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From GA to Full-Time SA Professional

New Professionals and Graduate Students New Professional
September 15, 2020 Alex Harrel

Lunch. Hydro Flask. Laptop. Nametag. Keys. Oh and of course my mask. Driving into work, I send up a prayer that I’ll be able to answer more questions today than I could yesterday. Park and put my mask on. Walking into the office and saying good morning to my co-workers. Unlock my office, put my things down, and plug my laptop into the monitor. I log into my computer, pull up Banner, and open up my email. Let the work day begin.

I have been in my full-time Student Affairs professional position at Texas A&M University-Commerce for about two months now. In my first month and half, I started virtually, met my coworkers through email and Zoom meetings, and the third week on the job came onto campus as a fully-fledged Financial Aid Advisor for the College of Science and Engineering. It has been a whirlwind of learning a new campus culture and office, understanding the ins and outs of financial aid, and adjusting from being a graduate assistant to a full-time student affairs professional.

The transition from graduate assistant to full-time professional has felt like being on a roller-coaster with lots of ups and downs and twists and turns. There seems to be far more pressure to learn everything quickly and be at the top of your game. You are now the one that people refer students to. You are the Coordinator/Advisor that can help the student. You are the one that has the answers. You are the one in the office with two-maybe three-computer monitors and your diplomas proudly displaying on the walls. Every email, phone call, and Zoom meeting is a student coming to you as the professional to help solve their problem or issue. It all feels so different than it did as a graduate assistant.

Less than two months on the job, I have quickly realized how little I know and how much left I have to learn. Even in the little things, such as, dressing professionally for work. I dressed business casual as a graduate assistant, but figuring out what to wear each day to work seems to be such a struggle. The dress code is to be professional, but the campus culture has a causal vibe, so how does one mix those two together? I am continuing to piece together a wardrobe that is professional, but not upper administrative. The shoes can be the biggest struggle, especially if your building can experience all extremes warmth wise. Is a blanket and wearing cozy socks considered unprofessional if the office is freezing cold?

One of the biggest parts of the transition from graduate assistant to full-time professional, however, has been presenting myself in a professional manner while still being me. The best way to describe my personality is that I am like the popcorn you pop on the stove; it takes a while, but once the kernels start popping, they all start popping. I am one of those kernels waiting and observing, but once I am comfortable in a space, I can be extremely sassy (just ask my cohort) The most nerve-wracking parts of this transition has been how to present myself as professional who is sure of herself while being an introvert and so unsure of everything. How do I present myself professionally and knowledgeable of my job all while being myself in this hybrid working environment? My Type One Enneagram self has been working in overdrive to develop my professional, introvert, slightly dorky presence. However, the learner and developer in me kicks in reminding me to take a breath and slow down. It takes time to adjust to a new role and even longer to adjust to life as a full-time professional.

As graduate assistants, we cannot wait to be Coordinators/Advisors in an office with two computer monitors. We know how we wanted to decorate our office and how we want to engage with students. We are just waiting to see Student Development Theory in action and know that organization charts and risk management are important parts of our jobs. We are like Simba just waiting for our time to be kings-or queens-and bring our expertise and knowledge to our full-time position. And just like Simba realized that there was more to being king than doing whatever he wanted, I am learning that it takes time, lots of questions, a few mess-ups, and most of all patience to be the type of SA pro that I want to be. The title does not make me the expert, rather time and experience do. Whether you are a graduate assistant, new full-time SA pro or have been working in the field for years, we are always learning and adapting. The learning never stops. And I think that’s the best part about working in higher education; we always get to learn and experience new things on a daily basis. 

Author: Alexandra (Alex) Harrel works as a Financial Aid Advisor at Texas A&M University-Commerce and is a member of NASPA. She loves reading, Harry Potter, and Sonic happy hours. Alex can be found on Twitter at @harrelalexandra.