As someone who finds purpose, solace and, in times of stress, comfort in movement, paths and travelling are not mere metaphors; they are as essential to me as water, air and chocolate. Looking back on my road(s) travelled in my relatively short yet very full experience in student affairs, I see no clearly identified career goal or easily defined purpose. There is, however, an overwhelming lust for adventure and exploration with a healthy dose of ‘hell yeah’ replacing the perhaps safer and more stable ‘what if.’
The first few pages of my student affairs story are similar to many others that I have had the pleasure of reading and hearing. An (overly) involved student in my undergraduate days, I took on nearly every opportunity that came my way via email listserv, poster, word of mouth, or invitation. I sat on committees, ran our campus orientation and held office with the student union. Extra-curriculars didn’t just build my resume; they built me a home and a family that I am still deeply grateful for and continue to lean on to this day.
As I got closer to that inevitable yet dreaded time where I was meant to leave ‘home’ and head out into the ‘real world,’ I took on an internship with our student affairs office. It was only then, after five years of work that seemed too much like play, where I realized that the staff I looked to at times for guidance, once in a while for money, and not often enough for permission, were getting paid to do what I had willingly done for free. The revelation that this wasn’t just a passion but also a profession was life (and path) altering. I quickly applied for and soon was accepted to a master’s of education program and fell into deeply philosophical (read: lots of big words) discussions about student development, leadership and education. I was in my own personal heaven.
After completing a year of coursework at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, I came back to Toronto with, to my surprise and disappointment, even less of a plan than when I started. I knew I needed to finish my thesis and graduate, but everything else was amorphous and unknown. (Spoiler alert: this is a theme). I took on some work at a local college assisting with a student success project while simultaneously writing a thesis about reflection for assessing leadership development in perhaps the busiest but most dull (to me) stage in my career. I worked a lot and kept my head down in the hopes that the tantalizing “after graduation” that I had heard so much about would deliver on its promise of direction and professional fulfillment.
It hasn’t quite worked out that way.
This doesn’t mean I don’t deeply love and enjoy what I do. Far from it. I have continued to throw myself, all of myself, into my work. After submitting my thesis and a large number of applications, I found a new home at a recently opened institution working to grow and build a brand new department. The two years I spent there were two of the most profoundly challenging and deeply rewarding years of my professional career. In a single, small building, my path wound up, down, sideways, diagonal and sometimes backward. Working in a new department, with new employees and new, well, everything, meant my path was especially winding, with many sharp turns, a lot of detours, and more than a few dead ends. I dabbled in service learning (drawing on another short internship from my graduate studies) and continued to explore leadership development and new student orientation. My first week at this job, however, quickly split off a new path when I was asked to take on career services work, with my only prior training being the endless cycle of resumes and cover letters I had written for myself. I still joke that I passed the career services entry exam for this institution by writing an application that got me the job. What followed was a year where I was on the periphery of work I loved while wandering (walking would imply a sense of direction and a feeling of competency) a new road as I developed skills in and a deeper understanding of a new functional area. What I loved about and continue to be grateful for from this experience is a much deeper understanding of the whole. We use terms like ‘holistic’ a lot in our profession, but it was only when I saw bullet points on a student’s resume about a leadership development opportunity that I could truly see that experience come full circle. We do our students and ourselves a disservice when we ignore the entire path while focusing solely on our tiny (and trust me, you learn quickly just how small) piece of the road.
Of course, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the many other paths I forged and stumbled upon. My involvement in extracurriculars did not stop once I left behind the official status of ‘student.’ I maintained a healthy degree of involvement with many of the acronyms that support our profession, including the beginnings of what are now longstanding relationships with NASPA and CACUSS (the latter being the association for Canadian student affairs professionals). Each role and opportunity was a new path, usually branching off from another road I had made smoother and well travelled, allowing me to bring along lessons, skills, and knowledge collected along the way. Each new path, I’ve found, is never totally pristine or unknown. The destination may be foreign but you have done this before. You have walked before, stumbled before, picked up and started again before. We don’t leave behind what we have collected at each new trail head; we bring these insights in our proverbial backpacks, filling them each time with the resources we need to continue our journey. The backpack can get heavy, and it’s often so big that sometimes we’ll stuff a lesson or two deep inside and forget it’s there for a while, but, magically perhaps, we can reach in and pull out some inspiration just when we need it.
I was asked once what title I would give my autobiography. The answer was surprisingly easy: “Accidentally on Purpose”. Looking back, one of the few things I feel I have done ‘on purpose’ in my career is saying yes. I get so excited about opportunity and possibilty that I am very nearly the poster child for saying yes now and figuring it out later, or, more aptly, as I’m moving along. Even now, as I grope and stumble my way along a dimly lit path of consulting and transitioning from student development to professional (staff) training, I have what could be labelled a purpose; a goal or two that I can share as an elevator pitch if pressed; but I’m still not sure where I’m going.
And that’s okay.
My path is not only winding, but wide. I have created intentionally (yes, on purpose) space for others to walk with me. As an innately social creature with a preference for extraversion that is nearly off the charts, I cannot and must not take this journey alone. When I get lost, I have friends who light the way and mentors who tell me that getting lost truly is part of finding yourself. I can also help people along their own paths, showing them how to navigate that particularly tricky section of road I clawed my way through years ago. My path has taught me to be comfortable with risk and to appreciate the possibility in uncertainty, even if I don’t feel that way all the time.
As the great philosopher and poet David Bowie once said “I don’t know where I’m going from here, but I promise it won’t be boring.” There are many words to describe my journey, but I know, and continue to hope, that boring will never be one of them.