We all remember the moment when we discovered that we wanted to pursue a career in student affairs. It was the “aha” or the “lightbulb” or the “special feeling” that you knew this is what you wanted to do. For me, it was during a conversation with my assistant director of student activities my junior year–a mentor I could turn to for anything and everything–and the career topic came up. Thirty-seven years later, and I’m still in student affairs and enjoying, downright loving every day…well…most days…hmmm…some days.
This academic year, far more than ever before, I have found myself seeking reflection to find worth; struggling to find satisfaction within ungraciousness. I struggle…has the group chat become the new learning platform? Is expecting students to use the university email platform to communicate archaic? Is it wrong that I find it bothersome when a student’s email ends with “I look forward to your prompt reply” when I think I’m a pretty good emailer. Heck, how many of us reply to emails well into the evening and early the next morning…perhaps it is in response to the “prompt reply” expectation? Why do I sometimes feel that I am the host of a game show where everyone gets their money back and everyone gets an A? Does this mean I need to exit?
If I’m alone in these thoughts, then it is on me to realign my journey. But, if you have these same feelings, and/or want to know what awaits, join me and read on because we will find joy by the end of this blog post (which means we have to find it quickly).
The joy is in that we are helpers. And when I get down, a student interaction brings me right back up. We may not know it now; it might come later when a student returns to campus as an alum, but we make a difference. Because every time we sit down with a student, we know that it is an interaction they learn from. And we hope, that in their journey to find identify, a small part of what we say influences them to be strong as they take on our difficult world.
Recently I was out to dinner with a friend. We were talking about work. My friend said that while he likes his job, he doesn’t feel it is meaningful. Yes, it pays well, but without disclosing his work, it doesn’t bring a sense of satisfaction. He looked at me and said, “You impact people, you make a difference.”
Last week a student who I had recommended to serve as the student representative on a very important university committee, came up to me and said, “I want to thank you.” She said, “You put your trust in me to serve on this committee, and it is the best experience I have ever had.” I’m smiling as I am writing this recount.
Earlier this week, a student who I’ve known for three years, who came to our office through a student care report, and was close to being homeless, told me that she received a fellowship to go to graduate school, and she is so appreciative of all the university did to put its faith and support in her.
There’s also joy in the student who tells you that the meeting with you wasn’t as scary as they thought it would be.
These are the joys that remind us of the work we do, and why we do it, and why it is our passion.
I’m glad we are the ones who receive the complaints from students, that we are the ones who are asked to fix things, that we are the ones they can feel comfortable to present demands to. Because they know they can turn to us, they know we will listen, they know we will try to help, they know that sometimes we can’t tell them what they want to hear, but that we are always there for them. They know this, because the campus knows, that student affairs is where to go when you need help.
So, when we are on stage at commencement and see students come across the stage and celebrate the receiving of their degree, we, more than anyone else on that stage, take joy in the students’ completion. We, more than anyone on that stage, know these students. We’ve seen them in our office, helped them through good times and bad times, helped them navigate the difficulties that life brings these days, and never, ever not been there for them. When our CFO told me, with a look of wonder, that he doesn’t know how I can do my job, I thanked him because I know there is joy to me, and to all of us, in the work we do.
So, I’m okay with some “I look forward to your prompt reply” emails, and I don’t mind that sometimes student interactions take place over text because I know that I am helping them, just like my friend said and just like my mentor taught me. It’s why I can’t think of another career I would have pursued.
David J. Strauss serves as the dean of students at the Wayne State University and is a member of the NASPA James E. Scott Academy Board.