Rethinking Rewrites

This post is part of my bi-monthly email newsletter series, The Dedicated Amateur. I don’t cross-post often, so sign up for these GIF-packed dispatches to get early access to pieces like this. No spam, just thoughtful fun. Promise!

I’m not sure if it’s the former dancer in me, or the Gene Kelly birthday mate in me, but my all time favorite movie is 1957’s Best Picture winner An American in Paris. It tells the story of Jerry Mulligan, a GI who stays in Paris after the end of World War II and falls in love with a young shopgirl despite her engagement to a stage performer. The dance numbers are captivating, the story has just enough conflict to stay interesting, and it features a seventeen-minute ballet near the end that I’ll sometimes watch on YouTube to brighten a slow or sad day.

So, needless to say, finding out that it was being adapted into a stage production was pretty exciting.


Ran to get my tickets to the Boston tour like… IMAGE CREDIT: GIPHY

I missed the show in New York, but had the chance to see it last week when the touring production premiered at Boston’s Boch Center. Now, I’m not the sort of person who likes to go too deep into the mythology or content of a play before I see it (case in point: I listened to the soundtrack of Hamilton twice before seeing it), so I wasn’t aware of what was coming. And the stage version is…different from the movie. Markedly so. Significant plot details are changed, some of my favorite songs from the film are replaced with new ones, and the arrangements of the ones that remained. Something I loved was wildly different from what I expected it to be. And initially, that jarred me.

In the early moments of what was a wholly different experience, I flashed quickly to earlier outrage over a pop culture phenomenon that differed from its “source material”: Ghostbusters. The blowback from Paul Feig’s entertaining but distinct 2016 take sparked loud and angry vitriol across the Internet, particularly in the direction of SNL’s Leslie Jones. That outrage was fueled by some terrible things – namely sexism and racism – but also showed one way people react when a confirming worldview is seemingly taken from them. For over thirty years, Ghostbusters had been a boys’ story. This year, Paul Feig and his cast and crew challenged that. I’m going on record and saying: I think that’s good.

Earlier this year, I engaged in a chat that was hoping to elevate the life stories of marginalized groups through a Facebook “blackout.” In the chatter that surrounded that event, someone posed a poignant query that I wish I could properly attribute (so if anyone can recall, please let me know): What do you lose by validating the experience of someone else? I hold this question with me closely as I encounter dissonant or uncomfortable perspectives. As I’m challenged by something unfamiliar, I think often about whose perspective it represents, and how I need to incorporate it into my thinking.

As the stage edition of An American in Paris unfolded before me, with new dance steps, songs, and plotlines, I consciously recognized that a few stories from the original were better fleshed out this way. A few characters endeared themselves to me in ways their film counterparts could never. And I left with an appreciation for this new incarnation of something I loved. Was it as good? Yes and no. Was it better? I honestly don’t know yet. But it was different. And that’s okay. For the record, I feel the same about Ghostbusters.



I know this is from the other one, but I need it to make a point. Besides, Bill’s had a good week. IMAGE CREDIT: GIPHY

This next bit’s important, so stay with me here.

Sometimes history needs a rewrite. Versions of the story that we learn first may have inaccuracies, or skew in a way that disadvantages others. And as we evolve as a society, new perspectives arise that should be shared. In 1957, there was less commentary to be made about World War II; years later, more nuance could be written into the portrayal of Lise’s protection during the Occupation. This plot point is blown past in the original film, but is crucial in the stage play- because we have perspective to allow that. There are other characters whose stories were minor in the movie, who got the chance to tell bigger and more personal stories this time around. Jerry and Lise’s love story still takes center stage, but the other plots – namely those of minor characters Adam and Milo – were stronger this time around.

Similarly, 2016 gave women the opportunity to be heroes against ghosts in a time that can (generally) appreciate the power that women have to be smart, strong, and marketable at the box office.

However, there are dangerous ways to rewrite narratives. The examples I’ve cited above are powerful rewrites because they allow more people to tell their stories. They hold up the value that previously silenced or overlooked actors/characters have in a story. Dangerous rewrites do the opposite: they silence, they deceive, they erase. This type of erasure keeps important stories subordinate to those of the majority. As an example, look to Roland Emmerich’s widely panned Stonewall, a film that centered the seminal Stonewall riots around the experiences of a Hollywood-friendly white male, instead of the women and people of color who actually started this revolution. (Want a better version? Drunk History’s got you.)

In a week where readers in the US can’t (and shouldn’t!) ignore the story that’s about to be committed to the history books, I have to say this: we have an auteur who is actively working to expand who gets to tell their story, and one who is actively working to diminish this. America’s pool of prospective storytellers is only getting more and more diverse; this latest edition to the history books can literally decide whose stories have the potential to end happily. Although one op-ed from the Washington Post believes that this story ends well for most of us, I know many for whom that is overly optimistic at best, and flatly false at worst.

November 8, 2016 is about more than deciding who gets to shape economic policy, be the face of the US’s presence internationally, or who gets to pick Supreme Court justices at a crucial time in judicial history. This election has the added power to declare openly, in front of the rest of the world, what sort of rewrite the country is prepared to undertake. Will it be one that unlocks rich, varied, and valuable alternate perspectives? Or will it be the sort of rewrite that not only does little to advance the original, but actively hurts its legacy (lookin’ at you, 2016 Ben-Hur)?

So I’ll close with 1-2 challenges for you this week, depending on who you are: first, vote if you can. To an extent, I don’t care for whom. If you have a voice, use it. City, regional, national scale: get on in there.

Second, think about the stories that challenge you. Think about the people who may have challenged you during this seemingly interminable election cycle. A lot of muting, blocking, and unfriending may have happened as a result; what will those relationships look like on the other side of Election Day? Is there common ground that can be found through acknowledging the sources of challenge? Sometimes yes, sometimes not. But let’s all find one small way to do the work.


We’re done talking politics now. Thanks for sticking with me. IMAGE CREDIT: Tumblr

The Very Real Notion of Act-GIF-ism

While I don’t typically cross-post content from my fortnightly newsletter, this one felt too good to not share. If you’d like more posts like this in your inbox on alternating Monday mornings, get on in here. We’d love to have you 🙂
48328f70-0215-4d29-b854-1ec9d9056437Yes, the pronunciation debate rages on. I’m not here to correct you on it, I promise.

I remember, in my sophomore year computer science class, learning how to make animated GIFs. The technology (in 2005) was less sophisticated, it was used FAR less, and I was only partially paying attention because it was a Wednesday night class and I had vowed loudly to drop it the first time the professor ran long enough that I missed LOST. (He never did, so I didn’t have to.)

But in recent years, I’ve learned to have fun with GIFs, playing with them as a form of expression, a supplement to stories or jokes I’ve wanted to tell, and to share emotions that I – even as a writer – couldn’t always pin down with words.

At some point, the effort felt incomplete. And that realization came in tandem with several other realizations that I shared in my piece for Femsplain, “The Wake Up Call.” The realization, as with many others during that time in my life, was one of representation. When I shared a GIF, it was indicative of what I was feeling, or wanted to say…but it was hard to find people that shared that emotion or sentiment that looked like me. Actually, I’ll own that the previous statement is incomplete. It was hard to do, and I had never considered the implications of why.

From “The Wake Up Call”:

My reset is vocal and it is visible. It shows when I seek to elevate the voices of colleagues and leaders in my field of higher education who others might not see. It shows when I help lift black students to their highest potential because I know few others are looking out for them. It shows in small ways, like accenting pithy tweets with GIFs featuring Black faces (which are too hard to find, by the way — who’s working on that?); and it shows in big ways, like forgoing my former “TV Christmas” — the Academy Awards — because I couldn’t see myself in it anymore.

I’m so thankful that conversations are expanding to recognize that being able to see yourself in a piece of art – a book, a film, a TV show – is a right that is extended to far too few people. And the result? When I wanted to express an emotion through a GIF, I was using imagery that featured white males, sometimes white females.

When anyone who deviates from these highly available norms can see themselves in a narrative, in the world, it matters. It matters when Luke Cage allows millions of comic book enthusiasts to see themselves as something other than a sidekick, as the New York Times would apparently rather relegate them. It matters when most actors in high profile roles with disability, are played by those without- save an exception on this season’sSpeechless. It matters when celebrated creators like Tim Burton shirk their ability to create these worlds, leading to responses like this beautiful and heartbreaking thread from one “blerd.” And it matters because in the absence of proper representation, hurtful and offensive stereotypes can persist unchecked.

My decision to change the way I “GIF” (that’s a verb there) was part of a larger reset, but it’s something I pay far more attention to than most people might think. And luckily, I have an answer to the “who’s working on that?” in Jasmyn Lawson of GIPHY, who is very open about the work she’s had to do at GIPHY to make diverse GIFs available for those who shared my concerns. Her efforts, paired with ones like Jesse Williams’ Ebroji and Kevin Hart’s Kevmoji has literally placed a new face on digital expression, and it’s one I’d love to see more of. But in addition to showing others that there are options, there’s another deeply personal reason that the seeds of change in GIFing matters to me.

My friend Matthew opens most of his standup bits by disarming the audience about how they perceive him when he hits the stage. With descriptors like “80s movies have taught you not to trust people with my hair and bone structure” and “incorrectly assumed to be a lacrosse player,” he calls out the idea that people who look like him are usually labelled the villain. To be quite clear, he’s not; Matthew is lovely and brilliant and hit the genetic/good human lottery in an embarrassing number of ways. But he looks it. So he closes that portion of his set by saying “I want you to know that I know.”

And to me, choosing to pick GIFs that look like me does that. A big part of the wake-up call that I wrote about earlier this year was about challenging my understanding that I push what many expect of “people who look like me.” In ways small and large, I defy expectations- which is at once gratifying and heartbreaking if I think about it for too long. But these small but consistent reminders that I’m as much an Issa Rae as I am a Liz Lemon, as much an Oprah as I am an Ellen, and a Retta more than anything else, remind those around me that I’m not trying to “transcend” or “defy” anything. This is who I am, this is how I see myself, and this is how I want you to see me.

So the challenge that I issue to you this week isn’t as active as usual, but nevertheless: look around you. Look at the images you see. Who’s elevated? Who’s relegated to second or third-class status? How do you know? And what can you do to even the playing field, from the picking of a GIF to the elevating of a voice?

What We (Usually) Miss When We Talk About Millennials

Someone far smarter and more technically adept than I created a Google Chrome extension that automatically changes all instances of the word “millennial” on a webpage, to the as useful term…”snake people.”

From Refinery29: What’s the “Snake People” Whoop, and Why Is It In Almost Every Song? 

From the Boston Globe: Navy Seeks to Adapt Training for “Snake People” 

From Buzzfeed: 19 Reasons Why “Snake People” Are Totally Destroying This Country
(although let’s be honest, that’s probably actually a headline on Buzzfeed somewhere.)

With that said, I’ve not yet installed this extension. I prefer to do it manually, via an occasional Twitter hashtag: #ReplaceMillennialWithHuman.

In my experience, most writing about millennials suffers from one of two problems:

(1) It’s too specific. A trait being ascribed to a blanket group of adults within a 16-20 year age range (depending on who you ask), like values, lifestyle, or – my favorite, WORD CHOICE – is one that is by no means out of the reach of the rest of the general population. Who can ascribe the same metric other than age to accurately group myself, Justin Bieber, DeRay McKesson, Laverne Cox, and Mindy Kaling? (Yep, all millennials by the numbers)

Yeah, in this instance someone between the age of 20 and 36 used a curse word on TV. Betty White’s done it too. It’s an extraordinarily common storyline on situation comedy for toddlers to use them. And let’s not talk about the middle-aged football coaches who get caught doing it on TV every week between September and February.

But it’s the second issue, being too general in our assumption of who a millennial is and what it does, that I want to address here at length. Most of us, when we say millennial, are using far too broad a brush to paint a picture of a generation that is significantly more nuanced, and needs several smaller brushes, to be able to see anything of consequence.

(Some of you may be saying, “that’s true of all generations.” I agree. But most other generations aren’t dealing with the needless vitriol of this one, so hang with me here for a minute.)

More often than not, the headlines you see – and the traits they purport to reveal – are negatively oriented. The paint applied to that broad brush includes hues of indifference, entitlement, myopia, defensiveness, and a lack of gratitude or focus. Who’s racing to buy that painting? Few people, which is likely why so millennials are feeling as though managers and supervisors aren’t investing in them or their development. Even as attempts to temper these assumptions popped up (most notably for me, Managing the Millennials by Chip Espinoza, Mick Ukleja, and Craig Rusch- some of the wisdom from which I’ve written on previously), it couldn’t be ignored that the traits assumed inherent simply weren’t wholly representative of the differentiated generation that I grew up in.

Thankfully, more nuanced portrayals are starting to crop up. I heaved a sigh and teared up at the first part of awesome human (and my former editor) Nona Willis Aronowitz’s series in Fusion on the millennials we aren’t talking about, which included the crucial passage below, written as she compared the millennials she had just interviewed at a Midwestern startup, with the ones that were rallying for a $15 minimum wage on the block outside, “looked to be under 30, black or Hispanic, and not the least bit concerned with the issues of the white startup kids”:

I understood then just how much talk of “millennials” had been aggressively focused on college-educated, upper-middle-class young people, even though they were hardly in the majority. There was a swath of millennials out there who grew up with entirely different financial baselines and cultural values, and they were being ignored.

Think now about the bill that too many, including those who can play a crucial role in the development and success of millennials, have been sold.

We can’t invest in these “kids” because they’ll just leave. I’ll try to teach them things, but they’ll either choose to not listen or assume they know better. They think they know more than me anyway, so what’s the point?

Before I get to this point, a word from those who insist on conflating “millennials” with “kids” or “twentysomethings”:

Okay, I’m good now. On we go.

Are there millennials who fit that bill? Oh yeah. I’ve met them. Worked with them, too. It was not enjoyable, so I understand the frustration associated with it. But think about what sort of psychological, developmental, and financial safety has to come with an attitude like that in the workplace. That sort of safety – the security of knowing that if you don’t get what you want, that you can jump ship and land safety in a net of some kind – isn’t common. I knew that intrinsically as these headlines kept popping up.

This summer, the Center for Talent Innovation gave me numbers to back up that sinking feeling I’d held reading news headlines for so many years. In their book Misunderstood Millennial Talent: The Other Ninety-One Percent, they revealed the numbers behind the massive miscalculation we’ve made in this up-and-coming generation. How many millennials fit the doomsday thinking we’ve been taught to identify with this age group? Nine percent.

Here’s how they define it:

It turns out that, in our nationally representative sample, Millennials who have a financial safety net – those who have families who could support them indefinitely, were they to quit or lose their jobs, or who receive financial gifts from family members totaling at least $5,000 per year – are more likely than those who do not say they plan to leave their jobs within a year.

[…] But only 9 percent of Millennials, we find, have such a safety net. The vast majority – 91 percent – do not have such financial privilege.

For those curious, the nationally representative sample in question included both “a US survey of 3,298 college-educated men and women working full time in white collar professions in the US, and [a] multimarket survey of 11,396 college-educated men and women working full time in seven critical markets (Brazil, China, Hong Kong, India, the Philippines, Singapore, and the UK).” Imagine, by the way, how the numbers would bear out if you included those without the means to go to college!

The “other ninety-one percent,” as the books’ authors Joan Snyder Kuhl and Jennifer Zephirin, falls into a category that we must pay attention to if we are to change this sour perception: millennials without financial privilege.

This distinction matters.

It matters because a large swath of this age group when looked at from an intersectional standpoint (not just socioeconomics, but gender and upbringing based on culture and values) has been discounted unfairly, based on the high-profile ability and behavior of a small cross-section.

It matters because the perception of this large swath of the workforce is affecting how leadership training, advancement, and security measures for organizational prosperity are being executed.

It matters because the animosity that is being fed all too often…is baseless in a large percentage of cases.

And it matters from a representation standpoint: I’m not ashamed to admit that I teared up reading parts of the book where they spoke to millennials of color, first generation Americans whose families affected their work, about their experiences- because I’d never seen that before. How many others might you live with, work with, or interact with daily who have never seen themselves in this narrative before? How might that affect how you treat them or what you assume of them?

Are there entitled, spoiled, difficult, and frustrating millennials? Absolutely. I’d argue I’ve also met Gen Xers and Boomers that fit that bill. Those traits are not new. But the fact of the matter is, there are far more millennials who are eager to work in a way that makes a difference- and are willing to do the learning it takes to get there- than those who fit the narrow scope so many have trained on them. These millennials understand what it takes to be successful, and go to great lengths to do so. They do so while raising the next generation of their own families. And they’re far more humble about their accomplishments and potential for growth than they get credit for. For every wunderkind who creates a dazzling prototype for a flashy new platform or service with a net and copious outside funding, there are thousands others who are toiling on a smaller scale in relative obscurity to build new things.

I’ll be honest, I don’t fully know what my point is in sharing all of this, other than to encourage you to think bigger. Be open to adjusting your idea of what millennials look like. Be mindful of the language you use, as it matters. Be mindful of the assumptions that accompany that language, and what we believe about the people we work alongside when we plan outings, seek input, and determine our target audiences. And as you do this, next time you see others hemming and hawing about the legitimacy, attitude, or behavior of millennials colleagues or coworkers? Push back. Learn more about who we’re dealing with, and then share the wealth. We’ll all be better for it.

And finally: get ready to throw all this out. Gen Z is coming. And that is a wholly different ballgame.

PODCAST: On Introversion and Influence with the NASPA Leadership Podcast

Today, I am so pleased to share with you my appearance on episode 11 of the NASPA Leadership Podcast. In it, I talk books, influence, Great British Bake-Off, and how to help introverted students find their power to be influential. Thanks so much to Myles and the NASPA Student Leadership Programs Knowledge Community for having me- it was a blast! And yes, Myles, I was serious: let me know if you want me to go to the book swap in your place. I really would!

The Defectors: Wrap-Up Pt. II, on Defecting From Your Desk

The Defectors Blog Header

I’m realizing now, as I write this final post for The Defectors, that my Defector story hasn’t been told much throughout this series. In this last entry, I’ll do my best to intertwine it with the stories of a few other folks who have had the opportunity to work with a Defector mindset.

As I’ve mentioned, it’s neither feasible nor advisable for everyone to live a defector lifestyle. It goes without saying that campuses need qualified, energetic, and dedicated people to do the work of supporting students. And further, that is some people’s ideal and most effective environment. But as we’ve seen, both in the JSARP article and in the testimony of several professionals in the past month, there can exist…an itch. An itch to stretch the bounds of one’s professional role. An itch to make a mark on that role, and the students one serves within it, by doing more than “what’s always been done.”

For a number of years, that was me. 

I found myself entering new roles not just excited to do the work that was being asked of me, but also to “find the orange power cords” that were tripping people up without their realizing it. With the input from students, staff, and other offices, I became dedicated to solving problems and positioning myself as a resource for those around me. I’m grateful to have found a series of roles that were open, and even welcoming, to me taking on this role for the office. I created manuals, updated outdated processes, and established rubrics and assessment tools to standardize, then measure the outcomes of, initiatives that had previously felt haphazard.

The key in this story is not that I found these opportunities to create and infuse parts of myself into the roles, but that I had supervisors and colleagues who were supportive of it. Believe it or not, there is a difference between being “allowed” to do something, and being “supported” in doing it. The former permits it to happen, the latter helps it.

In my most recent campus-based role, I was lucky enough to have a colleague who found similar support in a project she wanted to create. As she talks about it, Alissa reveals a bit of the energy that such a project has given her:

I’ve worked in Residence Life for over six years now and the work can get repetitive. There are the same waves that happen every year. I needed to find something to re-energize myself and get me motivated. I was certified to be a Strengths Based Educator about two years ago and I can’t say enough how much it has helped me to be more engaged in my work. I help train other departments, different student groups that I would normally not work with, and have even started to teach a leadership development class on it. Now more than ever I feel excited for a new year, because I know that this will allow me a new outlet to focus on.

Supervisors who fear giving their staff members the autonomy to “defect” within their roles, should weigh the energy that such freedom and trust will give their staff members, against the perceived time constraints and potential conflicts they could present. Sinclair, whose chosen “defection” is expressly dedicated to empowering and uplifting his colleagues near and far, shared:

I send motivational emails and handwritten letters to those in the field in who are starting new jobs, on a job search, or just needing a pick me up. Doing this fills me, because I know I’m helping another person show up a little better to the work they do. Inspiring others encourages me to be more hopeful as well, because I’m able to notice the successes, wins, and triumphs in my daily work. It’s easy to be constantly bogged down by all the negativity I encounter working in residence life.

I want to speak for a moment to the negativity that Sinclair references. We’re all aware that it exists. And most of us are aware of the culture that breeds it. Higher education professionals carry a burden of sorts in shaping the next generation. It takes a lot to do this- a lot of time, a lot of energy, a lot of patience and understanding. To give all of that, while not always seeing the end result of that hard work, and to do so as a national spotlight continues to critique the value of said work, has moments of sheer exhaustion baked right in. We can swear up and down that the validation shouldn’t matter- but for many, it does. We can insist that the work fulfills us at all times- but that’s an unrealistic expectation. So when we find those projects at our desks that can provide a jolt of energy, inspiration, and reaffirmation? We should follow those wholeheartedly- and those of us in a position to support those folks, should.

Shelly, a first year student advisor, shared a unique example of how the work she “defects” to do at times, places her work in a context that helps her fight more fiercely to do it well:

I’ve been very fortunate in pursuing my political aspirations by having an extremely supportive supervisor. In general, my school board work does not interfere with my day-to-day work functions; meetings are typically in the evenings and I use lunch breaks to catch up on emails and phone calls. However this past spring I was campaigning to keep my seat and that required more time away from the office. While I used my vacation time to account for time spent campaigning, my supervisor was also supportive of me doing some work remotely (my home is about 45 minutes away from campus) in order for me to stay on top of my responsibilities and attend daytime functions. My supervisor and I have a relationship built on trust which allowed us to work together to continue the operations and functions expected out of my role but also give me the space to pursue this lifelong goal of running for office. (Some background, I was initially appointed to fill a vacancy so I didn’t have to run for office when I first got on the school board, but then when I wanted to stay on I had to campaign.)
For me, what has been fun and interesting is seeing the connections between PK-12 and higher ed and leveraging my roles in one realm to support the other. My primary work function is overseeing the university’s first year advising program and as such I am extremely familiar with the curriculum for our first year students and how their high school courses can impact their academic experience at JMU (e.g. if they earned credit through APs or dual enrollments). I’ve been able to have conversations with members of academic affairs and admissions regarding what’s happening in the district I represent as well as encourage faculty in my district to understand what higher education might be looking for in incoming students.Needless to say my brain is constantly ticking thinking about the relationship between PK-12 and higher education and how I can best support students moving through their education.
Education is something I value, so being able to promote education both in my work and in my civic involvement allows me to feel more fulfilled in all that I do. [emphasis added]
These are the sorts of stories I love to see, because a bit of support and flexibility can go a long way in strengthening relationships, creating and sustaining fulfilling work, and building loyalty that helps schools keep staff for a long time.
With all that said, there are points at which the allowances made simply aren’t enough. For me, that’s why I ultimately decided to defect. I am grateful to have had a supervisor who allowed me time away for conferences (both higher ed related and non), days at home to write or plan presentations, and the space within my role to integrate those interests into lasting campus initiatives. And while I was incredibly appreciative of that, I realized in October 2015 that it wasn’t enough. The thing I wanted to do, to build my life on, would never be as much of my role on campus as I wanted it to be. As I explored other campus-based roles, it became clear that such an arrangement would be unlikely anywhere else. So my defection was borne of necessity, and buttressed with substantial savings – I want to make that part VERY clear! But, as Jason shared with me, not everyone needs to.

I guess I don’t have to defect. It’s not that I haven’t thought about it. I have. It’s just that I don’t need to.

Life can basically be broken into thirds. You should spend 8 hours of each day sleeping. That’s a third of your day. Most jobs require 8  hours of each day working. That’s a third of your day. That just leaves another 8 hours of each day doing things that bring you joy.

Those back two thirds? They intersect for me. My job allows me to investigate things that inspire and motivate me – pop culture, comedy, creativity. 16 hours of each day I get to do what I enjoy the most.

I’m lucky. I’m lucky that I’m at an institution that affords and allows me to dive into topics I care about. I’m lucky that I have a support system both at work and in life that pushes me to follow these topics. I’m lucky I don’t have to defect. And for now, I stay.

So if you’re looking to split the difference, living some hybrid between a traditional role and one infused with the spirit of “defectorism,” here are some tips:

  • Try things out. Stakes are low when your livelihood doesn’t depend on them. Start a journal. Take a class on campus or at a local community center in something you’re interested in, to see if it’ll stick. Use those vacation days to spend uninterrupted time on something you’re excited about.
  • If you want to try something new within your role, talk to students and your supervisor. If what you want to do benefits students – and they can articulate how it would help them – you heighten the possibility that your supervisor will support it. When in doubt, frame your new pursuit in terms of its benefit to your work. Note: refreshing you in a way that allows you to do your work well, is a viable reason.
  • If you anticipate wanting to make a jump at some point, save money. Save more than you think you’ll need. Budget toward it. It is not a cheap endeavor, by any means.
  • Talk to the Defectors who are listed here, and any others that you might know. Several indicated specifically that they’d be willing to talk- take them up on it! A caveat, however: some of them make their living, dispensing the very advice for which you’re asking. Please, please, please be respectful of that.

And finally, let’s all be cool to one another. We all have our place in the world, in terms of how we wish to contribute. Working on campus isn’t inherently better than finding a different way to work. It is precisely that – different. The only people who need side hustles are the ones who inherently feel they need to (for the money, the fulfillment, or some combination of the two). Those who chose to defect aren’t (usually) looking down on where they left, they’re simply looking for a better fit. Support them in this. And those who stay, may be getting exactly what they need where they are. Support them in this. Both sides of the fence are nice, as long as the side you’re on is where you want to be 🙂

The Defectors: Wrap-Up Pt. I, on Creating Space for Defectors

The Defectors Blog Header

The Defectors project is, in some ways, pretty new for me and pretty familiar at the same time. It is the first blog series I’ve hosted, my answer to a challenge from a friend who encouraged me to “stop ranting and start creating.” But at the same time, my response reflected the things that I value: sharing stories, and positioning myself as a resource and a means to connect people. I hope this series has succeeded in doing that for you. Another round of heartfelt thanks goes out to each of my contributors, each kind enough to share their stories with us all- and special encouragement goes out to those who submitted with qualifications of “I’m not a writer.” You are, and I’m so appreciative of that fact 🙂

Even though we’re starting to see real research in attrition rates about departure from student affairs, I’ve always maintained that those numbers need stories behind them. Yes, there are people who are leaving the field to pursue wholly different endeavors- I have colleagues and classmates who are recording studio engineers, flight attendants, designers, real estate agents, and small business owners. But between campus-based professionals and the unaffiliated, there exists an intermediate designation that has grown wildly over the past few years. In large part, this series is for them. We/they didn’t leave the field, we just exist in parallel.

With all that said, I want to dedicate the rest of the month to two topics. The remainder of this post will provide recommendations on how to integrate the “higher education adjacent” into traditional functions of the field, where possible. Then, on Thursday, I want to talk about how to incorporate a bit of Defector DNA into a more traditional role. I fully recognize that defection is neither attainable nor desirable to everyone in need of a change. I’ll share a few stories from professionals who have found support on their campuses to adapt their jobs for their needs and interests.

But first, let’s chat about those living in the “in-between.”

As I’ve discussed in prior posts, the available space for higher education professionals off campuses is growing quickly. Professional associations, national organizations for fraternities and sororities, auxiliary organizations that provide technological and housing solutions, and independent contractors seeking to serve college populations can all become a home for professionals trained in higher education and student affairs administration. And all of these professionals are working – albeit differently and in different environments – for the benefit and ultimate success of college students. Yet, the field has not yet adapted to count these professionals as part of the community.

What do I mean by this? I think about conference registrations – which make independent professionals and those deemed “vendors” pay considerably more to participate in learning opportunities – and the challenges of obtaining professional organization memberships as key areas where relationships could be redefined. By finding ways for nontraditional practitioners to join and thrive in these communities in meaningful and less complicated ways, we can start to redefine the relationship that these folx have to the field as a whole.


I suspect that these unaddressed challenges are symptomatic of a larger problem: the “defector” life is wildly misunderstood. As I mentioned, this series was borne of a crush of questions- first the ones I asked before setting out on my own, and then later the ones I answer often from those considering making the leap.  By creating space for those living the defector life to share their stories – at conference, through webinars, and even/especially in graduate preparation programs – the curtain can be pulled back on this otherwise mysterious way of life.

I think back to my final year of graduate school, and the idea of doing student affairs work anywhere other than a campus was never mentioned. I’d worked in student activities for several years, and yet no one told me I could work at those agencies who we worked with to book talent. I learned to code in middle school, but the idea of working at a company that built and maintained software for housing and residence life departments never came up. These conversations need to change, especially if we plan to usher more people into the field with fewer and fewer roles for them to fill.

A closely related recommendation: let’s not relegate these alternative roles to “second place.” All too often, leaving campus-based work is framed as a backup or last-ditch plan, and the decision to leave it is viewed with a side-eye or hurt feelings from those left behind. And that language matters to those choosing to walk that path. In reality, we should celebrate anyone seeking to find fulfilling work- after all, that’s hopefully what we’d do for students when following a career path that both excites and can sustain them. So, then, think of those seeking a new path not as pushing themselves out, but as being pulled to something that they love and can succeed at. No, it’s not always easy- and I’ve written about my own challenges a number of times (here, and here). But at the same time, those who have defected know those challenges well.  Trust me, if your relationship calls for it, you’ll hear from them when they’re struggling.

Stay tuned for one last post in this series, to hear from a few folks who are innovating from inside the box to get that ‘defector’ field while in traditional roles.

The Defectors: Kevin O’Connell, The Niche Movement

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Today’s Defector, Kevin O’Connell, is not just a dream chaser- he’s a facilitator of that process for others. His company, The Niche Movement, is dedicated to helping college students and young professionals find work that they love and can be proud of. In the nearly two years that he’s been chasing that dream full time, he’s learned a lot. Below you’ll find a portion of a video he sent me – talking about the things he likes and dislikes about the way he works now, and what he wants from student affairs to make it a stronger field. The full video lives here, but scroll down for my favorite part. Thanks so much for this, Kevin!

Not sure what we’re doing here yet? All is revealed here.

The Defectors: Karlyn Borysenko, ZenWorkplace

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Today’s Defector is one who not only recognizes the forces that allowed her to easily walk away from higher education, but is now actively working to address some of the things that concerned her most. A love for organizational psychology is the driving force behind her Zen Workplace, a consultancy that helps people work and lead better- on campuses and off. Thanks so much for sharing your story, Karlyn- and for sharing what you’ve learned with those who need help!

Not sure what we’re doing here yet? All is revealed here.

Over the past few months, I’ve been coaching one of the most creative and talented women I know as she prepares to be fired from her job at a very prestigious college.

That’s right, prepares to be fired. Because instead of utilizing all the talents and skills this woman brought to the table, she has been beaten her down over the course of months. She was blackballed by a vice president that no one wants to deal with, harassed by both her boss and her subordinate in a coordinated effort to force her out, and sought out help from HR only to be turned away….because they were coaching her boss on how to create documentation to fire her when no real reason existed. All of it was clear as day to the two of us and it was really just a matter of time – the only reason she stayed was to try to line up another gig before she got the boot.

Why would they go through all this trouble, you ask? I have a few theories:

  1. Her boss, who was relatively new, was intimidated by her and wanted to replace her with someone more junior to be the clear top dog.
  2. She wasn’t an alum of the college, and therefore didn’t “get it” in their eyes. 

This all sounds crazy, but the really crazy thing is that this is not the first time I’ve seen this happen. And it probably won’t be the last. Therein lies the issue that I have with higher education – the amount of amazing talent that gets squandered and dismissed.

Let me back up. My first job in higher education was right out of college as an admissions counselor which, of course, is an amazing first job to have! You’re working with people your age, traveling to recruit students, and learning a variety of different skills that you can apply later on. I had a great time and truly fell in love with the industry: the community, the idealism, the very real sense that you have a part in changing people’s lives. As an extra bonus, you get to work with really smart people! Higher education has a lot going for it and I wouldn’t have chosen to spend my early professional years anywhere else.

But as you rise in the ranks the ugliness starts to rear its head- the politics, the red tape, the committees, the people who have been at the institution forever and have consolidated a power base that put the kibosh on any and all new ideas. You realize how underutilized all those really smart people are – how underutilized you are – and it becomes a maddening experience. Unless you’re really lucky and have an amazing, influential boss (yes, those do exist!), one of two things will eventually happen to you: You either conform to the quiet mediocrity that is demanded from you, or you will get forced out. You may not get fired but it will be made very clear to you when your presence is no longer welcome.

There is a talent crisis in higher education that is coming from the top. So much talent is leaving because they do not see the opportunity to do the innovative work they are capable of or advance beyond mid-level. Those who do get ahead are the ones that know where their place is…and understand they should never attempt to push boundaries beyond a gentle nudge.

Ironically, it was these experiences that ultimately precipitated a career transition for me.  After years as a very successful marketer, I went back to school and to get a PhD in organizational psychology because I wanted to understand and help organizations create better, innovative, engaging work environments that takes full advantage of the skills that their people bring to the table. After over a decade in the industry, I left to go solo. Today I have my own practice and, yes, I have a lot of higher education clients! It’s another ironic twist of fate that I’m better positioned to serve the industry I love as an outsider than I ever would have been if I was on staff. It’s the higher ed way of life, knowing that even if you’ve been saying the same thing for years, the consultants will always be listened to before you will be. So I’ll enjoy my consultant role for now. Being listened to by leaders, having my advice taken and implemented- it’s a whole new world!

Would I ever go back and work for a college or university full time? I love the idea of it in the same way I love the idea of a world full of rainbows and unicorns. But truth be told, I would be scared to death to make that commitment. The work I do in shifting work cultures sounds great on paper, and I’ve never come across a college or university that wouldn’t benefit from my help. The problem is that I just don’t think many leaders in higher ed have the fortitude to see it through to reality beyond a few trainings here and there. And it takes more than a few trainings to shift a culture.

Here’s what it would take for me to take the full-time plunge:

  • A long-term commitment from the top, because that’s the only way it can possibly work. A president that isn’t afraid to say it’s time for higher education to do things differently when it comes to how it treats its administrative talent and wants to create a preeminent work culture for their people.
  • A leadership team that understands that when your employees are happy, motivated, and taken care of, every single success metric that can be measured goes up. Enrollment, engagement, scholarship, retention, giving…every single metric that drives the success of any academic institution.
  • Independence from the HR function. HR plays an extremely important role in any organization. However, they sat back and watched as the current reality was created. Maybe they didn’t know what to do, or maybe they just didn’t see the benefit of advocating change. Either way, that means the solution has to come from outside of them.

That’s a tall order. Is it possible? I’m not sure….but I hope it is. Universities are starting to make a proactive effort to look for talent who have no higher education experience when all they really need to do is look internally and utilize the talent they already have. Empower them, let them off the leash and do the things they are capable of. They will blow your mind and all of your core metrics will skyrocket.

If there are any higher ed leaders reading this that want to consider that a challenge, get in touch with Karlyn! She would love to talk to you.


The Defectors, Stephanie Tomlinson, The Steph Tom Show

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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.

The Defectors: Jamie Piperato, JPHigherEd

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Today’s Defectors post highlights the entrepreneurial journey of Jamie Piperato, who drew inspiration from a leadership session and used its fuel to create her own destiny. She speaks eloquently about how refining her own goals has helped her better serve the professionals and students around her; I must confess, the way in which she does business has inspired me to tighten up my own practices! So appreciative of your attentiveness to that speech at the NAACP that day, Jamie- who knows where you’d be without it?

Not sure what we’re doing here yet? All is revealed here.

In 2015, I attended South Carolina’s NAACP College and Youth Division Conference as an advisor of Coastal Carolina University’s chapter. During one of the sessions, a man stood before the students and said, “Stop making someone else’s dream come true. Go out there and make your own dreams a reality.” This message was not intended for me (for multiple reasons); however, it couldn’t have come at a better time in my life.

Shortly after the conference, I made one of the scariest decisions of my career. I made the decision to leave my full-time position as Assistant Director of Multicultural Student Services to pursue opening up my own higher education professional development company ( I made the scary leap into the unknown and started on the path of ‘making my own dreams a reality.’

Many factors played a role in this decision. In my experience, I found that a common narrative for folks who work in identity offices is that they are underpaid, undervalued, overworked, and over regulated. [Side Note: I recognize that this is a common thread in most functional areas but a simple glance at budgets usually differentiate the experiences significantly between offices.] In addition, while working in the field, I was noticing disparities in my colleagues’ knowledge and skills around working with marginalized students on campus. These factors, coupled with my aspirations to open up my own business, invited me into the world of defectors.

This journey has been one unbelievable ride that has challenged me in new and exciting ways. I have learned lessons about what I didn’t know about marketing, what it means to network across industries, what is important to me as both an employer and employee, and how perceptions of what is important can be skewed due to the environments we work in as professionals. As a result of living and breathing the defector life, I have been able to revise my mission, vision, and values in life; and, ensure that my time is spent on achieving my goals.

One question that I receive all the time from folks in higher education (in more traditional roles) is, “Will you ever go back?” My answer to this question will always be, “I never left.” I think it is important that we transform our thinking about what it means to be a higher education professional (in both traditional and non-traditional roles). Many people in higher education work in more non-traditional roles. Many of these people are “defectors” themselves due to factors such as burnout, inadequate pay, or unhealthy working factors.

Now, with regards to ever working in a more traditional role again, I will let ‘future Jamie’ decide that one for me! As of right now, it is plain and simple. I love what I am doing. I have embraced the ‘defector life’ and I wouldn’t want it any other way!