While the global pandemic impacted nearly all facets of the United States, we are all viscerally aware that our field took an extraordinary hit, both in terms of attracting young professionals to pursue a career in student affairs, but also in the retention of our entry-level and middle managers. Who hasn’t experienced the decrease in résumés when posting a position during the past 12-18 months? How many of us have seen the word “resignation” in an email, and shuddered or felt queasy? And who among us has not contemplated or acted upon the dearth of qualified candidates for entry-level positions by what I call “hiring down” (i.e., hiring candidates below minimum qualifications in hopes that training will solve the lack of experience or maturity, particularly in the areas of residence life or campus activities)?
I want to urge all of us to rethink how we can reignite the path to student affairs for our undergraduate students. We need to remember when we were undergrads, and the experience of having a professional in the field tap us on the shoulder and say, “Have you ever thought about a career in Student Affairs?” It is time for us to re-engage these pathways and reimagine how we can regrow the field…and the time is now. For your consideration:
“Time to Tap”
We all have access to student leaders, student change-agents, and student employees who are critical to our student affairs operations. Take the time to work with your teams to find those undergraduates who stand out in their leadership, in their connectivity to the university, and in their service to others and tap them on the shoulder. Encourage your teams to do the same. Invite students to your office for a meeting, a coffee hour, for pizza, and share with them the meaningful journey higher education has brought to your life and let them ask questions about your experiences. I am often surprised when I share with students my own undergraduate story, my engagement, and my uncertainty of what I wanted to be in life, and how that was changed dramatically by “the tap.”
Create a Pipeline
Consider the creation of a student group and call it “Future Student Affairs Professionals.” Take nominations from your team as well as other connected colleagues on your campus. Send letters to the top 50-100 student leaders in the campus community and invite them to apply for this prestigious group. Create an experience for these students that exposes them to our profession, the career options within student affairs, the transformative nature of our work, and the rewards of being in this field. Invite professionals from your campus, both from within outside of student affairs to talk about pathways into our work. Find alumni who graduated from your institution who entered the field and invite them back. Explore options to take these undergraduates to a professional conference, whether local, regional, or national (based on funding availability). Celebrate them when they graduate with a special pin or cord signifying they are potentially the next generation of student affairs professionals. And let them know how important “the tap” is when they enter the field and meet students who share the same interests and excitement about being on a college campus. In other words, pay it forward.
Connect with an HIED Program
If you are lucky enough to have an HIED master’s program on your campus, connect with them immediately and see how they can partner with you as you cultivate future student affairs professionals. Have their faculty come in and do a presentation for students about how to apply for graduate school, how to build a resume, and how to land an assistantship. Offer to write letters of recommendation for the students in this group as they apply for HIED master’s programs. And if you do not have an HIED program on site, connect with one that is within your region and create that pipeline. And if the opportunity presents itself—TEACH! Having students see us not only in our roles as professionals but also in the classroom can speak volumes regarding commitment, engagement, and our love for the field.
Engage Your Entry Level Professionals
While we like to consider ourselves “young and hip,” most of us in Student Affairs leadership could be the parents of our current undergraduates. It is time for us to pull in our entry-level and mid-managers and talk about their career journeys, and how they are sharing these experiences with our undergraduates. Let them know how important their role is in the development of a new crop of student affairs professionals. These are the staff members who are engaging with students daily. They often are the ones sharing their own stories about how they landed in this field (“the tap”). If entry-level and middle managers do not feel they have a voice, then their messaging about student affairs as a career choice may actually stand in the way of our quest to attract talented undergraduates from considering joining our profession. It is our duty as student affairs leaders to stop, listen, and assist our younger staff to find solutions to their challenges, make changes where we can, and empower them not only to affect change for themselves, but also be energized about how the legacy of their work can continue long after they leave an institution.
It is time for us to lead in the cultivation of the next generation of student affairs colleagues. While these steps will take time to generate a new crop, it is imperative that we step up, lean in, and make it happen. We owe future students the support, education, resources, and opportunities for transformational growth that is central to our profession.
Dawn Meza Soufleris serves as the vice president for student development and campus life at Montclair State University and is a member of the NASPA James E. Scott Academy Board.