Time to let them see behind the curtain. Are we overselling a career in Student Affairs?

A conversation this morning with Jeff Lail and Sally Watkins really has me thinking.  Are we overselling our profession and is this negatively impacting the longevity of our young professionals?  I think we are.

Here’s how the story goes for many.  Somewhere along the way you get involved on campus.  You link up with an advisor, mentor, hall director, and so on who says something like, “You know you can do this for a living, right?”  Student Affairs professionals, more than most, love it when we hear someone wants to do our work.  Most of us value our work and it is a sign of respect and admiration when a student expresses interest.  Next thing you know a professional has taken you under her wing, taken you to conferences, and shared with you all the rewards that a life in higher education will bring.  What’s missing?

Here’s what happened for me.

I was an overly involved student and as a sophomore RA, student government leader, and Class President identified that I wanted to be a Student Affairs professional.  My mentor did all of the above, but more.  Under his guidance, I enrolled in courses outside of my major that would strengthen my critical thinking, reading, and analytical thought.  I was encouraged to continue my path in student government and became student trustee where I learned all about institutional politics.  I was able to go to staff meetings, be a part of the budget process, and even supervise other students.  I was encouraged to turn my work in the Student Involvement Office into an academic internship, where I was required to put my work into a portfolio, make decisions, and justify my work.  I was a fly on the wall of many conversations and meetings that most students are not privy to.  On top of the usual conferences, my mentor took me to meet colleagues at other institutions who are Deans/VPs.  I listened and asked questions as they discussed the issues on their campuses and what things they were working on.  I was fortunate to be given a realistic view of what my work in Student Affairs would be like.  As a result, I was fully prepared as a grad and new professional and have progressed quickly as a result.  I do my best to pass this approach onto both the students and the grads I work with.

We need more of this in our profession.  At most conferences I attend, there is some sort of session, roundtable or talk on “growing the profession.”  We need to stop and think about how to grow our profession.  Do we want a wave of new professionals who enter the field thinking their work will be much like their experience on the programming board, as an RA, or peer advisor?  Do we want a field of new professionals who chose their field only because what they saw from their mentors, or what was presented to them?  OR do we want a field of new professionals who understand the holistic work and not just the icebreakers, ice cream, events, and laughs that most students see and are capable and willing to the job in its entirety? If we are not realistic in telling our story while recruiting, we run the risk of having new professionals who are not cut out or who burn out quickly.

Additionally and consequently, we also need to better prepare our new professionals for mid-level management.  The higher one climbs in our field, the less the job becomes like that dreamy, fun, college job that many first perceived when expressing their interest in this work.  We need to teach, emphasize and require hard skills and competencies such as budgeting, legal affairs, risk management, and technology not just in a textbook, but in a way that is practical.  Most undergraduate students do not see higher education as a business, and this is problematic when they enter their graduate programs.  There is only so much damage that can be undone in a two year graduate program.

By no means am I trying to be a negative curmudgeon and say our work is not fun, meaningful, and important.  After all, my first strength is positivity and I have written about it before.  What I am trying to say, however, is that I fear that is all some people think our work is.  It is certainly all of those things, but like any work, can also be stressful, political, and challenging.  This is also why we are not so good at justifying our work with our academic colleagues (another post for another day).

I think Student Affairs is but one example to a greater problem with career decision-making.  People choose careers at a dangerously young age for so many wrong decisions (money, fame, comfort, power, respect, parental choice, etc.)  We are in the field of education, we owe it to ourselves and our students to encourage them to make an informed decision about their path to a career in higher education by being honest and allowing them to have many opportunities to see it for themselves.

Like the Wizard of Oz, it is time for us to let them see the “man behind the curtain”

What was your path to Student Affairs like?  Were you prepared for your work?  Any surprises?  Share your story.

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19 thoughts on “Time to let them see behind the curtain. Are we overselling a career in Student Affairs?

  1. What makes our field unique is that you don’t grow up saying “hey, I’d like to be a student affairs professional some day”. This is a profession sometimes discovered by those who have decided their original career idea wasn’t for them or who had no idea at all. You couple that with the fact that I think some of us oversell the profession because we’re trying to sell ourselves as well. We don’t want to peel back the curtain because we’re afraid our own doubts might be revealed as well. So many of us were unprepared for the full picture, we want to ride on unicorns sliding down rainbows. So then we end up perpetuating the cycle of selling that vision to those who come after us. If other people are so passionate about going into the field, it somehow validates our own decision. Every profession has its challenges days you want to go home and never return. But many of US need to pay attention to the man behind the curtain before we can ever hope bring others behind it.

    • Agreed with all you mention, Chris. What especially resonates is the fact that we oversell to sell ourselves. I see and hear it happen a lot. We first need to be realistic with ourselves about our work.

  2. I have a B.A. in Religious Studies/Spanish and a Master’s in Social Work. It was exactly the right path for me to develop the critical thinking skills, empathy, and personal experience needed to be a great academic advisor. In some ways, I wonder if I have an advantage over colleagues of mine who early in their undergraduate studies realized they would pursue a career in higher education. They spent most of undergrad, and all of grad, preparing to work at a university. I connect best with my students when I get a chance to use some of my personal experiences and struggles in choosing a major, and choosing a master’s degree, and then choosing a career field.

    • I think we over value our graduate programs. We need to do a lot of rethinking what is important for us to teach in those programs. That’s why so many, such as you mention above, take a different path and feel all the better for it.

  3. Great post – definitely a needed conversation. One of your experiences that is unique is that you were able to turn your SA experiences into an academic internship early on. As a profession, we can really initiate some change in the tides if we build these internship experiences in collaboration with our faculty colleagues with intentional learning outcomes, reflection and assessment. Through that process, we will build more positive, substantive exchanges with faculty colleagues while we are also growing the profession in a manner that is more realistic.

    We’ve tried to sustain some active connections with our students who are interested in student affairs careers through events for Careers in Student Affairs Month (October). Since that month is coming faster than we want to admit, what are things we can do differently during a time of formal “marketing” for our profession? Given our focus IS education, how do we reframe the education about our careers? Maybe our friends from ACPA and NASPA could help with a reframe of that effort?

    • We do need to re grade how we educate about our profession and it starts by using an educational approach vs a sales approach. The internship was huge for me. We’ve replicated it a few times now. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

      • One of the challenges we see with the internship component is that there aren’t many easy “homes” within academic departments. In reality, I find we can offer great internships for students in communication studies, management, psychology and we even did directed study research projects for English as well as Political Science! Ah, creativity 🙂

    • Cindy, I really want to your next comment, but the threading doesn’t go that deep. I think some of the internship piece can also extend to our own students–not only sending them to, say, Marketing, but also to some of the less Student Affairs-y areas, like Registration. When I was looking at GAs & Practicums, EM & Registration weren’t options, or even discussed as functional areas–getting into Registration felt like I was abandoning my education in some ways. I still feel a little “outside” of many SA conversations. Students interested in the field really DO need to be exposed to all the aspects of our field, especially the day-to-day “boring” stuff that keeps the parties and orientations running.

  4. I agree that too many times a well-meaning SApro who loves what they do and loves their student leader(s) suggest the field as an option. Partly it’s the love of the work, and I think partly it’s ego – it feels good to have students “follow in your footsteps.” Who would not eat that up?

    Your point about not demonstrating the challenges and changes that come from the transition from student leadership to being a professional is spot on. I learned that higher ed is a business the hard way – halfway into my grad program, and 2 years into work as an RD. I felt betrayed, and I took a long hiatus from the field after completing my MA…I really had no intention at the time to return, and felt that my graduate work was a big waste.

    I think something that is fueling this right now is that there are so many people going into graduate school, and employers who used to leave the Masters off their PD’s, now say “Masters preferred,” and those that used to have those qualifications, now say “Masters required.” The message being sent is that one needs to get a MA/MS/MEd before getting a job in the field. I think this is a disservice to those who have not had the chance to learn about the work. One has to commit to a graduate program in order to learn these lessons…and they may not be learned until after the program is done.

    • You make an important point that is spot on. We have very little leeway for one to explore our field as a career option given most jobs require the investment of a masters.

  5. I had another thought about this process. I deeply respect the role your mentor played in allowing you to see the wider landscape of student affairs, and I would say we need a lot more of that. With that said, I want to add an additional element to that- new professionals, don’t be afraid to be mentors!!

    Mid level managers easily slide into this role because they’ve been doing it longer, and we get a level of mentorship and guidance in graduate programs (if that’s the route into the field that you take!) from SSAOs. But when I think about all the examples that we had to work from in grad school, they were from the perspective of levels higher than new professionals. As such, some may enter the field feeling that they have more of a chance to make an impact than those in the early stages get to enact from their spot in the trenches. And when that’s not your reality in your first or second year on the job, that creates dissonance.

    Is some of the dissonance coming from the fact that preparatory programs miss the lens of new professional-hood? And are active, enthusiastic new professionals shining a light on what they do, good and bad? I wonder if this difference in perspective would make a difference…

  6. I love this post! As an undergraduate student right now, who is seriously considering a career in Student Affairs, my mentors, and those I know in the field, have done a great job of helping me realize the whole scope of student affairs, and have encouraged me to go outside of their expertise to learn more about the field (I recently followed the #CACUSS conference hashtag, and I frequently read blogs about Student Affairs.)

    I’m excited because I get to participate in a semester long internship through a course next year, and I’m hoping to be placed in the Office of Student Affairs so I’ll be able to 1) build my resumé and 2) really experience what it’s like to work in that field and not just benefit from the resources they provide.

    • Sounds like you are getting to see behind the curtain! Ask your questions and observe as much as you can. Utilize the #sachat community if you have questions, need advice, etc. We all love to talk and help. Thanks for reading and more importantly, for sharing your thoughts.

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