Paul Eaton is a doctoral candidate in Educational Research and Leadership at Louisiana State university.
What was your path to Student Affairs (feel free to include your plans as an undergraduate, etc.)?
It was my undergraduate involvement that led me to student affairs. I was highly engaged in Residence Life, Orientation, and Service Learning programs at my institution. During my Junior year, it occurred to me that I might be able to work with students as a career. My RHA advisor and other professionals encouraged me to think about pursuing a career in the field. I was fortunate to complete an ACUHO-I internship during my final summer in college, which solidified my decision to pursue work in the field full time.
How do you stay motivated through draining or difficult experiences in your work?
You need to be inspired and motivated for working in the field by remembering it is not about you, but about students, about social change, and inspiring others. This is a double-edged sword of our profession of course – because many student affairs educators are unselfish to the point that they may sacrifice their own well-being for others (what you will learn is that many of us have challenges with work/life balance).
However, your students will always inspire you. Even on the most challenging days, a conversation with a student can inspire you to keep pushing to make a difference.
What led you into your Student Affairs functional area? Is it where you “planned” to end up?
My work as an Orientation Leader during my undergraduate years inspired me to want to pursue working in Orientation and New Student Programming. I completed a NODA Internship between the first and second year of my master’s program, which only further inspired me. Fortunately, I found a home in New Student Programming, and ultimately spent six years as Director of Orientation at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. It was exactly where I planned to end up and I enjoyed every minute of my work career.
I also always aspired to work with students in the classroom. As I wrap up my doctoral degree, I am excited about the opportunity of moving into the realm of faculty – mentoring and learning alongside the practitioners who will be moving into the profession, while also continuing to build on my research agenda. I am inspired by learning and research and look forward to giving back to the profession in this important regard as a faculty member.
What is the best thing about a career in Student Affairs?
There is not a single best thing. For me, I believe that there are really 3 things that stand out to me.
First, I have worked and learned alongside some of the most amazing human “becomings-” students, faculty, and staff. The people I meet every day through this work humble me, challenge me, make me think critically. These are beautiful companions on the journey of life, and I cherish these relationships.
Second, I believe that student affairs, if you let it, will really humble you. I have learned that I must embrace who I am, while not letting who I am stifle my continued emergence. Moreover, I have learned to embrace people and be open to the possibilities of continual learning.
Third, you do make an impact as a student affairs practitioner. For me, it isn’t the large systemic changes that necessarily make it worth while – though I have certainly been part of large campus-wide initiatives that have greatly impacted students. More important are the small micro-changes: helping a student believe in themselves; counseling a student through the loss of a relationship, a pet, or a loved one; writing a letter that helps one of your students receive an award or pursue a dream. These are the moments that really matter – and they will always be with you.
What are the most important tools for learning about a career in Student Affairs?
I am a strong advocate that professionals are engaged readers. We need to read theory, research, narrative, policy, law, ethics, pedagogy, philosophy. This is not always stressed, but I think that our work is more transdisciplinary than just about any other field. If you are not well-rounded, and if you do not stay current on the literature in the field, you simply will not be as effective as you can be.
I think practical experiences are crucial as well. You should try to do multiple internships, multiple practicum, and work across institutions types. While I have worked professionally mostly at large public universities, I completed an internship at a small private school and a practicum at a religiously affiliated university. These experiences were critical to my understanding the larger landscape of higher education.
Conferences. You should attend at least 1 national conference per year, and if possible, regional or specialized conferences as well. Many campuses have moved away from providing a lot of professional development funding. However, you should not let this deter you from attending. You must find a way. Work with your supervisor to let them know that professional development is important to you – and what they will do to support your traveling to conferences. One way I have found that is helpful is to be a presenter. Not only is this a responsibility you have as a professional to contribute back, but often campuses are more willing to support you financially if you are presenting.
What do you consider critical topics for Student Affairs educators right now?
I think technology is a big issue. My research focuses on how college students use social media to understand, explore, and articulate identity issues. When I say technology I believe we must be engaged not just in utilizing technology, but ensuring that we do so in a responsible and educationally relevant way(s).
Politics. This is not often stated, but I firmly believe that student affairs educators need to understand politics at all levels: campus, local, state, national, and international. You need to understand how political education is. You need to be exposed to the neoliberal assault on K-12 and higher education – and be sure that what you do is not recreating the problems plaguing education under the guise of “reform.”
History. We need to be better students of history and philosophy and theory. Often these topics are covered quickly in student affairs programs. You may have a course, but more than likely you will just brush over this in one or two weeks. It is not enough. I am convinced that student affairs practitioners need to become more engaged with reading history and philosophy of education.
Which student development theories do you use most often in your work (your “go to favorites”)?
The most relevant model right now is the Reconceptualized Model of Multiple Dimensions of Identity. I recommend picking up Jones & Abes book on this theory because of their integration of other theoretical perspectives – for example, Critical Race Theory, Intersectionality, and Queer Theory.
Student ‘development’ is one of my favorite topics – but I now shy away from the idea of ‘development’ altogether. I embrace the ideas of complexity theory in my work – and therefore I speak of identity emergence, “becoming.” These concepts seem to be more relevant to my own experiences in education.