NOTE: In honor of October being Careers in Student Affairs Month, and to celebrate ACPA’s #WhatsYourWhy campaign, I’m reposting one of my very first posts that explains why I joined the field. Enjoy and look out for the second part of my thoughts on delegation next week!
Both ACPA and NASPA celebrate Careers in Student Affairs Month in October, and with ACPA’s #WhatsYourWhy campaign happening, I thought it would be a great idea for one of the first posts at GotDegrees to be about the profession that I fell into after several attempts to avoid it- student affairs administration. Part of me feels like a bit of reflection is good for the soul; the rest of me figures it’s a good way to further introduce you to me and what I’m about.
Welcome back to the reenergized GotDegrees.com! After taking an unexpected 11 month vacation from this space, I’ve decided to reopen my old blog and to write again. Where was I, you may ask? How does running five professional staff searches and a 75 person student staff search, managing a RA program and residential region/helping to run an office through a complete staff turnover, student deaths, and morale crises, and reestablishing myself in the Greater Boston area sound to you?
Yeah, I hated it as much as you probably hated reading it, so… let’s leave it in the past where it belongs.
I’ve learned more about student affairs, management and organizational behavior, and myself in the past fifteen months than I had in the nearly ten years prior that I’ve been doing this work, and I figured it was time to share some of that with others. Having been in the position of mid-level manager, hiring manager, program director, departmental representative and more in my (not-so-new) role, I actually feel like I have something to say again, so hopefully this will be the last of the “I’m back!” posts that go up with no subsequent posts for weeks. No more writer’s block for me!
Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, what have I actually learned? Before we get there, let’s look back at a quote from my last post in November 2015:
From personal experience, there are days where it feels more like midnight just struck, your carriage turned into a pumpkin and you’re miles from home with no glass slippers on your feet or a dime in your pocket (and you work in education, so let’s emphasize that no dimes part). For instance, I spent the better part of my evening on Friday night and tonight making sure sheets and towels were dry and clean for a candidate’s apartment – not because I have a fetish for clean laundry, but because it needed to get done and I didn’t have someone else around to check on it. It happens.
Time to call bullshit on myself: I could have TOTALLY asked someone else to wash those sheets and towels… but I didn’t want to ask. Why does this matter? Over the past fifteen months since I got promoted, I’ve met more unhappy people in this field than I would like to admit. They all have their own reasons for being unhappy, but one of the biggest ones is that they feel overworked, underpaid and not at all connected to the reasons why they do this work. Some of that is totally valid – SAPros learn early on to do more with less and to give 120% all of the time, which is totally unhealthy and unsustainable. However, some of the unhappiness can only be traced back to us. That’s right – most of us are miserable because we choose to be.
How many of the people that you know in this field are Type A, wannabe SuperSAPros in Clark Kent disguises? How many of us ARE the ones in the disguises? You can put your hand down now – I totally can’t see you through the screen (I promise!).. Too many times, we take too much on for any number of reasons: you don’t want to ask someone else to help and burden them, no one else can do things like you want them done, taking the time to explain takes longer than just doing it yourself, insert your own example here…None of these reasons are ultimately valid, and we know that – nor are any of them the REAL reason why we can’t let go in most cases.
So what is that real reason? For many of us, I’d guess that the real reason is that so much of what we do has become part of our identity that letting go can mean letting go of who we are. In moving up, I’ve learned that many of the roles I fulfilled as an entry-level staff member are best done by the folks in those roles – because they know their students and their populations better than I ever will at this point. I like to say to my staff now that I’ve had my turn at doing what they do – and that I loved it – but that now it’s time for them to do the same. So much of what makes many of us miserable can be directly tied to micromanagement by supervisors who don’t get that reliving their glory days on the ground floor isn’t what leading is about – mostly because they haven’t expanded their understanding of who they are beyond the “fun patrol” and “big brother/sister” roles that entry level staff are stereotypically put in.
Last year, I took on so many of the moving parts of the program that I run in an attempt to make sure everything ran smoothly that I cheated my staff out of learning opportunities and I ran myself ragged. I got to the point where I questioned whether I wanted to continue doing the job I was doing. It took a couple of our since departed staff to say that they were leaving because they didn’t have access to the opportunities they needed – opportunities I was essentially hogging because I was on the surface nervous about their abilities or eager to prove myself in a new role (but really because I was being selfish) – for me to realize that I hadn’t done well with the most important part of being a leader: leading others through the process of learning and growing rather than dragging them through a rehash of my own early career years. I ended the academic year feeling like I had failed them, but I also ended the year with a plan to avoid doing the same to our new recruits.
I’ll talk more next week about what I’ve done specifically this year to be a better delegator, but I leave you with the following thought to chew on: Eventually if you love what you do and stay in this field long enough, you end up in roles that realistically are less connected to the day to day student experience and more about building up those who ARE connected to that experience. What sense does it make to take that experience that many of us loved so much and that motivated us to move up in the first place from the people that follow us? What do we lose when we refuse to get out of our team’s way? What do we become?
Let’s put a pin in that for now – more on delegating next Wednesday! Thanks for reading my musings and hope to see you around here again!
So, as promised, I’m back with what I hope will be the first of many new posts on the reinvigorated GotDegrees- and you’re probably thinking, “He came back to discourage people from going into student affairs? Guess that new job is working out stellar for him…”
First off – yes, it actually is going well, but that’s beside the point… and more importantly, this isn’t an Anti-Student Affairs post, no matter how the title may make it seem. I love this field and want people to join us in this important work, but after spending the past few years of my life as a SAPro and the past few weeks chairing a professional staff search process, I’ve been thinking a lot about professional fit and what happens to people who don’t necessarily fit into their given roles after starting with excitement and enthusiasm. I’ve also been thinking about how SAPros find themselves in Student Affairs and if I’ve done a good job being an effective ambassador for the field with students I knew who were interested in grad school or professional positions in Student Affairs.
All of this came to a head for me while reading an article on why telling someone to “do what you love” may not be the best idea when it comes to career advice on Mic.com’s website. In short summation of the article, the author says that doing what we love to do as a profession doesn’t always pay the bills or work out in the long run, and that in the rare case it does one may find that they don’t necessarily love doing said activity day in and day out with a supervisor monitoring their progress (read the article – there’s much more involved in the piece and it’s great and thought-provoking in a way I can only hope to be here). After reading, I was left wondering about how folks get into the work I choose to do on a daily basis (specifically residence life, but student affairs more broadly) and why it is that more than a few of them end up leaving the field a few years later feeling disillusioned. Let me be the first to say that I think the answer to this question is far more complicated than “Do What You Love” not working out for people- there are questions raised around supervision and orientation, realistic expectations placed on staff members, general burnout related to being “on” almost all or all of the time, and related issues that we can’t ignore as a field- but the article does shine a light on the pathways that we often take into the field and if we do a good enough job of being honest about the sometimes ugly truths of student affairs.
Why Doing What You Love May Not Be Enough In Student Affairs
Think about it- if you’re working in student affairs, what got you started? Individual stories will vary, but I would bet my next paycheck (not THAT much money, folks- don’t get excited) that the story goes something like this: you were involved in some way on campus (or maybe overinvolved), you were good at it, someone told you that you could do this for a living, and a lightbulb went off in your head – end scene. Am I right? It’s definitely what happened for me, although it took me a good three or four years to actually accept that this field what where I needed to be. We all get into this work because on some level, we like working with students, we love being involved and committed individuals and we think that we can make a difference. We want to save the world- whether that world is our office, the campus we work on, or the entire, literal world (for you overachievers out there J). In theory, there’s nothing wrong with this- it propels us forward and can get you through some tough days to have a purpose and meaning behind what you do.
But… sometimes loving your students and wanting to save the world isn’t enough. The reality of the work that we do is that it can be messy, stressful, thankless and downright ugly some days. Depending upon your role, you may be expected to work evenings and on weekends. You may see students (and in some cases other professionals) at their worst physically, mentally and emotionally and then have to move on with your day without always having the chance to unpack what happened. You get asked to do mundane, annoying tasks sometimes, and your time is rarely your own. If you live on campus, you don’t get to walk away from your work – you literally eat, sleep and breathe a short distance from your office in many cases.
Even after you spend your first few years doing grunt work and being the low person on the totem pole to make it to a mid-level position, it’s not like your fairy godmother suddenly shows up, turns you into royalty and you get to meet your Prince or Princess Charming at the ball. From personal experience, there are days where it feels more like midnight just struck, your carriage turned into a pumpkin and you’re miles from home with no glass slippers on your feet or a dime in your pocket (and you work in education, so let’s emphasize that no dimes part). For instance, I spent the better part of my evening on Friday night and tonight making sure sheets and towels were dry and clean for a candidate’s apartment – not because I have a fetish for clean laundry, but because it needed to get done and I didn’t have someone else around to check on it. It happens. Let’s not pretend that it changes at the top of the totem pole either- I can give you names and e-mail addresses of people I currently work with or previously worked with who can blow that fantasy out of the water quickly with some horror stories good enough to make you think it’s STILL Halloween.
In spite of all of this, plenty of SAPros stay in the field, move up, and for the most part can truly say that they enjoy what they do – because at some point we figure out that work is called “work” for a reason and it’s easier to be positive and embrace the crazy than to be bogged down in it and whine. At least, I hope we have that realization – sometimes I worry that new professionals don’t always see it that way and feel that because every day isn’t a party that they made a mistake or that somehow the folks they work for need to be extra accommodating to keep them happy. Obviously, as supervisors, we need to be attentive to staff needs and do all we can to retain good SAPros – but sometimes this includes a need for a reality check that honestly needed to happen at the undergraduate/graduate student level.
Setting Potential New Recruits Up For Success
As I said in the outset, this isn’t meant to be an anti-SA post by any means- so how do we make the best of the situation and help to set folks up to thrive without pushing people out of the field?
First, when students say they want to go into the field (or when you have new professionals who want to move up, for that matter), have an honest conversation about why. If the main reason is because they think what they do now is fun and think that the next step up is more of the same, challenge them to think about the full picture. Not every RA wants to be an RD when they find out that they do room inspections, run conduct meetings, serve in on-duty rotations and get called all night, and have to do extra work on weekends- and not every RD wants to be an AD who has to write performance evaluations, sit on multiple campus committees, and navigate institutional politics on a daily basis. We don’t have to scare people away, but pulling the curtain back a bit and talking about the less glamorous parts of our jobs is truth in advertising that can save our supervisees heartache and frustration in the long run. My question in the title is obviously a joke referencing Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, but sometimes it doesn’t hurt to ask- because you’ll find out very quickly if they have solid reasoning for moving into student affairs or if they just want to have an extended college experience.
Provide shadowing opportunities when appropriate and encourage internships when possible. The best way to know if something will work for you is to try it out, particularly in a setting where you get to talk to people in the roles you want and learn from them. If your student is going into a grad program, make sure their field education or practicum program is strong and interns get to do more than make copies and get coffee. If you’re working with new professionals, try to bring them to meetings or share information about assignments on your plate. Just like first-generation college students who make it to campus and have no context for going forward, many people looking to move into new roles don’t have the slightest idea about what they look like day to day and can have unrealistic expectations- it’s better to burst the bubbles in a low-risk way that allows them time to figure out a plan B than to figure this out while in the role and then be coached out by an unsympathetic supervisor.
Most importantly, be honest and “keep it real” with your students and staff- professionally, of course. If you know that someone you work with may not be cut out for some of the challenges of this field, be honest with them. Again, I’d rather break your heart now while you have time to figure things out than to let you go down a path that is not for you. To the extent that you can, be clear with students and new staff about the challenges of our roles – obviously in a way that doesn’t denigrate others in departments or across campuses- but if you notice concerns in their performance that could lead to issues down the line, you owe it to the future supervisor who may inherit them to help them correct the issues. I try to be as transparent with my team now about what they would face if moving into mid-level roles because I didn’t always get those messages – my hope is to not only humanize the roles mid-level staff play in their minds but to also give them the impression that they can definitely do what I do if they are willing to put in the work.
In all honesty, I do think that for many people hearing the message that I’m proposing we share won’t be a deterrent and not everyone who gets into Student Affairs ends up feeling duped later on. However, I’ve seen enough people who enjoy being the “big brother/sister” or the “counselor” but loathe other parts of the roles the play – at the entry-level through senior leadership – and it wreaks havoc in ways that make other people reconsider the field as well. Being open and honest at the outset makes for better informed students and employees, who will then be good stewards of the field themselves. Doing what you love isn’t always a reality- that’s life- but when it comes to a high-stress, critical field like ours, taking that extra second to check your final answer can make all the difference.
Hope this got you thinking about how you personally represent what you do and our field – share your comments and thoughts below and pass this along to colleagues or staff members if you enjoyed it. More to come from me next week!