By now, many of us have read Paul Gordon Brown’s piece “20 Courses Missing From Your #HigherEd & #StudentAffairs Master’s Program.” Several more of us have read Mandi Stewart’s reply “In Response to: 20 Courses Missing From Your #HigherEd & #StudentAffairs Master’s Program.” While I respect Mandi’s opinions, there is something missing in this discussion, and I hope this piece can lend a perspective.
First of all, I feel it necessary to note that my Master’s degree is not in Student Personnel but in Sociology of Education. So no, I did not endure the weight of jokes that I was “in graduate school to learn how to be a better tour guide.” I also have never found myself in a position in which I am forced to legitimate the work that I do to professionals around me. Like most of my Student Affairs colleagues, I have had to explain what we do to people who are unfamiliar with it, but that conversation has almost always turned turned into one about Social Justice, conceived more generally. As a result of my individual journey, very little of this has colored the way that I think about the Student Affairs field. By contrast, I continuously hear Student Affairs professionals expressing a desire to prove that our field is more than “fluff” to those who do not work closest with us. I find this deeply problematic. Of the works I have read discussing the legitimacy of Student Affairs, I can not think of a single one that is not written by us. However, nearly every piece I have found about recent college experiences, both things that have gone horribly wrong and right, are in one way or another connected to the work that we do.
What I have found is increasing evidence that more and more of the work done by Student Affairs professionals intersects with work being done across other academic disciplines. In fact, as Sociologists across the country are writing about the aftermath of Ferguson, professionals of other disciplines continue to (in)directly discuss the general fallout of other “ism’s.” Meanwhile, professionals within the STEM fields are continuing their call for increased diversity and support services for members of those communities. Academia, employers, and people in general across this country are relaying calls to action as they come to better understand the way that students holistically experience college–an understanding that we already have. Our role, then, as Student Affairs professionals is directly tied to this as we facilitate the environments where these experiences play out. Sociology, Cultural Studies, LGBTQIA disciplines, Disabilities work, etc. have all called for the creation, formation, and staffing of offices and programs that support students from all backgrounds. Student Affairs professionals are, and have been, working to answer this call. So, no, we are not Biology, Chemistry, or Engineering, nor do we need to be. If there is anything that forward thinkers within those fields can understand, it is that organizations, like the body, molecules, and technology, all need multiple systems to concurrently exist so that they can function. Fighting among one another about whether or not the work we do is legitimate does nothing more than make us look like the thing we want to avoid: illegitimate.
While I admit that I have many years of Student Affairs work ahead of me, I continue to ponder the reasons why we are so focused on credentialism and legitimating the work that we do. It is certainly a fact that our office budgets are becoming more constrained and our work duties more expansive, but whose job is it anyway to have a stake in this fight? If it is true that many members of our faculty or of “The Academy” do not understand what we do, then it is up to all of us involved to build those partnerships and connections. And while that faculty buy-in may help in more ways than one, I would argue that the increased success of our students and growing demand for support services are evidence enough of our centrality to the successful function of our respective institutions.
The more that we continue to write articles about how important it is that people take us seriously, the more inclined I am to think that Student Affairs is invoking a self-fulfilling prophecy. So, maybe someone, somewhere, a couple times said that our work was not as important as theirs. So what? Members of the academy have spent years disagreeing about the significance of one another; just ask your local English professor! If there’s one thing I have learned during my academic and professional tenure, it is that sometimes you have to laugh at yourself. If we cannot look within, recognize our flaws, and realize that sometimes some of the work that we do can seem silly but can be really impactful for others; if we cannot see this and laugh at this, then we’ve already lost. Then we have become just like the people we are trying so hard to impress. In other words, we will have internalized the belief that our work is fluff, and may go on to continue that cycle with others.
Maybe there are people who question whether my current role as a housing professional is “babysitting” behind my back, but I see it differently. If I can help prevent just one student from attempting suicide, if I can help one student develop the vocabulary to talk about the impact of microaggressions and bullying, if I can enable one person to become an active bystander to stop a hate crime, then my work here is more than legitimate. It is exponentially more meaningful to those that I’ve helped, precisely because I was in the position to help. Moreover, I would argue that most of us in this field feels this way. If there’s one thing that is true at almost every campus across this country, it is that the work we are doing is paramount to minimizing risk, reducing harm, and contributing to a more globally focused citizenry.
Student Affairs is already legitimate. Recognizing this allows us to spend that much more time focused on strengthening the core of the student experience. That’s time much better spent. That’s also innumerable students, and institutions, who won’t have time to hear us talk about our vitality and positive impact. They’ll be too busy experiencing it.
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