The Defectors, Stephanie Tomlinson, The Steph Tom Show

The Defectors Blog Header

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.

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