Ease your student supervision speed bumps.

When I Grow Up I Want to Go Into Student Affairs

You may be reading this from a variety of perspectives.  Maybe you’re a seasoned student affairs professional, someone exploring the field of student affairs, or even a reader that stumbled upon my post haphazardly.  To give a quick reference, especially for the later, Student Affairs is a division within Higher Education that provides student development services on the campuses they serve.  For example, residence life, student activities, student life, campus recreation, career development, and much more.

I have been called a party planner, producer, educator, teacher, project manager and more.  However, student affairs professionals facilitate many of the holistic elements that make up the college experience.  We are educators, outside of the classroom.  Yet our field is still rising to the level of awareness and legitimacy among our higher education colleagues in academics and overall general public.

October is designated as Careers in Student Affairs Month.  This post recognizes this field, a field to which I dedicate my life work. My experiences make one thing very clear: much work needs to be done to advance and promote the Student Affairs profession.

It is the question every child is asked, what do you want to be when you grow up?!  Insert adorable responses *here* like fireman, nurse, truck driver, teacher, football player, singer and more.  A few of mine included teacher, swim coach, and professional Rollerblader (oh yes, I had moves).

It is understandable that young children would answer with well-known occupations that can be found in children’s books, cartoons, movies, toys, and more.  As the career exploration process advances, especially starting in middle school, students drill down further into specifics of career fields for possibilities.  During this time, careers get little more specific and students express interest in becoming an elementary teacher, lawyer, dentist, fashion designer, etc.  I remember one of my ideas during middle school was to become a orthodontist, going through the painstaking process of braces and retainers.

But still, at no point in this process would a young person say,

Screenshot 2015-05-24 09.33.41

Then there is high school, where classes are fused further to challenge and support rising young adults to consider fields of study in science, communications, business, education and more.  I remember looking through countless career cards at my counselors office, sorting those jobs that sparked more or less interest.  Jobs that included working with people, but also helping them be their ‘best’ selves, rose to the top.

Students primed for college attendance commit to majors, listed out on college websites.  At this point, no student has even lived the college experience, yet alone think they could one day make a living working on campus.  There is no undergraduate major listed called ‘higher education administration’ or ‘Student Affairs.’  So, it is no surprise that young adults have no idea that the field of Student Affairs exists.

The stories of how many of my colleagues in Student Affairs ‘found’ the field have a lot to do with mentorship.  A strong advisor or supervisor who said a statement like, ‘have you ever thought about doing this for a living?’ or ‘do you know about the field of Student Affairs?’
What follows usually includes the exploration process of the field, the requirement for graduate programs, professional association/conferences and internship/graduate assistantship opportunities.  Those reading this that relate to this process, probably have that mentor clearly pictured in your mind.
For me, I can think of the woman at South Dakota State University who opened my eyes to the field: Jen Novotny.  Now Director of Student Activities, she was (and still is) a strong independent leader, high energy, great with students, appearing to loving her job and doing really great work.  It was my junior in college, when I was realizing college was ending sooner than I was ready for, she approached me.
I was the typical overachieving involved student leader, juggling time as a college athlete, programming board coordinator, orientation leader and more.  It really only took a couple of conversations with her and I was sold.  I soon was researching graduate schools and applying for graduate assistantships to support my studies.
Before I knew it I was enrolled at Northern Arizona University in the Master Program of Counseling, with an emphasis in Student Affairs. I was super lucky to land a graduate assistantship with Residence Life, which also provided a place to live and a meal plan.  From there I forged into professional positions, first in Residence Life and then in Student Activities.  To date, I’m a decade into my professional career, now pursuing my Doctorate in HIgher Education Leadership.  I think you’d consider me a success story for Student Affairs.  Mentored into the field, retained and now ready to stick it out through retirement.
But could all this be much too haphazard?  If a student is lucky enough to work with a professional that speaks up and notice skills, then they know about the field!  This is not enough.
Call it fate or destiny, but I am not sure if it wasn’t for my SDSU mentor, I would be in Student Affairs today.  I went to college to become a high school guidance counselor, so my discovery of student affairs wasn’t too far off.  I knew I wanted to help young people.  I’m sure I would have been happy going in this direction.
But doesn’t the field of student affairs deserve more?  Shouldn’t there be aggressive ways to promote, educate and move strong young leaders in the field?  I say yes.
Since my introduction to student affairs in 2001, much has advanced in responding to my last question.

  • Professional associations like NASPA and ACPA have recognized undergraduate development, offering membership, career education, leadership opportunities and scholarships.
  • October Careers in Student Affairs Month is celebrated and highlighted yearly.  In Southern California, a day long conference called Western Careers in Student Affairs Day.
  • Masters programs are infusing education on mentorship and supervision of undergraduates.
  • Masters programs are also beginning to recruit students more aggressive, especially at student leadership conferences to aid in the discovery process.

But I believe more should be done to forge the discovering process for the field of student affairs, as well as the entire field of Higher Education.  Let’s not forget the important work of Enrollment Management, University Relations, Alumni Affairs and much more who need strong future leaders in their divisions.
Here are a few ‘dreams’ that I’m putting out into the blogosphere:

  • At minimum, provide a session at your university for college juniors on the field of Student Affairs and other careers in Higher Education
  • Integrate and include Student Affairs Career Education into Student Leadership Programs and training, such as for resident assistants, orientation leaders, etc
  • Educate School Counseling Masters Programs about careers in Higher Education, so high school and middle school counselors know about the field and can talk to their students about it as an option.
  • Development of a Student Affairs Undergraduate Degree.  Create a feeder-like undergraduate degrees, based upon leadership development and business administration, that would lead to a Student Affairs/Higher Education Administration Masters programs.
  • Evolve Student Affairs into an Academic Profession. This idea came from a keynote I recently heard from Peter Lake, prominent author in Higher Education and law.  This revolutionary idea will allow our field to be reborn, moving beyond the idea that Student Affairs are project managers or event planners.  We are educators, teaching just as faculty do, just taking place outside of the classroom.

But for now, we have this month of October celebrating Careers in Student Affairs Month.   A gentle reminder to current professionals the important to promote our field, especially to undergraduates.  This is not a time to ‘sell’ our field, racking up scout badges for every recruit we bring on.  Rather, to educate students on what we really do the good parts and even the bad.  Also, to celebrate that what we do is a career choice and a choice we should celebrate.  It is also a teachable moment to those around us that don’t get what we do.  Those in the field know exactly what I am talking about, the blanks stares we receive when explaining our jobs.
A few last thoughts for those in the field:

What is your discovery story in how you got into the field?
Have you thanked your mentors lately who guided you into Student Affairs?
What else can you do in your position/at your university to promote the field?
Who have you mentored into the field?  Where are they now?  When was the last time you reached out to them?
What students do you know/work with that could be possible future Student Affairs educators?

Fellow blogger, Mallory Bower asked current or future student affairs professionals a variety of questions to send her, to showcase our stories.  Check out the post here and think about responding with your Student Affairs story!
For those possibly interested in going into Student Affairs: I urge you, if you do not have a mentor in the field who can guide you through the process, please put that #1 on your to-do list.  Don’t worry about bothering us, it is a huge compliment to a student affairs professional to be sought out to help a future colleague, pursuing the path to student affairs.  Next, gather information.  Here are a few great resources to continue to explore the field.
Student Affairs Blog
Chronicle of Higher Education 
Higher Education Jobs
Student Affairs: The First Years 
After getting a strong sense of the field, your next to do’s are as follows (mostly in order)

  1. Do more research about the field of Student Affairs.  Like any career choice, there are ups and downs.  Student Affairs is not perfect.  It is a lot of hard work, low pay and long hours.  But the pay off is there for those that are in it for the right reasons.  Do your research what being a Student Affairs educator is really like.  I highly encourage you to read this post from Becca Obergefell here, who reflects upon the realities of the field.
  2. Find and apply to Masters programs.  Look for programs in Student Affairs and/or Higher Education.
  3. Explore taking on more responsibilities in your current leadership roles.  For example, after deciding I would pursue a masters in Student Affairs, as a 3rd year Orientation Leader, my mentor Jen Novotny promoted me from my orientation leader role, into supervising my peers and coordinating our summer training.  Resident Assistants, Student Managers, Organization Presidents, Front Desk Managers and more have job descriptions that can be altered to provide enhanced learning and experiences.
  4. Take the GRE test, ideally the spring of your Junior Year or Fall Senior Year.
  5. Look into joining a professional association.  NASPA and ACPA are the two major ones in Student Affairs.  There are countless others that are functional area focused, based upon the department such as ACUHO-I for Residence Life, NACA for Student Activities, or NIRSA for Campus Recreation.  Look into these, based upon your interests.  Almost all of them have a significant discount for undergraduate and graduate students.
  6. Find & apply to graduate assistantships which may support your tuition, give a stipend, and/or  provide room & board.  Look into these three placement services for your search: Oshkosh Placement Exchange, Placement Exchange and ACPA Career Central.
  7. Ask three close professional contacts for recommendation letters.  Give them a least two weeks to prepare these, two months would be even better!  REmember these professionals are very busy, but want to make the letter strong.  Give them the time they need for this.  Ensure you give them your resume and all contact information needed to complete it.  In other works, make it as easy as possible, without writing the letter yourself.

I’d love to hear your stories, how you discovered the field of Student Affairs, why you stay in it, and/or what makes you interested in going into the field.  Join me in the ‘dream’ that within the next decade, students younger than college Juniors will declare the statement, “When I grow up I want to go into Student Affairs!”
Happy Careers in Student Affairs Month!!!

About Josie

I’m Dr. Josie Ahlquist—a digital engagement and leadership consultant, researcher, educator, and author. I’m passionate about helping people and organizations find purposeful ways to connect, engage, and tell their unique story. I provide consulting, executive coaching, and training for campuses, companies, and organizations that want to learn how to humanize technology tools and build effective and authentic online communities.

My blog and podcast have been recognized by EdTech Magazine, Inside Higher Ed and the Chronicle of Higher Education. My book, Digital Leadership in Higher Education, was published in 2020 and was listed as a #1 new release for college and university student life. I have been growing my consultancy since 2013 and am based in Los Angeles. When I’m not helping clients lead online, you might find me training for a triathlon, spoiling my nieces and nephews, or exploring with my husband and our rescue dogs in our new RV called Lady Hawk.

I’d love to connect! Find me on Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, and Facebook.

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Assistant Vice President, University of Iowa Center for Advancement

Rebekah Tilley is the assistant vice president of communication and marketing for the University of Iowa Center for Advancement (UICA). In that role she supports fundraising and alumni engagement efforts for the university, including its CASE Gold winning Iowa Magazine, and serves UICA in a variety of strategic communication efforts.

Previously she was the director of strategic communication for the University of Iowa Tippie College of Business, and the director of communication for the University of Kentucky College of Law. She is a Kentucky native and a proud alum of the University of Kentucky.

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