What box do I check?

This is the first guest blogger post in the #SAMid series. Thanks to author Chelsea O’Brien.

I’m not sure if I’m mid-career. I’m not even sure if I have what’s called a career, but I’m certainly not an entry-level professional. To me, where I am in my career path only matters in two ways: my paycheck (I can barely afford to support two people on my wage from my job in higher ed) and when I have to check a box to label myself (e.g. NASPA forms). I’m happy doing what I’m doing. I contribute to student success, watch students enter and graduate from undergraduate and graduate programs, contribute to search committees, and continually learn.

Some of the benefits of not being an entry-level professional is that I now see and understand there are different paths in higher ed. There is no “one” path, no “true” path. There are many paths and all are true to the person making them. I’m also much more balanced. All of my various jobs have taught me a lot of things including patience, balance, and boundaries. I’m also learning that there are some really fantastic leaders in higher ed, and that I shouldn’t settle for terrible ones. I won’t settle for terrible ones or bad jobs. I can’t make that sacrifice, no matter how long I might be in that position. I learned that lesson the hard way.

There are some drawbacks to where I am in my professional career: I’m still seen as young, as someone not in a professional-level job, as someone who isn’t a legitimate campus partner in certain things. I don’t supervise other professionals, only students. I don’t directly handle budgets, only credit cards and invoices. Finding my next job will probably be difficult because of these things. I’m also in a weird mid-place, where new professionals don’t quite respect my opinion because I’ve “only” been in higher ed a few years, and more seasoned professionals still view me as a new professional.

Some of the things I’ve learned in my years since being an RA have lead to really important life lessons for myself, and I wish I had known them or had accepted them as a young professional:

  • There are some things you don’t compromise about.
  • Don’t take a job you don’t want just to get into higher ed.
  • There is no shame in working outside of higher ed to pay your bills or to make you happy.
  • There is no shame in leaving higher ed.
  • Stay loyal to people, not things. Things can’t be loyal back.
  • Always be ready to lose your job, always have your resume updated, always have savings in case the worst happens.
  • Document your transferable skills, you never know when you’ll need a part-time job.
  • You have a ton of skills, you just need to figure out how to translate them to non-higher ed jobs.
  • HR and campus partners are not there to look out for you, they are there to protect the institution.

Some of the major professional lessons I’ve learned have to do with leadership and expectations set by Senior Student Affairs Offices on campus, and even senior vice presidents. It’s hard to find partners, but it’s even harder to work with partners when certain populations or needs of populations are ignored. As someone with experience and contact with students but also a fresh perspective, I can see needs not being met. While those populations of students might not fit into a larger plan, they’re still important. For me, it’s hard to feel legitimate in asking for some time, when I see patterns of behavior that show some populations don’t matter. I also see the needs of different levels of staff on campus and I hope SSAOs require and support professional development of everyone, including support staff. As well as contribution of that development to the larger campus community.

My favorite part of my current position is contributing to student success and connecting to students. My career label isn’t as as important to me as what I do with my career. I don’t often think about how to label my career, except when I have to check a box on a form. That question always makes me pause. It makes me question myself, my choices, my career, my path, and my future. My career, like my life, is messy. I can’t fit it neatly into one of those boxes and I always want to not answer that question. But I usually cave, choose whichever box fits best (it’s like the SATs all over again), and move on.

Chelsea O'Brien

Chelsea has worked for RIT for over three years and enjoys her job as an office manager. Outside of work, she hangs out with her husband, fixes up her house, gardens, and cooks. Professionally, Chelsea is interested in student veterans, adult students, and talking about what success means. She hangs out on Twitter as @ChelseaMDO.

3 thoughts on “What box do I check?

  1. Pingback: Introducing #SAMid | musingsfromthemiddle

  2. Pingback: Treading water | musingsfromthemiddle

  3. Pingback: Basking in the murkiness of the middle | musingsfromthemiddle

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