Special thanks and shout-out to Jessica Keefer for this contribution to the #SAMid series. Being in the middle (the mid) looks different for everyone, yet the profession seems to honor traditional degrees and trajectories. Jessica shares her experiences and thoughts about that here.
On Monday morning I woke up and rushed my kids through their waffles and cartoons. Drop off at daycare was hurried, so I ended up feeling guilty all day about not having asked my son’s new teacher how his first days of kindergarten had gone. But I had a long day of student affairs work to do, from representing my office at the M Climb (our traditional first year right of passage) to attending faculty conference, serving as leadership on a First Year Experience committee, and holding a training for the 135 people that teach the course I coordinate. I am a mid level professional. I had a job to do.
For me, being mid level is as much about my age and stage in life as it is about my career. I am 37, the mother of two, and married to someone who is also mid level in his field. I have been out working in “the real world” for 15 years now. I spent last night teaching my kids about Nirvana (which led to a discussion about the Foo Fighters, of course), and I am excited by craft fairs and antique shops. I’m a mid. But, I’m not sure if my profession knows that.
Although I’ve been working for 15 years, I’ve only been in Student Affairs for 8. I was never an RA or a student ambassador. I didn’t have a calling to graduate school directly following undergrad. I never had an assistantship or a live on position. Instead, I worked in finance for 6 years after graduation. I specifically did customer service, collections and fraud for various credit card companies. I hated it with a white hot hate, but it made me a kinder and more understanding person. I learned how to deal with difficult people and be solution oriented. I can also calculate a mean APR. I didn’t go to grad school until I was 30 and I worked full time at the university to pay for my tuition. I defended my capstone project while 8 months pregnant. None of this matches with the paths of my colleagues and supervisors.
Flash forward, and I am currently an Academic Advising Coordinator at a public STEM institution. I love it with all of my heart and I joke with my supervisor that I am never leaving. This is my fourth position in student affairs and I feel as though each job I’ve taken has been a step up from the last. I hold a great deal of responsibility including coordinating two courses, managing a caseload of 450 undergraduate students, maintaining a large budget and supervising student staff. I serve on numerous committees and I am respected by my faculty and staff colleagues across campus. But if you go by title alone, I am a coordinator. Depending on area and institution, that may appear more entry level. I also do not currently supervise professional staff, which I’m learning is the new chicken-or-egg conundrum. And the problem is I am driven and determined. I DO eventually want to move up.
What I have learned is that as much as people cling to titles, and even hire based on them, they are arbitrary. The work and responsibility that are required of me as a coordinator is just as much, if not more, than many assistant or associate directors at other institutions. Sometimes I wrestle with whether that is “fair.” I honestly don’t care what my title is- I know what I do and how important it is- but if it determines my next position or how much I am valued, then I do mind. Those title conversations are when the impostor syndrome creeps in and I wonder if I will ever make it as far as the person who spent years in the Residence Halls or the one who is nearly a decade younger than me and already managing their own department.
I am also starting to feel a nagging anxiety when it comes to realizing my career goals. None of us have good work-life balance, it’s the nature of our jobs. But I know that if I really intend to move up the ranks, I will need to get my PhD. I fully intend to do that. Still, I will always need to work full time, proving my worth, grit and dedication along the way. And then I have these two kids at home. The ones I rushed through their waffles. And I just wonder how I will do it all.
I am so very lucky to be supported entirely by my family and my institution. My husband and supervisor both tell me regularly what a great doc student they think I’ll be. My colleagues think I’m a great mom. My kids think I toast a great Eggo. My mom thinks I’m pretty (and posts it awkwardly on Facebook). They don’t mention who will take care of sick kids, cook dinner, and fold laundry while my husband works a weekend shift. We don’t talk about how I will afford my education. But I have to be honest, I believe in myself. I am happy where I am for the moment, and I know I will find my path to my next joy and challenge. I always have.
Jessica Keefer is an Academic Advising Coordinator at the Colorado School of Mines. She has worked in several advising and student services roles over the past 8 years. She is an alumna of both Ohio University and University of Denver, and is currently eyeing various PhD programs. Jessica is interested in social justice, first year experience, fostering meaningful relationships, and Cleveland sports. When not at work, you can find Jessica wrangling her two small children, hiking, enjoying cheese, or collapsed on the couch. Connect with her on Twitter: @jesslkeefer