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

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.

Basking in the murkiness of the middle

This is the fourth #SAMid guest post. Thanks to my fellow #Jesuiteducated Boston College grad & student affairs colleague, Jeff Pelletier for sharing his thoughts.

Every year, the Ohio Union hosts a summit sponsored by GE called Leading from the Middle. It brings mid-market businesses together to learn from each other. The size and scope of companies represented is vast. They come from all over the country, cover a range of products and services, and no two are the same size. They’re not necessarily the small business/Mom & Pop operation, but neither are they a huge (inter)national conglomerate.

It occurred to me during their last conference, that this event mirrors the ongoing conversation in our field about what it means to be a mid-level professional, or at a mid-career point. Over the years I’ve seen and been part of those conversations, asking how we define mid-level, at what point we’re considered mid-career, and what qualifies us for either.

If you asked most mid-level professionals why we ‘classify’ ourselves as such, we’d say we don’t fit neatly into a new professional label, and some of us may be resistant to the senior professional moniker, especially if our hair hasn’t started betraying our age by changing color! But like the conversations about title, I always ask, “does it really matter all that much?” I’d be doing the same kind of work if I was an assistant director, associate director, or a director. For what it’s worth, currently my business card sports the one in the middle. If I were at a different institution, doing the same job, I would not be surprised if I had a different title to go with it. So I try not to worry too much about what people call me, or what box I check, as Chelsea described earlier in this series.

I recognize the need for these categories in the natural course of our work. Boxes and labels sometimes help us make determinations on what we’re doing, and more important, what we’re doing next. But sometimes we spend a lot of time hand-wringing over what to call ourselves, rather than just doing the work that’s in front of us. Some of that pressure comes from the need, intrinsically and externally, to meet a pre-defined standard. If we know the minimum qualifications for a job posting, we know at a glance whether we meet those qualifications, or if our application is a stretch. For many, there is pressure to advance in the field, which means focusing on the process to get there, rather than focusing on doing some good here. This is not unique to the mid-level population either – I could write a companion post for new professionals and senior professionals. My observation is this categorization and “what’s next” mentality is most pronounced for those us who feel mired in the middle. It’s easy to advise mid-level and mid-career professional to bask in that murkiness, it’s another to actually do that.

Here’s why I think that, ultimately, it doesn’t really matter. As an associate director, I report to a director, and have a senior coordinator reporting to me. All three of us have Master’s degrees in higher education, and work in the field of union events and operations. I would consider all of us to be mid-career, albeit it at different points in the mid-career range. I think we’d all call ourselves mid-level professionals as well, again with a bit of “it’s all relative.” So we’re three mid-career, mid-level professionals, all in a reporting line to one another, all doing very different work. Side note: we’re all pretty good at what we do, if we do say so ourselves! We teach each other constantly, we learn from one another, and we have the benefit of learning from those around us. Side note 2: copy that last sentence in companion post for new and senior-level professionals.

In all honesty, being mid-level or mid-career is a pretty great place to be. I have the opportunity to develop newer professionals and help them figure out who they want to be, in or out of our field. I have a comfortable amount of direct student interaction, which is often a lament for professionals as they advance in the field. I have aspirations to reach higher in my current line of work. That aspiration comes from my own personal motivations (I’m secure in understanding my purpose in the field, which makes me a bit of an anomaly here in the middle), and it is fueled in part by the encouragement of those around me to do more. I also know my next position could very well be one I retire from, and it could be perceived as mid-level to others. I’m at peace with that, again because I know why I’m here.

There’s a lot of middle ground to try to fill, so my best advice to colleagues in the space between (hat-tip to Dave Matthews) is to do your best work, be your best self, and spend less time trying to define what The Middle actually means. I own that I am in a different place than most mid-level/mid-career people might be, but my hope is to show there is some real value to being where we are, regardless of whether we want to stay here or keep moving.

Jeff Pelletier

Jeff is an Associate Director with the office of Student Life at The Ohio State University, overseeing building operations in the Ohio Union. He earned a bachelor’s degree in Computer Science from Boston College, a master’s in Higher Education and Student Affairs from Ohio State, and a master’s in Business Operational Excellence, also from Ohio State. He has been a volunteer for the Association of College Unions International (ACUI) since 2003, most recently on the Board of Trustees. Jeff is active on social media, developing his digital identity alongside students, colleagues, and mentors who haven’t yet muted his posts and updates. Jeff is often seen running the streets of Columbus, or sampling the latest offerings from his favorite craft brewers.