Category Archives: Higher Education

Reflection: What I learned as a First-Generation College Student

As I start to approach the beginning of my graduate academic career, I thought I would take a few moments to reflect on my undergraduate experience. For a lot of students, an undergraduate education is the automatic decision immediately following high school. For those of us who are first-generation students, our college experience wasn’t a “given.” Growing up in a single-parent household, I knew what it meant to work hard for things I didn’t have, one of those being my college education.

 

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(left) My mum, me (center), & my grandma (right) during my senior week at Saint Vincent College.

Being a first-generation student is a huge challenge. As a scholarship/grant student at Saint Vincent College, I got into the habit of writing tons of essays in hope of the opportunity of attending college. I had over 8 work study jobs throughout my 4 years of school in order to pay off the additional fees. I also went in with no understanding of proper study skills and had to navigate my way through trial and error a lot of times (that usually began with a lot of procrastination).

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Me accepting the Ragan Poetry Award from Saint Vincent College President Br. Norman Hipps in 2012.

Regardless, I learned a lot as a first-generation student that I take into my daily work in Residence Life. Many of our students are either first-generation or come from low socioeconomic backgrounds. A lot of them have multiple jobs and scholarships. I’ve learned not to scold students for not sleeping enough, but to encourage healthier habits when they have the time. Unfortunately, with multiple jobs and excessive amounts of homework, students often don’t have the ability to go to bed as early as we would expect them to. I’ve learned to take a step back when a student is being combative or unresponsive in a conversation or situation. Everyone is going through a different struggle and some of those struggles are worse than others. I’ve also learned to “fight” for my “kids.” When I was a hall director in my previous job, I had a student who couldn’t afford to attend the institution. I tried to the best of my ability to see what other jobs we could offer and what other financial aid may be available. I even gave her food money for taking care of my cat when I was away. Fight for them when you can.

We need to look out for our students. Although it’s challenging to deal with students who are combative or student leaders who may be slacking on their responsibilities, we need to keep in mind that they are all going through struggles that may be comparable to our own. Some may be dealing with issues at home. Some may not have homes to go back to. Some may be struggling with identifying their sexual orientation or keeping up with academics or working 3 different jobs just to become the engineer they have always wanted to be. Take a step back to reflect on what your students may be going through. And overall, never forget where you came from and what you needed to do to get where you are today. Being vulnerable and empathetic will make you a stronger guide and model for your students at the end of the day.

Choose Your Own Path: Why I decided to work before my #SAGrad Experience

Deciding where to begin a career in Student Affairs is often a challenge for a lot of professionals. Typically aspiring SA Pros will begin their journey by attending a post-graduate program and receiving a Master’s Degree before pursuing employment. A number of professionals, however, decide to take the road less traveled by gaining a few years of professional employment experience before pursuing a Master’s degree. This is the path I took to begin my SA Pro experience.

Beginning with employment in Student Affairs, rather than starting off with a Master’s program, is a huge challenge. Although it was a difficult road, I am so thankful that I worked before pursuing my degree. The greatest challenge was finding a position that was entry level & didn’t require my Master’s. After a lot of job searching & flying around to on-campus interviews, I finally found my first job as a Hall Director at Saint Mary’s College in Notre Dame, IN.

Many may be wondering why I decided not to begin my journey with my Master’s program. Although this was a difficult decision, I knew that reaffirming my passion for Student Affairs & Residence Life was crucial for me. As a college undergrad, I thought that I was going to be a secondary English teacher until I was in the middle of my student teaching experience. Not only did I realize that I no longer had a passion for secondary education, but that I was completely miserable in the classroom. I decided then to quit my student teaching to focus on my mental health and my desire to pursue Student Affairs. This was the most difficult, yet beneficial decision I’ve ever made. By stepping away from the English classroom, I learned that although I felt called to be an educator, it was no longer inside of a classroom. I also learned that I much rather preferred working with college level students.

It was this decision that caused me to work as a Hall Director these past few years. I have not only reaffirmed my passion, but have given myself the practical experience that will help me to relate to theories and to learn new things in my Master’s classes. I am so thankful that I took that time to myself. If you are still on the fence about a career path but are considering Student Affairs, I seriously recommend that you do the following:

1. Consider working in Higher Ed before pursuing your Master’s Degree. This will give you time to make sure you are in the field you want to be in while also reaffirming the specific content area/office that you want to work with. I always knew that Residence Life was my calling, since I was an RA and an Assistant Hall Director for my undergrad institution. This will also allow you to “dabble” in other content areas and potentially work with advising, which is crucial experience to have.

2. Consider moving away to a new state/area if you do decide to work before your degree. I’ve gained so much independence from my move to Indiana these past 3 years. This has also reaffirmed that I wanted to return to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania where my family/support system is. The most growth comes from finding yourself in a strange place alone & with developing a new life/support in that strange new place.

3. Talk to other professionals in the field. I know that I had the help of a number of Student Affairs friends to push me and guide me toward making the right decision for myself. Talk to people in different offices and ask what they do on a regular basis. Ask to do some job shadowing. It’s nice to have some background on some of the job options within our field.

Overall, make the decision that is best for you. If you are one of those people who needs to pursue a Master’s Degree immediately post undergrad, then go for it! If you want to test the waters first, know that there is absolutely nothing wrong with doing so and you will NOT be behind when it comes to pursuing your degree. Know that there are other professionals in the field who have been where you are and are right there with you in your journey.

Building Positive Coworker Relationships in #ResLife

“Authenticity is the daily practice of letting go of who we think we’re supposed to be and embracing who we are.” – Brene Brown

Building coworker relationships is not always easy, especially if you all work and live in the same place. The dynamic gets even more challenging on a 4 person HD staff at an all-female institution. I’ve gone through many years of either witnessing divided Hall Director staffs in my undergrad to experiencing them myself in my professional life. This year’s HD training, however, has been going so exceptionally well that I needed to stop and process what went right. Of course, a huge factor is that we all have similar personality types, interests, and communication styles (so many INFJ’s and blues here). Regardless, us returning staff members were very intentional about how we went about welcoming our new coworkers. Here are a few that I would like to share:

Be authentic.

As a student affairs professional (and human being in general) I embrace that I’m a quirky, energetic person (I’m the notorious quirky cat lady on the HD staff if that puts anything into perspective for you). Don’t be afraid to show who you truly are from the beginning while maintaining that professionalism in your conversations. Your coworkers are eventually going to be around you so much that they see the real you. Why not learn how to embrace that from the beginning? Also, it will allow your coworkers to feel more comfortable about being authentic with you from the beginning.

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Our lovely HD staff.

Be hospitable. 

As a product of Catholic Benedictine higher education, we were taught to strive for living the Benedictine values in our everyday lives. One that has always stuck with me is the value of hospitality. I love to make people feel welcomed, loved, and accepted. Before HD training started we coordinated an HD brunch with the new staff members so that we could chat and enjoy a meal before getting into actual training week. Reflect on how you will make your coworkers feel like a part of a family, rather than just a staff. When you build these healthy and more personal relationships from the beginning, it’s much easier to grow together professionally.

Be intentional. 

Before the new HDs even arrived to campus, my friend (the other returning HD) and myself talked through all the pro-staff issues we had the previous year and vowed that it wouldn’t happen again if we could help it. We worked hard to be more intentional with our initial conversations with the new HDs, and wanted to do more causal HD bonding from the get-go. We also talked about how important it is to discuss “pet peeves” with the other HDs early on so that we can all be more aware of one another in the work place.

Be real about the issues.

As we all know in higher education, we are constantly striving to make improvements in our departments. It’s okay to discuss the issues of previous years and things that would be great to change with your new coworkers (in a professional manner of course). As we have learned, our 2 new HDs have SO MANY incredible ideas for the future of our office, so connecting and discussing our challenges/issues was definitely a positive.

Be supportive.

We have to recognize as SA professionals that we all come from a variety of backgrounds and student affairs experiences. It’s always good to open up conversations about what the new staff members are uncomfortable with in regards to the job, whether that is on-call situations or having difficult conversations. When we start these conversations, we can help to reiterate to them that we have their backs as a staff. We also have the opportunity to brainstorm some ways that we can help make them feel more prepared and supported in these situations (like on-call shadowing or mock conversation practice).

I challenge you all to reflect on how your will support your new coworkers. Yes, we’re not always going to be best friends and we’re going to have our moments, but it’s important to  be a unified front right from the beginning. It also makes overcoming future challenges together a bit easier.

 

Providing Hope in Chaos: Discovering my Passion for Prevention Work as an #SAPro

“Having hope will give you courage” – Job 18:11

 

Over the past few weeks, I’ve decided to start reading Girl in the Woods, by Aspen Matis. Girl in the Woods is the nonfiction memoir of Matis’ journey along the Pacific Coast Trail as a way to heal as a rape survivor. Although the book is sometimes graphic and disturbing, I have found so much inspiration in Matis’ account and quite honestly, I think this is a book that every student affairs professional should read.

 

Matis’ story begins with her first night of freshmen year at a university in Colorado. Matis recounts a disturbing scene where she meets new friends, gets high, and then finds herself victimized and raped by one of the students who came to her room. She proceeds to describe her fight with the institution, which inevitably ended in her being removed from her residence hall while her rapist proceeded to go through classes as if nothing happened. As a student affairs professional and residence life staff member, I ask myself why this was allowed to happen. More importantly, I ask myself why this happens as a result of a lot of campus sexual assaults. Although many institutions are taking measures to meet the needs of survivors while appropriately penalizing persecutors, we still find ourselves in an era where sexual assault survivors are not receiving justice for the wrongs committed against them. We are also still struggling to overcome the normalization of rape culture on our college campuses. As student affairs professionals, it is our time to do something about this violent crime that plagues our campuses. It is also important to recognize that we can also help to train our students to potentially prevent some of these situations from happening with the right tools.

 
As a Residence Hall Director, I will tell you that Matis’ story has reaffirmed my choice to get involved with prevention work here on our campus. Last May I was offered the opportunity to be certified as a Green Dot bystander intervention instructor. Green Dot (a program created by Green Dot, et cetera, Inc.) is a program that teaches students how to intervene in a situation known as a “red dot,” or an instance where a potentially negative situation could occur. Think of a “red dot” as that moment when your gut is telling you that something is off; for example, an intoxicated student may be leaving a party with another student with seemingly no indications of what is happening. In Green Dot, we teach our students how to intervene in these situations with a simple gesture, such as a direct comment or calling campus security to assist. As an advocate for the Green Dot program, I strongly believe that we can utilize this simple-to-implement program to change our campus cultures and to make it clear that sexual assault will not be tolerated on our campuses. As student affairs professionals, we need to rally behind our students with programs like this so that they are informed, prepared, and able to support their fellow students.

 

I challenge you to consider what you can personally do to help support our campus communities. Does your institution have a prevention program in place? If not, what would it take to implement something like Green Dot? As we often say in the Green Dot program, you only have one choice: to do something or to do nothing. There is no in between. There is no neutral ground. There is only one way to move forward.

 

For more info on the Green Dot program, please visit https://www.livethegreendot.com/

Girl in the Woods, by Aspen Matis is also available through the following:  http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/girl-in-the-woods-aspen-matis/1117137870

 

Challenging Senioritis as an #SAPro

“You’re not meant to do what is easy. You’re meant to challenge yourself.”

~Justin Timberlake

Sometimes being a #SAPro is difficult when your staff hits a “wall.” When I talk about a “wall,” I’m talking about crippling senioritis, doing the bare minimum, and struggling to push themselves harder. When I chose a staff of primarily seniors (which was unintentional FYI), I knew that Senioritis would be a consistent challenge. Yes, I have a staff of strong, empowered, confident, creative young women who love what they do, but let’s be serious, we’ve all been at that point during our senior year of Undergrad when we wanted to live it up, do the minimum, and just make it to graduation. Because of this, I have been consistently working to challenge my staff in new ways while coming up with a range of new activities that we can conquer together.
Here are a few that I came up with:

  1. During 1:1’s last week, I challenged my staff to think of the following 2 prompts. Prompt A: what is one way that you can build community (in your section, staff, or building) that you do not normally do? Think of a simple task or gesture. Many of my RAs talked about placing post-it’s with positive messages on the bathroom mirrors or inviting a student to a meeting on-campus that she would not typically attend. Prompt B is a bit more challenging: think of one way that you can be a leader this week (staff, section, community). Think of something concrete. A few RAs mentioned taking initiative to plan a staff event or writing letters to each staff member and posting them during on-call rounds.
  1. During my first staff meeting this year, we had a conversation about the significance of staff collaboration regarding programs and bulletin boards. A few of the boards and programs last semester were becoming a bit lazy, so my leadership team of Senior RAs and I challenged the RAs to take their programs and boards a step further. Needless to say, their bulletin boards for February are gorgeous! I can’t wait to see what programs they come up with in the future.
  1. I asked my RAs what “real world skills” they hoped to gain before graduating. As a Hall Director, I feel like it is my role to help prepare my ladies for the real world in whatever way I can. My staff came up with a great list of things, including Taxes/Financial Planning and cooking. I’m looking forward to planning a few of these “workshops” together. I also think this would make great staff bonding time.

 

I now challenge you #SAPros to consider the same. Are your staff members struggling to reach their potential? Are they finding themselves in the “bare minimum” mindset? I would love to hear what many of you have done to help reengage and challenge your staff to grow (I also need some more ideas as the year goes on).

Learning from Our Mistakes in #StudentAffairs

“We need to accept that we won’t always make the right decisions; that we’ll screw up royally sometimes. Understanding that failure is not the opposite of success. It’s part of success.” Arianna Huffington

One of the most challenging parts of being human is accepting that we aren’t perfect. In a world that stresses the importance of self-confidence, it’s easy to find ourselves slipping into defensiveness, rather than simply accepting that we screw up at times. As human beings, it’s important for us to accept our failure in order to grow. Without accepting that we screw up we will never change for the better.

I recently understood the significance of accepting my mistakes when I was challenged with a work-related incident. Without going into details, I will admit that I made a mistake and was extremely frustrated and initially, defensive about the situation. After we determined that the situation was going to work out, my supervisor told me that we need to just accept the mistake for what it is, appreciate that it is fixable, apologize for the mistake, and then move on. I understand that if I wish to succeed, I need to take these words to heart and to learn from my errors. Self-reflection is also key and believe me, I’ve done quite a bit. I am so thankful that my situation turned out well, that everyone was satisfied with the outcome, and that I have the ability to learn from my mistake.

In conclusion, I would like to say that I am extremely grateful for what I’ve learned:

  1. It’s okay to make mistakes. We are all human.
  2. I have the ability to challenge myself in order to grow from the situation
  3. The situation worked out
  4. I have the opportunity and ability to apologize, accept the mistake for what it is, and move forward

Yes, we all need to be confident in our abilities and strengths. We need to be proud of who we are. However, we also need to accept that humility is the key to being a successful, happy, likeable human being. By accepting our imperfections, we become more relatable to those around us.

Finding Passion (and learning that it’s okay to change your mind)

“I hope you live a life you’re proud of. If you find that you are not, I hope you have the strength to start all over again.”

– F. Scott Fitzgerald

Sometimes it takes a complete “post-college crisis” to understand what you are called to do in life; sometimes you have to quit something and close the door in order to move forward, to grow, and to understand your passion. I’m saying this because I did that 2 years ago with my student teaching experience. I quit something important for the first time in my life in order to do what I love and it was the best decision I have ever made.

I have always felt called to life as an educator from a young age as I played school with my dolls and idolized my own teachers in the classroom. I knew upon entering Saint Vincent College in 2009 that I wanted to pursue Secondary English Education so that I could share my love of literature with high school students. I went through my entire 4 years of college knowing that I was called to be an educator, yet somehow deep inside, something felt off when I went into the classroom to teach. I had a very successful, happy life, yet nothing felt quite right. It was during my student teaching experience in October of 2013 when I fully understood how much I hated being a high school English teacher. I despised “teaching to the test;” matching every single thing I spoke about to a state education standard. I hated that students did not find passion in the same literature that I had loved so deeply when I was their age. I did not like the environment, and I no longer found passion in the classroom.  And so in October, I quit student teaching because I wanted to find happiness. I knew that going through one more day of student teaching would not make me any happier, and so I quit to take on projects that I loved in Student Affairs in Higher Ed.

Throughout the entire student teaching experience, I was starting to realize how much I loved being an Assistant Hall Director (which was my other job during student teaching) and sharing those learning moments with students outside of the classroom. I knew I was called to be an educator, just not in the classroom. After quitting student teaching I began to seek more opportunities at Saint Vincent and gained experience making rubrics for the Office of Student Conduct and assisting the VP of Student Affairs with compiling our Annual Report for the year. My post-grad year at Saint Vincent was an extremely difficult, yet humbling experience for me and I wouldn’t trade it for the world. I worked at a Barnes & Noble part-time while fulfilling my ARHD duties and completing side projects. During that time, I decided to start applying for full-time Hall Director positions, and in July of 2014, I ended up here at Saint Mary’s College in Notre Dame, IN as the Hall Director of Holy Cross Hall.

My time at Saint Mary’s has been a huge period of growth for me personally, professionally, and spiritually. I have grown so much in confidence through the incredible young women I work with here. I have learned to challenge myself to go outside of my comfort zone in order to grow. Ultimately, I have learned that I am in a position that I love and I am finally fulfilling my passion in life. Throughout my time here, I have grown to be the extraordinary, confident young woman I am called to be; I wouldn’t trade my life for any other.

I am thankful for the courage to quit something I failed to love, to accept that failure in order to grow, and to move forward into doing what I love every day. My job is challenging, but fulfilling; I am an educator who helps students to grow as individuals outside of the classroom through their real life experiences, new-found independence, and daily challenges. I’m so thankful for the opportunity to turn my life around in order to do what I love. As I reflect on this past year-and-a-half, I realize that my time here at SMC has truly been a gift;  I’ve learned to love and to accept myself for who I am in order to be a role model for the students I work with. I know that I’m in the right field, and that my next step (wherever that will be) will continue to help me to grow in confidence. I know that the future holds so many wonderful things for me (and I seriously can’t wait).

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The Importance of Being Young

“Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith and in purity.” 1 Timothy 4:12


Sometimes being 23 is challenging, especially when you start a new professional job. Being 23 becomes more challenging when you work as a supervisor for 18-21-year-olds. Although being young has been a consistent challenge, I must admit that overall, I’ve found that there are a lot of benefits to being close in age to my staff members. Not many SA professionals can admit to owning The Lizzie McGuire Movie or being a 90’s child. I’ve learned to embrace the fact that I’m the “baby” of our professional staff as well. When some of my fellow pro staff members talk about their college or high school experiences, they will often ask “how old were you, Angela?” and I have to admit that I was in the single digits age wise. My supervisor also brought in teen magazines from her childhood and I had to admit I was in the 3rd grade when half of them were issued (who knew that Justin Timberlake was so old…).

Despite the common humor of my young age, I was challenged last week when a resident tossed the fact that I was only one year older than her back in my face. The resident was upset about a sanction I provided for her Code of Conduct hearing (lots of big Student Affairs words), and to simplify a long story, she brought my age into the equation because I was a “college student not that long ago” and could surely understand why she wouldn’t want to complete the task I assigned (which I didn’t agree with FYI).

So there is both a positive and a negative to this situation: the positive being that I am relatable to all students because we are close in age. Yes, drawing that line between friendship and supervisor has consistently been a struggle (like it is for all SA professionals at one time or another), but students appreciate knowing that I can understand where they are coming from because I’m only a few years older (for the most part anyway). The negative point is that I felt disrespected because of my age to a point. If I were older, the student may have respected my decision a bit easier (maybe) and would have accepted, rather than fought me on it.

I guess I knew that my age would always play a factor since I made the active decision to pursue employment before my MA in Student Affairs. Although I had that one challenging situation, I must admit that overall my youth has been a blessing and I’m thankful for that ability to connect and relate to the students I work with every day. I realize that I still have so much more to learn and to take from the world, so I may as well make the most of it.

Other Perks of Being 23:

  1. I can get away with traveling for Spring Break in a little over a week (woo San Francisco).
  2. It’s not weird for me to use Snapchat/I know what Snapchat is.
  3. It’s socially acceptable for me to wear yoga pants all the time (ok maybe not, but I like to tell myself this).
  4. I still get to go Grad School shopping in a few years!
  5. It’s acceptable to read young adult fiction (a lot).