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Broken HeartIf 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.