The Defectors, Series 3: Meet Bonnie, Chelsea, and Sharon

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The long term security of a known paycheck, health insurance and retirement that went away was very scary. I struggled with the pros and cons for about a year before actually making the leap. BUT once the words came out of my mouth…it was like an elephant was lifted off my chest and it was incredibly empowering and exhilarating moving forward.

-Bonnie Fox, Speaker Agent and Proud Defector

In this week’s edition of Defectors in Conversation, be pleased to meet Bonnie, Chelsea, and Sharon.

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Chelsea Haring (CH) serves as the Chief Operations Office at Switchboard in Portland, OR. She spent 12 years in career services at Portland State University, Wingate University and Johns Hopkins University. During her career, she worked almost every corner of a career center and developed a deep understanding of emerging trends and potential for innovation in the field.

Bonnie Fox (BF) is an agent with S.P.E.A.K. Educators, the speaker division of FUN Enterprises. She was in Student Affairs in Student Activities as a director at a medium size Community College in Washington State and a medium size State University in Connecticut. She oversaw a paid leadership program that produced events on campus for students.

Sharon Manson (SM) serves as the Educational Program Manager at University of North Texas’s Health Science Center. She comes to that work after 25 years in student housing, and in that time served as an RD, Area Coordinator, General Manager and Director of Residence Life for a private housing company, and a director of residence life for a small private university.

Get to know them and their wisdom this week in Defectors in Conversation!

Briefly, what got you curious about “breaching the bubble” of your former field/work?

BF: I had started a business on the side in my 3rd year of working in Student Affairs…by year 5, it had taken off and had been a solid business that could support me full time…although it was very scary (state comforts like health insurance and 401K) I took the leap and haven’t looked back. I left the field 17 years ago and have recently just sold my last of the 4 businesses that I started.

SM:  I loved residence life and might have stayed in Student Affairs (I was “in line for the Dean of Students position”), but I got caught up in office politics. My boss (Dean of Students) was disliked by his (VP Student Services). She put the pieces in play and had the opportunity to get rid of him (on the day before his doctoral hooding no less) – the person she hired fired me exactly a month later.

I’ve looked outside of higher ed, but always came back – while my coworkers grumbled about the extra work, I genuinely enjoyed orientation and graduation. Working in Residence Life and with RAs, I did get to see the growth we hope to encourage (with most of them).

CH:  I […] have a background in tech and was assigned to every tech sourcing committee at the institutions I worked. I implemented over 33 products over the 12 years and developed a robust vendor network and understanding of how software can scale student success and young alumni career support for institutions.

SM:  Isn’t that the norm – if you have special interest/skill you tend to get put on every committee that relates to it.  It either burn you out or energize you! 🙂

CH: The last year I was at Hopkins, I spent a year researching innovation trends in career services and realized so many teams were struggling with the same challenges. I understood for me to have an influence on the field, I should go into the private sector and try to work with multiple teams at once through consulting/technology solutions. 3 years ago, I transitioned into ed tech as a higher ed industry consultant. I spent time at Handshake working with their product, customer experience and support teams and have been at Switchboard the past year building out a services arm of the company and driving their growth strategy.

The last year I was at Hopkins, I spent a year researching innovation trends in career services and realized so many teams were struggling with the same challenges.

Each of you had that same point where you decided you needed a change- what was your biggest fear in making the jump out of what you’d been doing?SM: I had imposter syndrome big time. I had to give workshops to medical doctors who are teaching in med. school or residency. I thought they’d see through me and that I didn’t really have that much to offer them. (They were supposed to be the smartest people in the room).

BF: The long term security of a known paycheck, health insurance and retirement that went away was very scary. I struggled with the pros and cons for about a year before actually making the leap. BUT once the words came out of my mouth…it was like an elephant was lifted off my chest and it was incredibly empowering and exhilarating moving forward.

CH: I had two “biggest” fears:

1. I didn’t have any formal training in business and operations.

2. I have 3 kids now 7,5,3 and having control over my schedule and making sure I have time to be a mom is really important to me. I feared I would give that up moving into working for tech startups.

These are all really well-founded fears, and it’s great to know that you found ways to address them as you made your move.

It’s also incredibly important to highlight that you do have what it takes to be successful in your latest roles. In contrast to your own worries, what were you really confident in?

CH: I was very confident in my industry knowledge and the problems that were top of mind for so many teams and how ed tech could forge better partnerships with institutions.

SM: I had confidence in my experience leading RA training and teaching class (teaching listening skills, feedback, documentation, and team building).

BF: [In a combination of the two,] I was very confident in my customer base…we were selling to my Student Activities counterparts and I KNEW Student Activities so I was very confident in my abilities and connections.

How did the adaptation process go? What challenges did you have as you adjusted to your new role and new environment?

BF: I thought long hours were reserved to Student Affairs professionals…boy did I under estimate what it took to run your own business! I put in WAY more hours on my business, but it was a labor of love and often it just didn’t feel like “work”.

CH: I found I actually worked more hours in a week in higher ed, but the hyper efficient/productivity pace and tools available to drive efficiency took me a couple of months to get used to.

BF: I moved offices 4 times in 5 years…working from home; from small cramped offices in the back of a converted old Ice Storage warehouse; to traditional office space; to a converted old thread mill in a creepy old mill warehouse; to a brand new office/warehouse build to spec for ME! All of them had their pros and cons and we always made do, but not having the luxury of access to brand new equipment, computers, printers etc was a hard transition.

And I missed the student interaction…the learning…the “ah-ha moments” when it just clicked. When an event was executed perfectly, when their timelines WORKED! I really missed that part.

SM: I was also used to a much more lively, casual atmosphere with students around. I’m now in an office with no student workers and the students I work with are either off-site or come to campus once a month. I do miss the laughter of college students just being goofy – it kept me young.

I was used to teaching college-age students, who were eager to listen and learn as they started new jobs. I assumed the doctors I talked to had much of the knowledge they were asking me to teach, but so much of what I took for granted that they knew had never been taught to them. (“when you… I feel…” SOLAR – squared, open, lean, eye contact, relax).

What skills served you well in your transition?

BF: I adapt well and quickly assimilate. I am a pro multitasker which is valuable when you are in sales; customer service; production and head of shipping and receiving! I also knew the ebb and flow of the academic year so I was able to work hard…really hard during the “hot” times and knew that just over the horizon it was going to slow down…something that I really really looked forward to!

SM:  I’m fairly adept at making people feel comfortable (all those years of move-in, orientation, RA programs, pizza parties, and dealing with parents) and trained my staff in a version of servant leadership, but I’ve gotten more thank you’s for responding to emails or sending detailed emails about conferences (I coordinate 3 regional ones). I think all of the years of focusing on marketing and leasing (and talking to students and parents during orientations) has developed skills that I took for granted.

CH: [In a good mix of Sharon and Bonnie’s answers,]I have always had a high EQ and my ability to navigate higher ed as an incredibly relationship driven industry has been the most valuable asset in the transition I made. I am flexible and adaptable and a very strategic thinker. I am also incredibly mission driven. My years of listening to students and alumni and internal campus partners positioned me well to take my coaching skill set and apply the same frameworks to university teams who were struggling to meet competing demands. I have always been really organized and a multi tasker, that is a must in this business.

What suggestions do you have for people nervous about (or struggling to) articulate their value “on the outside”?

SM: Don’t doubt yourself. The skills that you’ve gained in student affairs are needed in other fields. Find what you really like/liked to do and capitalize on that.

BF: I tell people to write down a list (I am a master of lists!) and put down all the things that they currently are doing in their job. Then you convert it to skills. You submit purchase orders and keep a budget…You’re in charge of Finances! You meet with your staff weekly for progress reports and if there are any problems…You’re Human Resources!

SM: I would have thought my experience juggling multiple project or creating and managing budgets of over $3 million would be my “value” but its the soft people skills that people are impressed with — and it’s the thing that I enjoy

BF: Its simply amazing when you do this to see what you are capable of. When you SEE the list you instantly become confident in your abilities…what you thought was mundane daily tasks you can see how they quickly relate to bigger and broader life skills! It creates a “I don’t know if I can…” feeling into “I’m already doing it…I CAN” feeling. And that’s affirming and confident building and so exciting.

CH:  I actually get a handful of people reaching out every month asking to hear about my transition. There is a huge talent drain right now in higher ed. The forward thinking, emerging innovators are frustrated and bored and tired of trying to better meet the needs of students, but struggling to be efficient in the complicated organizational structures of their institutions. I encourage people to try something on the side whether it is private practice consulting project work, advising work for a higher education vendor or volunteer work to try and assess what the day to day is like.

I also encourage people to make a list of their 3 absolutes–the things that have to be there for them to make the transition and hold true to those. There is a negative stigma (in some circles in the private sector) about higher ed professionals. I had to work incredibly hard to prove myself and my ability to be a top performer. Many people view higher ed as slow moving, behind in terms of business operations and inefficient. I had to work against that stereotype.

The great thing is there is so much opportunity in industry to take on additional projects, volunteer and network that you can prove yourself as a strategic asset and high performer quickly. It only took me about 6 weeks to get over that hump.

Don’t doubt yourself. The skills that you’ve gained in student affairs are needed in other fields. Find what you really like/liked to do and capitalize on that.


Special thanks to Chelsea, Bonnie, and Sharon for sharing their time, energy, and wisdom with me for this series.