Forging My Own Path

by Kristen Abell

Last week on the #SAchat, the topic was “getting ahead in student affairs” – which I think might have been a little tongue in cheek on the part of the moderator, but I think it still begs a good question. What does it mean to get ahead in student affairs? And exactly why do we strive to do it?

Well, sorry, but I’m not here to answer those questions for you today. Instead, I thought it might be nice to share the path of a nontraditional student affairs professional – one who has bucked the ladder completely, as well as most definitions of getting ahead. Too often we hear of those who progress straight up the ladder and think we must be doing it wrong. I want to offer a different perspective for those who just aren’t sure the ladder is for them.

First of all, I got into student affairs the same way most of us did – as an undergrad who stumbled into an RA role and found I had an aptitude for leadership. But unlike many of our colleagues, I didn’t go on to get my master’s in higher education – I got mine in social welfare. I held down a 20 – 24-hour internship both years of my grad school program while also serving as an assistant hall coordinator. And of course, because of all that, I wore myself down and ended up with pneumonia, but that’s a story for another time.

Once I graduated, I struggled to find a job that was a good fit for me – I was hoping for a job in a women’s center, but those were few and far between. I finally ended up working in a TRIO program on my alma mater’s campus for a year until my partner graduated. We moved together halfway across the country, where I found a job in residence life doing training and curriculum for student staff. In many ways, the position was a great fit for my interests. In other ways, the atmosphere was not. But I stuck it out for my partner’s two years of grad school until we moved again for his first full-time job.

I spent half a year out of work because the university he was working at was going through and economic crisis and was downsizing instead of hiring. I then stumbled across dream job number one – in a women’s center at my alma mater. I worked in this position for approximately two years – it was a sexual assault education and services position. During that time, I had a child and decided I wanted to be a teacher. So I went back to school and added a third major to my bachelor’s degree in English. All while working full-time and taking care of a newborn with my partner. Did I mention that I’m not always the smartest of cookies?

In any case, after thinking about the fact that I would have to be an extrovert for eight hours of the day in order to be a teacher, I quickly dispensed with that career choice and instead became the assistant director of a women’s center on another campus closer to my house. I held this position for two years, became extremely involved in my regional NASPA board, and got to be known as a bit of techie in student affairs on my campus. I also got the chance to really dig in and hone my social media skills in this job, as well as my web editing skills.

When an associate director position in student housing with responsibilities for marketing and online presence opened up at the same university, it seemed like a great chance for me to continue to hone my social media and tech skills in an area in which I already had a lot of knowledge. Little did I know how much that job would change within just a few months of me starting it. The director was promoted shortly after I began there, and I took on acting director responsibilities for the next two years, finally being promoted to director. This left very little time for expanding my marketing and tech skills, but hey, I was on the right path headed up, right?

Or at least I was until I began to be plagued by a series of health problems exacerbated by my stress level – and the fact that I almost never stopped working anymore. Why was I doing this again? Just because it was the logical next step? Suddenly, that didn’t seem like such a good reason. When a position in our marketing and communications office on campus opened up, I threw all caution to the wind and applied – being completely honest about the fact that I had minimal web development skills but was eager to learn and I had plenty of other translatable skills to bring with me. I didn’t get it – instead, I had an incredibly supportive vice chancellor at that time that wanted to keep me and created a similar position that was also half-time student affairs so I could remain a part of the division and continue to advise my colleagues on their online presence.

It was a step down and over, and not everyone understood it. Some people who are at the director level don’t talk to me nearly as much or respond to my emails as quickly. I’m sure I lost credibility with some folks in professional associations or that I had met through social media because I took a path less travelled. You know what? I’m okay with that – those people don’t have to live my life. Those people don’t get to come home to my awesome family, enjoy the books I read, or the hobbies that I find entertaining.

At the time for me, it seemed like dream position number two. Then I realized that there really is no dream position – I really love parts of my job. I really struggle with other parts of it. It’s not a dream – it’s reality. And it won’t be my last position, but it’s a good fit for me right now. I’m building some great skills, learning what things I love and what I don’t, and I know when the next position comes along, I’ll be ready for it.

If you also have a different path, I invite you to share yours, too – let’s change the perception that the only way to go in student affairs is up. Share a blog post or a video about your path and link to it in the comments below. I know there are people that want to hear your story.

Forging My Own Path

4 thoughts on “Forging My Own Path

  1. cindykane says:

    So glad you posted this… I have always felt that my strengths would like in a “detour” to something different but I’m still wondering what that might be. I have a bit of an entrepeneurial interest that is nicely supported in the world of student activities…everything is always new and different with a lot of room for innovation. However, traditional thinking in our field would say that I need to choose the move up instead of something that will engage those strengths. Yes, wouldn’t it be lovely to find both? 🙂


    1. Thanks for reading and commenting, Cindy. Yes, I agree – the move up that would also provide that engagement would be great. And I hope that some day we’ll have more of those types of positions that make us stretch. For now, I’ll just do my stretching on my own 🙂


  2. lmendersby says:

    I’m pretty sure I just tried to high five the screen. Thank you for this, Kristen. It’s amazing how much space is given to the more dominant or ‘right’ narratives about professional paths. There is so much of our identity caught up in our titles and our work (I know, in part, because I’m very guilty of clinging to that ideal, particularly in times of great stress and transition). It’s amazing the amount of ‘othering’ that can happen when we look at people with non traditional paths – sure, it sounds great and all, but it’s not for us. We did it ‘right’. Venting and rambling aside, I really appreciate and continue to be grateful for your authentic approach to this amazing journey we call life. You are modelling and ‘walking the walk’ of the talk we share about unique pathways to success. Finding something that engages and excites you won’t always be a fancy title or prestigious position, maybe it will just be something that fills you and makes you smile. Thanks for this and, please, keep writing.


  3. Anne Skinner says:

    Great post Kristen, thanks for sharing! One of the smartest things I’ve ever heard about careers was from KU Prof. Tom Krieshok. He said that people tend to go after the jobs they want instead of jobs they like. The want is often dictated by what we are “supposed” to do. I shifted from a professional career path to administrative, and I couldn’t be happier!


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