Sharing Our Struggles

It’s been a heavy few weeks for many of my friends working in Student Affairs. Times when students are the busiest are also the busiest for us- planning Homecoming and Family Weekend festivities, helping students navigate red tape as they aim to plan programs, while also helping them balance their hectic academic schedules with other aspirations they have for themselves (internships, leadership roles, and maybe even social time or sleep if there are enough remaining hours in the day) can admittedly take a toll on us. For those of us who are called to do this work, the net gain is ultimately deemed worth it. But I want to talk about these moments, because the struggle associated with working in student affairs gets considerably less airplay this time of year.

I was intrigued by a recent post of Paul Brown’s that featured an informal survey of student affairs professionals sharing why they entered the profession. As I expected, based on conversations I’ve had, a high number of respondents indicated a desire to effect positive change, or a desire to pay forward a positive college experience of their own. For the record, I agree with those sentiments, and these feelings are essential to me continuing to do this work. One of the things I love most about this field is the desire of its people to be good to one another- to help each other out, to cheer each other up, to create environments of support and caring. I have become greatly appreciative of the moments I have with students where I can tell they’ve considered a new idea, learned something new, or developed a new skill.

I was incredibly appreciative of those who live-Tweeted NASPA President Kevin Kruger’s keynote at the recent TACUSPA conference, where he spoke about the changing role of student affairs in the higher education landscape. I’ve been lucky enough to hear him speak on this before, but there were elements of this speech that stood out to me as new. The piece I was most grateful to hear (well, see- you know what I’m saying):

There are enough complaints out there that our work isn’t taken seriously enough. Hell, I’ve contributed to that conversation in the silliest of ways. However, this was one of the first times where I’d heard our shift to crisis managers as one that is defining our roles; it is one major element of what counteracts the levity with which our work is occasionally treated. And that shift has been on my mind this month, Careers in Student Affairs Month, as I continue to strive to share the difficult parts of my work as well as the good. Marci Walton did an amazing job with a post earlier this month- please give “Sometimes My Job Sucks” a look, it is a refreshing and absolutely essential read.

October is a great opportunity to provide organized opportunities to give students insight into what this work could look like should they choose to pursue it. We organize webinars, host conferences, and share our moments when we knew student affairs was “for us.” These opportunities are important, because they draw new potential professionals to a path that they may not otherwise consider. I’m always wary of “drafting” students to this field, a concern I’ve voiced before, but I do understand the value of presenting another avenue to pursue something you enjoy and are good at.

However, we don’t talk as much about the other moments, the ones that we enjoy less, the ones that students called to the field for their appreciation of the RA role, organization executive board post, or Orientation Leader experience, don’t often see. To put it simply, there are moments where we aren’t sure we’re making a difference; further there are moments where we truly don’t believe we can. That feeling of futility or discouragement could come from an administrative place (departments slow to advance new ideas, cuts in funding or personnel challenging our abilities to effectively complete our work) or a motivational one (difficult encounters with students, disappointing assessment results, questioning our ability to deal with the magnitude of high-risk and high-stakes scenarios); these moments happen. And I often worry that if we aren’t open about these struggles when they happen, they will eventually cripple the now undergrads or grad students we work with today. 

Make no mistake, the feeling of questioning our ability to make a difference happens to most everyone. But few student affairs webinars, graduate program open houses, or preparatory curriculums bring it up. In the absence of hearing or seeing that these worries are normal, how will a new professional know how to handle themselves in the moment when this completely normal, but rarely discussed, feeling seizes them? Discussions around attrition from graduate programs or professional roles frequently cite things like “I didn’t know it would be like this,” or “This isn’t what I signed up for.” This is a disservice to our field, and to the students that we encourage to join us.

Here are the facts:

  • We do hard things. Often, the overlap between the circle of people who help students find their leadership potential and watch their development, and the ones who are on hand to help them deal with the hardest moments in their life to date, is significant.
  • Doing hard things is hard. You’re not always going to feel confident that you’re doing the right thing. You’re not always going to do the right thing! Further, even with strong experiences as a student leader and graduate preparation (should that be the route you elect to take), you will often be surprised, challenged, and even demoralized.
  • Having trouble dealing with things being hard is okay. Again, we are a field of welcoming people. If you need affirmation that these sorts of issues are normal, there is nearly always someone willing to provide that. This community of educators can help to troubleshoot solutions and share encouragement. You need only know where to look, and be willing to ask. Like I have become fond of telling my students, “You can’t get mad at someone who’s not a magician, for not being able to guess your card.”
    If you’re having a hard time coming up with a solution to a problem, or struggling to emotionally adjust with the magnitude of things you will be doing, I would strongly encourage you to find someone to talk to or share these concerns with.
  • Not sharing that “the hard stuff” exists is not okay. Our jobs are going to have difficult parts for a great while to come. Expectations of high-quality supervision and crisis management are part and parcel of all our jobs now. We do much of this work without students fully realizing the magnitude of responsibility we carry, and that’s largely okay. Not every student needs to know just how much we do. But the ones who could potentially do it themselves, do need to know. We are doing them a long-term disservice if we don’t share that this work can be hard. It can be hard to complete, and it can be hard to “leave at the office” at the end of the day.

This should be as much at the forefront of our minds when explaining our work, as the rewards that the work provides are. In fact, knowing that we get this value from our work despite the challenges it presents could make our testimony all the more powerful.

This call for transparency is not designed to encourage an opening of proverbial floodgates. Sharing our struggle can (and should) start with the smallest of steps. Whether it’s answering honestly (with a filter, of course) when students ask how we are, being careful to explain full processes (not just what a student is responsible for in a paperwork process, but also where it goes once it is handed in), or explaining the motivation behind safety policies, these measures can give a peek at the difference between the work and challenges of a student leader, and that of a professional.

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