I am what we call a “new professional”. A proud graduate of the HESA program at the University of Vermont, I spent a good deal of the summer catching up with family and friends who, for the last two years, I had just barely kept in touch with. The conversations always start out with congratulations, excitement about my move to start my new job, and then came the inevitable awkward transition: “So…what do you actually do?”
My student affairs colleagues, you all know this question well. We each have been asked this question and struggle to find accurate answers. It seems that no matter how often I answer it, I have never been able to get down an “elevator speech” with which I am satisfied. Sometimes I try to explain what I do completely accurately. This is usually met with more confusion, an underwhelmed response, confusion as to why this required a post-baccalaureate education, or a mix of the above. However, sometimes when I speak to my friends and family, I catch myself relying only upon the horror stories of the job to get across that what I do as a Hall Director/ResLifer is indeed important. The late nights, student deaths, incident confrontations– I am not comfortable with this– I feel as if telling only the incredibly intense stories overshadows the simplistic beauty of the day-to-day work that we do. I wonder if the way I talk about my job –almost with a need for validation in order to impress my audience– is fueled by my internalized classism related to my education level and job.
Somewhere along this summer journey, this video crossed my Facebook mini-feed and reminded me I am not alone in this struggle. It illustrates a situation many of us, particularly the ResLifers, can relate to on some level. How do we talk to parents/guardians of students, our families, and friends about our job and student affairs as a profession? How does the way we talk about our job reflect the actual values of our profession?
When I engage with a parent like in the video above (which I have done to a lesser extent), I realize I am not only acting upon my internalized classism (insisting upon the proper title), but I am also going against my value of meeting people where they are. How important is it to get my title across to the parent if all they really need is the “head RA.” Of course, I am speaking only from my particular identities, and there are plenty of individual reasons for insisting upon getting a title or language correct. I am speaking from my class identity as I struggle to find a response to the eternal question that satisfies me. How do I talk about my job, and what does the way I respond say about me and my lived values?
How do you talk about the work you do? What is important for you to convey to the other party?
Viraj S. Patel is a Hall Director at Georgetown University.