The Defectors: Kevin O’Connell, The Niche Movement

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Today’s Defector, Kevin O’Connell, is not just a dream chaser- he’s a facilitator of that process for others. His company, The Niche Movement, is dedicated to helping college students and young professionals find work that they love and can be proud of. In the nearly two years that he’s been chasing that dream full time, he’s learned a lot. Below you’ll find a portion of a video he sent me – talking about the things he likes and dislikes about the way he works now, and what he wants from student affairs to make it a stronger field. The full video lives here, but scroll down for my favorite part. Thanks so much for this, Kevin!

Not sure what we’re doing here yet? All is revealed here.

The Defectors: Karlyn Borysenko, ZenWorkplace

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Today’s Defector is one who not only recognizes the forces that allowed her to easily walk away from higher education, but is now actively working to address some of the things that concerned her most. A love for organizational psychology is the driving force behind her Zen Workplace, a consultancy that helps people work and lead better- on campuses and off. Thanks so much for sharing your story, Karlyn- and for sharing what you’ve learned with those who need help!

Not sure what we’re doing here yet? All is revealed here.

Over the past few months, I’ve been coaching one of the most creative and talented women I know as she prepares to be fired from her job at a very prestigious college.

That’s right, prepares to be fired. Because instead of utilizing all the talents and skills this woman brought to the table, she has been beaten her down over the course of months. She was blackballed by a vice president that no one wants to deal with, harassed by both her boss and her subordinate in a coordinated effort to force her out, and sought out help from HR only to be turned away….because they were coaching her boss on how to create documentation to fire her when no real reason existed. All of it was clear as day to the two of us and it was really just a matter of time – the only reason she stayed was to try to line up another gig before she got the boot.

Why would they go through all this trouble, you ask? I have a few theories:

  1. Her boss, who was relatively new, was intimidated by her and wanted to replace her with someone more junior to be the clear top dog.
  2. She wasn’t an alum of the college, and therefore didn’t “get it” in their eyes. 

This all sounds crazy, but the really crazy thing is that this is not the first time I’ve seen this happen. And it probably won’t be the last. Therein lies the issue that I have with higher education – the amount of amazing talent that gets squandered and dismissed.

Let me back up. My first job in higher education was right out of college as an admissions counselor which, of course, is an amazing first job to have! You’re working with people your age, traveling to recruit students, and learning a variety of different skills that you can apply later on. I had a great time and truly fell in love with the industry: the community, the idealism, the very real sense that you have a part in changing people’s lives. As an extra bonus, you get to work with really smart people! Higher education has a lot going for it and I wouldn’t have chosen to spend my early professional years anywhere else.

But as you rise in the ranks the ugliness starts to rear its head- the politics, the red tape, the committees, the people who have been at the institution forever and have consolidated a power base that put the kibosh on any and all new ideas. You realize how underutilized all those really smart people are – how underutilized you are – and it becomes a maddening experience. Unless you’re really lucky and have an amazing, influential boss (yes, those do exist!), one of two things will eventually happen to you: You either conform to the quiet mediocrity that is demanded from you, or you will get forced out. You may not get fired but it will be made very clear to you when your presence is no longer welcome.

There is a talent crisis in higher education that is coming from the top. So much talent is leaving because they do not see the opportunity to do the innovative work they are capable of or advance beyond mid-level. Those who do get ahead are the ones that know where their place is…and understand they should never attempt to push boundaries beyond a gentle nudge.

Ironically, it was these experiences that ultimately precipitated a career transition for me.  After years as a very successful marketer, I went back to school and to get a PhD in organizational psychology because I wanted to understand and help organizations create better, innovative, engaging work environments that takes full advantage of the skills that their people bring to the table. After over a decade in the industry, I left to go solo. Today I have my own practice and, yes, I have a lot of higher education clients! It’s another ironic twist of fate that I’m better positioned to serve the industry I love as an outsider than I ever would have been if I was on staff. It’s the higher ed way of life, knowing that even if you’ve been saying the same thing for years, the consultants will always be listened to before you will be. So I’ll enjoy my consultant role for now. Being listened to by leaders, having my advice taken and implemented- it’s a whole new world!

Would I ever go back and work for a college or university full time? I love the idea of it in the same way I love the idea of a world full of rainbows and unicorns. But truth be told, I would be scared to death to make that commitment. The work I do in shifting work cultures sounds great on paper, and I’ve never come across a college or university that wouldn’t benefit from my help. The problem is that I just don’t think many leaders in higher ed have the fortitude to see it through to reality beyond a few trainings here and there. And it takes more than a few trainings to shift a culture.

Here’s what it would take for me to take the full-time plunge:

  • A long-term commitment from the top, because that’s the only way it can possibly work. A president that isn’t afraid to say it’s time for higher education to do things differently when it comes to how it treats its administrative talent and wants to create a preeminent work culture for their people.
  • A leadership team that understands that when your employees are happy, motivated, and taken care of, every single success metric that can be measured goes up. Enrollment, engagement, scholarship, retention, giving…every single metric that drives the success of any academic institution.
  • Independence from the HR function. HR plays an extremely important role in any organization. However, they sat back and watched as the current reality was created. Maybe they didn’t know what to do, or maybe they just didn’t see the benefit of advocating change. Either way, that means the solution has to come from outside of them.

That’s a tall order. Is it possible? I’m not sure….but I hope it is. Universities are starting to make a proactive effort to look for talent who have no higher education experience when all they really need to do is look internally and utilize the talent they already have. Empower them, let them off the leash and do the things they are capable of. They will blow your mind and all of your core metrics will skyrocket.

If there are any higher ed leaders reading this that want to consider that a challenge, get in touch with Karlyn! She would love to talk to you.


The Defectors, Stephanie Tomlinson, The Steph Tom Show

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Today’s Defector is building an empire, and it has been a joy to watch. Steph has spent several years doing what many in the field have done- working her way up the ladder in pursuit of a director post, and eventually a vice-presidency for student affairs. But along the way, she realized it wasn’t what she wanted. And I love the way she speaks about the power that moment had- and why we need to let more people have it. Thank you so much for sharing this story, Steph. I can’t wait to see the empire continue to rise!

Not sure what we’re doing here yet? All is revealed here.

The value of something has always been an interesting concept to me because we approach value as an objective construct when, in turn, value is always subjective. We have created a currency to assign value, we have created an educational system that defines value, and we have a social structure where value is placed on certain professions. I can’t answer the question “What is my life purpose?” without thinking about what value did my life bring to me, my family, others, my neighborhood, my nation, and my planet. As I consider now why I entered student affairs and higher education, it was because I wanted to maximize my value. I had convinced myself of what was valuable to me which, above all, was service to others. So I decided I’ll be an educator, a true public servant.

In college, I was fortunate to spend some time in the K-12 system and quickly realized policies formed around standardized tests, and parents who hold all decision-making power for their minor children, were two limits I couldn’t tolerate. On one soul-searching night I decided to flip through the graduate catalog for one of my favorite universities and discovered I could still be an educator but to young adults. I had no idea the field was called student affairs and I definitely did not know any acronyms associated with this path, but the courses sounded awesome. Jump ahead two years later, and by the end of my graduate program I was a Residential Life professional ready to be the next Director of Housing and eventually Vice President of Student Affairs.

That is, until I defected.

How does someone so certain of their path and excited for their long career in a field leave it behind after only 4 years? Burnout. The craziest part? My job performance was stellar and I always received positive evaluations but on the inside I was dying. For all that is written about burnout, avoiding burnout, and ways to recover from burnout, the narrative doesn’t always focus on how much I needed to burnout. Yes I needed to burnout, and to burnout hard, because it was the only way for me to own my experience. Those first few years in the field I blamed external circumstances – people, the system, and higher education – for my experience. But at the end of the day, it was my experience and one I desperately needed in order to ask myself the necessary questions for a fulfilling life. You see, certainty always provided me with a false sense of identity and certainty in my career choice defined me- how do you define yourself when the certainty of your career choice is gone?

There is a beauty in burning out. You hit a bottom in your life, and it makes you focus all your attention on the next right step instead of looking ahead. When you’re at the peaks of life you can look around at the vastness; at the bottom you get down to bare necessities to move one step at a time. This is why I am grateful for burning out in Student Affairs: when I started looking at each step forward I wanted to make and what I value about these steps, I knew Student Affairs was not in alignment for me. I desire and value being wealthy, powerful, philanthropic, of service, and above all else free to define how I create those things for myself. There is not a lot of freedom in higher education, and the rigidity of the structure and the overall outcome of a degree no longer carried any value for me.

If there is one thing I know, it is that no matter what I do I have to value the overall mission of what I am doing. Burning out made me realize I never truly aligned with the overall mission of higher education. I really don’t care if someone has a degree or not, I value being a lifelong learning and always expanding your knowledge- whether that results in a beautiful degree plan with a piece of paper at the end or not, I really don’t care.  I also struggle telling young people to amass debt for a degree that may or may not provide them more wealth and success over the course of their lifetime. I believe the experience of higher education teaches you a majority of those “learning outcomes” that are set forth for students. But again, the cost of the experience may not equal the value of the experience, especially when there may be cheaper alternatives for the same experience. This is why I will not return to student affairs, and will eventually leave higher education.  

This is my experience and what I know to be true for me, and it is not meant to undermine or criticise those who value the overall experience of higher education. I know for some people higher education is in perfect alignment for them and they perceive the value to be worth it- and that is all that matters! But for my part, the rigidity of the structure, the idea it is a “to do” in life, and the ever increasing costs of the experience doesn’t align with how I perceive myself being of highest value to truly impact someone else’s life. I desire freedom, efficiency, highest value at reasonable cost, and to work with people who truly want to be there and change not because someone told them to be there.

Do I sometimes see how my experience translates to bigger trends in higher education and student affairs? Potentially, but I don’t speak to the larger narrative because it is no longer my narrative. I’m not a student affairs or higher education professional any more, and so I leave the larger narrative to those who do still align with student affairs and higher education. When you are in alignment with what you value, you are invested for the long haul. If people defect, they were not in alignment. If large numbers of people defect to where an industry no longer is warranted, then the industry is not in alignment with the masses- and that is okay too. As a society, we will figure out our alignments and values and create the spaces we want to see in the world. But we have to be open and honest in real conversations about what is happening, and recognizing the value of burnout as much as we praise the value of finding “what you’re meant to do with your life”.

So for now I work as a coordinator for the Vice President of Finance and Administration in higher education. For right now it is perfect- because my work is concrete with numbers, low stress, I enjoy the people I work with, and that is all I need as I take the climb back to the top of my mountain and get the bigger view of setting forth my new definition of success and work. Thank you student affairs, and thank you higher education- without my experience I would’ve never gotten to the root of what I truly value and to me that’s the best learning outcome you could provide someone.

The Defectors: Jamie Piperato, JPHigherEd

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Today’s Defectors post highlights the entrepreneurial journey of Jamie Piperato, who drew inspiration from a leadership session and used its fuel to create her own destiny. She speaks eloquently about how refining her own goals has helped her better serve the professionals and students around her; I must confess, the way in which she does business has inspired me to tighten up my own practices! So appreciative of your attentiveness to that speech at the NAACP that day, Jamie- who knows where you’d be without it?

Not sure what we’re doing here yet? All is revealed here.

In 2015, I attended South Carolina’s NAACP College and Youth Division Conference as an advisor of Coastal Carolina University’s chapter. During one of the sessions, a man stood before the students and said, “Stop making someone else’s dream come true. Go out there and make your own dreams a reality.” This message was not intended for me (for multiple reasons); however, it couldn’t have come at a better time in my life.

Shortly after the conference, I made one of the scariest decisions of my career. I made the decision to leave my full-time position as Assistant Director of Multicultural Student Services to pursue opening up my own higher education professional development company ( I made the scary leap into the unknown and started on the path of ‘making my own dreams a reality.’

Many factors played a role in this decision. In my experience, I found that a common narrative for folks who work in identity offices is that they are underpaid, undervalued, overworked, and over regulated. [Side Note: I recognize that this is a common thread in most functional areas but a simple glance at budgets usually differentiate the experiences significantly between offices.] In addition, while working in the field, I was noticing disparities in my colleagues’ knowledge and skills around working with marginalized students on campus. These factors, coupled with my aspirations to open up my own business, invited me into the world of defectors.

This journey has been one unbelievable ride that has challenged me in new and exciting ways. I have learned lessons about what I didn’t know about marketing, what it means to network across industries, what is important to me as both an employer and employee, and how perceptions of what is important can be skewed due to the environments we work in as professionals. As a result of living and breathing the defector life, I have been able to revise my mission, vision, and values in life; and, ensure that my time is spent on achieving my goals.

One question that I receive all the time from folks in higher education (in more traditional roles) is, “Will you ever go back?” My answer to this question will always be, “I never left.” I think it is important that we transform our thinking about what it means to be a higher education professional (in both traditional and non-traditional roles). Many people in higher education work in more non-traditional roles. Many of these people are “defectors” themselves due to factors such as burnout, inadequate pay, or unhealthy working factors.

Now, with regards to ever working in a more traditional role again, I will let ‘future Jamie’ decide that one for me! As of right now, it is plain and simple. I love what I am doing. I have embraced the ‘defector life’ and I wouldn’t want it any other way!

The Defectors: Mason Reuter, UNCC

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You’ll notice that the location of this post is a campus, which I know we said was not what this is about! Today’s second post actually speaks to a pair of defections; Mason Reuter, today’s author, has defected twice! He left the field of higher education in 2003, only to return several years later. Now solidly in his second “tour of duty,” as it were, he has great insight to share about what the grass looks like on each side of the fence. I’ll let him take it from here. Thanks so much, Mason!

Not sure what we’re doing here yet? All is revealed here.

In the fall of 2003 I was beginning my second year as the Coordinator of Greek Life at the University of South Carolina, where I was responsible for managing on-campus Fraternity and Sorority housing. My wife, who worked at the time for the Carolina Admissions Office, and I lived in an apartment located in the basement of an 18 story residence hall that housed more than 500 sorority women.

I was very happy in my job- a Fraternity/Sorority Life-Housing hybrid where, in addition to my housing responsibilities, I was privileged to work closely with NPHC Organizations and served as the primary advisor for USC’s Dance Marathon. My wife, on the other hand, was miserable in her position. While we were visiting our undergraduate institution she was approached by her former RA and told about an outside sales position in Greensboro, NC that she would be “perfect” for. Fast forward several months and we are planning a move to Greensboro, where Georgia would become a sales representative for the local newspaper.

Georgia would move to Greensboro in January of 2004; I stayed in Columbia through April to get through Dance Marathon and the majority of the spring semester. As previously mentioned, I really enjoyed my job and Student Affairs as a whole, so while biding my time until April I did a search for jobs in the Greensboro-Winston Salem area where we would be living. Georgia, who had worked in housing prior to her stint in Admissions, was loving her job outside of Higher Ed. So I started to think about exploring opportunities in the corporate world as well. I was in my late 20’s and had limited personal responsibility so I figured that if there was any time to explore a professional life outside of higher education, it would be then! The decision had been made: I cancelled on-campus interviews and began to look for other opportunities.

Leaving Columbia in April was, at the time, the hardest thing I’d ever done professionally. I was leaving a great job with excellent colleagues, moving to a place where I didn’t know what I’d be doing. I’d been on a couple of interviews and when I got to Greensboro landed my first job in the corporate world…selling Nissans! Not feeling like the work I did mattered, and a desire to reclaim my Saturdays, led me to leave the car business soon afterwards. I quickly found a new job, working as a recruiter and outside sales representative for a local branch of a staffing agency. I felt like I was making a difference again, recruiting and putting people (many of them college students or recent grads) to work.

A little over two years later, I was laid off due to a struggling local economy and a lack of incoming job orders. It was then that I begin to think about getting back into higher education. I missed working with students and serving others at the college level. However, during my time as a recruiter, Georgia and I had welcomed our first child into the world. Therefore I was very motivated to find a new job quickly- and became a Call Center Manager instead.

Long story, short: after a year on the job my company merged with another and I was laid off.

This layoff was different though; I was given a pretty nice severance package that allowed me to take time to do refocus on getting back into higher education. I still missed feeling I was working with a purpose, which is something I never missed being in the field. That, along with some of the benefits and flexibility associated with working at a university, forced me to really focus on returning to the field this time around.

Within two months I found a job at a local university working in their Residence Life office- and the rest, as they say, is history! I have been back in the field now for almost 10 years and serve as an Assistant Director for Residence Life at a large state institution in North Carolina. I have felt over the past ten years that my work has purpose again, and I am constantly reminding myself how fortunate I am to get to do the work I do. That said, I really enjoyed my experiences working outside of the field and feel like the lessons I learned in the areas of management, expediency and accountability have been invaluable during my return.

I believe that if the speed at which critical decisions within Higher Ed were made equaled the speed in which they are in the corporate world, our students and staff would be better served. I also believe that we in Student Affairs allow too many of our emotions to guide our decision making, especially as it relates to elimination of programs and personnel. My experience outside of the field, specifically the two layoffs, has taught me that there are times when feelings need to be taken out of the situation for the good of everyone involved. Finally, when talking with friends and colleagues about my experience I often am asked, “Well is the grass really greener on the other side?” My response, “I wouldn’t say that the grass is greener on the other side, just a different shade!”

Interested in exploring careers outside the field? Mason welcomes you to get in touch with him, he’s more than happy to talk about his experiences!


The Defectors: Emily Yates, IIE

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The first of our Defectors contributor posts comes from Emily Yates, currently working as a scholarship advisor for the Institute of International Education, based out of DC. Her defection was somewhat accidental, the result of exploring “adjacent options.” But now, she’s realizing she wouldn’t have it any other way. Thanks so much for sharing your story, Emily- hope you all enjoy it!

Not sure what we’re doing here yet? All is revealed here.

Hello, my name is Emily, and I’m a student affairs defector.

Hi, Emily.

Leaving the world of student affairs can feel like you have joined this rag-tag bunch of renegades. And as someone that works in a ‘higher ed’ space, I find that when I attend conferences we have a knack for finding one another and connecting over shared experiences even if the day to day work is different. I didn’t start out my career with the intent of moving away from campus. I loved the energy you get from being on a campus – and still do. But now that I’m no longer working at an institution, I have no intentions of going back.

In 2014, I was searching for my next position and my primary goal was moving back to the East Coast to be closer to family in DC. I was at Texas A&M University as an International Student Advisor at the time, and while A&M was great for a season, it was not the right long term home for me. I applied to positions working with graduate students, international students, and sometimes both, but the focus was always on being within a day’s drive of home.

On a whim, I applied for a job with the Institute of International Education (IIE). As I already worked in the field of international education, I was familiar with IIE based on the organization’s work with the State Department on administering the Fulbright scholarship. At the time, that was about the extent of my knowledge. They had an advising role open up in the DC office working on a scholarship program for Middle Eastern students, which was right up my alley. I decided to apply, and after three rounds of interviews, I was offered the position in July 2014.

So I didn’t stray too far from the path I was already on, but sometimes it can feel like everything has changed. The change of pace, as well as the mission statement are two things that can be felt on a daily basis. When I was on campus, things seemed to always happen at a glacial pace. Working for a non-profit however, changes happen quickly. If we want to implement the use of a new online management system for example, the span from introduction to utilization can be a matter of six months. Since the program I work on is coordinated on behalf of a sponsoring agency, the contract agreement has also been a new experience for me as it underlines the scope of work and everything we do.

One of my favorite aspects of the work I do now is that I am still part of the student experience – just in a different way. I’m essentially a long-distance scholarship advisor, but I have a caseload of just 20-30 students. I get to connect with them in different ways than I did when I was advising on immigration topics, and I get to hear back about the ways that my encouragement, challenge, or questions have changed the way one of my students handled a particular issue. I get to see things from start to finish, not just a few pieces of the process.

On a professional level, I also have a lot more flexibility and oversight in the use of my time each day. We have a general office hour schedule, but it’s left up to me to get my job done. I can work from home if needed, which has been great when I need to take my car into the shop or don’t want to take sick leave when I have a minor cold. Non-profits also tend to offer similar benefits as corporate peers, whether that is student loan reimbursements or equitable salaries.

Of course, it isn’t all rainbows and sunshine – the only way I could probably achieve that is as an official panda hugger. While I work with a small group of students, I also still deal with unresponsiveness from a few – it just presents a bigger challenge now because I’m at a distance. In addition, I came into the role from a position where I had the full weight of US immigration law behind me, and the sponsor-student dynamic is more nuanced and case-by- case basis which has taken some adjustment.

All in all, I’m really satisfied that I decided to “defect” from campus and ended up here. I’m part of an organization that is doing meaningful work around the world in international education, I still work with students, and I have the ability to contribute to changes within the organization. I can see the direct impact I have on my program and students. Working at a non-profit, I have found the right combination of work, benefits, and challenges for me.

Though if someone could get me that panda hugging job, I would take it.


The Defectors: Introduction to the Literature

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So in truth, “the literature” is a bit of an overstatement. But the fact of the matter is, the idea of being a “Defector”– of doing this work in a manner different from the standard- is becoming increasingly common. For my part, I truly appreciated the testimonies of people like Kayley Robsham, Paul Gordon Brown, and Keith Edwards, all of which were extremely open about the authors’ respective experiences. They were open not just about how it was to be in a new role, but also about the motivations for their shift.

Kayley’s piece, in particular, was released just at the point where I was pondering my own transition. This passage spoke to me far loudly than I expected (and frankly, likely far louder than I’ve ever been able to convey to her):

I hope it’s understood that I enjoyed my time in student affairs and loved making impactful contributions with students and colleagues. However, I felt my greatest contributions to the field would be utilizing my talent to bring innovative tools to my colleagues and bringing more diversity to a field where we’re lacking diversity.

Even after I had made the leap, I tinkered with my routine to find a method for what felt – and still occasionally feels – like madness. I was heartened to find that Keith’s methodology was pretty similar to mine:

My goal each day is to produce the best quality and quantity of output I can. My challenge is to figure out how to structure my day so that it leads to the best writing, coaching, presentations, research, proposals, connecting with clients, social media, and more. Some times a walk, workout, or even a nap could be the best thing I can do to help me to do my best work.

Then, in the days after I conceived the Defectors series, but before it was announced, the Journal of Student Affairs Research and Practice sparked just the conversation I needed. Included in this issue was an article entitled “Attrition from Student Affairs: Perspectives from Those Who Exited the Profession.” As I prepared to solicit participation from colleagues and friends, this article helped me prepare myself for what I might find. After all, I had some ideas about why people were leaving, but couldn’t be fully sure. What’s more, it was reassuring to find that the field itself is clearly concerned about the numbers in which trained and invested-in professionals are “opting out” (I’ll explain the quotations later):

This study seeks to provide increased insight into the reasons that underlie attrition in an effort to reduce the financial and organizational costs incurred when student affairs professionals leave the field. Such information is significant in that large numbers of professionals leaving the field early in their career may signal a need for better developed orientation and professional development programs that address the reasons for leaving verses other strategies targeted at more seasoned professionals.

As it happened, the article confirmed some of my suspicions while providing numbers and qualitative data to back it up.

In the Results section of the paper, Marshall, Gardner, Hughes, and Lowery cited reasons that lined up considerably with the causes for departure that I expected:

Participants were instructed to indicate any and all of the reasons they chose to leave the student affairs field. Participants’ reasons for leaving centered around seven general themes. Stress and burnout were the factors most frequently mentioned for leaving, followed by noncompetitive salary, attractive career alternatives, and the evening and weekend responsibilities in student affairs.

However, there were other causes at play that revealed themselves with more nuance than the aforementioned study was able to find. Some of the testimonies you’ll read in the month ahead will cite reasons like stress, burnout, and salary; but others cite reasons such as a need for creativity, desire to fulfill one’s own dreams and build something independently, sheer curiosity, or – in one instance – a realization that this field simply wasn’t a fit. Moreover, a few people mentioned that their departure was incidental and not intentional.

While we get little insight from the paper about where those who departed have gone, I’d argue that a great many people aren’t leaving the field, so much as they’re leaving campuses. I include myself in that “camp,” by the way. This distinction matters. Many continue to stay involved with the profession they’re invested in through roles at private companies, nonprofit organizations, or independent consultancies. By contributing in these ways, individuals are choosing to make their mark in ways that better fits their personalities and goals.

This matters for two reasons. First, with pyramid-shaped organizational structures currently in place, there presently isn’t enough space for everyone who enters the field to stay in it. What looks like a way out, may actually just be a way to “orbit” the field, affecting its atmosphere from outside its gates. This can be good if we allow it to be.

Secondly, if we do wish to reverse this exodus, closer examination of the paths people are taking “out” of the profession, could reduce the need for such a move. Organizations willing to change the world of work to let “offbeat” or unconventional skills and habits flourish within them, could retain talent as a result. Marshall, Gardner, Hughes, and Lowery say as much when they hint that study results could “be used when working to create a culture of professional flexibility and transformation versus traditional models that often provide limited options for professionals facing the challenges discussed in the literature review.”

I wanted to share these notes with you ahead of the series to provide a lens through which to look at these stories. What have the authors voiced as reasons? If you’re a staff member, are these reasons that resonate with you? And if you’re a manager, do you have the power to address some of the concerns that preceded departure? We’ll return to these driving forces, and how the field might be able to address them in order to ensure its own survival, toward the end of the month. In the meantime, stay tuned for our first contributor post next week!

Works Cited:

Sarah M. Marshall, Megan Moore Gardner, Carole Hughes & Ute Lowery (2016) Attrition from Student Affairs: Perspectives from Those Who Exited the Profession, Journal of Student Affairs Research and Practice, 53:2, 146-159


Welcome to the Defectors!

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Happy August to you! After a break to focus on a few others projects and, in truth, take some time away from a dedicated writing grind, I’m returning to regular posting with some help from friends and colleagues.

As you may recall, I put out a call earlier this summer to find and tell the stories of defectors – people who have chosen to abandon the traditional model of campus-based student affairs and/or higher education – in favor of different types of work. This month, I am so excited to share their stories, and a few of my own.

Heading into my first full year as an independent higher education professional, I still get a lot of questions about this path: “So what do you do all day?” “How did you decide this was what you wanted to do?” “Would you ever go back?” And I’ll answer all of those in time, but thought it’d be better balanced by sharing how several others made that decision in their own right, for themselves.


I hope there’s a rising legitimacy in our ability to conceive of student support and advancement of the higher education profession on paths that don’t lead to a deanship, vice-presidency, or presidency. Professionals can make an impact on education – its impressionable students and dedicated professionals alike – in nontraditional ways. I hope that the posts shared here over the remainder of the month show you that in personal and critical ways.

With that said, I feel compelled to also offer a disclaimer: I’m not a proselytizer. The goal of this series is not to forcibly pull people over the fence to “the other side”, any more than my goal was to pull people into the traditional form of the work when I was doing that. I’m simply a fan of informed decision making- and there’s too little information about alternate paths out there. I hope this does a small part to change that.

Thank you to all my contributors – I literally couldn’t do this without you. I hope you’ll follow along, learn their stories, and that they resonate with you if you’ve ever considered making the leap yourself.

An Introduction to the Literature

Emily Yates, IIE

Mason Reuter, UNCC

Jamie Piperato, JPHigherEd

Stephanie Tomlinson, The Steph Tom Show

[VIDEO] SA Speaks: Lighting Up Introverts on College Campuses

Back in March, I had the pleasure of giving one of seven SA Speaks talks at the 2016 NASPA National Conference in Indianapolis, IN. Spread over two days, the presentation style resembled that of a TED conference- right down to the big stage and unseen crowd.

At last, my talk is available for viewing. I present it to you now- hope you enjoy, and that you learn something that could help a colleague, a student, or even you live and work better.

5 Ways to Embrace Introverts in a Residential Community

Last week, I had the pleasure of delivering a twenty minute TED-style talk about “Facilitating Quiet Success in Residence Life” at the NEACUHO Annual Conference in Westfield, MA. We had a lot of ground to cover in the twenty allotted minutes, and was pleased to get through it all and have time to answer questions from those who attended the session. Thank you so much for having me, I had a great time!

However, in going over my evaluations, I noticed a few common themes. First, more time. Yup. I feel you. It’s a big topic, and twenty minutes only scratched the surface. To that, I say: please get in touch, so we can chat more about it!

A second note I got, requested some concrete strategies that could be incorporated into residential communities to demonstrate an understanding of a variety of temperaments. That, I can do here. So for those seeking to include introvert-friendly practices into their residential communities, consider the following (and please let me know how it goes, should you choose to try them out!):

For First Year Students: Vary Your Icebreaker and Team Building Strategy
Particularly at the start of the school year, the environment that we cultivate on campus and in our halls is more conducive to students who take flight like rockets, than ones who do so like planes. Large group gatherings, loud opening events, and expectations for enthusiastic participation fill the docket- on many campuses for at least the first week of school, and can dominate up to the first six weeks. That’s a long time to exist in a draining environment!

Finding allies in this space (and allies can be of any temperament!) is crucial, but individuals have to have the psychological space to do so. Facilitators of “getting to know you” games and activities can lower the stakes and the energy required to succeed these spaces in a few ways:

  • Use nametags as a “head start.” In addition to providing nametags so individuals can pair names with faces, pose a question for the group and have folks write their answers on their nametags. For example: what was your favorite cereal growing up, what pet would you have if you could choose, what part of the college experience you’re looking forward to the most. This can allow the “me too!” phenomenon to take place with a lower burden of energy expenditure- that small talk that can lead to these commonalities is made a little easier once one commonality is already found.
  • Carefully consider the questions you pose to the group. Irrespective of temperament, early social interactions are tough when you feel as though your answers are being judged. Common icebreakers, that place an emphasis on “most unique” or “most interesting,” create an unseen burden to craft an answer that satisfies the group. Comparatively, asking an individual’s favorite or most significant lets the person decide the value of that answer. Both types of question are perfectly acceptable, but thoughtfully varying your use of each can make a difference in helping more introverted folks warm up to a group.

Create Community Standards That Support Temperament
Rules about quiet hours and quiet spaces likely already exist on most campuses, and these rules can be the saving psychological grace for individuals that need that quiet time to recharge after a long day or week. These rules can be supplemented with some floor-based or hall-based guidelines (e.g. “headphones in” or “book up” means please don’t interrupt while I’m studying; “ID face up on the table” means please stop by and say hi) that help your students navigate common spaces.

These guidelines could be as general or as specific as you’d like, and can be decided ahead of time or crowdsourced from residents. The latter strategy could be an educational asset, providing students the opportunity to learn more about those around them and how they can best interact.

Articulate the Structure and Motivation Behind Community Standards
As these standards are being articulated, at floor meetings or in early gatherings of residents, emphasize the “why” of rules and guidelines as often as you can alongside the “what” or “how.” For example, if certain lounges are quiet after a certain time of day and others are designated 24-hour quiet lounges (an option you could consider for creating alternate “quiet spaces” for residents), articulate why there are spaces you’ve chosen to keep fully quiet. In my experience, students are generally willing to comply with a rule if they know the motivation behind it, even if it doesn’t apply to them or they don’t personally agree. By sharing that the addition of these quieter spaces allows some members of the community to be better classmates, roommates, and friends, they’ll likely have a greater understanding of what it means to comply.

Should it be helpful, feel free to use the rockets and planes analogy, or the rice and pasta analogy, to articulate the difference between the types.

Dig Deeper When Moderating Conflict
When moderating conflict between residents, be they roommates, hallmates, or other acquaintances, our default mindset is to consider the issue behaviorally. And in most cases, that approach is appropriate. However, I’d urge you to also read more into how each party is handling the issue- and how temperament plays a role in it. What seems like one roommate not being spoken or listened to may be an extrovert, not fully understanding what the other party needs to be communicated with. What seems like an over the top reaction to a noise complaint might be an outburst from an overstimulated introvert, at their physical wit’s end. These orientations to the world make a world of difference when managing conflict. You can help in this navigation by facilitating the asking of questions like “What’s the best way to share my feedback or constructive criticism with you?” “What signs should I look for to know if you’re having a tough day?” “If we realize we’re having a conflict, what’s the best way to talk it out?”

As you seek to help these people come to a resolution, help them understand how the people they are – and how they interact with the world – might contribute to the impasse they feel they’re at. It may not quell future conflicts, but at least they’ll know a little more about the person they’re sharing space with.

Rethink Student Staff Hiring Strategies
This last bit speaks to finding the people that are on the front lines in managing these issues. Having strong student support leads to strong peer support for residents- and this support needs to be more than willingness to do a role, and an ease in expressing this in an interview.

Yes, framing our residential life opportunities as “exciting,” or “in need of enthusiastic and energetic individuals” is a true statement, but it’d be just as true to emphasize elements of the position as “thoughtful” and in need of “contemplative leaders and good listeners.” Both brands of skill are essential to these critical leadership roles, and yet I rarely see the latter on job descriptions. Please note: while I maintain the belief that none of these qualities are the exclusive province of any temperamental type, I also believe that a broader application will yield a broader swath of applicants – ones who fit the former, the latter, or both.

This broad interpretation should also be carried into interview scenarios. Let all reviewers review candidate applications- introverts tend to be strong writers, and can yield significant insight on paper; if their applications are hidden or seen by few, that insight can’t be shared. Look not just for individuals who are quick to answer in interviews with rehearsed answers, but also those who appear to carefully consider their words before speaking. Listen to not just how they respond to questions, but to the questions they ask, and the level of thought they put in to that opportunity. And take note not just of the candidates who speak and interact with ease at group interviews, but also those who listen well to those in their groups, and contribute quietly but significantly to the task at hand. All these skills are valuable in creating a balanced team.

I hope this has helped you to take a closer look at the practices you employ in your residential community to embrace introverts, but in turn create an accepting space for all your students. None of these practices are designed to exclude the more extroverted members of the community, but rather to ensure that there is space for all in their ostensible home.

Again, if you have more questions or are interested in chatting further, please don’t hesitate to get in touch!