Student Affairs is a Career?
I realized that student affairs was “a thing” during my junior year of college after speaking with my hall director and student organization advisor. I was an RA, a student organization president, and a good student. So, I did what I was supposed to do—took the GRE that summer, researched schools and even toured a few with my dad (I had my eyes on James Madison or Virginia Tech). Then … I changed my mind. I decided I wanted to serve college students in a different way—through ministry. I signed on to be an intern with Campus Crusade for Christ and was just about to start raising my support (working for that organization, you raise your entire salary, and then some) when I learned more about the strict lifestyle rules. I’m not a fan of strict rules, and I quit. During finals week of senior year. So yeah, I had to figure some stuff out.
After graduation I worked some odd jobs while applying for every entry-level student affairs position in the area. I got passed over for an admissions counselor position at my alma mater after being brought in as a finalist (too young, not enough experience). In late July, my academic advisor forwarded me a job opening with the National Communication Association. They were looking for a national coordinator of student organizations in Washington, D.C. Having interned in our nation’s capitol a few summers prior, I was extremely excited about the opportunity. I was miraculously hired after just a phone interview, and I packed my bags to move to D.C. I enjoyed this job, which involved working with college students and their professors—mostly virtually. I was itching to get back onto a college campus, though, and frankly the “city folk” made me miss my home in Wisconsin. I ordered Job One from ACPA and plotted how to get a campus job closer to home.
In April, I saw a job opening at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, realized Marquette University had a student affairs graduate program, and everything fell into place. I moved back to Wisconsin in June, ready to start a full-time job and a part-time graduate program.
Building A Professional Foundation
It took me four years to finish graduate school, all the while working as a program outreach coordinator in university housing at UWM. I had an amazing supervisor, and she helped me apply what I was learning in the classroom to my day-to-day work with RAs and student leaders. I was fully immersed in student affairs, yet my day-to-day job functions were more marketing related. I redesigned our website, overhauled our publications, supervised a team of graphic designers and started using social media for marketing and communication. I also built an excellent network across campus, and when I graduated from Marquette, I declared myself finished with school forever and started thinking about how I could advance my career.
There was only one opportunity that came up the next year that interested me (also at UWM), and I wasn’t considered for the job. I had started to dabble in Twitter and had discovered #sachat almost immediately. I was seeing people talk about emerging research regarding social media and student development, and started to get curious. Our vice chancellor off-handedly asked if I wanted to get my Ph.D. After thinking about it for a while, I realized that I wanted to contribute to further knowledge in the profession. I found a local Ph.D. program that I could pursue while working full-time and applied. I had to participate in a face-to-face admissions interview on campus, and I left feeling deflated. The head of admissions told me that while I was quite intelligent, I didn’t have enough professional experience (I was 5.5 years post-undergrad) and they weren’t likely to take a chance on someone as young as me (I was 27).
Someone must have felt differently, and I was accepted about a month later. I walked into our first two-week intensive summer institute in June 2010 and quickly learned I was the youngest one in the class. I excelled, thanks in part to my ability to speak well in front of a group—a skill I’d learned in my five years at UWM during new freshman orientation. I was on track to be a vice chancellor (or something … I wasn’t quite sure what the Ph.D. would yield).
Director at 28-Years-Old
Four months after starting my Ph.D. program, someone sent me a job posting for a small two-year college about 20 miles away. They were seeking a marketing and communications director, and the posting specifically stated that the successful candidate would build and execute a social media strategy for the campus. This was rare in 2010, so I threw my hat in the ring. Despite being the youngest person to apply, having never supervised a professional staff member or worked in a university marketing office, I was hired. And once again, I excelled. In two years I worked with two very different deans, and both advocated for my professional development and supported my continued schooling. I was no longer in student affairs, technically, but I worked with students, administrators, and faculty every single day. I also began cultivating a network of non-student affairs higher education professionals—the folks that attend Higher Ed Web, CASE, AMA Higher Ed, and SXSWi.
During the summer of 2012 I was approached to develop and deliver an online training session for financial aid administrators about using social media to communicate with students. It seemed like a neat experience, and I jumped at the opportunity. A few months later, my contact forwarded me a job posting from the organization (a student loan servicer) and asked me to apply. I told her that I’d pass it on to people that might be interested, but she was adamant that I apply. So much so, that she offered to have the senior vice president give me a call to talk about that job. I agreed to speak with him, and he talked me into applying.
Exiting the Profession, Yet Maintaining Contact
Since I wasn’t actively job searching and certainly didn’t need this job, I did something I’d never done before. I asked for what I believed I was truly worth (in terms of salary) and told myself I wouldn’t consider anything less. For the previous two years I had been told that I was working much harder than my salary justified, but there was simply no way to pay me more. I wasn’t in financial difficulty, but I knew I should be earning more money. My soon-to-be employer never even balked at my salary request, and I embraced the opportunity to become a social media strategist for a corporation that, while in the higher education industry, was definitely not a campus. I’ve thrived there over the last two years and have added a new area of responsibility (market research) to my job. I’ve kept in touch with the higher education community both through my work activities and my “side hustle,” and also through genuine interest and conversation. Most recently I was offered the opportunity to teach a course for higher education professionals, and I’ll continue to seek out opportunities to be involved in this industry.
2015 will be the year I complete my Ph.D., and I honestly don’t know what I will do next. I’m very happy in my current position, and could grow with this company in a variety of ways while pursuing teaching, speaking, and research on the side. Or I could try for a faculty position, or a consultant role with a vendor in the industry. When people ask me what I want to do next, the only honest answer I can provide is, “Whatever I want.” I want to do what I’m good at, what makes me happy, for an organization that values me. That may be my current employer, a campus, or a new opportunity, but I’m quite happy to make my own path.