Many student affairs professionals with graduate degrees probably do not see administrative support as a possible career path, which is where I am now. After completing a master’s degree and over six years of professional experience, I made the move into administrative work. Currently, I am an executive assistant to the vice chancellor for student affairs at a flagship state university. The typical path into this job would be earning a bachelor’s degree, starting as an administrative assistant and progressing into the executive assistant role. My path was not quite so direct.
Like many in student affairs, my career really started while I was a student. As a deeply introverted person, I was drawn to roles and organizations that gave me the purpose I needed to feel comfortable socializing. I was a student ambassador, resident advisor and member of several student organizations. These experiences led to incredible personal growth, but it never occurred to me that student affairs could be a career. After graduating with an economics degree, I landed my first professional job with the U.S. Department of Labor.
For three years I stayed with that job, neither happy nor miserable. The program I worked for produced statistics about the job market, which got me interested in careers and how people choose them. As I considered various job changes, I remembered the career services office from college and finally realized I could work in higher education. I began researching the career path and discovered the University of Missouri’s counseling program, which has a career counseling track.
From that point my path seemed set. I was accepted to the program at Mizzou and jumped into another period of immense growth and learning. After graduating, I took a job as an assistant director of career services at a small, private college. The next logical steps would have been associate director, then director level positions. But within a few years I had another important realization. I would be a TERRIBLE manager, and had no desire to be one, which cut off my expected career path. The options I saw were staying in career services at my current level, or moving into something like academic advising.
After six years I was ready for a change. I was good at my job, but I was never a star. The moments when I genuinely made a difference in a student’s life were no longer balancing out the headaches. I happened to see an opening for an administrative support job that had duties similar to career services. I hesitated at first, but my desire for a change led me to apply. Shortly after, I was hired to be an academic affairs coordinator for a graduate program at a university medical center.
I have to admit this was a difficult transition. Most people would view this change as a step down. I went from having my own office to a desk in the reception area. But it did not take long to realize I was finally in my element. I’ve always been good at processing, organizing, and remembering details. Coordinating classes, testing, grading, and more, I was able to manage all the data so efficiently that I had time to take on more tasks from the rest of the overworked faculty and staff. It was incredibly rewarding to do anything, large or small, to make life easier for everyone in the department. This job opened my eyes to the wide variety of administrative careers in higher education. I started thinking about higher level positions in data management or administrative support.
I would have been happy to stay in that job longer, but my spouse’s career moved us out of state. In a stroke of luck, there was an opening for an executive assistant in student affairs. My student affairs experience plus my more recently discovered flair for administrative support landed me in a dream job. I perform traditional executive assistant tasks, but I also get to help with more in depth projects and apply my counseling skills when I guide students and parents to the resources they need. Getting back into student affairs was not my goal, but I’m so glad it happened. Doing the kind of work I love in a setting I am passionate about is the perfect fit.
Administrative support has some amazing advantages, especially in student affairs. First and foremost, it is 9 to 5 – no evenings or weekends, and no emergencies. For people who do not want to be supervisors, administrative support pays similar to or better than many professional positions. Ultimately though, it comes down to fit. This work clearly brings out the best in me. Occasionally I still struggle with the idea that I should have a more “successful” career. In those moments I remind myself that career-wise, nothing is more successful than finding work you both excel at and love doing.