Teaching Critical Thinking

by Kristen Abell

We are almost constantly surrounded by reports of what is happening in the world today, what with everyone being a reporter on social media. As I paged through my Facebook and Twitter feeds today and saw all that was going on in Baltimore, it became increasingly apparent to me that the one thing we’re not exposed to is critical thinking. What does this mean?

In my opinion, critical thinking is the ability to view differing perspectives and identify what is most likely the truth in the information that is being provided, and then evaluating that information to come up with your own opinion about the events taking place. (Although if someone has another definition of critical thinking, I’d be open to hearing it).

If I depended solely on the media to provide my news, I might see that several police have been injured in Baltimore (but no mention of citizens), there have been massive riots and looting, and this is all occurring over the death of Freddie Gray. If I look further, I can see that it’s likely there have also been citizens hurt – whether by police or other rioters, that there were peaceful protests happening, as well, and this is most likely a result of a much longer systemic oppression of the African-American community in Baltimore (and the United States), and not just the death of one man. But the question remains – how did I come to learn to look deeper, to apply critical thinking to the reports with which I’m surrounded? How do we teach this to our students?

I think there are a number of ways we can do this – discussing current events with students, asking them to report from differing perspectives, etc. – but I’m interested in how our student affairs colleagues specifically are doing this. Are you having these conversations with your students? Are you engaging them in discussion that pushes them to think outside their possibly limited viewpoint? More importantly, are you engaging in these practices yourself so that you can role model this for them?

Please share in the comments below if you are using innovative ways of teaching critical thinking – I’d love to find out more about how we’re teaching this very necessary skill in today’s world.

Teaching Critical Thinking

Reflections on #CCPA15 Spring Institute

This past weekend, I had the pleasure of attending and presenting at the California College Personnel Association (CCPA) Spring Institute.  You can catch social media highlights curated by the folks at CCPA in this Storify post.  I thought I’d share a couple of my takeaways:

Ascend to what end?

The conference theme was “Ascent: Climbing the Steps of Your Student Affairs Career,” which I found intriguing enough.  Then ACPA Vice President Donna Lee (@DeanDonnaLee) delivered a dynamic lunchtime keynote and brought the discourse to another level when she asked us, “Ascend to what end?”  In sharing some of her professional journey, she encouraged us to reflect on our paths, passions, and purposes.   She also mentioned that ascent doesn’t always mean up, which was a helpful reminder that a professional trajectory need not be a straight slope. Sometimes I feel myself getting caught up in the race to the top and comparing myself to other people.  Checking in with the question of “Ascend to what end?” reminded me to think about my values and to reflect on my journey with that lens.

Think local

If you are not a member of a local professional organization, I encourage you to find one and jump on board now!  Both ACPA and NASPA have regional versions of their national organizations, and many functionally-focused groups also have presence at state or regional levels.  Leadership opportunities abound at this level, and are an especially great entry point for graduate students and new professionals (plug for my CA friends – CCPA elections and appointed position applications are now open).  Professional development programs from these groups also tend to more accessible, both in terms of finances and logistics, as events are typically cheaper and closer than national ones.  And, of course, networking with local colleagues is fun and can be particularly useful for geographically-bound folks looking for jobs.

Gratitude

Shoutouts go to the CCPA Leadership Team and volunteers for putting on a great event, the California College of the Arts for hosting, all the engaging presenters and speakers, and the many enthusiastic participants.

Reflections on #CCPA15 Spring Institute

ACPA Digital Task Force Report

by Kristen Abell

Last year around this time, ACPA announced that they would be convening a Digital Task Force to look at digital technology in higher education and explore what we needed to do in order to move the field forward. A group of people from the field was pulled together to conduct research on and provide recommendations to the association specifically in the area of digital technology. A year later, this group has released their report on their findings and recommendations from four core subcommittees: Proven Practices, Knowledge and Skills, Research and Scholarship, and Informed and Responsible Engagement with Social Technologies.

Rather than rehashing the report here for you, I’m providing the link to it below. I served as the co-chair for the Knowledge and Skills subcommittee, so I’m going to refrain from analyzing this report at this time. However, I’d love to hear your thoughts about this – whether in the comments below or in an email to me directly at kabell96@gmail.com if you’re comfortable. I believe that both ACPA and NASPA have started to make great strides when it comes to recognizing the impact of technology on our field, and I’m excited to see the advances we make over the next year in this area.

ACPA Digital Task Force Draft Report and Recommendations

ACPA Digital Task Force Report

Yik YUCK: Anonymous Social Media at a Student Affairs Conference

by Niki Messmore

Social media platforms that provide anonymity are rarely used for the force of good. The opportunity to step outside of social norms is tempting when provided an opportunity to be anonymous on the internet. So what happens when a small number of individuals at the 2015 NASPA Conference (#naspa15) begin using the app Yik Yak?

The following: Yaks complaining of sessions, trying to hook up, sexist and sexually suggestive remarks about women, body shaming, entitlement of a ‘vacation’, etc. However, on the positive side there are Yaks with thoughtful ideas and social justice education. A full list of screenshots has been compiled on Storify, along with some Twitter commentary.

Ultimately, there is nothing wrong with Yik Yak. This social media platform is like “The Force” from Star Wars – it exists and can be utilized by either the Light or the Dark Side, depending on the character and the choices of the people using it.

So why do a small number of individuals out of a conference of 8,000 people opt to embrace the Dark Side? Dr. John Suler of Rider University argues in the article “The Online Disinhibition Effect” (2004) that there are six factors why people engage in nasty antics on the internet – dissociative anonymity, invisibility, asynchronicity, solipsistic introjection, dissociative imagination, and minimization of authority.

That’s deeper than my word count will allow. However, Suler had a nice summary: “Rather than thinking of disinhibition as the revealing of an underlying “true self,” we can conceptualize it as a shift to a constellation within self-structure, involving clusters of affect and cognition that differ from the in-person constellation.”

So it’s not necessarily that we are seeing the “true selves” of these likely Student Affairs professionals and graduate students when they make awful anonymous statements, but rather we are seeing an aspect of these folks under a certain set of circumstances.

That still doesn’t make the issue any less awful.

I am absolutely disgusted and appalled by the sexually suggestive remarks about women that were made [link]. Some appear benign, perhaps even categorized as compliments rather than harassment, but the individual who wanted to “call dibs” on the “Jennifer Lawrence look-alike” is a total creep. And the body shaming comment [link]? Please have several seats.

Besides exposing some sexism and sizism, the Yaks have also shown something that we already know – some folks believe that conferences are vacations. Now, sometimes people have to fully fund their conference attendance so I say they can vacation their little heart out. But the entitlement of some people, such as this Yak, is eye-wincing. Comments like this also go back to the issue of “work-life balance”. To be honest, we probably don’t have any balance because we waste so much time discussing this subject, but there is something seriously wrong when student affairs professionals feel their conference trip is the only time they get to be away from students…

The responses to these Yaks has been interesting. Many have harshly condemned the yaks, a few have joked about it and don’t take them seriously, and some see the Yaks as part of a larger professional crisis.

Regarding the latter, I have to say this: Student Affairs does exist in external formulas when it comes to the profession’s credibility. I’ve seen quite a few tweets worrying how these Yaks could ruin ‘everything we’ve worked for’ to make ourselves credible to faculty, administration, and other key populations (something I think we need to stop worrying about altogether). But let’s stop that hand-wringing right here: Student Affairs has problems, yes, but so does every other profession. Academic Affairs is always in the news for scandals, whether it is the behavior of professors smoking on airplanes or the many accounts of racism, and sexual harassment/assault. We’re gonna be alright, #SAfam.

So, how should we respond?

The statement by NASPA was a great addition to the chorus of folks calling out the behavior on Twitter. I hope we continue to have this conversation within professional development for staff and graduate students. Additionally, I hope that we can be professional in these conversations online and offline – already I’ve seen comments that I perceive as unprofessional in the method of how they are critiquing the #naspa15 Yik Yak people.

PLEASE watch this TedTalk by Monica Lewinisky (“The Price of Shame“) that has been receiving acclaim lately. Recognize that cyber-bullying hurts – this is for both the people that have been mentioned on YikYak as well as how we treat the people who made the mistake of posting harmful and sometimes disturbing comments.

In addition, please read this series of tweets by @BlackGirlDanger on how we shouldn’t publicly shame people who mess up and instead provide space for them to do better. Remember – even Darth Vader was able to redeem himself from the Dark Side.

Thanks,

@NikiMessmore

 

Yik YUCK: Anonymous Social Media at a Student Affairs Conference

The Scope of Technology

by Kristen Abell

I am often a bit befuddled by talk of technology in student affairs, as it so commonly focuses on social media – which uses technology, but isn’t necessarily technology in and of itself. I also find it interesting now that I work on website development the number of people that assume I work in IT because obviously, websites = technology (note: I don’t work in IT). Also true, and yet not.

The other day I was talking with one of our IT staff in the hallway. She commented how she could set up new computers for people all day, but she had no idea how to train them to develop or maintain websites. I countered with the fact that I could train them, but when it comes to the hardware, please leave me out of it. It’s a commonly accepted fact outside of technology that if you work in computers, you know everything about them. When the reality is quite the opposite. The more I learn about technology, the more I recognize that I don’t know about the broader field of tech.

I believe that one of our biggest challenges in student affairs is recognizing the scope of technology when we’re discussing it. It is hard to say, for example, that technology should be a competency area without defining what we mean when we’re talking about technology. Do we mean coding? Do we mean learning management systems? Do we mean social media? Or do we mean some combination of all of these things?

More importantly, how do we get away from defining just one of these things – i.e., social media – as technology in student affairs?

At some point, I think we need to define just what are the important areas of technology in which student affairs professionals need to have some competency. I don’t believe we necessarily need to have a cross-sampling of all of them, and I don’t even believe we need a deep understanding of some of them. But as a field, we need to develop standards for what we do need to know and how we might use it. I think there has been some headway in this between NASPA and ACPA, but I’d be curious to know what you believe is important for student affairs professionals to know when it comes to technology.

What should we include in a base level for technology knowledge for student affairs professionals? In a more advanced level? I hope you’ll share some thoughts in the comments below.

The Scope of Technology

Social Justice Discussions in #SAchat

by Niki Messmore

Social justice (the process and goal of dismantling systemic inequities) is performed and discussed in a variety of methods within the professional field of higher education and student affairs. An emerging avenue of social justice education is social media, including Twitter, Facebook, and blogs. Erica Thompson of the ACPA Digital Task Force approached me to ask about proven practices in social justice with digital technology and I’ve been reflecting on the overall status of student affairs and SJ education online. This reflection will include a case study: my observations related to the posting of a blog post titled “Why I Feel White Folks Shouldn’t Run Multicultural Affairs” by Jerad Green.

If we were all on Larry Wilmore’s The Nightly Report segment “Keep It 100” and the question was “Is student affairs fully committed to social justice?” I’d throw bags of weak tea at anyone who said “Yes”.

Although social justice is an espoused value of student affairs and can be found within the ACPA & NASPA Professional Competencies, we are still working towards bettering our policies, curriculum for graduate students, professional development, and more towards fully embracing social justice. There’s a lot that can be done.

One way we can further our progress? Social media.

CASE STUDY

On January 21, 2015 Jerad Green posted the above-mentioned blog post on the Student Affairs Collective, a website that originated the #sachat weekly chats and backchannel for folks within the field to post thoughts, articles, questions and to connect with one another. Green’s blog post led to a flurry of activity on Twitter that demonstrates how SA professionals connect on social justice topics in a public forum.

Observations:

  • White Fragility: “White fragility is a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves”, a term coined by Robin DiAngelo. White fragility was very real following Green’s blog post. There were a number of white student affairs professionals from various backgrounds and time in the field who reacted defensively. Some comments included: believing it was unfair that someone could deny them a job based upon the color of their skin and bringing in their other marginalized identities to demonstrate personal expertise on understanding racism.
  • Coded Racism: There were comments from white professionals that stated Green’s post was “reckless”, someone should have helped him write a “more appropriate” article, and they were worried for Green’s professional future for writing the piece. These tweets are examples of a (subconscious?) maintenance of institutionalized racism and a push for respectability politics. They do not acknowledge that Green had the right to engage in storytelling of his own experiences and perspectives…even though it is critical to hear the perspectives of people of color on issues related to multicultural offices in higher education.
  • Dissonance and Personal Growth: There were individuals who displayed resistance to this idea that race matters in selecting multicultural directors and engaged in a colorblindness approach. However, after interacting on Twitter with the author and others, the were resistant individuals who demonstrated growth in better understanding where the blog post was coming from.
  • A Continued Conversation: It can be difficult to have follow-up on social media conversations. As we have began to see the national cry for justice in the wake of the events in Ferguson dissipate, folks are often looking for the next shiny thing to discuss. However, writing response blogs is a good way to keep the conversation going. Dr. Dafina-Lazarus Stewart, Associate Professor of higher education and student affairs at BGSU, wrote an excellent response blog post that captured multiple sides of the topic.

In many ways, engaging in social justice discussions on social media is similar to other methods of communication. There are risks, certainly. It is very easy for message tone to be misinterpreted and the format (especially Twitter) is incredibly limited. One concern is that SJ topics often require nuance and it is difficult to pack everything one needs to have an educated exchange of ideas in 140-character tweets. Additionally, folks are sometimes worried about their professional reputation since social media is a public forum and there may be repercussions for their statements.

On the benefits of SJ discussions on social media, it does allow for professional development with colleagues around the world and help to break folks from the bubble of their own office/institution. Overall, I believe it creates a forum for a topic that is often ignored in higher education and provides easier access to educational opportunities.

What do you think? Is it beneficial to engage in social justice discussions on Twitter hashtags like #sachat? Or is it more harm than good?

Tweet me at @NikiMessmore with your thoughts!

 

 

Social Justice Discussions in #SAchat

To the Complicated Women of Student Affairs: Thanks for Having Me

by Niki Messmore

 

For most of my life I’ve thrived from exposure to ‘strong women’ archetypes. At a young age I witnessed sexism (even if I didn’t quite have the words for it then) and I was in need of seeing someone like me, a girl, be a willful and fearless figure. It helped, of course, if they were awesome at martial arts (Buffy! Xena! My childhood heroes, forever).

As I grew older, female representation in non-stereotypical jobs and in the media became increasingly important. Our society is saturated with men overwhelmingly in positions of authority, from the leadership team of my alma mater while I was a student there to the fantasy books/films I love (…at least Tolkien gave us Eowyn…). It is sometimes very difficult  to imagine what is possible for my life when society dictates that my possibilities are limited.

Student Affairs shocked me when I entered graduate school. Surprisingly, even after being a highly involved student leader and service-learning staff member at my alma mater, I still held this lofty idea that student affairs was all about social justice – one of the core components of our field. I learned quickly that was not completely true.

That’s not to say that the field is not down with social justice, but it’s more so with words than action. Ultimately, student affairs is a profession that operates within institutions that were birthed through injustice (after all, who were the only folk to attend colonial colleges?). It’s difficult to move past that, especially when there are social attitudes that affect higher education. We don’t operate inside a vacuum. Not only does systemic oppression affect the profession, but the profession is made up of individuals who each have unique life experiences influenced by systemic oppression.

Still, I was surprised to learn that even though women make up the majority of student affairs employees, the majority of leadership positions are white and male. It’s frustrating to have this gap between our espoused goals and our enacted goals. And this is just one example of how the student affairs profession does perpetuate systemic oppression rather than tear it down.

This is a difficult truth to swallow when one desires to advance to leadership positions over time and has a love for something that isn’t always seen as women friendly, i.e. technology.

That’s why it is so important that I see other women-identified individuals who take leadership in the profession. Fearless women who challenge themselves and their peers. Intelligent and savvy women who bring new ideas into play and think outside our standard processes. Strong women who balance so much in their lives. Vulnerable women who share their successes and failures. Authentic women who call it like it is. Really, as Maggie Gyllenhall said at the Golden Globes, what is important to see is “complicated women“.

Complicated women-identified folks. (because recognition of the gender spectrum needs to be made)

I’ve had the pleasure of blogging on SAWTT since September 2013 and the opportunity to become introduced into this amazing group of women leaders in blogging and beyond. I am so excited to join Kathryn Magura as Co-Editor, and thankful for Kristen Abell for giving me this opportunity.

I look forward to working with SAWTT crew in this new role and learning more from this wonderful community of complicated women-identified folks. If you’re interested in blogging or just want to chat, tweet me up at @NikiMessmore.

To the Complicated Women of Student Affairs: Thanks for Having Me

Tone Policing in Student Affairs: A Case Study on #Ferguson Discussions

by Niki Messmore

In the hours and days following the decision of “no indictment” from the grand jury convened to hear the case of State of Missouri v Darren Wilson, folks in student affairs have struggled to find meaning alongside the rest of the world. Many folks within student affairs have utilized Twitter hashtags and Facebook groups related to the field to begin discussions, ask questions, and engage with one another.

Sometimes these discussions get tricky and result in less than positive feelings.

The Beginnings of a Case Study
The facebook group ‘Student Affairs Professional’ with over 13,000 members had an interesting batch of posts that led me to wonder what are the rules of engagement in regards to social justice discussions within the field.

Perhaps two hours after the “no indictment” decision from Ferguson on 11/24, one professional (the ‘original poster’ aka OP) posted a question (that I am summarizing) asked folks what they were expecting on their campuses and if they were afraid of riots and violence happening. This post we will call the ‘Original Thread’ aka OT.

Now…that question made me highly uncomfortable. I personally feel that the grand jury decision was in error and that Darren Wilson needs to go through a full criminal trial. To ask such a question so soon, when justice for a young black men was lost? It didn’t feel appropriate. Further, the question seemed awash in white fear because automatically connecting Ferguson to riots on our college campus? I feel that line of thought stems from systemic racism.

Within that comment thread, I posted a very balanced statement, gentle challenge, and added that I’m more worried about riots from sporting events than Ferguson on college campuses. Around 2-3 others posted a comment as well, most in the form of a pretty gentle challenge.

Here’s where it gets interesting.

The post got deleted – which is perfectly understandable because the OP likely realized they made a mistake and probably did not want to be anyone’s after-school special as other group members used her post as a learning tool.

Then there were posts created calling out questions for why the OT was deleted. I posted my assumption from above. Then there were some folks engaging in what I would call ‘tone policing’.

What’s Tone Policing, Preciousss?*
Tone Policing: The act of shaming someone for responding in a manner that does not fit into proper polite society, particularly when it is a member of a marginalized population responding to a member of a privilege population. Tone policing occurs when a person is called out for a seemingly ‘harsh’ response.

Tone policing is harmful because (via: TooYoungfortheLivingDead.tumblr.com)
1. “Marginalized people often do not have the luxury of emotionally distancing themselves from discussions on their rights and experiences.”
2. “Tone policing is the ultimate derailing tactic. When you tone police, you automatically shift the focus of the conversation away from what you or someone else did that was wrong, and onto the other person and their reaction.”
3. “Tone policing assumes that the oppressive act is not an act of aggression, when it very much is. The person who was oppressed by the action, suddenly is no longer a victim, but is “victimizing” the other person by calling them out.”

 Back to our Regularly Scheduled Program: The Case Study
Now, within this second thread in Student Affairs Professionals on 11/25, there were some professionals tone policing. Some comments (without citations because while the comments are public I am not trying to bring attention to them – we are trying to understand symptoms of a systemic issue, not point fingers) include:

  1. “We are all educators and another educator asked a seemingly harmless question only to be criticized to the point of feeling like they had to remove a post?”
  2. “And what if the OP was a grad or a new pro asking advice looking for guidance and instead was given criticism to the point that they felt the need to stop the discourse and remove the post.”
  3. “We boast about being an open, friendly, and educational profession; yet we are quick to put another professional on the stake for something we see as alarming or uneducated. Were’s their teachable moment?”
  4. “Are there better ways the original question could have been asked? Sure. Could people have pointed that out differently? Absolutely.”
  5. “We need to allow questions to be asked or statements be made, and not shame people to not asking them or sharing their opinions, probably especially those that make us most uncomfortable, whether we find them right, wrong, or otherwise.”
  6. “But again – we are shaming the original poster into redacting her question. Why is it not okay for her to feel supported…and challenged- in a civil way? If we need to think about the broader subject, great. I get it. I agree. But nobody should feel bad enough about a question (which was certainly asked without malice and minus a lack of concern) to delete it rather than learn from those who should be peers.”

This was all extremely disheartening to read, especially when I had participated in the OT and read all the comments except the last one before it was deleted. The gentle challenges of the commenters to the OP were very civil. In no way at all did the commenters need to rephrase how they were made. In fact, due to the perceived racial identity of the OT and most of the commenters, I read the tone policing comments as something that contributed to oppression (unintentional or not). When people respond to your questions or comments in a way that you read as hostile, it is best to remember these tips for dealing.

Why are we so quick to rally around those with privilege?
Truly, I understand that it can be difficult for people with privilege to seek understanding of systems of oppression (hello, I have a ton of privileges). It’s not easy to be vulnerable and ask questions. It is equally not easy to be from a marginalized group when your privileged questions create harmful impacts.

We grow best in discomfort. Gaining an understanding in social justice is not easy. It can be painful to peel back the layers of our ignorance as we work past feelings of guilt, shame, and denial. But we need to hold people accountable for their questions when needed because that will help them learn. As writer Ngọc Loan Trần proposed, let’s call in people from our community to a higher level of understanding.

At the end of the day, don’t expect conversations on social issues to be just rainbows and puppies. It’s going to be messy – and that’s a good thing.

Have you ever experienced or witnessed tone policing? Share your thoughts in the comments or with me on Twitter @NikiMessmore.

 

PS: If you want to discuss the current events of Ferguson, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice and the accompanying movements, ACPA is having a community conversation on Dec 9th at 4:30pm EST.

*even serious topics get a Lord of the Rings joke, because I’m cool like that

Tone Policing in Student Affairs: A Case Study on #Ferguson Discussions

Choosing a Spring National Conference 2015

By Josie Ahlquist

Around one year ago I wrote a post called “Choosing a Spring National Conference” spelling out the line up for spring national conferences.  I bring you version 2.o for 2015, also including ways you can be part of the conference experience without physically being on site.

There are many decisions that go into attending a conference.  Especially in the spring, a number of national conferences are scheduled to choose from.  Due to the various costs that it takes to attend each of these, for most professionals the likelihood is only attending one, if any at all. 

To help bridge these challenges, every year conferences seem to integrating technology to further their educational offerings and attendee interaction.  For example conference hashtags, as well as live streaming keynotes and educational sessions.  

Please make note of the early bird deadlines that I have gathered.  I have noticed some trends, including early bird deadlines being pushed up weeks early from last year.  I have also noticed three association prices significantly rose since last year, while two others have remained the same.  One association (ACPA) prices dropped across each early bird registration category.

National Association of Campus Activities (NACA)

College Student Educators International (ACPA) 

  • Dates: March 5-8th 2015
  • City: Tampa, FL 
  • Website: http://convention.myacpa.org/tampa2015/
  • Registration: Early Bird February 18th Member $450 Student $190 Non-Member $650
  • Follow Hashtag #ACPA15

National Association of Student Personnel Administrators (NASPA) 

Association of College Unions International (ACUI) 

  • Dates: April 8-12th 
  • City: San Antonio,TX 
  • Registration: Early Deadline by December 17th Member $795 Students $395 Non Member $1,025
  • Website: http://www.acui.org/sanantonio/
  • Follow Hashtag #ACUI15

National Intramurals-Recreation Sports Association (NIRSA) 

  • Dates: March 30th-April 2nd
  • City: Grapevine, TX 
  • Registration: Early bird February 18th Member $565 Nonmember $735 Student Member $450
  • Website: www.nirsa.org/nirsa2015
  • Follow Hashtag #NIRSA2015

Association of College and University Housing Officers – International (ACUHO-I) 

  • Dates: June 27-30th, 2015
  • City: Orlando, FL
  • Registration: Early Registration April 30th Member $588 Non-Member $798
  • Website: http://www.acuho-i.org/events/ace
  • Follow Hashtag #ACUHOI

For more information about choosing a national conference, check out my post last year that considers four major elements to consider including your conference goals, adding up your costs and receiving institutional support.  

I’d love to hear other conferences to consider in Student Affairs this spring and early summer.  How are you seeing technology fused into the conference experience on-site as well as for virtual attendees?

Personally, this year will be a very heavy conference attendance season, as I share research from many studies I have been working on.  You can find me at NACA, ACPA and NASPA!  Hope to see you there! 

If you can’t attend, follow me at @josieahlquist as I’ll be tweeting out session content!

Choosing a Spring National Conference 2015

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