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Finding Purpose in Student Affairs

Career and Workforce Development Supporting the Profession AVP or "Number Two" Senior Level VP for Student Affairs
January 3, 2023 Shawna Cooper Whitehead Boston College
“I truly believe that everything that we do and everyone that we meet is put in our path for a purpose. There are no accidents; we're all teachers - if we're willing to pay attention to the lessons we learn, trust our positive instincts and not be afraid to take risks or wait for some miracle to come knocking at our door.” Marla Gibbs, Actress, Singer, Comedian, Writer, Television Producer

Many years ago, Boston College Theology professor and award-winning teacher, Fr. Michael Himes, posed three key questions for our community to consider:

  1. What brings me joy?
  2. What am I good at?
  3. Who does the world need me to be?


These questions also make us think about the “Three Be’s of Jesuit Education,” devised by Fr. Joe Appleyard, S.J.:

  1. Be attentive
  2. Be reflective
  3. Be loving

These words inspire me to seriously reflect about my own formation in holding the role of a senior student affairs administrator. Being a continuous learner, I am also inspired by my faculty colleague, Dr. Belle Liang, who recently published a book titled How to Navigate Life. Dr. Liang asks us to contemplate “being students of ourselves-by learning who we are, where we came from, what we believe, and where these beliefs came from,” (p. 1). Understanding our own core values allows us to show compassion to ourselves and what we pass on to our successors. We move away from performance and passion to PURPOSE.

What is my purpose? That is the question we should be asking ourselves and our students. I have had the pleasure of working with esteemed colleagues and fabulous students over the course of my 20+ career in higher education. My motivation and purpose have always (and will continue to be) been to help others. It is probably why I have spent the majority of my career in mission-driven institutions focused on student formation. I like to think that even the smallest interaction I have with both students and colleagues, has a positive impact on their futures.

It is important to note that all of what I have accomplished has been in partnership with others. I do not pretend to know everything, and I hope to listen and learn from others in academic affairs, mission and ministry, and other University administrators including the folks within the Division of Student Affairs. Finding our purpose in student affairs is especially crucial as we see professionals leaving the field. That is why I view my work two-fold: 1) supporting the student experience 2) enhancing staff connections.

I want all of the students who I meet with to be seen, heard, and well-served. I want our division to be a destination for professionals. If we dedicate time to nurture our staff and focus on vocational discernment, helping them find their purpose, it trickles down to our students. This pause permits us to go from frenetic movement to reflective progress and allows us to enact the three “B’s” that helps us to better understand what the world needs from us…our purpose.


Shawna Whitehead_BlogShawna Cooper Whitehead serves as the vice president for student affairs at Boston College and is a member of the NASPA James E. Scott Academy Board.