The week after I defended my master’s thesis in educational leadership, I woke up to the cold sunrise over the Henry Mountain Wilderness. I enjoyed the view while shivering next to a hot fire, a metal cup of coffee warming my hands. A pack of coyotes sang out less than a mile from where I sat with my fellow staff, our students still snoring in their shelters dotted among the junipers. “This,” I thought, “is what peace is.” I had no intention of ever returning to my past life as a student affairs professional.
There is a long list of reasons why I left student affairs and why I chose to come back, but I am not writing this post to talk about those. I wanted to share with you both how my experience in student affairs made me a better employee outside of the field, and how working outside of the field makes me better in student affairs. Each work environment provided me a place to use my transferrable skills while teaching me new ones.
Being in student affairs developed me as a self-sufficient generalist. In four years in residential education, I learned things like budgeting skills, educational consequences, program management, supervision and group facilitation. I entered into a job where I needed to ration limited resources, oversee and train junior staff, lead therapeutic conversations with my students and engage in behavioral management. I moved up quickly in the organization because I possessed these skill sets. As a senior guide (and later assistant director), I worked to instill in the company a focus on intentional decision-making, assessment and social justice. My work and contributions were valued because they were valuable – and unique. It’s not to say that no one could do or did value these things, but having me in the roles with a slightly different lens made it possible to improve the way we did business. My work as an educational leader made me a more effective and efficient outdoor professional.
Four years later, I took my current job at Oregon State University. When I reflect on the things I learned working in the wilderness, I see how my wilderness experience positively impacts my practice. I unapologetically hold strong boundaries regarding time and commitments, something I never did early in my student affairs career. When you work in the harsh and remote backcountry, you MUST develop work-life balance (or whatever you want to call it) in order to avoid burnout. I take vacations when I need them and say no when it makes sense to. Also, I have gained the reputation of being unflappable in the workplace. Once you’ve had to strike camp to get out of the way of a flash flood, or set a broken arm with sticks and jackets, little in a campus environment seems like a crisis. Also, having dealt with these kinds of situations has given me a keen eye for risk management that is appreciated by colleagues. The wilderness experience changed my way of being in my student affairs work and made me a happier and more productive practitioner.
If these examples sound to you like interview answers, that is because they are. I’m practiced in drawing lines between these seemingly disparate career paths. I often joke that my resume is “colorful” when discussing it with colleagues. Maybe it is, but the value in my “nontraditional” path is that the difference matters. By this I mean that working outside of student affairs has strengthened me as a practitioner, and I believe it strengthens the institution in which I work(ed). It also provides for me a sense of freedom and self-sufficiency. I can serve in any place that aligns with my goals and values, and I can be successful in doing so. This informs how I view myself, and also how I envision my future as a supervisor. What does it mean to have someone whose background is in X? Would my team benefit from outside perspectives? Do we all have to be the same to be successful? No. The difference matters – to me, and to the students I serve…in the office and the wild.