Table Talk: Higher Education and Professionalism

Natalie Torres & Shane Nelson

June 12, 2018

Pull up a seat, and let’s talk about professionalism.

Deciding who gets “a seat at the table” is rooted within who perpetuates what notions of “professionalism” in order to represent a group or organization. Because these notions themselves are rooted in various “-isms” that marginalize groups of people, our profession may inhibit some of our own staff from even entering the room, let alone having a seat at the table.

Through my journey as a simultaneous new professional and graduate student, I’ve encountered positive and negative examples of how professionalism standards - specifically dress and overall image - can impact one’s adjustment to a new department or office. It’s through illuminating and uplifting personal narratives that I hope to generate a change away from using professionalism in our field as a barrier to the table. 

Dress Codes

While my journey in higher education has taught me terminology and social theory to explain why I feel the need to dress in “business casual” wear at work even though my department does not designate a formal dress code, I learned long before my first applications to graduate school that how I dressed when I worked impacted the way I was perceived. 

As a queer and Latinx woman, I am acutely aware that the degree to which I follow traditional “dress codes” impacts how easily I am identified as “the person in charge”. As such, when I joined my current office in the summer of 2016, I was honestly suspicious whenever someone who didn’t hold the same identities as I told me that our office has no dress code. At the same time, seeing colleagues in jeans and T-shirts while I wore blazers and flats created a personal barrier within myself to being my authentic self in my new job - there were times where measuring up to professionalism felt like “selling out” my true self. 

It was when a colleague, another person of color, reiterated this to me with the acknowledgment that I might still feel inclined to dress up any due to this very dynamic (and that this was okay), that I felt relaxed enough to switch out my flats for Chacos during work hours. Doing something as simple as switching my footwear or leaving a blazer at home was freeing and allowed me to focus on my work and my students. Knowing I could live in the duality of being my authentic self and forgive myself for “dressing up” at times secured that office as a solid fit for me.

In addition to my own narrative, I wanted to use this blog post to “pull up a seat” for my colleague, Shane Nelson, to offer his personal experiences regarding professionalism and image:

An aspect of professionalism that I encounter every day is image. There is an unspoken understanding that I have to keep my hair cut, business formal dress, and a level of enthusiasm that makes me more approachable. When I play music in the office I keep the trap music out of my rotation to avoid looking unprofessional. Certainly, I can be unapologetic and live my truth and be counterculture. There’s simply something I can’t shake about fitting into a specific mold for acceptance. 

Being a Black and Indian male, I navigate what it means to be “threatening.” The news has depicted similar images of me as the worst of the worst despite doing what I am supposed to do. Keeping these examples in my mind pushes me to be more enthusiastic and bubbly than average. There are those low energy days where I take it moment by moment, but when I work with students, parents, and fellow staff members I bring my energy up a few notches.

So What Do We Do?

Shane and I both acknowledge the reality of how outdated notions of professionalism generates a pressure on not only graduate students and new professionals, but students and staff at all levels depending on the other identities they carry.

As we create and contribute to our office cultures, let’s take some time to critically examine our workplaces: is it necessary to our offices’ success to police dress and image? Do our rules regarding professionalism - both written and unwritten - exacerbate the very systems our field sets out to dismantle? Do the answers to these questions change depending on who responds and the identities they hold?

We might not always like that the answers to critical questions encourage us to deviate from structures that “have always been this way,” but, as we usher a new generation of students and professionals into our work, it is critical we adapt our practices accordingly. 

Instead of using outdated notions of professionalism to decide who gets into the room, let’s work together to leave those notions at the door and make space for us all to sit at the table together.

Natalie Torres is a current graduate student in the Higher Education program and a full-time Residence Life staff member at Syracuse University. In her spare time, she enjoys playing video games, shopping, and catching up on the latest episodes of RuPaul’s Drag Race.

Shane Nelson is a current graduate student in the Higher Education program at Syracuse University. He loves cooking, reading, and meditation. 

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