Here we are at the start of another academic year. Plans are made, but barely underway. Students are back, but not yet immersed in classes. It’s that moment of joy and excitement before we settle into the routine of a semester. It’s a time of possibility, but perhaps of trepidation, too. It’s liminal time.
“Liminal” is derived from the Latin word lumen, meaning “threshold.” Dictionary.com defines liminality as “ the transitional period or phase of a rite of passage” and as “the condition of being on the threshold or at the beginning of a process.” It’s the moment prior to stepping through an open door to see what is on the other side. The breath, the pause between. That in-between space can be challenging and scary, but it is also a place of opportunity.
One of the gifts of working in higher education is our opportunity to experience liminality each fall. There’s a reason people on campus have been known to wish each other “Happy New Year” in August. It’s a time for reflection, for making plans, or resolutions if you find them helpful. It’s a chance to reflect on lessons learned and plan for opportunities to come. I encourage you to find time in the month of September to appreciate this gift. Use the in-between to imagine how your possibilities can become realities.
On the other hand, this in-between space can be uncomfortable or just plain hard. It’s a place of uncertainty. If you just started a new job, you might find yourself wondering whether it was the right move. You may feel isolated and miss friends, family, and former co-workers until you find your place in a new community. The challenge of liminal time rests in the unknown.
Navigating a transition helps us become more successful the next time we experience change. And there will be a next time, and one after that. Each transition will bring us a moment of liminal time. One of the ways we can help students is by sharing our knowledge and experiences of transition and change. Student affairs professionals can help students understand that transitions are a time to celebrate what was and to let it go. We can help students experience the fun and cope with the discomfort of not knowing what comes next. We can help students celebrate this time, to be open to the unexpected and to embrace the chance to try something new.
Whether you are helping students, facing your own change, or both, I challenge you to embrace the challenges and benefits of liminal time and wish you much good luck in the ‘New Year’!
Author’s Note: I wrote most of the above in mid-August, prior to Hurricane Harvey. Communities across Texas are currently experiencing the most difficult of liminal times. This in-between time will stretch for weeks, months, and into the foreseeable future. There is no way to know when, or if, normal will return. Our colleagues on Houston-area campuses are in the thick of this, but students from affected communities are on campuses across the country. I’m grateful to know Student Affairs staff are supporting everyone who has been affected and will continue to do so throughout the year.
September is the month of transitions, especially on the college campus. Follow #SATransitions to read as the community reflects upon transition and change, personally and professionally. Want to write for this series or have ideas about future series? Contact Nathan Victoria on Twitter at @NathanVictoria or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.