The NASPA Undergraduate Fellows Program (NUFP) at the University of Arkansas was my first official introduction into Student Affairs. As an (overly) involved undergraduate, I was highly intrigued by the idea of “being in college forever.” As I learned more about the field through various leadership roles and conferences (including the NUFP Summer - now Dungy - Leadership Institute), I maintained my excitement about my chosen field and planned to attend graduate school after graduating.
My plans were briefly put on pause as I gave birth to my daughter a month after walking across the stage. She and I returned to my alma mater just over a year later as I began my journey as an #sagrad. My time in graduate school confirmed my desire to work in Student Affairs through amazing internships with The Placement Exchange, NODA, and various departments on campus. However, that time was also marked by overexertion and undiagnosed health problems, and I ended up coming close to, but not finishing my degree. Unsure of what to do next, I began substitute teaching while I came up with a new master plan. That plan led me to enrolling in a non-traditional educator licensure program, and I taught high school English for three years.
Teaching was easily the most difficult job I have ever taken on, aside from motherhood. I tended to think of myself as a mother figure and mentor to many of the 300 or so teenagers who came through my classroom during those years, and while I loved building relationships with my students, I knew that teaching was not my calling. Thus, when I moved to central Arkansas in the summer of 2018, I took advantage of the presence of multiple institutions of higher education and applied to several positions in varied functional areas. I knew that not having my Master’s degree would be a disadvantage, but I hoped that my robust graduate school experience and my unique perspective from my time as a teacher would be beneficial.
The odds, apparently, were in my favor. I had the unique opportunity to work in an academic library while focusing on student success, which in this case refers to figuring out how the library’s tools, technology, and resources can support the recruitment, retention, and persistence of our students. I was also able to re-engage with NASPA as the NUFP Regional Coordinator for IV-W, as well as transfer several courses into my institution’s higher education graduate program, just when I was beginning to reckon with the fact that a master’s degree was not in the cards for me.
At the beginning of this year, I decided to transition from working full-time to being a full-time student and working as a graduate assistant in the multicultural center. I was excited to be back on the student affairs side of the university, and working part-time allowed me to spend more time with my daughter. But just as I began to adjust to these changes, the pandemic hit; I think that we can all vividly remember the ways in which our world turned upside down in the middle of March 2020.
Skipping past the working from home, pseudo-homeschooling, mental health strain, and isolation of the spring and summer, and I find myself in the middle of the fall 2020 semester. As I prepare for graduation (finally!) and being employed full-time again (hopefully soon), I often find myself reflecting on how I got to where I am. I reflect on the moments when I felt there was no path forward, that I would live with my parents forever and die as a complete failure. I remember when I was young and full of optimism about my life and career, despite the challenges that I would have to overcome. I remind myself that I did not get this far alone and that I have an incredible village of family, friends, and mentors on whom I can call. And I am immensely grateful.
In a way, it is a good thing that I am just now starting my career in higher education. As the years have passed, I have grown as a result of every experience that I have had, and I have matured in a way that makes me so much more appreciative of opportunities than I was when I was younger. My mother has often told me that we go through struggles in order to appreciate what comes next; as usual, she is correct. As my career progresses, my hope is that the story of my struggles (and successes) can inspire my daughter, my students, and myself to keep working towards our goals, no matter how many detours, u-turns, roadblocks, or traffic jams get in our way. No matter how long it takes, we will always end up exactly where we were always meant to be.
Lauren D. Wilson (she/her/hers) currently works in the Multicultural Center at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, where she is also a grad student in the Higher Education - College Student Affairs program. When she’s not working, doing homework, or entertaining the myriad questions her 10-year-old daughter asks, Lauren can be found obsessing over plants and stationery, or occasionally instagramming and tweeting at @elledeedubb.