From Professional to Personal: My Tale of Being a Scholar Practitioner Post-Grad School

Dr Jeannette Smith, Director, Student Activities and the College Activities Building, Evergreen State College

March 4, 2019

When I finished grad school, everything felt overwhelming. Job searching, creating transition plans, moving, uprooting our kids, my spouse’s job search, leaving a community we loved. The weight of obligation to do something with these three little letters after years of work (and student loans!) rendered me both motivated to do all the things and too tired to start. I had to give myself grace and remember that all the things would be there and it was ok to feel what I was feeling. And so friends, there are three things I’d like to share with y’all about my experience post grad school.

 All of those research methods we learned in class showed up in my personal life.

For example, by the end of grad school, I could navigate a database like nobody’s business! My initial failures of even knowing which database to use, what key words to type, and what checkboxes to select (always peer review if you were wondering) coalesced into competence that extended outside the classroom. I’m not saying it’s perfect. I’m saying after so many unsuccessful attempts, one day something clicked for me.

 I put this skill to work in thinking about the next step. Our bi-racial family set some parameters for where we thought we would be welcome and safe. We pulled election maps, sailing past state into county and district data to see who would potentially be our neighbors and what they valued by their votes. Instantly we ruled out lots of places and didn’t apply for jobs based on that alone. We laid the next map of the education report card. Arguably not the best tool to assess a school district or school, at the very least I better understood the terminology used, the statistics at play, the inherent bias, the class and tax structures, and the foundation of racism and white supremacy that it all sat in (thank you EL 756 Diversity in Ed!).  Data had ruled my world morning, noon, and night and now it was helping us determine where we would potentially relocate.

 This need to sift through data like grains of sand falling through my fingers to reveal the smoothed, curved shell I was seeking was not reserved for major life decisions. Oh no…

 What birthday gift was I getting my momma?  Convenience sampling of my family held the answer.

 Which store had the best bulk section? My variables were price, product options, and proximity to my house. Let’s throw in descriptive statistics of product quality and the lived experiences of the employees.  My answer was (employee owned) WinCo.

 The kids’ teacher was open to learning about her privilege and was looking for resources? Let me find her several articles, a professional development webinar (for free!), and a toolkit. If she wanted, I would have volunteered to run a focus group of other families of color, take notes, and code for themes of how we all felt support and needed further support. I had a mentor who told me I would never look at anything the same again. He was so right!

 Carrying the scholar over to practitioner, I started a new job

This November marks my 14th year working in higher education. For me, becoming a scholar made me a better professional. I’ve been mentored and supervised by incredible people who didn’t pursue grad school who shift seamlessly between big picture and details, short and long term, from campus vision to departmental initiatives. For me, I knew I couldn’t get to that place without grad school. My brain needed the structure, support, dedicated time, consistent exposure to new ideas through different faculty and staff, and continuous feedback. I have always needed extra help, time, and flexibility with how I consume and process information. Being a practitioner helped me build the skills and gave me the what. I needed grad school to learn the why.  Now, almost two years post-grad school I am seeing glimmers of the how. How will I use all of this to serve students? How do I support my staff? How do I continue to grow and learn? These big questions have no easy answers. I work on it daily, humbled and excited to be in a place where I am encouraged to be both scholar and practitioner.

 The elephant in the room

As much as we have progressed, we still have tension between faculty and administration. Y’all know what I’m saying and can list the reasons. We talk about it, we lament about it, we worry over it, and we haven’t found the answers to bring this relationship to equilibrium. This year has been my invitation to the proverbial table. Sometimes I have a full place setting, other times I don’t get to sample each course. With each meal, I have an opportunity to use my voice on behalf of others. I am both negotiator and connector; a visible reminder that there is rich scholarship in student affairs.

 On writing

Sweet corn on the cob we wrote a lot in grad school! The rigors of those expectations led writing to become a practice for me. My chair told me she wrote for 30 minutes every day and if I could do that, I would always have something to submit or share. I find it important to stand in my truth, and my truth is I don’t have the capacity for that particular practice. However, I do write at least weekly about something, anything. And that practice has helped me see writing as joyful and not to be feared. So when I need to write something for work, it’s ok. Reports are not daunting, important emails induce less anxiety, and proposals are fruitful.

 Research better informs my practice, practice of research helps me stay current

Our campus radio station hadn’t had a true program review since its inception 45 years ago. Looking at best practices led us to conduct an external assessment (heeeyyy EDRS 785 Survey Research!). The findings and recommendations allowed our new GM to collaboratively improve station policies, standards, guidelines, mission, and build in equity between students, staff, and community volunteers.  Being new, the review also helped educate me about the culture of campus radio on our campus and regionally.

 My favorite parts post-grad school…

The relationships built with my grad school peers are constant sources of solidarity (does this happen to you?), self-reflection (what do you think of how I handled this?), and celebration (OMG I got the grant!). The mentorship, guidance, and sometimes kick in the butt from my committee continue to keep me grounded. I still feel a weight of obligation only now it’s directed at a responsibility to my roots. I’m a first-generation kid and a woman of color, choosing to help re-define “the academic voice” in writing and research. I don’t have to write or think like philosophers we learned about. I can write like me and think of my ancestors and the challenges they thrived through so I could be here. We’ll have to dig into that another time.

 For today, it is enough to know that scholar and practitioner can co-exist, share the same space, and build off one another every day I show up.


Dr. Jeannette Smith is Director, Student Activities & The College Activities Building at the Evergreen State College. She lives in Washington state with her spouse, two girls, and rescue pup. She is a student affairs educator, advocate, and scholar. 

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