2014 may only be my first full year in student affairs, but those 365 days taught me more about my chosen career and myself, than I ever could have imagined.
In that short time, I learned the hard way that there are two-sides to this crazy field of ours. There’s the part that outsiders see; the ice-breaking, bulletin-board crafting, happy-go-lucky side. Then there’s the darker side. These are the days where we handle the sexual assaults, student deaths, and the incidents we never saw coming. This is the side that begs the question, “Why would anyone enter this field?”
For me, it wasn’t just the weight of the issues we handle that made this side of student affairs so hard. It was that I was asking students to do what I couldn’t. I wanted my students to be themselves, to figure out what their story was going to be. In my own life though, there was a big part of my story that I was hiding. No one knew about my sexual assault or that I was in recovery from an eating disorder.
When I started working as a Residence Director, these became student issues that I handled on an almost weekly basis. In these cases, I did what I was supposed to do. I encouraged these students to get help and to talk to people. I preached self-care and the benefits of the counseling center. I even worked with mental health advocacy student groups. Meanwhile, I was slipping back into my eating disorder, and hadn’t told a soul about my assault, five-years after the fact. Add in dealing with the stress of several student deaths, and I wasn’t exactly a poster girl for self-care.
Luckily, for me, that’s when I found the silver lining in the “dark-side” of student affairs. It turns out; this field can save professionals just as much as it can save students. Through the incidents I was dealing with, I became close with colleagues who challenged most of what I thought I knew. They shared their stories, and while I hate to admit it, they used their experience and quickly “RA-ed” me. Within a few weeks, I had told them about my assault. A few months later, I met an incredible student. I’ve always been one of those people that kept my feelings and struggles to myself. This student was NOT one of those people. She had been in treatment for an eating disorder for years, and was more than happy to talk about her experience. There was no shame for her. But she knew something I didn’t. She knew that stories could heal.
In talking with this student about her experiences, I was inspired to do something unusual for me. I told her about my assault and how that led to my eating disorder. I told her that it had taken me a long time to be able to admit I was assaulted, and to realize that it wasn’t my fault. When I finished telling my story, she turned around and shocked me. This student, one that had never been ashamed to talk about her struggles, confessed to me that she was assaulted. It turned out that she rarely talked about it outside of therapy. For the first time, I saw my own story help someone else.
I realize that when you’re working with students who are struggling with aspects of their own life, you have to be careful with self-disclosure. Not every student needs to know everything about my experiences or me. However, I am beginning to recognize the impact that sharing even just a small part of your story can have.
When I first became a Residence Director, it almost didn’t matter how many students I helped, I thought that having my own issues meant I couldn’t be a good professional. I thought it meant I was a terrible example. One year and some truly incredible people later, I have finally figured out that it wasn’t my issues that were holding me back. It was hiding and ignoring those issues. How could I be good at my job if I didn’t take my own advice? Why would my students share their experiences, if I couldn’t? How could my students trust me if they didn’t really know me?
I can’t honestly say that I am completely open about my past struggles, but I become okay with sharing a bigger part of myself everyday. And most importantly, I can confidently respond when I am asked that inevitable question, “why would anyone enter this field?”
My answer? Because we get to change lives. Sometimes even our own.
> BONUS <
Podcast With Kristen Abell on #SACommits