called “dibs” on being the one who would accompany our daughter into the operating room. However, since she’s expecting, she reluctantly passed the baton to me. One of the nurses remarked that it was “better when the dad goes, because the moms tend to get more emotional”. This nurse obviously had never sat next to me during a Hallmark commercial or ESPN Make a Wish special. As the morning went forward, all of the medical professionals were outstanding in providing us with as much information as possible and walking us through everything that would happen. Each person who would play a role in the surgery sat with us separately to say what they were doing, to talk to us in plain language, and didn’t leave until we were sure we had no questions. The moment finally came where my daughter was wheeled off into the operating room. I held her hand while she drifted off to her anesthesia-induced sleep and then gave her a kiss and told her I loved her, at which point the Dr. promptly (but gently) escorted me out so they could get to work.
No sooner had he left my side and I continued my walk down the hall did I turn into a blubbering mess. I, with the greatest of parental irrationality, felt like I was abandoning my precious child. I wanted to turn around and go back. I, with my extensive knowledge gleaned from the internet, wanted to carefully watch every move made by the doctor, a well-respected ENT with 20 years and countless surgeries under his belt. Don’t get me wrong, our doctor was wonderful and we trusted him implicitly, but this is OUR daughter and the only way we could completely be sure that she was ok was to see so with our own eyes. And it was that moment (at least in later reflection) that I realized the empathy I now felt for the parents who leave their children in our care for the first time.
As I replay the day in my head, I realize how eerily similar the image of me walking down that hospital hallway was to that of my mother, walking away from my residence hall room while I watched her shoulders heave up and down. And that’s an image replaying itself over and over again over these last few weeks of August on our residential campuses across the country – parents leaving their precious ones, many for the first time, hoping that those with whom they have entrusted their care will treat them well and keep them safe.
While we have gotten much better about how we include parents in the orientation process since even I was a college student, there’s still an air of, at the worst resentment and at best of inconvenience, directed toward the parents of our traditional-aged students. The term “helicopter parent” is often used disparagingly, with the belief that the parents of our students need to back off and “cut the cord”. Yes, there definitely are parents who at times are a bit too overinvolved, making all of the decisions and fighting all of the battles. But many of our parents are hovering, not from an inability to let go, but rather from a need to make sure their children are ok.
The needs of the parents of our first generation students are even more intensified. For them, the entire college experience is uncharted territory. What I appreciated most from our daughter’s medical team was how no one made assumptions or judgments. They didn’t use any medical jargon but they also weren’t condescending when trying to make the information as simple as possible. No question was dismissed or deemed unimportant. While nothing would alleviate our anxiety completely, and every moment of the longest hour of our young parenthood experience was still filled with nervousness, we also felt empowered and confident that our daughter was in good and capable hands.
So, as we prepare to spend another school year holding onto our hats as the helicopter propellers are felt overhead, let us all try to remember that many of these parents are trying to balance keeping a safe distance with the role they have played for 18-19 years – a role that has seen them hold hands during frightening moments, hug tight after bad dreams, and dry tears of frustration, pain, and disappointment. It’s a role that will constantly evolve, but for those who cherish it, at the core, it will always be the same. The questioning that might come of us doesn’t necessarily come from a lack of faith in our abilities, but from a need to make sure their children are in capable hands. While the college experience is, for many, a right of passage of adulthood, these burgeoning adults will always be someone’s child.
The question is, of course, a rhetorical one…or at least I hope it is. Student affairs is, after all, a profession that values the ideals of diversity, balance, and inclusion. I am often surprised to discover just how many student affairs professionals identify as introverts, probably because even I assume that this is a field dominated by extroverts. And why do I, and many others, make that assumption? I know many introverts who have both thrived and succeeded in student affairs. Yet, I wonder if you conducted a survey and had people identify the “characteristics” of a student affairs professional, how many of those would align more with what we perceive to be extroverted characteristics? How many people believe that student affairs professionals are omnipresent, eternally peppy, and always ready with an icebreaker at a moment’s notice?
Yesterday, I posed this question to on twitter
Curious – how many introverts have recorded feedback from colleague/supervisor that their introversion was perceived negatively #SAchat
Many of the responses I received, both on twitter and privately, that many folks had received some type of negative feedback. The response that resonated the most with me was this one from Jeff Pelletier
@clconzen totes. I get being present feedback all the time. Because my internal processing is perceived as being checked out.
This is also feedback I hear frequently. I sometimes have to go the extra length to prove that I am, in fact, engaged and “present”. I most recently received this comment from someone who was in fact also an introvert. What made this especially surprising for me was that this person is often criticized by other (unfairly) for not being “present”. I decided to push back a little and ask the person to define what they meant by “present” and, as I expected, the person was at a loss to give a solid and measurable definition.
I think introverts are at the biggest disadvantage when compared with extroverted colleagues or predecessors. The gregariousness that often comes more naturally to the extrovert can make the introvert look almost anti-social. 16 hours into an Orientation Day, the extrovert seems almost to gain more steam while the introvert may often be running on fumes. While the extrovert may be jumping right into the middle of a crowd of students, the introvert may be on the perimeter, observing the activity and connecting with the outliers.
Now, as I addressed in a previous post, introversion cannot be used as an excuse for being overlooked or misunderstood. For me, I realize that I have chosen student affairs as my profession and if I do believe it is an “extroverted” profession, I have to do what I can to succeed in that environment. I can’t expect that all of my colleagues have read articles on how vital a role introverts play and how introverts are misunderstood. But I can work to help create a better understanding and appreciation for my introversion by doing what I can to dispel the myths while also demonstrating that I’m just as good (if not better) at my job as they are.
So what do you think? Is Student Affairs a natural fit for introverts? Is it not as compatible, but with a little work, we can fit in as well? Or is it forcing a square peg into a round hole?
My friend, Becca Obergefell, recently wrote a post related to “work/life” balance that was spot on. Fortunately, for me, I’m fairly good about taking my time, leaving enough in the bank should catastrophe hit, but not leaving any on the table that I would lose (disconnecting from work when I’m out of the office, however, is a different story – one for a future blog post). While some of us need to be pushed to be more mindful of achieving balance (or integration) I think there are others, especially some newer professionals, who feel like they want to, but can’t. While some of that may be self-imposed, there are colleagues out there who are stuck – working for supervisors who aren’t always the best stewards when it comes to helping their staff achieve the balance they might desire.
A few years ago, I interviewed for a position and was participating in the on-campus portion. I was sitting with the potential supervisor, and was asked if I had any questions for her. Prior to that, she set a pretty obvious tone with expectations of being “present” on campus, which was fine, but I wanted to explore that a bit more. So, I asked her how she created balance for herself and set an example for her staff. It was definitely a curve ball, a question she didn’t expect at all, and she stumbled quite a bit as she tried to frame her answers in a way that didn’t make it seem like most of her life was spent at or with work. While I don’t begrudge the decisions she makes for herself, I knew at that moment that this was not the environment I would want to work in as it became apparent that my own formula for work/life integration would likely be a square peg in this round hole.
So, this post is directed at my colleagues who are supervisors. We are in a profession that espouses believes in being “holistic” and having an “ethic of care”. We talk a good game when it comes to the students with whom we work, but does the same hold true for our employees? We train and develop our staff members when it comes to skill sets and aptitudes, why should it be any different for balance and well-being? Here are a few challenges I’m making to my fellow administrators.
Actively Manage Vacation Schedules: Now you’re saying “of course I manage vacation schedules”. I’m not talking about managing to make sure there aren’t holes in coverage. What I AM talking about is making sure your employees are TAKING their vacations. When you receive vacation requests, are you checking to see if they have a few random days sprinkled throughout the semester instead of just checking it against what events or programs they absolutely can’t be gone for?
Stop the Lunchtime Meetings: Working lunches are stealing. Yes, that’s what I said, stealing. If you’re staff members have a lunch period as a part of the work day, scheduling a meeting in the middle of the day and telling staff “bring your lunch” makes us no different than the playground bully grabbing lunch money. Many of our staff members, especially if they are new, may not feel comfortable saying no. And, actually, if you work in the state of NY like I do, requiring a staff member to work through a lunch is a violation of labor law.
Avoid Monday Morning and Friday Afternoon Meetings: I can’t repeat the words uttered under my breath after working all week, followed by a Saturday event, then to discover I have to be work by 9 on Monday for a meeting. Really? I can’t even come it at 10 after I spent my entire Saturday night watching people Dougie? And the Friday afternoon meeting…well now you’re asking for people to ignore “Boss’ Day”. Yes, situation may require the occasional meeting at those times, but if your staff members are expected to work a schedule outside the 9-5 bounds, protect their sanity by at least giving them some breathing room.
Stop Letting Others Watch Your Clock: I can remember numerous times when, walking in at 10 AM after having attended a 3 hour SGA meeting the night before that was 1 hour meeting and a 2 hour interpretation of Robert’s Rules, and running into a colleague from another office who said “Oh nice to finally see you”. While I have enough witty comebacks in my arsenal, it can be disheartening for a staff member to feel that others think they don’t work as hard or just mosey on in whenever the mood strikes, because the case is quite opposite. It’s important that we advocate outside our areas to let it be known that our staff members are often burning “the midnight oil”. It is especially critical when the mere snickers turn into actual pressure to have your staff “conform” to a more traditional morning schedule. If we routinely want our staff to be present at 9 PM meetings and yet be bright and chipper and in the door just 12 hours later, then our staff members will be burning out just as quickly as that midnight oil.
Be the Guardian of Equity: If supervising multiple professionals, you might find yourself in a situation where one is much more willing, and seemingly eager, to volunteer for the above and beyond assignments. It is probably a very genuine interest, and it saves us the time and hassle of having to “assign” something…but that doesn’t always make it fair. I see this happen especially when some staff have partners and/or children and others do not. The soccer practices and ballet recitals start to take precedence over the “well I didn’t have anything going on anyway, so I’ll take that event, no worries”. If people are in equal positions, then they must also equally share the load. It might not be the most harmonious way, but being a supervisor means having to deal with the flat notes as well.
Stop Micromanaging by Proxy: I realize that some managers are a bit more hands on than I am. I sometimes joke that I’m more of a “macro-manager”. Where it gets a little out of hand is when our micromanaging spreads through our staff members as well and we expect them to be intimately aware of every nook and cranny of our students’ extracurricular lives. Yes, major events and special programs require staff presence (and sometimes they’re actually quite fun to be a part of). But, honestly, do we really need them to be present for every meeting? Any time two or more students gather on the quad, do we really need someone from our office to be there in case there might be a “learning moment”? Academic advisors don’t sit in on every class with the students they advise, why must our staff members sit through every weekly meeting? We’re trying to teach our students to be autonomous, yet we never let them be untethered. Sure, there might be a moment where Robert’s Rules anarchy breaks out…but there’s a book for that.
No, “Because That’s What you Did When You Were a New Professional” is Not a Good Enough Reason: If a student uttered that same phrase, we’d have an entire monologue ready on how we need to “break cycles”, yet we somehow think it’s ok to approach our supervision of staff in that way. Sure, we may have to pay our dues, but that doesn’t guarantee that it was always the best way to learn or to do our jobs. Yes, we might have accepted that having “a life” just wasn’t possible in our first few years in the profession, but that doesn’t mean we can’t work to be more intentional about helping the next phase of new professionals have better balance than we did. We have a responsibility to them; yes they are adults capable of advocating for themselves, but there’s power in our expectations and reactions. The first time we make a staff member feel guilty about requesting a day off for no reason or when we don’t notice that they worked every night of Homecoming week and forget to say “hey make sure you take some comp time next week” will set the tone for the rest of their employment. Don’t let our students be the only ones we act “developmentally” towards – our staff members deserve the same consideration.
If you have read my blog or have ever had a sustained conversation with me, you know that I tend to process the world through analogies and metaphors. I have often thought that the student affairs job search process resembles dating in many ways, this being Valentine’s Day and all, I thought it was the perfect time to put thought thoughts to paper blog. There is the “long pursuit” (checking one college’s HR website almost daily for updates), the “finding love when you were least looking for it” (you aren’t looking for a job but suddenly the perfect opportunity just lands in your lap) the “after various failed attempts, you’re finally both in the right frame of mind to date” (the school you applied to but didn’t get, who then calls you 6 months later to see if you’re still interested, only to discover you just took a new job, now has an opening) and the “Ryan Gosling like infatuation” (gosh, how much would I love to work for Dean Elmore).
Doing a fresh job search can kind of be like entering the dating world after a while of being single. You glance flirtingly across the room (check out the job listing), you might buy them a drink (send in the application) and if there’s interest, you start to get to know each other a little more (the phone interview). You might also get set up by friends (i found this job I think you’d be perfect for). At that point, one of you might not find interest in the other. It could be mutual, or one side might not find interest and the other might move on, or dwell on it and wonder “but it went so well, how could they not be interested” at which point you ask friends to find out more information (call a colleague at the institution) or you might be a little more direct (the email to the search chair asking why you weren’t selected).
If you hit it off, things might progress to the next level (on campus interview, etc). Eventually, you make the decision whether or not to commit. You might not necessarily see it as long term, but both sides are on the same page and decide to see how things progress. At some point, if you don’t see the relationship progressing anymore, you amicably decide to go your separate ways. Sometimes, you decide you’re in it for the long haul and you’re ready to pick out your china (guess I should buy a house). The honeymoon period where everything is new and exciting eventually wears off. But if the relationship is right, you grow together, take the good with the bad, and find ways to renew and make things exciting. Sometimes, however, after the honeymoon period, you realize the other side wasn’t who you thought they were, or you now realize things about yourself that make you incompatible. You realize it’s time to break up, and the other side may not agree. That’s what happened with my first job in Student Affairs.
The year was Aught One and I was a second year graduate student at The University of Maryland. That year, I participated in placement (which, in many ways is a lot like our version of speed dating). I had no less than 20 interviews. This isn’t bragging, but rather an outcome of the convergence of a number of variables. First, it was a year where there were more jobs than candidates (especially in residence life). Second, I was willing to go anywhere and do almost anything. I was fortunate to have had a number of experiences during graduate school which I was able to translate, at least on paper, to being qualified for jobs in a variety of functional areas. Following placement, natural selection took its course, and I had a handful of phone interviews, which were then followed by four on campus interviews.
Out of my four on-campus interviews, two translated into immediate offers. I fell head over heels for a position on the west coast. I had never lived outside of the EST and I immediately clicked with the person who would have been my supervisor. Then I received the starting salary, and my hopes were dashed. You see, since I left home, I had never lived off of a campus either. I had no experience paying rent or utilities. I panicked and doubted my own abilities to figure out how to live independently. I reluctantly turned that job down.
Now, job number two was appealing. The CSAO was (and is) a dynamic individual who had a great vision for doing some transformative work on campus. When he interviewed me (over coffee, off campus) he probably could have convinced me to work on an oil rig in the Article Ocean. The bonus – it was a live-in position. While I had some doubts about whether this really was “the one” I was also worried that, if I turned this one down, nothing else would come my way and I’d end up back in NJ living with my mom (not a bad deal, but not part of my career plan). So, I took it.
It probably didn’t help that no sooner had I signed and mailed back my contract, the phone started to ring. Schools that had originally passed on me were now working off the “B” list (people who’ve planned a wedding will understand that one). All of a suddenly I was getting on campus interview offers in Texas, Tennessee, Florida, Washington, and even Alaska. But, I was (and still am) ethical and as appealing as a free trip to Anchorage was, I had to turn them all down. But now I was already starting my first REAL job with a pang of regret, wondering what might have been.
The first few weeks were great, I was one of four new staff members (the fifth, our direct supervisor, would join us a bit later). We were having a blast planning for a new year, exploring our immediate surroundings (which took about 15 minutes) and dreaming about the Utopian campus experience we were going to create. And then the students moved in.
We quickly came to the realization that the vision that our chief had was not necessarily shared by the rest of the campus. There was a culture that was fiercely defended by faculty and staff, many who had been there the majority of their lives. It was also a culture that the students, their parents, and a very strong and active alumni base (which often overlapped) also fought hard to maintain. Soon we went from creating and innovating to barely treading water. Over 90% of the students lived on campus and the rest lived within 10 miles. Duty, which was technically rotated between the four of us, became a team effort out of necessity. By the beginning of November, we’re were all seriously discussing leaving.
Now, I will own my own mistakes in this process. First, I misjudged quite a bit, having always lived right outside or in a major metropolitan area, I didn’t realize how living a removed rural town would isolate me. Also, I have always been one who needed clear boundaries, and not only living on a campus where students came to expect almost constant access, but were reinforced in that by the culture, chipped away at my sanity. Add to that the fact that the college was in a two restaurant town (one of which was a McDonalds) made it nearly impossible to quickly venture off campus and not run into a gaggle of students. Finally, there was the fact that it was a more conservative Catholic institution, which was actually a plus going in for me. At that time in my life, I was a practicing Catholic who had spent all but the last two years of schooling in a Catholic school. However, I severely misjudged the difference between attending a Catholic institution and working for one. What I could get away with challenging (either overtly or covertly) as a student just was nearly impossible here, especially with a seminary next door.
I was actually determined to stay through the entire academic year, but serendipity intervened and I ended up sitting next to someone at a regional conference who had interviewed me at placement a few months back. He had now moved on to another institution, one that just do happened to be 20 minutes from where I grew up and where many of my friends and even my sister attended. In what seemed like a blur, I interviewed, was offered a position, and accepted in the span of a week and a half. Simultaneously, my three colleagues also had made the decision to leave at the end of the semester. I wasn’t entirely thrilled with leaving. I felt like, one, I was being a quitter and, two, I knew having spent just one semester would stick out on my resume (and, in fact, I’ve never had an interview since where someone hasn’t asked about it). But I also felt this wasn’t the position I had signed on for, and was honest about that with the CSAO when I had my exit interview.
Since that point I have been fortunate to have a job that I only left because of an opportunity to move into my current position. I’m now finishing up my 7th year at Suffolk. I’ve gotten married, had a child, and bought a house. It hasn’t always been perfect on either side. I’ve had my frustrations and cause my bosses some consternation, but some of it had come from the fact that I am here for the long haul. I learned many lessons about myself in those 8 months spent at my first job and I am a better professional and person for having worked there.
Oh, and in case you were wondering, when I left to work in NJ I did, in fact, move back in with my mom.
A new calendar year is upon us (not to be confused with the academic year, which is just one way we confused the people we try to explain our jobs to). Grad students coming to the end of their programs will begin the job search in earnest, while others ready to take the next step will start monitoring the Chronicle or HigherEdjobs more feverishly. Still others, with New Year’s resolutions (or OneWords) fresh in their heads, might start considering a career change or shift. For some, the soul searching might result in a renewed interest in the profession or a desire to shift into a different functional area, while for others, there might be the “how did I get here and how do I get out of here” moments.
Almost half of the members of my graduate school cohort are not in student affairs. In fact, a few of them did not even pursue jobs in higher education upon graduation. A few years out of graduate school, I started thinking about a career shift, entering a program in school counseling at the institution where I worked. Ultimately, I realized I wasn’t looking for a career change, but actually an escape from what seemed to me at the time as endless nights and weekends of work. Fortunately, with the help of a supportive supervisor and co-workers, I found better ways to balance my own time (which I actually used to work a 2nd job as a youth minister at a church, but that’s another post for another time) and I once again found the career satisfaction I had been lacking.
Student affairs will be where I forge the rest of my career path. However, I’ve recently had conversations with folks who don’t see their futures in the same field. I’ve started reflecting on how we all end up on the “SAPath” in the first place. I’d venture to guess almost none of us came to college thinking “Hey, I’m going to be the Director of Campus Activities one day”. This is a career many of us find as we’re in the process of finding ourselves. How often does this scenario happen:
A third or fourth-year-student who started out in sociology, or psychology, or even mechanical engineering has started to realize “I don’t really like any of the careers that come out of this major”. Yet, the student is so far in, with all of the general education classes finished (except for maybe that math course you’ve been avoiding because it was only offered at 8:30 AM – or maybe that was just me) the student has now embarked on the classes that are major specific. The student is starting to say “Oh crap, I’m graduating soon…what the heck am I going to do”. The student also happens to be very involved…could be a SGA Vice President or a RA. The student gets even more involved because, at this point, leadership is much more fulfilling than coursework. Then, the magic moment happens – it could be that the student expresses the career doubt out loud or he or she says “Hey, how do I do what you do”. Then, like someone has activated the “SASignal” we go into action. All of a sudden we’re forwarding them grad school applications and connecting them to our colleagues. We get so excited about the opportunity to mentor a new professional into the field, we might forget to ask the probing questions like “Well, what is it about student affairs that you think you might like” and help them to explore all of the options that might also fit that criteria. When the student announces which graduate school he or she will be attending and what assistantship he or she is taking, we shed a tear and proudly send a new “SAProgeny” out into the world.
A few years pass – the now grad students learn there’s actually theory and years of practice behind what we do. They excitedly move on to their first position and get ready to cut their teeth. Then, another magic moment happens – the moment they realize that working in higher education is much different than being a student leader in higher education. It might happen when the new professional is required to support a policy he or she would have organized sit-ins against as a student. Or it could be the moment that the students who made excuses to sit their office just to hang out with them are now writing angry facebook statuses about them because they had to hold the students accountable. Or it could just be the last night of homecoming week, when, as a student, he or she would have been out celebrating with friends, but instead he or she is left cleaning up the confetti with the grounds crew. And then a familiar feeling creeps in again – the feeling they had their third or fourth year when they realized their major wasn’t for them, only this time they have student loan payments, car payments, and cat litter to buy.
Of course, I’m being a tad cheeky about this. I know a great many professionals who are in this for the long haul like me and are more than happy to be here. But I think we can also name folks we know that are probably on a career detour right now – whether they have realized it themselves or not. Is this something we need to talk more about as a profession, or is it just par for the course in any profession? Can we be better about helping students explore other professions that might also meet their goals? I’d love to hear thoughts from other folks about this…even thoughts that I’m way off base on this one.