Moving Up…Without Moving Out of Town

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Amy N. Pennington, Associate Vice President for Student Affairs/Dean of Students & Title IX Coordinator-Arkansas Tech University

July 18, 2019

Moving Up…Without Moving Out of Town

Over the past few years, I have often noticed that AVPs are frequently asked to give advice and counsel to new professionals on their career paths and how best to climb the student affairs professional ladder. We all know that no path is the same and the number of possibilities are infinite. However, as someone with a very non-traditional career path, I have often struggled with how best to respond.

This fall I will start year number twenty-two at the same institution. Yep, you read that correctly! My entire professional career has been at one institution. You may have noticed that this is not a common journey.

After an amazing undergraduate experience in which I was fortunate to fully engage in a variety of co-curricular leadership opportunities, including a work-study position as a campus tour guide that introduced me to the student affairs field, I was offered a student recruitment and publicity specialist position in Admissions and Enrollment Management. I graduated in May and started, what I now recognize as my student affairs career, the following month. Over the years, I transitioned to Residence Life, International and Multicultural Student Services, Student Conduct, and now serve as AVP/Dean of Students and Title IX Coordinator. Each transition represented an increase in my level of responsibility and added to my portfolio but never included a departure to a new campus. Many personal and professional factors account for my decision to stay at the same institution. While I fully recognize and appreciate the incredible value of being able to work on a variety of campuses (different experiences, missions, sizes, locations, etc.), other new professionals might find themselves in my situation. They too may need advice on how to navigate advancement opportunities if changing institutions is not an option or they, like me, find their home early in their career.

My personal story and experiences lead me to believe that it is possible to advance professionally at the same institution. Below is a little of what I have learned along the way, and what I commonly share when I am asked for advice:

  1. Do not limit yourself. Often times we decided too early what we are “good” at doing or destined to become. We are designed to be life-long learners. Skill sets can be expanded and core competencies can be developed and transferred to a variety of positions.
  2. Be open and willing to accept new challenges outside of your comfort zone. One of the best aspects of a career in higher education is the access to educational opportunities that can position and prepare you for the next job on your campus that provides the increased responsibility and challenge you may be seeking. Professional development and training opportunities in higher education are easily accessible and limitless.
  3. Attitude is important. If you want to learn and be successful, that is half of the battle. Do not be afraid to try new things. Higher education is filled with colleagues willing to share knowledge. If you are willing to seek out help and mentorship, you will find it.
  4. Seek opportunities to expand your horizons. Communicate career goals with your supervisor and collaborate on plans for new opportunities. For me, this involved receiving permission from my supervisor to work part-time as a consultant for an external higher education firm that afforded me the chance to visit campuses across the US and meet colleagues doing similar work.
  5. Look forward to change and do not be afraid to take calculated risks. Change is not easy and beginning a new position with more responsibility is a challenge. Perseverance through the first few months pays off in the end.
  6. Consistently demonstrate hard work, dedication, and teamwork. Show yourself to be an invaluable part of your campus community. Prove yourself an employee ready for more responsibility.
  7. Network on your campus and build relationships within and beyond your division. Seek opportunities to learn more and understand all facets of campus operations. Do not shy away from a position because it is not in “student affairs”. Focus on the growth that can come from the position, not the organizational structure or campus-specific nomenclature.
  8. It is acceptable to say no to an opportunity. As long as the decision is not rooted in fear, stick to your goals and be strategic in taking on new responsibilities.
  9. Embrace and take advantage of your institutional knowledge and history. During time of significant institutional change or challenge, this information and context can be valuable and a real asset.

Key to any successful and fulfilling career is finding a good fit. Advancing at the same institution can only be successful when you truly believe in the vision and mission of the campus in which you serve.

Amy N. Pennington
Associate Vice President for Student Affairs/Dean of Students & Title IX Coordinator
Arkansas Tech University


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