Fall Into the Gap

Be warned: this is not a “get off my lawn” post. If anything, it’s a “the street lights have come on, but you can come out and play tomorrow” post. You’ll see why as you read.

Additional warning: like another recent post, this one starts with National Public Radio.

I woke up this morning, the first morning after NACA, struggling to get back into the swing of my

Photo Credit: Style.com

regular life. But just as on so many other mornings, a Morning Edition story got the wheels spinning. Today, it was the news that Tufts University is planning to work with students to take a “gap year” dedicated to service prior to their first year in college. My mind wandered first to my time between high school and college, where I begged my parents to let me take a gap year. After four years in a strenuous academic program, and the thought of four more years of the same, I needed a break. But mom and dad, being super old-school, declined my request. It ended up taking care of itself- finishing college in three years gave me a gap year on the back end. Loopholes!

But then I got around to the time spent in that second “gap,” my gap after graduation from the University of Rhode Island- it was two years away from college where I worked outside of the walls of my institution and got to know what life outside of college was like. When speaking to a few folks on Twitter about the Tufts announcement, a dear friend shared that sentiment:

As I talk to my colleagues and friends about the troubles we see in graduate students and new professionals (most recently from my friend Val), the idea of the gap year started to feel like an attractive one for the aspiring student affairs professionals we work with on a regular basis.

(This idea, of course, assumes that graduate preparation is an essential piece of the road toward student affairs success. Not saying that’s how I feel, just saying that the following argument is predicated on such a notion.)

When students come to us and share their dreams of “doing what we do,” we do what comes naturally, what makes us good at those same jobs. We get excited! We tell our stories! We share the resources they’ll need to dive into the field that gives us our livelihood! But this excitement, as Tim St. John and several others have voiced, can be damaging at times. And, in a way, we’re setting in motion a course of action that will place them in the position to guide students into the working world, without ensuring that they’ve fully seen it for themselves.

Don’t get me wrong, I understand that for many students, the real world isn’t a complete surprise by the time they start working full-time. We have internships and practica and they’ve worked part-time jobs! They should be seeing some of the complications, the politics, the legitimate struggle that arise in post-collegiate life, right?

Sure. They should. And some do or have. But as I read the Renn and Hodges article “The First Year on the Job: Experiences of New Professionals in Student Affairs,” I couldn’t help but feel as though some of these new professionals were voicing concerns that are part of every professional’s transition, not just ones in student affairs. One student interviewed for the study voiced this concern about her relationship with her boss:

I am very surprised at the lack of guidance I am receiving from my supervisor. My supervisor has yet to show me that he cares about my professional growth. I get the impression that he cares very much about how I am doing my job, but he does not show con- cern for how I want to develop.

Similarly, another new professional in the study mentioned a struggle with the transition to the professional world overall:

When I graduated from [master’s university] I was really looking forward to being in an environment that enhanced what I learned in the classroom and forced me to make meaning of my work, asked me to connect back to theory, current issues in higher ed, etc. But this is not happening.

I can’t say that I didn’t feel these things when I started at my first “big girl job.” I’m positive I did. But my concern lies in the fact that these are not issues unique to new professionals in student affairs- these are issues for any student who has never worked in a professional capacity. And frankly, few other industries would expect the guidance or continuing education opportunities that our profession does. Internships, practica, and other experiential learning experiences can help mitigate this culture shock, but we’ve all insulated interns or graduate assistants from “the tough stuff” in service of honoring their learning experience; the result is a budding professional who, for all practical purposes, has never been immersed in the sometimes complicated and political world of entry-level work.

Could encouraging a gap year for aspiring student affairs professionals prevent some of this? Perhaps.

Many MBA programs encourage their students to work after school for a few years, as a means of gauging professional interest and gaining experience in their proposed field of study prior to continuing their education. Discussions in MBA classes are commonly informed by stories that students have seen in their workplaces and with their clients. Student affairs programs could be similarly enriched with experience from a variety of walks of life. Connections can be drawn from many vocations pursued between undergraduate graduation and the commencement of a graduate program.

What’s more, our field could be immeasurably strengthened by some of the connections that these students would draw. Some of the most interesting stories I heard from classmates in grad school came from those who worked elsewhere in education, the financial sector, professional event planning, public relations, and a variety of other prior experiences. Consecutive graduates (my term for those who moved from undergraduate programs directly into graduate studies), comparatively, had largely their own experiences to draw from- the more astute ones could draw connections from the experiences of their friends as well. By framing time away from the world of higher education as a means of informing later student affairs work, we don’t have to shepherd students from one academic program into another right away.

Vocational knowledge isn’t the only skill set developed in the workplace. In my experience, my classmates who took  time away from college before returning to study student affairs dealt with interpersonal conflicts far differently from the students who had been immersed in the social structures of college for many years. Misunderstandings were handled with more maturity and a greater understanding of the voiced concern in context, than those who were younger or more inexperienced. If the work that we do truly isn’t a continuation of college, it could help to encourage a break in the action to gain perspective and workplace competency.

I know what some may be thinking: won’t we lose good people if they don’t jump in right away?

I’ve thought about that. And could student affairs miss out on people who are called to this work if we push them away? To that, I would say a few things.

First, this doesn’t have to be a pushing away; rather, it could be an invitation to inform practice through exploration of other fields or environments. How we approach these conversations is essential to how they are received.

Next, those who are called this work will hear the call from where they are. If they want to come back, they will. Some of the best practitioners of the work that I know and was blessed to learn alongside are people who left college for two, four, eight, ten years, and found their way back because their hunger to impact college students persisted underneath the other things they were doing. We have to trust that those who love it that are set free, will return.

And finally, some who are sprung from the nest need to leave. Truly. Several of us know the students (and hell, the professionals) who view work in higher education as a continuation of the undergraduate experience. Whether that assumption is being held to stave off fear of leaving the comfort of college, or because a distinction between the paraprofessional and professional elements of this work have not been defined, time away from college could do these students good. Maybe they find they truly are no longer afraid of the world that exists beyond campus. Maybe they find love elsewhere, in a professional sense. Or maybe, as I mentioned before, they miss us and will ultimately be called back. But whatever the circumstances for these students, time away can do some good.

I’m not saying that a gap year or years will help all aspiring student affairs professionals, nor am I saying those who take one are better than those who don’t. School, a number of jobs, and social media have connected me to amazing professionals who followed innumerable versions of the path toward this work. But as I tried to get my brain going this morning, I couldn’t stop thinking about how many of the concerns we voice about the field could potentially be helped by being allowed to fall into the gap.

To lighten the mood, I leave you with one of my favorite Gap ads- not quite from the “fall into the Gap” era, but it’s my blog and I want to share it 🙂

What do you think? What are the benefits of a gap year for aspiring pros? What are the drawbacks?

6 thoughts on “Fall Into the Gap

  1. “Several of us know the students (and hell, the professionals) who view work in higher education as a continuation of the undergraduate experience.” – I voiced this EXACT concern today, and firmly believe this can lead to early burn-out in our profession. Great post (as usual), Amma!

  2. Insightful as usual. I think a gap year can be extremely beneficial–but one must be careful to “mind the gap.” My gap was 6 years; I entered grad school with challenges my cohort didn’t have: a fiancee, pets, many more bills, being VERY used to having a regular income. I was also beyond challenges some of them were going to face: juggling work/life/school, navigating a professional job search, making friends outside of the school environment.

    It’s put me into a weird situation though–I’m more experienced than my time in SA shows, but have few of the experiences that are expected (Res Life and/or Student Activities) in a New Pro. Yet, I know what I want from my career; I feel that I am less likely to burn out than many who are 3 years in, and I don’t have much trouble with work/life balance.

    I’m not sure a single year will provide much padding between undergrad and grad however; it can take at least a year to simply grow beyond the undergrad mindset, and if you are spending that whole time in an “interim” job as you apply to grad school, I can’t see one necessarily taking the time to create the distance that would have to be at the heart of taking a gap year. 2-3 years is (IMHO) the ideal if that is the route one wants to take.

  3. Jessi, thank you for bringing up the points that you did. I do agree with you that it does get more complicated to re-enter orbit after too many years, but I think your suggestion of 2-3 years is spot on. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on it, I did think of you at times when I wrote 🙂

  4. Amma, I really love the points you’ve made here. I honestly think that a “gap year” for SA pros could even be something like transitioning into a completely different institutional experience for graduate school (moving from a large public research university to a small, private religious institution for example). I love the idea of having undergraduate students do a year of service or work with students elsewhere in Americorps, City Year, etc. It could help them realize that this is really what they want to do instead of investing money, time, and energy into a major academic program.

    Also, because we have a Master’s program at Rutgers, it paves the way for undergraduate students to slide right into their graduate work at the same exact institution, which I think is doing them a major disservice. While I didn’t take a gap year, my transition from suburban New Jersey to New York City for a graduate program and making a major institutional shift often felt like a gap year to me. I think the environment shift can be just as jarring and provide just as much opportunity to grow even if they aren’t leaving the field necessarily. Just my two cents!

  5. Krista, you make a very interesting related point about the challenges and potential detriment that doing undergraduate and graduate work at the same institution could cause. While I can’t speak to that because that was not my path, I’d love to see some data on that. Clearly, I agree that, as Sheryl Crow says, “A little change…could do you good.” I appreciate you sharing your experience about the gravity of a change between undergraduate and graduate environments informing a mindset shift; admittedly, it was something I didn’t think about as I wrote. Thanks for contributing to the conversation!

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