This past month has been an emotional one for me. I’ve left a position at a private institution in Pittsburgh for another at a neighboring university, literally less than two miles away.
The time spent between announcing to my student staff of resident assistants at school A that I would be leaving to this idle Saturday evening seems minute. And yet, I know that a plethora of emotions have built up–including excitement to meet new students, and grief for losing touch with students [now] in the past.
My career in student affairs has been—fluid. I use that term loosely (ironically) because I feel as if I’ve hit most of the big entities within our profession.
If one was to look at my resume, they’d see residence life, orientation, admissions, financial aid, student activities, and athletics emerging as the main point of professional engagement. And yet, they’d also see Greek Life as a steady stream, be it as an undergraduate leader or alumni volunteer.
They’d also see that at 26, I have already earned an Ed.D. in Higher Education from the University of Pittsburgh, which always begs the question: “Wait…you have your doctorate already?”
If fate has taught me anything, it’s that a career in higher education is undefined, and specifically established by each person. I suppose this is what I love the most about working in student affairs. I adore that fact that my career is “authentically” mine. So when I answer the aforementioned question, I always say that “yes…God has led me to where I am…and I’m really OK with it.”
And this is where this blog post claims its relevancy.
I’m going to examine the transitional nature of our field and offer practical (albeit anecdotal) pieces of advice for any aspiring/active/ or alumni member of student affairs practice.
In September 2013, I moved from working full time in residence life to working full time in fraternity/sorority life.
Admittedly, Greek Life has always been the reason I went into student affairs, as it was my Greek experience as an undergrad that enhanced my love for my university, my educational journey, as well as myself. It is also the problem space that I examined in my doctoral dissertation.
Yet, the reality always seemed to be that Greek Life was one of the hardest areas of student affairs practice for a professional to move in to. If you didn’t have an assistantship in Greek Life where you did your graduate work, you typically didn’t meet the basic requirements of a Greek job description. The dichotomy that exists here is that human resources tends to review resumes–and when an HR professional does, he or she may not “speak our language.” For example, you may be worked as a volunteer regional director for your fraternity or sorority, but to this person, that doesn’t equate to “2-3 years professional experience in fraternity/sorority life.” Truth is–I do believe that this is a struggle for every student affairs position that is posted on institution-wide websites, as our “language” or “intentions” remain foreign to other operations of the college/university. But it does seem to be more prevalent in the community-specific positions posted on HR websites (e.g. Greek Life, First/Second Year Experience, Minority Student Recruitment)
But–like every other applicant–I submitted my cover letter, application, and resume. I went through phone interviews, on campus interviews, follow ups, etc. Ultimately, I was offered the job.
Am I nervous? A bit… but I know that I’m equipped with enough knowledge and an appreciation of common sense to function well in this new community; and I know that I love what I do, so my service to students will move beyond happenstance and into the realm of “I want to be here….I want to contribute to these students’ experiences.”
Likewise, I recently received a text message from a friend and colleague of mine from graduate school. She worked in admissions, then in student activities, and recently accepted a job as a retention coordinator. I chuckled a bit and asked her when she was going to “settle down.”
Her response was priceless…
“Yanno, Matthew, it’s funny. I asked myself the same question. But you remember what it was like at Akron [where we did our graduate work in student affairs]. We’re trained to do it all. So I suppose I’m just excited to learn some more ‘on the job.’ Make sense?”
The more I think about it–it makes perfect sense.
We all receive basic education in our preparatory programs. But there is no certification for our field. This has lead me to assume the position that those of us in student affairs, wish to be in student affairs. We don’t just “fall back” on this career.
Therefore…I think that the transitional nature of our jobs in student affairs–from financial aid to multicultural affairs–is intentionally designed. We allow our professionals to move from one site to another, equipped with knowledge collected from personal experience, supervisors, trial and error, and discourse in an effort to unite experience and education into one cohesive tool used to advance student experience.
As a practitioner who recently made the jump from one entity to another–allow me to share with you a few pieces of advice:
1.) Operate with a veil of transparency– Be honest with your supervisor. Don’t list them as a reference and not tell them that you are applying elsewhere. A good manager wants to “keep you” in the company, but may not want you to leave the department. Therefore, reinforce (assuming it’s the truth) that you are enjoying and learning in your current capacity, but seek new knowledge.
2.) Be receptive to new cultures– Our basic knowledge in student affairs may equip us with the ability to do our jobs well, but it does not prepare us to engage in a new student culture. Learn from your students. Allow them to provide feedback on your performance, and where relevant, insert past experiences as a learning tool to move a culture forward.
3.) Don’t take offense to the comparative– You will be “The New Jenny” or “The New Justin”. Students have already connected with your predecessor. Allow them to have their memories. I always tell my students that “I’m not the new John…I’m Matthew. But I am the new Coordinator of Fraternity and Sorority Life.” What is meant here is that perhaps “John” and I will have some things in common; but more often than not, we won’t–we’re different people. Let the students know that you intend to “do you” and be who YOU are as a professional. At the same time, let them work through the “loss” that exists when a past supervisor or adviser leaves. Remember– patience is a virtue!
4.) Don’t lose touch– Probably most importantly, a move from one area to another was done with some intention–either promotion, self-reflection, by virtue of the higher ups, etc. Know that students will miss you, and that ultimately, they just see you leaving them. So–it never hurts to “like” a student’s Facebook status, or send them a letter in the mail to their campus address that just says “Thinking of you :-)”. Keep communication consistent and constant.
5.) No matter the title, you’re an educator– What we do in student affairs is rather basic—we contribute to a student’s growth, learning, and development. No matter how trivial one may think your work is, know that what you do is important. Likewise…YOU have to love what you do. You don’t have to “like” it from time to time, but you always have to “love” it. And if you don’t…perhaps moving from position to position within student affairs isn’t actually the kind of move you need.
Here is a picture of the Greek community I now work with…
There’s perhaps 150 students represented here…
Yet, I have rosters that equate to 3,000.
How do I do it? Simple.
…I love what I do–and I believe in the impact I can have each day.
This is why I am authentically student affairs. How about you?