Choosing Your Own Adventure: A Career in Student Affairs

Lyndsey Aguilar, Ed.M.

August 21, 2017

If you want to be a lawyer, you study law. A teacher, you focus on the art of teaching. Or a nurse, you go to nursing school. While these examples are grossly simplistic, they demonstrate that many fields of study have a somewhat clear path to terminal careers, and one that most people would recognize. So what about the fantastic beast that is student affairs? Does one begin college knowing they want to work in student affairs? Probably not. If you are in the student affairs profession, do your friends know what you actually do at your job? Again, probably not. Despite the universal lack of knowledge concerning higher education work, the fact that no one has a “typical” journey into student affairs makes the field a colorful mosaic pieced together by many different perspectives, specialties, backgrounds, and studies.

Your Education Brings Invaluable Perspective

More so than undergraduate experiences or specific training, the willingness to create remarkable experiences is what fuels the potential of a student affairs professional. As someone relatively new to the field, I find it is important to recognize and celebrate the expertise of others and come together to really push the envelope on college life. There is not a unifying undergraduate degree for student affairs, and I would argue that there isn’t a unifying masters or doctoral degree, either. Most of my mentors hold graduate-level degrees specializing in diverse areas such as counseling, psychology, law, or business. All of those fields bring valuable perspectives to student affairs life and help to inform how to approach tough situations. It would be difficult to make a decision concerning a student or situation if I did not have insight pertaining to the legal issues in higher education or the foundations of effective counseling. I do not believe a successful college can run if it pigeonholes itself to professionals with a specific type of degree, because multiple traits diversify and fill in crucial gaps within the collective knowledge of a student affairs team.

Find Your Passion Place

Your adventure doesn’t have to end after you have received your education. Accessibility, counseling, student organizations, safety, spiritual life, facilities, career services, conduct, athletics, residence life, administrative, involvement, diversity and inclusion… these are just a few of the areas one could focus on within the student affairs world. These are such distinct focuses, but all of them collaborate for the college experience to work. What is great about a career in student affairs is that you can work in many of these areas (sometimes at the same time) and still be at the same institution. Ancillary positions exist where part of your work could be in residential life and another portion could focus on multiculturalism. Whether the role reflects your title or not, all aspects of student life must be considered, and therefore a student affairs professional should be aware of the different focuses of higher education. Are you an athletic director who wants more experience in student programming? Awesome! Team up with colleagues from residence life to create programs for your athletes, or ask your supervisor for ancillary responsibilities within another office. You might just find a way to pair two or more passion places!

Use All of Your Talents

The college landscape is always changing, so it is beneficial for professionals to keep gaining new insights and working together to evolve. Coming together as a team and learning about the additional skills different team members may have is a way to push your team to the next level. Does someone have a graphic design background? Great! Get them involved in creating amazing visual initiatives to complement or promote existing programs. Tap into those additional passion places and get creative as to how to integrate them into your student affairs work. Additionally, encourage your co-workers to share their talents! Do you wish your student organizations knew more about how to use campus spaces? No problem! Invite institutional experts from facilities and accessibility services to present to student organization executives. You could even invite others from the student affairs division so they could benefit from the information, too. Teaching your colleagues and constantly absorbing new knowledge helps you to assess past initiatives as well as think of new ones.

There is a wide spectrum of student affairs professionals working at colleges and universities across the world, and it is exciting to think of all of the possibilities they bring to these campuses. Even though the pathway may not always be clear, a student affairs career is outstandingly fulfilling if you have the relentless determination to provide the most meaningful experiences for college students. And that’s something we all have in common.

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Lyndsey Aguilar is a residential life professional currently located in the Boston area at Wheaton College. She specializes in upper-class student transitions, has presented at the national ACUHO-i and NASPA conferences, and is a 2015 NASPA Silver Award Winner for the Student Health, Wellness, and related category. Lyndsey can be reached on LinkedIn, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

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