Tag 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.

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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.

Let’s Talk About Anxiety: My thoughts on why we should stop hiding from conversations about mental health in Student Affairs

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.

 

 

Rejection, Reflection & Moving Forward in my #SAGrad Process

“If at first you don’t succeed…you’re normal!” –Kid President

After an unintentional 5-month blog hiatus, I’ve finally decided to write again. I guess it’s taken me this long to process through my year, to decide what I need from the upcoming year, and to finally come to terms with the fact that it’s already July (and I literally have no clue what happened to the summer).

In January of 2016 I attempted to begin my student affairs grad search. Despite my acceptance to the institution I wanted to attend, I did not get the graduate assistantship I hoped for. Essentially, I put all my eggs in one basket and made an “all or nothing” decision with this program. After a lot of processing and reflecting after my assistantship rejection, I decided that the best decision for me would be to continue a third year as a Residence Hall Director here at Saint Mary’s College while picking up my grad school search for the Fall of 2017 semester. Although rejection was difficult, I have come to realization that it was absolutely the best decision for my SA career and for myself on a personal level.

Initially, I hoped to attend the grad program because I absolutely fell in love with the city that it was in (mistake #1) . I didn’t take the time to process and reflect on the pros and cons of the institution and what it had to offer. Although Residence Life is my key focus area, the institution did not really offer other structured practicum experiences in other departments. I also did not reflect on the difficulties that a cross country move would be for me (financially and personally). Also as a Pittsburgh native, I feel more and more called to return back home each time I visit. How would I feel if I moved thousands of miles away from my family, especially my 87-year-old grandma?

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Pittsburgh will always be home! Thankfully I’ve had the chance to reflect over these past 2 years in order to realize this is where I’m called to be. Plus we have some of the best colleges around…

Although I really enjoyed what the program had to offer and decided to put all my eggs in one basket, I have to admit that the grad assistantship rejection was a blessing for me. Here are a few of the positive things I’ve reflected on and gained from this experience:

  1. I’ve learned that I really need to search for a program that is not quite as far from my family and friends. Yes, I understand that they will always be there to return to when I am finished with my education, but this experience has really helped me to realize where my support system lies. My family and friends are everything to me, and I truly believe that my grad school career would be much more enjoyable with them by my side.
  1. I need to reflect on what I need from both an assistantship and practicum experience. Although I know that I want to advance in Residence Life to a Director-level position, I understand the value in exploring other areas of Student Affairs. A few areas that I would love to gain more experience from are student activities, power-based personal violence prevention work, and multicultural student services.
  1. I need to accept this third year at Saint Mary’s as a finalization of my development here in this position. Through a lot of processing, I have determined some more of the skills that I need to build if I want to be a Director of Residence Life someday. Thankfully, I work at a small, supportive institution where my supervisor and Assistant VP of SA want to work with me on the experiences and skills that I need in order to make my dream job happen someday. I’m looking forward to developing more of these skills and experiences this year, especially co-advising our Residence Hall Association.

In closing, I want to offer some advice to some of my fellow colleagues that are starting their SA Grad search right along with me:

  1. Make a list of what you need from your SA Grad program and what you can do without. Also look at your assistantship and potential practicum opportunities (if the institution offers them) and reflect on which ones will help you to get to that next point in your development.
  1. Don’t be afraid to look at institutions that are close to your support system. I had a long conversation with my Assistant VP of Student Affairs about my desire to look at a program closer to my friends and family at home. I initially thought that I would be judged for wanting to move back home, but she truly commended my decision and said that we need to reflect on what is the best for us personally. If there is a phenomenal student affairs program close to home, don’t run away from it just because it’s near home.
  1. On the opposite end, I strongly encourage you to look at living away from your home in another state for a few years, whether that is during your SA grad career or if you decide to work in higher education before grad school (like I decided to do). I have grown so much as a person by living away from family and friends in another state for the past 2 years and I definitely don’t regret that decision. I have personally gained more independence, have learned to find my niche in the community on my own, and have taken the time to realize that Pittsburgh is where I inevitably want to end up someday in the near future. I have also had the opportunity to affirm my passion for Residence Life and student affairs overall.

I would love to hear back from other SA Pros who are starting their SA grad search or for those who have already gone through their graduate careers! Hopefully I’ve sparked some reflection for those of you starting the search with me (and have reassured you that the SA grad search process isn’t easy for everyone).