I’m a mid. But, I’m not sure my profession knows

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

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

Change your view of the fishbowl


In student affairs there is a lot of messaging around being watched. From our first days of RA training to our interviews for mid and upper level positions we are constantly being told that “people are watching you.” We expect our staffs and ourselves to constantly be on, to always serve as role models, to never make a misstep. Or, if you do, don’t ever do it publicly. This is exhausting. I remember being a senior in college sitting in RA training and absolutely panicking during these speeches lectures. “Am I ready for this? What would happen if I stumbled? Would I lose my job that I really, really needed to help pay for school and that I really, really wanted because I saw myself as someone with something to offer students and my university?” #AMDG!

Yesterday was our all college retreat. It was an invigorating day. When the president of the university makes time to come speak to you (we’re one of the smallest colleges on campus) that’s a big deal and speaks volumes about who and what she values. When the new Dean stands up and says, “We move forward together or we sink together” that’s a great gut check.

I had to check myself.

I’ve gotten in my own way because I have been seeing myself and my career from inside the fishbowl, rather than outside it. I have let the messaging about executive presence and role modeling and blah blah turn into noise instead of what it is- good advice.

Yesterday I arrived extra early so I had time to get settled, finish my coffee, and check-in to the event without rushing. (I am not a morning person.) Yesterday I wore a skirt and a jacket. I felt and looked great. Turns out, these were good decisions as the Dean saw me walk in and I got to spend a few minutes chatting with him. Now, I didn’t do these things to falsely create an interaction with the dean- it just happened. But, it happened because I was here and ready to go. It happened because I chose to put myself in a good light. That will only help me.

One of my many goals for the 2015-2016 year is to see myself and my career as outside the fishbowl. Instead of thinking of it as pressure, I am flipping the script and seeing it as opportunity. People are watching. Always. We make mental notes about each other. That sounds sneaky and sometimes it is (that’s another post). But, it’s true. People remember. I am going to work smarter to let them catch me doing something well. I am choosing to see the fishbowl as an opportunity to shine.

We need to change the messaging about our roles in higher education. We need to encourage and teach our students, colleagues, and ourselves to see the fishbowl as a chance to show people what you’re capable of. I remember my brother said to me once that if you’re prepared, the test can be fun. The same can be true of work. Prepare (whatever that looks like for you). Then when the “test” comes, you’re ready. It shouldn’t be about fear. It’s a gift.

Truthfully, most of us are more ready than we give ourselves credit for. Shine and swim on, friends!

(Fishbowl Image from: http://www.school-clipart.com/school_clipart_images/cat_watching_a_goldfish_0515-0910-1217-0517_SMU.jpg)

Starting over in mid-career

#SAMid is back from vacation! Kristen Abell shares what it was like to start over in mid-career. Thank you, Kristen for sharing your story.

Three years ago, I was 35 and running a university housing department of approximately 1300 students and growing. I was presenting at conferences and serving on committees all over the place. You name it, I had my fingers in it, as any high-performing mid-level student affairs career woman does.

What I also had were severe health problems – both physical and mental, a ridiculously high stress level, and not nearly enough support to keep going for much longer. I also had a strong interest in learning more about web technology – specifically building and maintaining websites – and not enough time to spend on that interest.

And then I interviewed and accepted a position that was not only a step into a completely different department, but a step down – into a position as a web developer for the university. I was no longer a mid-level professional by most standards (though I still consider myself mid-career). In fact, I was starting practically from the beginning. The learning curve was steep, but I was doing something I enjoyed, I was learning a ton of new stuff, and I wasn’t killing myself in the process.

Was it hard to start over? You bet. I still have people asking me how I like my “new” job – you know, the one I’ve been at for two-and-a-half years now. There were a number of people who just didn’t understand – I mean, the career ladder is only supposed to go up for those people that are competent, right? Also, as I got uninvited from certain meetings and groups, I definitely felt the weight my director position had held – and the weight I didn’t have now. To be honest, that part of it sucks pretty hardcore. There’s nothing like having doors that used to be opened to you suddenly slammed in your face – not because you’ve changed as a person, but because the work you do has changed. On the flip side, I figured out who my real friends and colleagues were pretty quickly – and I’ve been able to maintain relationships with them.

Here’s the thing – people say it’s never too late to start over, and they’re right. You can even do it mid-career – believe me, I know. As long as you can understand and deal with the fact that there may be repercussions for that move. But weigh it against what you’re trying to do and make sure those repercussions weigh more than the benefits before you give into them. For me, they haven’t. And because of the depth of my experience, I’ve been given opportunities that others starting out in this career from the beginning probably haven’t been given. These often allow me a chance at leadership that I might never have gotten otherwise.

I know I’m not your typical mid-career student affairs professional – and I’ll be honest, I sort-of love that. It fits with the twisty, curvy path I’ve chosen to take in life. Is this path for everyone? Hell, no. But if you’re a brave soul who is looking for something different, don’t be afraid to turn down the road less taken. I promise you, it’s doable – and I’d even argue it’s infinitely more interesting.

Kristen Abell

Kristen Abell is a web developer at the University of Missouri-Kansas City and has been in student affairs for fifteen years, in a variety of roles. She’s worked primarily in housing and women’s centers at three different universities over that time. She has a bachelor’s degree in psychology, women’s studies and English and a master’s in social welfare from theUniversity of Kansas.

Kristen has been blogging since 2006, and she is a cofounder of and blogger at the Student Affairs Women Talk Tech collaborative blog. She has presented both regionally and nationally on various subjects in students affairs.

In addition to student affairs, Kristen blogs frequently about the issue of mental illness, especially depression. She edited and contributed to the Committed e-series and book on mental illness in student affairs with colleague Sue Caulfield.