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“I’m in Public Relations”: How One Community College Pro Explains Student Affairs to The Outside World

Supporting the Profession New Professionals and Graduate Students Graduate New Professional Undergraduate
October 5, 2021 Betzabel Z. Martinez

Time and time again we get asked by our family and friends, “What do you do at work?” This is a loaded question because most Student Affairs in Higher Education (SAHE) professionals wear many hats. It can be difficult to provide an answer in a simple phrase or sentence. 

In Summer 2021, I was tasked with coordinating a massive order for our campus. This required me to email and call vendors across the region to get the best possible pricing and quality of products. 

We were still working from home and I was invited to have a working lunch at my best friend/neighbor’s house. I was on one of these vendor calls when she asked me, “Is this what you do all day, place bids?” I decided then that I would start telling people I work as a public relations representative. 

Everyone has some sort of idea what PR is. Samantha Jones from Sex and the City happens to be one of media’s most notable PR moguls of all time. 

Samantha and I (and other SAHE pros) have a lot in common:

  • We represent our institutions. As program specialist for student equity at Mt. San Antonio College, I am literally the ‘face’ of the Equity Center (EC) since I work out of a cubicle in the middle of our center. Additionally, I am frequently called out to present on the EC across campus and beyond. Many SAHE pros also represent their campus at conferences and other professional development spaces.

  • We handle marketing. Remember when Samantha managed to secure the Hermes bag for Lucy Lui by telling the sales rep that it would look GREAT on the company to have an A-list celebrity photographed in it? Yeah, we do that in SAHE too. T-shirts, stress balls, backpacks, you name it, we got you! We will get the best pricing in order to market our institutions and campus programs. Marketing for SAHE pros is a little different because behind many purchases, our goal is to create a sense of community through material symbolism. It brings me joy when I see students with our EC pins on their backpacks or wearing their I heart Mt. SAC t-shirts. Great PR if you ask me.

    • P.S. If Samantha had been doing PR in 2021, she would be all over the socials. As SAHE pros, many of us are responsible for our department’s social media accounts. To reiterate, we do marketing.

  • We do customer service. Every day Samantha and I are tasked with providing the utmost customer service to our clients, or in my case, students, staff, faculty, and administrators. As SAHE pros, we know all about proper email construction, phone call etiquette, all while keeping it real and showing up authentically. 

  • The higher we go, the more we are responsible for. Remember when Samantha got hired to work for Richard Wright and all of a sudden she was in charge of getting ads placed in the New York Times? Or when she was getting Jerrod Smith ads displayed all over Times Square? Talk about responsibilities and risk. SAHE pros are often tasked with responsibilities that are sometimes ‘above our pay grade’ or only can fit in the ‘other duties as assigned’ category. But you know what? Those are the responsibilities I have found most valuable because they have taught me what top dawg duties are like and what I need in order to accomplish them. And guess what? I can do it. And so can you. 

Unlike Samantha…

  • Many of us, namely most California Community Colleges employees, are unionized! Shoutout to CSEA 262! What does that even mean? Accrued vacation time, sick time, salary pay, with cost of living adjustments as needed, freedom of speech protection and legal protection from retaliation, amongst many other perks. 

  • We have a president, Samantha is self-employed. Many times our president is referred to as the “CEO” of the college. Sounds very corporate-y to me! No shade though, I’m trying to be president/CEO too! 

  • If you work for a public institution, you know all about tax payers dollars! Unlike Samantha, we do not have the luxury of dropping $300k on an Hermes bag, but as mentioned, we can definitely spend that type of money. The difference is that every dollar has to be accounted for and work towards a very specific purpose, with intent behind every expenditure. We spent $300k providing educational kits for over 4,000 students, so that they have a few less things to worry about and can focus on their academics instead. That is what we’d call a student-centered initiative, but to our friends and family, PR sums it up.

On a more serious note, when I started sharing my newfound occupation as a PR rep, I realized that there is a growing literature on the corporatization of higher education, and community colleges are not excluded. When I tell people that we, the community colleges, are different from for-profit institutions, lately the response has been “How is it different? Don’t y’all operate for-profit also?” Okay, y’all got a good point. Kezar (2018), beautifully states that you can do both: you can create revenue-generating policies and initiatives AND keep the best interest of students, close equity gaps, and prioritize the community. This is what I believe makes the work we do stand out. 

Many of my fellow PR folks, excuse me, SAHE pros, will agree with Dr. Kezar that institutions of higher ed, much like corporations, make drastic changes only when they are pressured by political and social external factors. The rise of social media has helped with this for sure, and many of us sit on our side of town yelling, WE’VE BEEN TELLING Y’ALL! First of all, don't let that fire inside you die just because the system moves at a glacial pace. Second, it is imperative that institutions begin listening to their students, and staff, to start tearing down student barriers, quickly, before the barriers get so high you can’t even see what’s on the other side. 

Yes, the corporatization of higher ed is real. Yes, this is probably why it makes sense that when I cannot spend the time to describe all the different hats a student affairs professional wears that I tell people I am a PR rep. However, it is important to never lose sight of what makes higher ed stand out against corporate companies: the unwavering community of love and support we intentionally cater and create for our students. 

Keep doing your thing, new SAHE pros, we’ll be President/CEO in no time. Maybe then, people will understand what exactly we do in SAHE.

References: 

Kezar, A. (2018). How Colleges Change: Understanding, leading, and enacting change. Routledge.

Author: Betzabel Z. Martinez, M.Ed., she/her/hers, is a University of California, Santa Barbara and University of Southern California alumna. She has been working with community colleges since 2017 and currently serves as the Program Specialist for Student Equity at Mt. San Antonio College. She currently serves as a NASPA Community Colleges Division Board Member representing New Professionals. Betzabel is a member of Sigma Omega Nu, Latina Interest Sorority, Inc. Contact: [email protected]