Today, I read an incredibly refreshing post by Liz Ryan called Stop Apologizing for Your Work History, which chronicles her move to Chicago, job search, and interactions with an employer. This premise of this article spoke to me as someone who cares immensely about my professional life and the lives of the students & clients I serve. As professionals, each of our paths will look a lot different, and it is up to us to fully own our experiences without shame. When we do, we are better equipped to communicate them clearly and make creative connections. So today, I will share a bit about my work history and how I’ve become the “eclectic professional”:
I hated being a “grunt” at first. This was the term that the seniors called first year Theater students at the Philadelphia High School for Creative & Performing Arts (CAPA). I was there studying Theater and though I initially went in with ill-formed dreams of microwave-ready stardom, I left as a competent and well-rounded human being. Our first year was to learn how Theater functioned, onstage, offstage and backstage, and it was there that I gained an appreciation for the process of things. For every spine-tingling high note onstage, there was someone prepping for the next scene or frantically looking for their character shoe offstage. For every seamless transition, there was a crew dressed in all black, moving set pieces inconspicuously so that the next onstage moment was believable. It was the theater that taught me not to “hesitate lines” or make assumptions about the interior lives of my students. It was the theater that taught me the value of a process, and this has shaped the way that I educate college students. It was the theater that taught me that each character, person, student, client, has a back-story… an onstage / offstage life, and that as an educator I was a part of their “crew”, assisting them in creating seamless transitions.
After graduating, I went to Penn State University, where I studied Integrative Arts (…which is pretty much the major program of studies that you make up for yourself with the help of an advisor). I chose to continue studying Theater, but added in concentrations in Creative Writing / English, and Communication Arts & Sciences (which is roughly, the art of communicating with others interculturally, persuasively, in dialogue, through conflict, etc… in other words I got to talk, and talk about talking, and I loved it). My educational journey looked vastly different from that of my colleagues who were checking course catalogues to see if they were taking courses in subsequent order. Mine was assembling an ever-growing team of professors, academic advisors, and career counselors to consult before I made decisions about which courses I would take. Mine was both seeking direction from and convincing the Dean of Integrative Arts that doing independent study on the sociolinguistic implications of code switching in text messages for Black American college students and an internship in technical writing for a digital appliance company were both of worthy of inclusion in my academic course journey. He usually allowed it – he was an eclectic professional – and his advising sessions always smelled of strongly brewed coffee and included insights on the life of Elvis. I learned to do makeup for theater, as well as loosely discern where different accents came from. But most of all, I learned about the field of Student Affairs.
I was sitting in the office of an advisor I really took to, telling her about how I experienced central Pennsylvania as a Black woman from Philadelphia and it hit me… she was serving as a translator for me. She, and the many others who came alongside me in my academic journey, was the link between the world I knew and the world of academia. I sat up in my seat and grinned, “You just got paid to engage me in a conversation about my racial identity… that’s a sweet set-up!”
In Student Affairs & Higher Education, I saw a space where I could use artistic / creative thought to inform my practice. I could also work through access issues for college students who held various racial, ethnic, & social identities. It was not long until I started to gather mentors who would specifically aid me in this process.
I took a year off to do some freelance journalism with a magazine based in New York at the time, as well as working odd jobs to pay off my credit card debt. I did data entry for a medical insurance firm (which actually came in quite handy when I started taking Research & Assessment classes in graduate school). I volunteered to help out a campus ministry in an urban setting, as they sought to incorporate more social justice initiatives into their work. After a year of writing articles, pecking numbers into spreadsheets, planning discussions, paying bills, volunteering to co-facilitate sexual health training in high schools, applying to grad schools, going on campus visits, creating construction paper visual aids for a church in a marginalized community, and just being non-traditionally employed… I packed my belongings and went back to Penn State to study College Student Affairs.
It was there that my endeavors, my passion to serve college students, my bent for social justice & equity, and my type A personality coalesced. I created a dialogue series about professional identity for students of color by using a multicultural theater troupe to enact scenarios that recruiters & employers would respond to. I taught students to wrangle varied experiences into professional & insightful resumes. I studied the dating trends of Black women in college, researched how they decided to partner in college / as emerging adults, and ruminated on the implications of what the perceived or real disparate dating pool in PWI settings did for their sense of belonging in this campus context. I rocked head wraps and a nose ring while citing Museus & Quaye’s (2009) understanding of persistence for students of color, in comparison with Tinto’s (1993) theory of retention. It was after all of this that I began to make career paths as a student affairs professional and as a writer, as well. I went from diversity career coordination at a public state university in the North, to managing multicultural affairs & anti-bias work at a religious university in the rural South, to working with retention & persistence in the Midwest. It was not long until students were coming into my office for advising sessions which typically smell of chai tea with cinnamon & sometimes include musings on how brewing a good cup of tea is related to student persistence.
The varied experiences, coupled with research and best practices, inform the ways in which I work. Looking back, I cannot say that I knew everything would come together to form a full context; at the time, I was doing what I knew to do, based on what I was passionate about. One of the things I encourage my students to do is to learn to communicate their story, in connection with their goals. My story will always be that of how my colorful journey created my identity as a competent and eclectic professional.
This post was originally published, with citations, on my personal blog.