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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.