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

Filling in the gaps with Tech.

by Jennifer Keegin

A posting that went out today by Sarah Stroud on ACUI’s Commons was about job titles and how you explain your job to others who don’t understand what the title means in terms of day to day job functions. At the end of the post, there were some questions asked that triggered something in me and made me want to add an extra component to them. Just like adding “in bed” to your fortune cookie message, I added “tech” to each of these questions:

  • What does your title mean to you in terms of technology if at all?
  • What does your title mean to those you work with in terms of technology and the knowledge you have in this area?
  • What is one thing you do on a regular basis that is completely behind-the-scenes to everyone else in your office in terms of technology?
  • How would you like to expand your position with technology?

So with that, here are my answers to those questions.

  1. My title is Associate Director for Campus Activities. What this means in a general sense in terms of technology would be that I have a background in marketing/communications and using technology to enhance the quality of my work. Any activity needs good advertising and buzz about it – I use social media and other outlets to make this happen. This is what first comes to my mind.
  2. To others – when you think of Activities – I would imagine most folks think of inflatables, concerts, and themed events. Technology there would include how to operate sound systems, lights, and a basic understanding of electricity and what those needs are for various equipment.
  3. Again, I’m going to have to say my behind the scenes deal is social media. Mostly Twitter. I live Tweet almost everything. I also co-host the College Union & Activities Discussion (#CUAD) podcast every two weeks and very few people other than folks around the Dean of Students area, know that I even do that.
  4. How would I like to expand? I’m always looking to expand my knowledge of tech in regards to how its utilized in the Student Union. New gadgets, software, electronics – all that. I always want to know more.

So what about you? Where does tech fit into who you are and how you’re viewed in your position at your institution? Do you need to change that mindset? Or just put your awesome talents out there more? Please feel free to comment below.

Filling in the gaps with Tech.