I’ve got a confession to make: Student Affairs is not my passion.
Please don’t conflate that with not caring about students, colleagues or the field. On the contrary, admitting this has allowed me to be a more fully-present professional. I’ve been more efficient, effective, and happier when I stopped trying to be someone I’m not. But who am I (and why should you care)?
Another admission — I’m a serial failure: an MFA dropout, a past punk rocker, and a one-and-done blogger for more times than I care to mention (seven). Like a post-dryer cardigan, I’ve struggled to fit after a few cycles with anything. My fuel has always been creative expression, but how does that shoehorn into a Student Affairs career?
For the past year, I’ve found an unexpected niche — in kitchens.
Modern In Denver magazine is a regional design publication celebrating Colorado’s creative community – architecture, art, and design; areas I’ve learned more about than I ever imagined when my partner began working there after our relocation from Chicago. It could’ve been plugging a deadline-driven hole, searching for yet another creative outlet, or just the promise of discretionary income, but before I knew it I’d put together my first article – a short blurb on show openings in our local arts district. Then a longer one on a miniaturized gallery of Russian avant-garde paintings. Then three pieces on kitchens – I’ve learned about mitering, filigrees, and lift-systems, and have only scratched the composite granite surface of how deep the rabbit hole/brushed-nickel farmhouse sink basin goes.
By moonlighting for the magazine, I caught the bug and became hooked – not just on writing, but design thinking. And I would like to think it’s completely reshaped, reimagined, and rejuvenated my work with students.
The key component? Applying the lens of design. It can affix to any situation, as every element of life is impacted by its presence (or absence). It’s found in the different variants – graphic, industrial, instructional – united by acuity. How are kitchens designed to accommodate the aging process? How do graphic posters tell a story? How does an orientation session optimally acclimate a new student? How can we examine, articulate, and improve? In that sense, design is renewal, with progress built in – by design.
Principally, design helps us to live better, more mindfully. It also teaches humility. Hubris is the natural enemy of growth – “We’ve always done it that way” is a phrase we rarely hear verbatim, but is often borne out in practice. This required me to cast my own advising practice under scrutiny to both form and function. If I can be as intentional about the design of my advising appointments as an engineer is to kitchen customization for an individual, I feel like I’ve empowered students to whip up a mean batch of engaged learning that’s right for them.
Another key realization rooted in design (and a popular mantra in the tech set) is structuring for failure. The idea, as Seth Godin notes, is to fail fast and cheap, often, and in a way that doesn’t kill you. More than that, it can be a discovery process to ignite the imagination. Designing for failure is one of the main ways I’ve helped exploratory students curate, cut, refine, and move on. This is often a low-risk/high- potential reward structure: conducting informational interviews, professional association research, even using MOOCs as toe-in-the-water primers. An underlying key is establishing a practice of compounding iterative inquiry, adaptable to both personal growth and job market fluctuations. Stanford’s “Designing Your Life” class is a great example of this; as Executive Director Bill Burnett points out, “we find that most people find their passion by working into something” (thanks to colleague Lauren Koppel for this resource).
In reflection, I like to think of my own failures as fodder – creativity’s roadmap, ideation as a vector (*cough*). Student Affairs may not be my passion, but finding inspiration outside of it has helped me grow as a practitioner in unexpectedly rewarding ways. By failing, we can find voice – which helps fulfill both avocation and vocation. And that’s how designing for a passion led to a passion for design.
How’ve you designed your Student Affairs journey, intentionally or not?
This post is part of our #SAsidehustles series, which focuses on the SA pros with a second passion. These Student Affairs Professionals transition their mental and physical energy into a project that acts as both an emotional release and some level of supplemental income. From Etsy shops to horse braiding, these stories are bound to make you want to find your “by night” side hustle. For more information, check out the intro post by Tom Krieglstein. Be sure to read the other posts in this series too!