It is often said that once you’ve entered into the field of student affairs, it is hard to ever leave. I can attest to the magnetism of this profession. I’ve worked in different fields within education, such as high schools, non-profits, and educational media, but student affairs is a special line of work and a, even more, special community of work.
Having been in the field for just over three years now, I feel like I have the right mix of fresh and naïve eyes to develop some initial insight into the job’s highs and lows.
If you work in or hope to work in student affairs, then the following might be something you connect to. I present to you what I have found to be the three things about the student affairs field that are equally beautiful and dangerous.
The Cyclical Nature
Many jobs can feel repetitious, (especially if there’s a conveyor belt involved); however, student affairs is a job that is very much founded on a set cycle of events, transitions, and moments. Post-secondary institutions run on carefully and specifically maintained calendars, and it’s one that everyone from the senior administration to the first-year student adheres to.
Whether you call it the “student lifecycle” or “post-secondary life cycle,” chances are you know it well. What is beautiful about this cycle is that it offers structure you can anticipate and plan for. You know its ebbs and flows, and you also know what’s causing the change in tide. For those of us working in student services, this is critical knowledge to have. It lets us plan and finesse our services and systems to be their most impactful, relevant, and successful. We don’t have to guess when students need to be oriented or will be busy with finals. Imagine if, in every professional field, you knew the exact activities and needs of all your clients and users!
However, this cycle can be dangerous, too. A cycle is dependable and foreseeable, but it is also a trap. I’ve seen how tempting it is in this field to copy-paste one year to another, to look at what was done last year and simply insert it again into the new cycle. As much as universities operate in a cycle, students’ needs and the outside world do not.
We should be grateful for the cycle we work in but not take it for granted. The programs, resources, services, and information we provide students should be based on the student life cycle, but they should not be fed by it. Some of the most ubiquitous topics on campus these days – mental health, consent, equity – are not about the cycle, but do resonant most when woven into it strategically.
The Student Renewal Process
Much like the university cycle, you can also always depend on students doing two things: coming and leaving. This “renewal” process is beautiful in many ways. You can always depend on new students arriving, fresh-faced and bright-eyed, craving information, knowledge, and experiences. They present yearly opportunities for pilot programs, and though they may come with certain expectations or having heard certain rumours, you can generally easily introduce them to new concepts and systems.
You can also depend on the renewal of an entire student body after only a few years, a perfect opportunity if you want to effect organizational change; you certainly aren’t heavily competing against institutional memory with students.Graduating students are also amazing yearly reminders of the success of your programs and the merit behind your life’s work.
This renewal presents its own perils, though. Students constantly need re-acclimatizing to the institution, which, at times, can be as discouraging as it is encouraging. Programs and resources, (except maybe Orientation), can rarely rely on reputation or notoriety and constantly need to be re-integrated into the student mindset and knowledge base. Those of us who work with student government experience constantly changing politics, people, and powers. In short, nothing makes me more excited, but equally as dismayed, as seeing students come and go.
Student affairs is filled with bright, strategic, and insightful people. The connections they make, interventions they create, and differences they effect are truly remarkable. Student affairs professionals are also notoriously kind-hearted and community-oriented. Go to any student affairs conference and you will undoubtedly be greeted by warm and welcoming folk. In sum, this is a field that sees its staff display both head and heart. And that is beautiful. Truly, this work is not for the faint of heart.
Working in a field that encourages student success ultimately means that you will often be confronting students who are struggling, be it academically, socially, or psychologically. I do not know anyone who has taken a position in student affairs because they were looking for an easy, mindless 9-to-5 job. You have to put your heart into this job, and you undoubtedly have to deal with the repercussions of doing so. Working in student affairs is emotionally taxing and burnout is a common occurrence among student affairs professionals.
This is a job that needs to be performed, literally, wholeheartedly, and you would be hard-pressed not to find someone, (perhaps even yourself), who has had their heart broken on the job. It is an honour to have a job where your work fills your heart but it is also a risky venture.
Much like the apple that was proffered to Snow White, so too is student affairs at once beautiful and dangerous. (Though, unlike the apple, most of us were likely not drawn into the profession by royalty in disguise). To quote another Disney fable, I’ve found it best to just “let it go.” Yes, there are dangers to this job, but there are also the challenges and idiosyncrasies that make it so meaningful and, even more, beautiful.