What’s the most difficult thing you learned in Oakland?
During a teambuilding activity, one of my colleagues asked me this question. It caught me off guard, but it was a very impactful question. After four years in an urban school district, with time spent as a tutor, teacher, and administrator, I learned many skills and life lessons. But, I really had to reflect upon the lesson that impacted me as a person and as an educational professional. So, I answered her with:
The reward for suffering is experience.
As student affairs professionals, we deal with a multitude of crises students will face. Issues like sexual assault, mental illness, alcoholism, abusive relationships, financial concerns, and cultural pressures are some of the things students bring to the table. Unfortunately, we may have (or already have) to deal with real threats of on-campus shootings and other acts of violence. It is a part of the culture we exist in, and being in a helping profession, we have a front seat to the world students are coming from.
To explain my quote, I told my colleagues a story of a student I worked with during my graduate school assistantship. He was very intelligent, soft spoken, insightful, and creative. However, he was facing strong family pressure to move and study closer to home. He truly enjoyed his time on campus; he was involved in many leadership programs and was doing well academically. We talked often about the stress he was facing and the strategies he could use to manage his situation. It was the first time I was able to see the connection between theory and practice. It seemed that he was doing better and finding a path towards creating a future for himself and explaining his feelings to his family. Sadly, right after I graduated and moved to my first job, a friend called to tell me that he committed suicide during summer school. When I heard that news, it was an absolute shock to my system. It was the first time in my life I felt like an utter failure that I couldn’t help him, and I truly felt like I had abandoned him.
From that experience, I learned that I had to give myself grace and remember that despite my feelings, there was a family that was grieving a loss of its only son. I had to keep things in perspective; I did what I could, I provided him with the resources at my disposal, and I communicated through my chain of command what was happening. There are some situations I can’t solve, and I need to understand that. I had to allow myself to question, to grieve, and eventually move forward with his memory forever in my mind.
Those lessons were put to the test in Oakland, where I was dealing with students in gangs, writing child abuse reports, watching students get arrested in the middle of class and working with homeless families to secure stable housing. I wasn’t satisfied in saying “that’s not my problem”; I referred to outside partners and organizations that had the skills and knowledge to help. I would assist in follow through and guide people through paperwork and other arduous processes. And, I would continue dialogue with colleagues and friends who understood the stress and trauma I was enduring. Don’t get me wrong; these situations took an immense mental and physical toll on me (calling Child Protective Services to report abuse cases is something that will trouble me forever), but I had to remember that I can’t solve every situation. I can only do what I can, and I need to do what I can to the maximum.
In the transition back to student affairs, I found that my experiences in crisis situations has helped me become a better professional, and to some extent a better person. I have developed into a humanistic and resourceful professional, willing to work hard to help someone yet remember that I can’t solve every problem. It has taken going through some very traumatic situations to learn this, but there are lessons that can’t be learned from a textbook or cited in a journal article. It has been through these many challenges I feel that I am growing into the student affairs professional I hoped to become.