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.

We’re confusing presence with actual work

The latest buzzword in student affairs seems to be executive presence. In short, it means gravitas. Can you command a room and inspire confidence in others?

Executive presence can be coached. It can be taught. It can be faked.

The problem with ideas like presence is that they take on a life of their own, like a runaway freight train. They have momentum but lack purpose and direction. Who defines it? Who enforces it? And when? Does it apply to everyone? Or just candidates in a job search? Only new professionals and not mid or senior level people? Executive presence, IMO, is becoming about cis-gender, hetero-normative speech and dress, with little regard for individual behavior, intent, and impact.

Should we all have presence? Maybe. But I fear that we will continue to hire, promote, and sponsor all the same people. People who dress, and think, and act like us. That is not only completely counter to our supposed commitment to social justice and the common good, but it’s also dangerous. It leads to group think. It leads to heroes and zeroes. It makes us look silly. It will make us obsolete.

And this rhetoric is taking us away from the real work of our profession- students– and making it about us as “professionals.” We are becoming self-focused instead of getting back to our roots of service for and about others. When did we make our work about ourselves???

Presence is about perception, not performance.

Actual work cannot be faked.

Service to others cannot be faked.

I fear we have lost our way. I am becoming less and less enamored of this “profession” and less and less willing to tolerate these nuances of our profession’s “culture.” Twitter and blogging have given everyone a platform and a microphone, which in turn makes some people think they’re entitled to expert status. The proliferation of people and the veracity with which they speak is having the opposite effect- at least for me. It feels like noisy fluff.

I see people in our circles being put on impossibly high pedestals only to be cut down and shamed later for one mistake or one misplaced comment. And, those doing the shaming were the same people who made the pedestal. I see people being idolized for their clothes, while we turn a blind eye to their behavior.

Our profession used to be about impacting others. Our metric used to be impact on the students. I was (am) a successful administrator if the people/club/organization/individual with whom I have worked is/are better after their time with me than they were before. With your behavior did you make a positive impact?

If we all get back to our roots (myself included) and over ourselves, our work will speak for itself and presence will naturally follow. “Go to work today and do something for someone else.”

No more fixing

About two weeks ago colleagues and I wrote a post about Loving your work. It generated some interesting conversations on Twitter and continues to emerge in various Facebook groups, Twitter chats (#sachat), and professional conference backchannels (check out #ACPA15). Earlier this week I had a parallel conversation with a Nursing colleague. She has years of experience as both a nurse in practice and as an administrator.

We got chatting about students and why they are drawn to Nursing. I have had time to process our conversation. It is now one of my all time favorite conversations. I believe that every time the word nurse is mentioned, it can be substituted with higher education professional, student affairs professional, teacher, social worker…any helping professional. And the word patients can be substituted with students.

Most of our students are drawn to this selfless, helping profession for all the right reasons. They want to help people. But some students have failed in other fields and are coming to nursing because they are still damaged and broken and think that nursing will fix them. Your role as a nurse is to help patients. It is not a mutual relationship. You serve. Patients take. Your success and your joy comes from watching your patients heal. If there is drama in clinical, it’s because of you, not the patient. Nursing is a continuum- excellent to mediocre to bad- and you get to choose what kind of nurse you are and where on that continuum you want to be.



How many of us student affairs professionals go into this field because we want to help people? I raise my hand. I was an undergraduate student leader who wanted to do this for my life to help others have similar experiences. In and of itself wanting to help others is a good thing. But the help has to be about the recipient, not the giver.

I want to help people. This is about you as the helper.

I want to help people. Where is the want coming from? If we dig deep, how many student affairs professionals are here because we are looking to be fixed?

I want to help people. Better.

I want to help people. This is where we should all strive to be. Just as nurses need to be patient-focused, we need to be student-focused. The work that we do is about students and their outcomes, not our own.

If nurses care for patients while broken, their internal holes, their brokenness, will grow. The patient is there for him/herself, not the nurse.

The same with students.

If we come to our work broken, looking to be fixed, our students will drag us along with them. Because that is what they are supposed to do. It’s about them. Our work is not for mutual benefit.

Our work is not to fix ourselves through students.

Our work is not fix students.

Our work is to help students fix themselves.