2023 always seemed like a long way off – until it wasn't. When I started my first administrative post at the University of Puget Sound in 1983, I couldn't imagine 40 years passing as quickly as they have. But...poof! Now here I am, beginning to glance back at them.
Eight campuses and a dozen assorted student affairs positions later, this summer will bring retirement and a return to my hometown of Santa Fe, a beloved town I left 44 years ago, nervously going far away to a college I'd never seen.
While diving fully into campus life as a lit major, I mainly considered career paths in law, social work, and politics – though I dismissed each along the way to discover the fun and foibles of higher ed administration (somewhat haphazardly, like so many of us, by following my love for the college experience in all its messy wonderfulness).
And now nearly three-quarters of these career years have been as a dean or VP, with the honor and opportunity to contribute to the precious lives of students and colleagues, as well as the ever-present and daunting responsibility to support their well-being and success.
It isn't lost on me now that much of my beloved vocation has ended up being an adventure in combining salient aspects of those very three cast-aside career considerations: law (policy, risk management, federal and state guidelines, Title IX), social work (student health and wellness, unpacking choices made, navigating life's complexities), and politics (representing student and colleague constituents, sponsoring initiatives to improve campus life, balancing budgets, maneuvering amongst other campus leaders). Ironic, yes?
The changes I've experienced and observed over time are real and impactful, for sure. I would point most emphatically to the reality that life is significantly more complex for all of us and particularly for our students. Perhaps like you, my college life seemed much simpler and slower, back when our increasingly complicated and contentious world was not nearly as invasive as it is now, with all its glaring inequities and unsettling unpredictability. Technology's ubiquity certainly reinforces this constancy and complexity.
And yet, what drew me to this college campus vocational lifestyle 40+ years ago remains steadfast: the opportunity to invest in others with care, time, energy, ideas, and love – so that they can discover themselves and find their own success in a world that they help create.
I also am confidently committed in the critical notions of values and vocation that have been my career sustenance. In retrospect, I have certainly been happiest and most productive while with others who share the values of caring for people and their development, while doing our good collaborative work together from a place of deep vocational devotion.
My heartfelt hope is that our generations of student affairs leaders to come will always find ways to embrace our critical work as the true calling that I believe it to be.
Knowing and caring for students and colleagues on campuses large and small in Washington, California, Iowa, Oregon, and New York was such a privilege and a true blessing. Commiserating with and learning from dear NASPA & ACPA colleagues made it possible to keep growing and stay grounded. Having a loving partner and family who have eagerly joined and embraced the campus lifestyle made it joyous and worthwhile.
My journey the past four decades has been a challenging blessing. I feel so fortunate to have found our vocation of student affairs and to be so positively impacted by those I have been privileged to know, respect, and love. I will forever look back with great fondness and appreciation.
W. Houston Dougharty serves as special advisor to the president and former vice president for student affairs at Hofstra University and is a member of the NASPA James E. Scott Academy Board.<