It is a fitting title for this post…”The Unexpected Path to Student Affairs.” I did not say unusual as my path was not unusual. In fact, it was rather typical. However, as I interview candidates in Orlando, FL, at The Placement Exchange (#TPE13) listening to their stories, I find myself occasionally thinking about what led me to this field and to whom I owe thanks.
I started off college as a business administration major at Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania but changed to history after having a class with an outstanding professor. While we had no specialties within history, my transcript probably would have read like a Russian/Soviet history major. I found learning about their culture, people, and history fascinating. It was also no coincidence that it was the specialty of that very same professor who sparked my interest in changing majors. For a while, I thought I would actually teach Russian/Soviet history in college. However, my undergraduate institution did not have the Russian language as an option and it was hard to find elsewhere. I abandoned the idea of teaching it, for if I could not learn the language to do graduate research in it, I certainly could not earn a graduate degree. You see, this is the line of thought of a first generation college student who did not know how I might have made that interest of mine work. I remained a history major, however, as I simply loved what I was learning.
While this was going on, I had been having roommate difficulties for three semesters and finally decided that I should try to be an Resident Advisor. I will be the first to admit that I applied for two primary reasons: I wanted a single room and I needed the financial benefits to stay in school. It is because of my own background that I do not judge RA applicant motivations as a professional. Just because a candidate does not say they want to gain leadership skills does not mean they will be a poor RA. I did not have that goal upon entering the RA job, but I did flourish in it.
Quite simply, it was my RA experience that led me to consider student affairs for a career. But, without key individuals with whom I came to know, and who put their trust in me, I would not have pursed this field. My interview for the RA position was with Donna Gross, an assistant dean of students back then and is now an associate dean. She took a risk with me. Without that initial interview, I would not be writing this today. Donna also gave me the opportunity to co-chair the RA training committee for two years, which was a tremendous opportunity. Tony Cecere, former director of housing, was the live-in assistant dean of students in the residence hall in which I was an RA. In fact, I remained an RA in his building for three years. If we did our jobs as RAs, worked hard for our students, and attended to the facility needs of the building, I knew that Tony had our backs. I did my best to work hard for him and learned learned the value of combining care for people and buildings. Barry McClanahan, the current associate dean of students and director of housing and residence life. Barry was a very passionate individual who wanted us to care about our students. And, finally, Bob Smith, the assistant dean of students and director of judicial affairs when I was an RA who is now an associate dean of students for veterans affairs. It is with Bob whom built the closest relationship. I worked with Bob as an RA but Bob also gave me a tremendous experience as the office’s first graduate assistant for judicial affairs and mediation, a position I kept for two years in graduate school. From Bob, I learned the importance of attention to detail in our work, ways to ask probing questions, and to always maintain a sense of humor.
It is these individuals who provided me with the practical experiences as an undergraduate, and then as a graduate student, that led me to the field of student affairs and encouraged me to remain in it. I want to take a moment to simply say, “Thank you. Without each of you, my life and experiences would be vastly different. You took a risk with me, provided me opportunities to learn and grow, and demonstrated your trust in me. For that, and much more, I thank you.”
My path into student affairs was fairly typical. I was an RA who discovered a new opportunity. But that only tells part of the story. It is the people above who encouraged me and provided me with the practical experiences to have this career. Without their inclusion in my story, I am only telling half of it.
And, if you are interested, I still keep history books on the bookshelf in my living room.