How NASPA Helped Me Find My Niche in the Student Affairs World

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Sophie Braga de Barros

May 16, 2018

I have been lucky to attend the NASPA annual conference for the past two years, and as a first-year graduate student, I was naturally very excited to reconnect with peers and mentors this time around. Attending the conference as an undergraduate student allowed me listen in on miscellaneous sessions that spiked my interest, learn more about the field that I yearned to call my own, and meet new faces that would soon become colleagues. As a first-year graduate student attending the conference, those faces and colleagues were obviously still there, but attending sessions came with a lot more intentionality around my passions and my current practices.

I would like to preface this by saying that I am someone who is currently struggling to find my fit in functional-area-land. Before beginning my graduate studies, I had engaged my tunnel vision and decided that Student Activities was the thing for me; the only thing. During my school search, I was lucky enough to obtain three Student Activities assistantships, but there was one big problem… none of them were in the school that was the best fit for me. I took a chance and nervously accepted an assistantship in Off-Campus and Commuter Student Services at The Ohio State University – sure, it was not a functional area I had considered, but the connection with the people in that office and with the school had been undeniable from the moment I left interview days in Columbus. Did I make the right choice? Without. A. Doubt. Being in this office has not only provided me with the most amazing relationships and learning experiences, but also with the realization that I could be happy in this functional area, in Student Activities, in Orientation… you name it. Why? Because I realized that what I actually enjoy is connecting with students and helping them develop as leaders, no matter the setting.

With this new realization in mind I was eager to attend NASPA and look for opportunities to learn more about leadership development in a variety of contexts. From learning how to craft more purposeful student employment experiences, to increasing student engagement with commuter student populations, I was able to clearly relate the knowledge I gained at NASPA to leadership development and formulate strategies that I can implement with my current students. Creating new connections, especially with people in the Student Leadership Programs Knowledge Community, also allowed me to focus on my own leadership development, something practitioners often times forget about. It was re-energizing to meet up with old and new mentors and talk about how we are impacting students now (and how students are impacting us!). And as an added bonus, I had the wonderful opportunity to meet the distinguished Dr. Susan Komives, who authors the book I use in an undergraduate leadership course I have the pleasure of co-instructing this semester.

This NASPA conference experience was very very different than my previous ones. And not only because I drove 7.5hrs to Philadelphia and picked out the cheapest Airbnb I could find in the area (living that #gradstudentbudget). For the first time in a while, I actually gained some clarity about my future role as a practitioner and how student leadership development fits right at the center of it. While I am still exploring functional areas, I know that the type of work I want to do, or my niche if you will, definitely has leadership as a focus. As for my next steps, I hope to continue learning, seeking out more regional and national involvement opportunities (especially with SLPKC) and exploring how I can continue to empower the students I work with to be leaders in their own lives.

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