Only recently did I realize the strength and power of a professional ecosystem. For years I’d spend time at regional or national conferences in mentoring spaces, sharing with those newer to the profession insights, advice, and creating community together. We’d talk about the importance of networking, gendered realities (and myths), how to live a blended life, and the list goes on. I’d leave the conference spaces filled with hope about our profession and its future leaders. These connections were so important to me that I prioritized them into my daily practice with campus staff and students.
For the past six months, I’ve been reflecting on my work as a senior student affairs professional – what is working well and what could I improve upon to meet the myriad demands of the role. How has the world and our work changed around us, and how do I flex and maneuver to better support our teams and our students? The senior student affairs officer (SSAO) role is different now than when I stepped into it. We’re facing converging pandemics – global health, racial violence, economic crisis and recovery, and a political volatility that continues to divide. I was standing on shaky ground, less certain, and needing some sense of fortification.
Over the summer, I conducted informational interviews with colleagues across the nation – some I knew, some I didn’t. They ranged from folks in the field – to folks who left the field for adjacent-to-higher-ed roles whether in educational technology or consultative spaces. I met with higher education leaders in other positional spaces (accreditation, presidents, foundations, education board members, etc.) as well as search consultants - and invited their feedback on the landscape and their hopes for our future. I listened loudly to their stories and experiences, many riddled with complexity, challenges, and pain. I felt less alone.
These connections helped me to regain some of my foundational strength and conviction as to who I am, who I want to continue to be, and how I want to continue to contribute to this field and our students.
I’ve been reminded of who we are and why we’re needed to help higher education evolve. In early May, I was in a meeting with the NASPA Equity Leadership Academy participants – I looked at my colleagues faces, and I felt the exhaustion, the overwhelm, the conflict about continuing to do this work.
And I felt the strength and power of community.
As I look back on the last six months, my calendar was filled with NASPA – individual colleagues, Western Regional planning, James E. Scott Academy Board members, Equity Leadership Academy, and many others. I’m realizing these are also places from which I am drawing professional relevance. I’m grateful for the community of colleagues around the nation and beyond. Serving in a volunteer capacity has changed my professional ecosystem.
You know what the ubiquitous “they” say: do not give yourself to a thing, an entity, an institution – it will not give back.
I won’t change a thing – it’s who I am. I will give, and serve, and push and prod and challenge, and receive, and grow and evolve and continue again.
Finally, this past year has gifted me lessons learned that I’d like to share with you:
- Stay grounded. Sometimes it may feel like we’re in the eye of a hurricane, and at times, we can get pulled into the spin. Resist that. Anchor yourself.
- Clarity and consistency are imperative – in communication, decision making, in how we “show up.”
- Know your thresholds.
- Identify your support people and your outlets, and lean on them.
With deep appreciation and gratitude, colleagues, and an abundance of love.
About the Author
Dr. Leslie Webb serves as the interim vice chancellor for student affairs and dean of students at the Montana Technological University. Webb currently serves as a member of the NASPA James E. Scott Academy Board.