My path in student affairs started out pretty traditionally. I went from being a graduate hall director to a residence hall coordinator and really enjoyed both experiences. But after a few years on the west coast, I was eager to get back to New York – preferably to New York City. I knew that a location-bound job search would require me to broaden my scope of potential positions. So when a position at the School of American Ballet at Lincoln Center posted on the ACPA Placement site, I figured I had nothing to lose by sending my application materials. After two interviews, my interest was peaked, though I was also really nervous about the transition. The school is a boarding school for high school aged pre-professional ballet dancers and the position would include residence life work, but also programming, work with parents and academic advising. Ultimately, it was an opportunity that I eagerly accepted. I was hopeful that after a couple of years I’d be able to make the jump back to higher education without too much trouble. That was over six years ago, and I am still working at the school.
As I reflect on my non-traditional student affairs experience at the School of American Ballet, there are three lessons that I’ll take with me throughout my career. The first is how I work with and view the experience of parents. When deciding whether or not to send your 14-year-old to New York City to pursue a ballet career, there are many things a parent needs to consider, but a primary one is whether they trust the folks who will be caring for their child. Relationships with parents at a boarding school are essential, they are part of recruitment, retention and student success. I have learned to really empathize with parents, who have spent the last 14-17 years raising a child that is suddenly considered independent – how jarring that must be! Finding ways to include parents in the process not only makes my work easier, but it also creates 360-degree support to our students.
The next lesson is about understanding students’ goals and priorities. I work at a pre-professional ballet training academy, arguably one of the best schools like this in the world! Our students come with one goal in mind, to be a professional ballet dancer. Professional ballet is not a world that I knew much about prior to starting this job, but I have made it a priority to learn about ballet companies, contracts, injuries and the faculty at the School so that I can engage with students about their experiences and the challenges that come with this career choice. I have worked with students from a variety of majors before, but never spent much time really understanding what it meant to be an engineer or an accountant, for example. The reality is that students are selecting their college or university because of a major or a career goal, so understanding those goals can only enhance our ability to support the students we serve.
The last lesson comes right from the students – from watching them act like teenagers in the halls of our residence hall and then in their ballet classes where they are poised and professional. Ballet is all about perfection and precision — dancers are trained to make something incredibly difficult look effortless and at the same time emotional and believable. Ballet dancers have to learn how to surrender their fear when they go on stage. To be fully and authentically present while demonstrating excellence. It can seem like ballet is all about blending in with the other dancers on stage, but really it’s about finding a way to bring yourself into the steps that are laid out for you — making them your own. This understanding has really helped me approach my work and life in a new way. It’s quite humbling to learn so much from a 15-year-old!
Ultimately, the decision to take a non-traditional position wasn’t easy. I asked a lot of questions of my future employer, of friends and colleagues and, most importantly, of mentors in the field. I knew (and still know) that I wanted to go back to work with college students at some point and was worried about making that jump. Based on the advice that I heard, I have been purposeful about staying connected to traditional student affairs by reading, maintaining relationships and continuing my involvement with professional associations. And while my resume will look different than others that have stayed on a more traditional path, I have perspective and experiences that are unique and for that I am so grateful.