About 15 months ago, I left a student affairs role to become a research scientist in information technology.
I left behind no longer having June, July and August being devoted to summer registration and orientation programming. I stopped coordinating efforts across multiple student affairs programs within one department to ensure that no major programs overlapped so that all students in all programs could potentially attend something if they so desired. I no longer worried about what policies might exist in other departments on campus that could prove difficult — or outright impossible — to navigate in order to accomplish a given task or process.
I pulled up my roots, took 10 years of post-master’s experience in programming, assessment, evaluation, student supervision & development, and assorted other skills, and planted them firmly in a realm of data and process.
Or so I thought.
Now, I think I spend more time thinking about students now than I did before.
Before, I took it for granted that what I did was student oriented. Every program, every evaluation, every time I attended a student-coordinated event – all of these things were part of my job, because student development and success programming not only were written into my jobs, but also were ingrained in my being.
Today, I look at the intersection of technology and student success. How technology impacts success, how we can use it better (or less) to enhance experiences and learning, how students experience technology in general.
I work with faculty who are overtly and concertedly interested in putting effort toward enhancing their classroom and the learning environment. I work with very technical colleagues whose sole purpose is ensuring that systems are up and running so that students and faculty can accomplish their work, research, and education. I examine processes and implementation time-frames with an eye and understanding of what might happen in the realm of students or faculty were we to do something at a given time. The folks in the Office of the Provost – the people charged with overseeing the broad academic mission of the institution – are often working with my colleagues and me to improve and enhance the student and faculty experience on campus. The Vice President for Information Technology even believes that our mission in IT is supporting the academic and research missions of the institution – not on fixing broken computers and running email.
In short, in stepping out of the realm of student affairs, I learned that the rest of the campus was actually interested – and involved – in the affairs of students, too. They just don’t call themselves “student affairs.”
Interestingly, I find myself applying the theory I learned as a graduate student more now than before. The programming skills come in useful as I work on a conference we’re coordinating. The assessment and evaluation pieces come into play in ensuring that the tools we implement and the training sessions we offer have well-defined measurable objectives. You name a course or concept in any given graduate program, and I can probably tell you how I use those skills today.
My point? The student affairs degree is highly versatile within an academic environment. If you’re struggling to find your first position – or are in a position that you’re finding isn’t exactly the bee’s knees – there are other options for you. Market your skills, not your degree. Look where your experiences are equivalent to those in a non-student affairs role.
I assure you, there is alignment in areas you never even considered.
And if you step into that non-student affairs role, make it your job to bring your appreciation for and knowledge of the student experience to every component of your job. You, and your supervisor, will be glad you did.
What tips do you have for people looking for a new position within higher education? How do you encourage others to search outside their perceived realms of expertise?
Matt Pistilli is a Research Scientist for Academic Technologies at Purdue University and a recovering student affairs professional.