The Defectors, Series 2: A Different Look at “Defection”

(I’ve said much of what I want to say about the conclusion of this series in last year’s closings, which you can find here and here. But there’s a bit more…so read on!)

“Why the word ‘Defector?'”

About a week into this edition of The Defectors, I got this question from my agent Ken, who I appreciate for challenging me to think about what I think and say in new ways. In truth, I liked the confident charge the term implied. Defecting is a decision, a clear choice that someone makes to depart from what they’ve been doing or where they’ve been going. People defect from political parties, from countries of citizenship, from organizations that they call home.

But what Ken urged me to think about, is that defection often happens violently. It frequently comes into play where people are given no other choice but to leave.  It’s seen as less of a confident walk away, and more of a fraught tearing of bonds. Even after looking at it that way…I like that it’s provocative. What’s more, even though it’s provocative, I stand by my decision to use that exact word.

Why? Because I see so much of that assumption grafted upon those who choose to follow the defector path. There are a lot of hurt feelings, confusion, cries to stay, and even after the departure, tinges of disapproval from those who stayed on the well-worn path. There is a difference between the earnest “how are things?” and the one soaked in “do you regret it yet?” Yes, we can hear the difference- and for my part, even when it’s hard – especially when it’s hard – I don’t regret it for a second.

I was reminded of a post I wrote on this topic a few years back, well before my own defection and before I started talking to others pointedly about their own, called “Pull, Don’t Push.” An excerpt:

One of the elements of our profession that I struggle with most is our propensity to shame or look down upon those who elect to leave the field in favor of other pursuits. Being a field of personable people, we take offense at this decision, concerned that its our fault or that we have some duty to keep them “within our ranks.” But, as Chris Conzen illuminated in one of my favorite posts of his, this may have nothing to do with us. We’re typically offended, concerned, or hurt by what we’re seeing as a push. I want us, as a profession, to look at this another way.

The post used the “second act” comedy careers of Ken Jeong (former doctor), Retta (former chemist) and Bill Cosby (former teacher, and pre-scandal of course) to illuminate the idea of being pulled toward a new pursuit or way of working, rather than away from an existing one. I highlighted the element of choice here, acknowledging that this manner of making change is different from those who feel forced out (which, to make abundantly clear- the circumstances around that form of departure also need to change):

There are those who leave the field because the pressures of their role have caused them to seek other options, or because their belief in the field is inconsistent with their reality. I completely understand that this can happen. However, this post is not for or about those people.

I like the choice of “defection” as a means to describe this new world of work that many have chosen to enter, because so many look at it in that traditional way at first glance. The definition of “defect” as a verb is “to abandon a country or cause in favor of an opposing one” (emphasis added). It is my sincere and fervent hope that you’ve learned, over the course of this month – and through season one – that these causes are not in opposition with one another.

So how can we remove the oppositional orientation of these non-campus based roles, and make professionals more aware of their myriad options?

  • For those who “tap” undergraduate students with potential to excel in this field: Speak not just of the on-campus opportunities to affect student development and well-being, but also of the off campus opportunities. How could professional associations be better for their contributions? Auxiliary service providers? Honor societies?
  • For those who advise students through supervision or faculty roles: Speak about these additional opportunities not as secondary or fallback options, but as legitimate parts of a fulfilling path for one’s career. In what ways has your work been impacted by the professionals serving the field in other ways? How have you collaborated with them, and how have they supported your work?
  • For graduate students evaluating their entry into the field: don’t sell non-campus-based positions short. They are not a substandard or “backup” form of engagement in higher education; they’re simply different. No better, no worse…only different. Do any of these different options look enticing? Use your status as a student to your advantage; ask questions, conduct informational interviews, meaningfully incorporate these options into your search if they pique your interest.
  • For professionals looking critically at their next steps: Get creative with how your skills, abilities, and perspective can impact the world of work. Who can benefit from the areas in which you shine? In what other areas of the field could you shine? Several of the Defectors in this year’s series have volunteered their contact information, who might be able to share their story and inform your next steps?
  • And for professionals who are friends, colleagues, or supporters of Defectors: it is, more often than not, not personal. Behave accordingly. Support these folx through their transition into a new form of work. They’re enduring a good bit of change, but it’s likely that the change is borne of a pull toward a new life. Encourage it.

I am immeasurably appreciative of the individuals who chose to share their stories through this series, and to the team at Presence for helping me create a series that could compensate these individuals for their work. If you’re looking for a taste of the Defector lifestyle, I urge you to get in touch with Presence– they are a tremendously supportive organization that has created a wonderful home for several former student affairs practitioners and student leaders, all in service of making the lives of campus-based professionals easier. Let’s please keep this conversation going year-round; it matters too much to leave to one month a year!


If you have defected, and are interested in participating in future iterations of this project (another blog series? A podcast? An limited-run series of on-camera interviews?) please let me know so I can reach out when the time comes!