In Through the Side Door: the Perspective of a Mid-level Student Affairs Latecomer

naspa groups & divisions small colleges and universities division

Caroline Harrington, Housing & Student Life Manager, AMDA College and Conservatory of the Performing Arts

September 9, 2016

First, let me clarify that the title above is not in reference to a Kanye West lyric (as one of my student workers asked when she noticed the work on my open iPad) and yes, I wrote this on my lunchbreak.

Like many college graduates, I had very few (realistic) ideas about what I wanted to do after commencement.  I graduated from college on an overcast May afternoon in 2002 and after listening to the commencement speaker address our class, a feeling of dread set in almost immediately. How was I (a 22 year-old punk rock kid with a weird haircut) going to make my B.A. in Comparative Literature and minor in Women’s History translate into the working world?

During my time as an undergraduate, I had been very involved in student life from being an RA to internships with nonprofit organizations and other campus leadership roles. Unbeknownst to me at the time, these roles planted the seeds for a future as a Student Affairs Professional. 

Time marched on and I tried my hand in many fields from journalism and copywriting to fashion and marketing. I was successful in most of these positions but felt a lack of purpose. I desired to be of service to others and to help them find their place in the world, but I had yet to find my own. I sought counsel from a friend who encouraged me to put my creative thinking to good use and ponder when I had been the happiest at work and how might I find this feeling once again.

After some soul searching, I was led back to my time as a student leader at a small, liberal arts college and so my application process began. Within a few months, I was gainfully employed at a career school with both online and brick and mortar programs as their Student Services Assistant. I attribute my success in this role to strong supervision and a motivation to learn. During my time in this role, I absorbed knowledge like a sponge. I asked questions, requested to sit in on meetings and always sought feedback. I moved to a new (and current) professional home a few years later and now work with students in the performing arts. Their talent, drive and intellect never cease to amaze and inspire me. Once again, my success has been due in large part to collaboration and solid mentorship.

Four years ago, when my mentor/supervisor suggested that I attend NASPA conferences, I went willingly and had no idea what I was in for. I was greeted in Orlando by others in my field who immediately made me feel like I was no longer the sole resident of Student Affairs Island. At the same time, I must admit that I felt like a bit of an outlier. I was in my early 30s, had no advanced degree and was surrounded by other first time attendees, many who were younger than me and just about to complete their M.Ed. I knew that I likely was not alone in my plight and was happy to meet more professionals who were in the same boat by going to the first time attendee meeting. Since that time, I have encountered many who have made the crossover into Student Affairs work, some from fields with strong similarities such as Social Work and Theology and others, like myself, who made a 180 degree turn.

Currently, I’m in my seventh year of working in Student Affairs, my fourth year in a management role, and just four months away from completing my M.Ed. The experiential learning that came from working at small colleges, coupled with strong mentorship, and utilizing NASPA as a resource have helped me to construct a trail (albeit a non-traditional one) into the field of Student Affairs. For those who are thinking about making a career change to Student Affairs, please bear in mind the following:

●      As with most things, it is never too late but it will require persistence and eventually, the proper academic credentials.

●      Being new to any field is humbling but nearly everyone along the way is willing to help. Don’t be afraid to ask!

●      There are students who need advisors with every kind of perspective. Your path is unique, your experience is varied, and you can use it to be of service to many.

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