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”