We’re at the midpoint of October- just about halfway to Halloween, the day after Canadian Thanksgiving, and the halfway point of Careers in Student Affairs Month. This is an emotional time for the profession, as its current members are split between eagerly hosting events and meetings with students to find the next stars of the field and expressing concern about the proselytizing nature the month sometimes takes on.
I’ll own the fact that I have resided squarely in the latter camp for the last several years. I’ve written about it here and here, but can now see that my approaches to the month and what it’s come to represent haven’t been altogether constructive. Do some of the ways in which CSAM is celebrated run counter to my beliefs? Sometimes. Would I do things differently? Oh, you betcha. But what prior writing, conversations, and rants haven’t captured is an alternative. What I would rather see. How I think it should change.
I think I’m there now.
Starting with October, and hopefully extending into the rest of my calendar year, I don’t want to recruit into the profession- I want to help others understand it. Frankly, I think that this is something that CSAM is already designed to do. But in our excitement, we shout “Join us!” louder than we ask “Do you understand this?”
For my part, I see this confusion start when I try to tell people what I “do.” Generally when someone asks, I do one of the following:
(1) I tell them where I work, and then wait for them to guide the conversation;
(2) I say “I work in activities,” and then ask what they were involved in during college (a strategy that doesn’t work for those who didn’t go to college, or those who went overseas where our jobs look diferent); or
(3) Dodge the question by spouting off my lengthy title and then commiserating with their confusion in trying to decipher what it means.
All of these strategies have something in common- they minimize what I do. I know I do important work, I have coworkers, supervisors, and students who tell me so. But the regard I hold for my work is in no way expressed when I explain it to others.
So here’s what I’m using the rest of my Careers in Student Affairs Month for, and what you’ll hopefully join me in doing.
When someone asks me what I do, I’m going to tell them:
I teach. Maybe not in a way they’re accustomed to seeing, but I do.
I listen to students and help them with their problems, be they ones that I have administrative power over or ones that they simply trust me enough to share.
I strategize. I look at the student experience and speak up when I feel something could serve our population better.
I struggle. Higher education and its consumers are in a tough spot right now, and part of my job is to feel that discomfort and try to understand it from as many different viewpoints as possible.
I research. I look for inspiration from other schools and industries to make my work, and that of my colleagues and institution, better.
I care. For all the emphasis that I place on creating a life for myself that features more than just my work, my overall happiness with my life is dependent in a significant way with the work I do each day.
That response isn’t convenient, or easily summed up, or something that all will be able to understand. But as we all know, neither is our work. So while my response to the question “What do you do?” won’t feature all of these things, it will hopefully now, and especially this month, try to capture the spirit of the words above.
Moreover, the comprehensive nature of this response is what I want to impart to students who come to me expressing interest in our work. It takes all of these things, and more, to do well in this field. It’s more than being an effective student leader and it’s more than liking the college environment. I’m of the belief that students will find their way into this work on their own. It’s our job to welcome them, but to welcome them in through a fully open door, let them look around, and have a clear view of what it entails. I want to prepare anyone interested in working as we do, know about all of these things. Especially that “struggle” piece I mentioned. That’s the part that most often gets hidden, but it’s also the part that so sorely needs to be shared. This work is hard, and we have to acknowledge that. If new professionals struggle, and they don’t feel that the struggle is normal, someone along their path has failed.
So as you move through the rest of this month, feeling however you may about it, I hope you’ll at the very least spend time to raise awareness of what you do. Hey, perhaps Student Affairs Awareness Month would be a better name for it? The wheels have started spinning…