The Contrasting Espoused Values of Authenticity and Professionalism in Social Media and Personal Eng

Alexa Lindahl

May 1, 2017

As graduate students and new professionals, we encounter unique challenges given the nature of our transitionary roles and the liminality within them. Regardless of where you may find yourself professionally, the cultivation of personal professionalism, branding, and authenticity often emerge as recurrent themes while navigating these transitions. As part of a diverse field which requires social justice and inclusion to be at the forefront of our work and personal development, we must also navigate and integrate our experiences, beliefs, and complex identities in our growth.

Authenticity is often a value espoused very strongly in Student Affairs. The key elements of vulnerability and authenticity, as highlighted by Bréne Brown, are marked as vital to the creation of meaningful, engaging careers and personal development. We also see the same emphasis placed on developing professionalism and a marketable brand. Given these emphasized focuses, the expression of our authentic selves can often be complicated by the various roles we occupy and navigate. We learn and experiment with how to best represent our authentic but professional selves: on campus in professional roles, as members of a student body, on social media and in our online presence, through networking with other professionals, and in our work with students. As we learn how to best present and conduct ourselves, we also learn of the implications of our choices in a variety of ways.

These experiences have led me and my colleagues consistently to the following question: What is the intersection of these themes in the social media arena, particularly as it relates to engagement with social justice issues?

A note that this engagement is not limited solely to social media. Our work, education, professional development, and all manners of other engagement hold just as much, if not at times more, weight and impact.

Through my membership of various groups on Facebook and other social media platforms, including Student Affairs Professionals, I have become acutely aware of the way I am presenting myself through the types of conversations I engage in and the material I share. There have been frequent discussions in these groups regarding the potential consequences of our online engagement and the way we present ourselves. Most recently, conversations have emerged concerning expressions of alignment or disagreement with various social justice and sociopolitical movements, overt or covert, and the potential these expressions may have to negatively impact our careers. For example, through hiring practices, negative reputations, and lack of advancement opportunities.

In espousing authentic expression for individuals in the field (as we often do for our students) but not acknowledging the potential obstacles that some of us may encounter on that path, and not actively working to deconstruct these power structures, we perpetuate them. 

It might be easy to quickly respond with something along the lines of, “If you value something and find it true to you above all else, you should express it regardless of the consequences and follow that path”, or, “if you hold a controversial opinion or experience, just don’t be too public about it”. These statements are dismissive, and often ignorant of lived experiences. I believe that the ability to practice and preach the value of personal authenticity at the expense of professional and financial success, without taking into consideration the contrasting reality that many others experience, lends itself to serious consideration of privilege. There is also a very real, often unseen impact of repeatedly having to limit one’s expression or identity while simultaneously existing within a culture sphere that espouses “authentic expression” as a readily accessible and necessary developmental step.

So where do we go from here? As a graduate student and emerging professional, I believe that the process of navigating one’s personal preferences with expression and professional brand, both in person and online, is a complex and individual journey. However, as student affairs professionals who play key roles in education and the development, we must identify and actively work to deconstruct these complex areas in which power and privilege are perpetuated.

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Alexa is a second-year graduate student at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo’s Counseling & Guidance program and a faculty member at Allan Hancock College. Alexa loves writing, yoga, photography, and chai tea. 

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