I figured I would update the title of my blog to “A Year in the Life: Confessions of a Student Affairs Grad” (since that’s what I am now. Yay!). I hope to share a lot about my SA Grad journey, which is why I decided on the update. Thank God I chose an interchangeable blog title that I can update when I move to a new position. Enjoy! 🙂
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.
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).
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.
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.
“We promise you discovery: the discovery of yourselves, the discovery of the universe, and your place in it.”
— Sister Madeleva Wolff, CSC; Former President of Saint Mary’s College
I can’t believe it’s been 3 months since I wrote a blog post! Where has time gone? I find it harder to believe that I’m in my final month of employment at my first professional job. I don’t think I’ve fully grasped the fact that this is the last week I will see many of my students after they leave for finals. Or that I only have next week to spend with my RA staff. Regardless, I have gained so much from the past 3 years at Saint Mary’s College, and I thought it would be great to reflect on the things I’ve learned from my first Student Affairs job.
Sometimes you need to move away to find yourself.
Moving to a new state was one of the most difficult, yet positive experiences of my life. I have grown more in independence & confidence throughout the past 3 years both professionally & personally. I also learned how to create my support system & build new connections, which was challenging at times. I recommend that everyone moves away from home for a period of time at least once in their lives.
Create traditions that you can carry on to other institutions.
I have created so many traditions that I want to carry over into my future GA Area Coordinator position. Reflect on some of the traditions that your college HD or other SA professional has done for you when you were a student & use that to develop your own traditions. I personally give my RA staff a pen, notebook, & welcome letter in their rooms as they arrive to campus for the year. I also do a “Treasure Chest” affirmation activity during staff meetings & make baked goods for my RAs once in a while. Reflect on what you love & bring that to your student staff.
Accept your mistakes.
It is important to own up to mistakes that you make on the job. I’ve learned that people value you more when you’re willing to accept your mistakes and own up to it. Being real goes a long way.
Wear ALL the hats.
As a new professional, it is important to reflect on some things that you may be interested and ask to help when you can. Sometimes it’s not always easy to find your niche/passion areas in Student Affairs, which is why it’s awesome to have an institution that allows you to step in and get experience in other offices. I would have never realized that I was passionate about doing Violence Prevention Work on the side if I didn’t agree to get Green Dot Certified. Chaperoning events & showing up to student programs are also great ways to get involved in the community.
Find your ways of practicing Self-Care EARLY.
Working in Student Affairs/Higher Ed is super stressful at times, which is why it’s important to figure out what works for you early on. Remember that it is NOT selfish to take care of yourself first. Once you take care of yourself, you’ll be able to take care of others. I like to take walks, go to yoga classes, & cook breakfast for myself. Also remember that the things that work for others may not work for you.
Be open to new things, especially during your job search.
When I was looking at institutions for my first job, I had never imagined that I would end up at an all-female institution. When I arrived on campus, I just had a feeling that this was meant to be. Focus on whether or not it is a good fit for you during interviews & don’t be afraid to trust your gut at times. Things will work out in the end & you will always grow from the experience no matter what.
Learn how to say no.
As a new professional, it’s hard to say no to people who ask for help. Remember, that it is ok to say no to things because it’s easy to experience burnout in our field. At the beginning, I struggled to say no to anything. I slowly but surely learned that I wasn’t able to take on everything. Keep this in mind early if you can.
Delegate tasks appropriately when you can.
During my first year, I felt the need to take on everything in my building or with departmental projects. I quickly learned that I could delegate to my RA staff when it was appropriate & also ask coworkers to tag team events with me. Don’t be afraid to delegate. Inevitably by delegating, you are helping others to grow by providing some ownership & leadership for important tasks. By providing this leadership, you are helping them to grow just as much as they are helping you.
I learned that being vulnerable and real with my students is the key component to building genuine relationships. It’s ok to share stories about yourself with your students. Let them know who you are & most importantly, that you are also a real person. This will help with building understanding with them, especially when you need some flexibility on their end.
Learn time management skills if you don’t have them already.
I learned more time management skills more during my first year of employment than I ever did as an undergraduate student. Learn what works for you in your office. How much time do you need to delegate for each task? What organization skills do you need to develop to get done with your work? Learn what works for you & your productivity.
I’ve grown so much from my first professional job & I hope that everyone else can say the same. No matter where you end up professionally, remember to take time to reflect on the lessons you learn along the way. I can’t wait to move forward into Graduate school & my GA Position next year with the experiences & lessons I’ve learned here at SMC. Remember to focus on how you want to grow from your employer & what steps you can take along the way to get where you want to go.
Sometimes it is ok to not be ok. As someone with Depression and Anxiety, I have been struggling a little more than usual recently. I have a tendency to focus on the past, the things that have hurt me and continue to affect me to this day. To get out of this mindset, I have to remind myself of the good things in my present life and what my future has in store, which is why I have decided to blog about the things I am #thankful for today:
I love my work as a Hall Director. Although I am sad that this is my final year at Saint Mary’s College, I have so much to be thankful for from my experience. I have grown so much as a confident female leader, a role model, and a person. I have been inspired by so many incredible women, have gained so many wonderful friends, and have shared so many awesome life experiences that I would have never shared if I did not decide to move away to Indiana 3 years ago.
I am so fortunate to have the support system that I do. Never in my life would I have expected to find such a caring, supportive, loving boyfriend who reminds me how important it is that I take care of myself. He also wants to learn about my mental health conditions and always remains patient with me. I also am blessed to have the family that I do. I talk to my mum every single day, even if it is just to say “hi” in the mornings. I know that a lot of people aren’t this fortunate. Although I have the greatest friends here in Indiana, I’m really looking forward to moving back to my family after being away for so long.
I learned how to knit recently (yes, I know I sound like an old lady). This hobby makes me SO HAPPY because it has been a great way to combat my anxiety while making a ton of super awesome scarves.
Although my food allergies sometimes get the best of me, I am thankful for my health overall. I need to remember that a lot of others aren’t this fortunate.
Upcoming Life Experiences
I am blessed to have a lot of awesome things on the horizon, such as a beach vacation and tickets to see Mumford & Sons in the spring. I need to remember the good experiences that I have had in the past as well and remember those when I’m having a difficult day mentally.
I got into grad school and will be attending this fall. Not a lot of people have the privilege of attending Grad school, let alone Undergrad. This experience will allow me to grow personally and professionally so that I can move forward in my career in Higher Education.
I would be nowhere without my friends, especially my support system here in Indiana. I’m lucky to have such a supportive and fun group of people to spend time with.
When you are having a difficult day, I encourage you to sit back and remember what you are thankful for. Sometimes we have a tendency to overlook our blessings in life and always focus on the negative. In order to find the positivity in our lives we must take time to actually reflect on the good things and make more room for the good in our lives.
If you’ve ever had a panic attack, you would know that it’s not fun. Ever. Panic attacks come in different forms for different things. For me personally, my panic attacks range from experiencing what I call a “perpetual brain fog” that numbs all emotion and causes me to forget a lot of things that are said to me in the moment to having a full “meltdown-esque” panic attack where I start hyperventilating and crying. It differs for all of us who live every day with anxiety.
In student affairs, we often find the need to bury personal mental health concerns because there has been the consistent belief that by having anxiety or depression, along with many other mental health conditions, we are weak and cannot help others. The same goes with introversion and extroversion. I wish I had a dollar for the number of times that someone has told me that “[I] don’t act like an introvert.” Just because I recharge by being alone does not mean that I can’t be the energetic, charismatic, and quirky leader my students need. It does not mean that I’m a socially awkward recluse, which essentially has unfortunately been the consistent perception of introverts throughout the years.
Why is it that these perceptions exist? Don’t get me wrong, the negative stigma around mental health has been slowly decreasing throughout the years, but there is still that awkwardness that comes from a conversation about mental health. Why can’t we talk about anxiety and depression like we talk about a diabetes or celiac disease? They are all things that affect our overall health and well-being. They do not define us, but surely they are a part of who we are. It also becomes frustrating when people try to tiptoe around those of us with depression and anxiety. Yes, we need to be supported as coworkers, relatives, partners, and human beings in general, but we don’t need to be coddled. For many of us, we know what our support looks like and we will ask for it when it is needed. Personally, I simply say that I need to get off-campus or leave the room when I am having a panic attack and many people respect that. That doesn’t mean that I need to walk away every single time that a conflict or stressful situation arises.
At this point, you may be asking what I’m getting at with this post. I simply ask you to reflect on how you can be open about anxiety and depression in student affairs or conversations in general. Maybe that means something simple, like having a program or doing a mental health bulletin board. For me, I have personally disclosed my depression and anxiety with a few students who have disclosed it to me. The point of the conversation was not to simply undermine their concern or to talk about myself. It was simply a gesture of solidarity. A moment to let them know that mental health is something we can talk about here and that their condition is not something to be embarrassed of because a lot of us struggle with it. It was an opportunity to give them a safe space.
I also ask you to reflect on how you can support your partners, coworkers, and family members who struggle with depression and anxiety. Simply ask them how they want to be supported. Don’t coddle them or assume that you need to text them every 5 minutes to see if they’re okay. For many of us, we have it under control. We may simply need a supportive listener or someone to check in when we walk away from a panic attack. Overall, we need to just work together to reduce the negative stigma that still exists when it comes to mental health. We need to stop judging others for their conditions and accept that we are all human beings who deserve the same respect despite the different battles we are all going through.
“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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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
“You’re not meant to do what is easy. You’re meant to challenge yourself.”
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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).
“I declare there is no enjoyment like reading!” – Jane Austen
Jane Austen knows what’s up. As we start to end another year, I thought it would be great to reflect on some of the awesome books I have read this year. All of these relate somehow to Student Affairs, and would make a great addition to a 2016 SA reading list!
- Carry On, Warrior: The Power of Embracing your Messy, Beautiful Life, by Glennon Doyle Melton
This hilarious and well-written non-fiction book provides great insight into why it’s important to embrace vulnerability and your past mistakes. Once we understand that no one is perfect, we come together as human beings. This was by far one of the best books I’ve ever read.
- Thrive, by Arianna Huffington
Arianna Huffington is the queen of self-care. She blends a lot of excellent self-care statistics with inspiring stories and tidbits of advice. One of the greatest things I gained from this book is her insight into the importance of getting an adequate amount of sleep every night. Every SA Pro definitely needs to read this.
- Lean In, by Sheryl Sandberg
Sheryl Sandberg’s non-fiction call to female equality in the workplace has gained plenty of attention this year. She provides a number of inspiring stories from highly successful businesswomen, and proves to us all that women can be highly successful while balancing our personal lives.
- The Perks of Being a Wallflower, by Stephen Chbosky
Although I typically read non-fiction, The Perks of Being a Wallflower has always been a favorite fiction novel of mine. I reread it for the first time since high school this year and fell in love with it again. This novel delves into suicidality, mental health, gender and sexuality discrimination, the “drinking culture,” and a number of other topics that we often witness as Student Affairs professionals. Also, you will probably cry at the end.
- The FRED Factor, by Mark Sanborn
Sanborn’s non-fiction book tells the story of Fred, a local postal worker who goes over-and-above to bring exceptional customer service to the people of his neighborhood. This book, which was a required read for our HD staff this year, has definitely opened my eyes to the significance of going over-and-above to make someone’s day. I also have used excerpts in my staff meetings and my RAs absolutely love it! I challenged them all to be a “Fred” in someone’s life by doing random acts of kindness. They all had a positive learning experience and I plan to continue my “Fred Challenge” in the coming semester.
- The Happiness Project, by Gretchen Rubin
In The Happiness Project, author Gretchen Rubin spends a year going through a number of the tips and tricks that authors, researchers, philosophers, and other individuals have claimed promote happiness. Each chapter is dedicated to a different topic, such as “building friendships” or “being a good parent.” What I love about this book is that Rubin was completely happy with her life, she just chose to try to make things better. I love the tips she provides, and can’t wait to try them in the New Year.
- Letter to my Daughter, by Maya Angelou
This captivating novel provides stories, quotes, and words of wisdom that Maya Angelou would have given her daughter. This is an absolutely beautiful book, and I would say that it is one of the best books I have ever read. My favorite quote from the book is, “We may act sophisticated and worldly but I believe we feel safest when we go inside ourselves and find home, a place where we belong and maybe the only place we really do.” Amen to that.