Working in higher education has always had challenges, though recent years have proven especially difficult. From the shared trauma of the pandemic, to the great resignation (or great values realignment), to lower student enrollments and higher costs of education – we have all been dealing with a lot. Phrases like ‘change management’ and ‘ability to pivot’ are now as common as ‘challenge & support’. This is the current state of working in higher education: being charged to do incredibly hard things and perhaps wondering if we are up to the task.
I asked myself that question a lot as I served in an interim role for over a year. Changes in leadership and staff departures left me briefly as the chief student affairs officer, then for a longer period as the interim Dean of Students. As I did not expect to stay in the Dean role for quite that long, I did not begin to reflect or evaluate my experience as early as I should have. Still, I learned a lot about myself and my leadership during this time. Since I am committed to womxn supporting womxn and us lifting each other up, I am sharing my reflections in the hopes these might be something others need to read.
First, leadership does not come from a title. When I started the interim role, I was cognizant of not wanting to change too many things or set too many new expectations. I did not expect to be in the role too long and did not want to redirect staff with initiatives that could be changed when a new supervisor arrived. This thought process led me to be in ‘just maintain’ mode for far too long. I was assigning value to a title even though I was in a position to lead already. I should not have waited. I should have collaborated, built, scaffolded, brainstormed, and moved forward with the experiences that I brought, interim or not. So, that is my first takeaway: Be the leader you know you are, title or not.
Secondly, Imposter Syndrome is a tool of oppression. It has caused me to doubt myself time and time again. Imposter Syndrome rears its ugly, self-deprecating head anytime I am feeling uncertain or working to make change. In my year of being interim this meant I felt like an imposter every day. I was not in a permanent role and attributed that to my lack of ability or leadership’s lack of confidence in me. I spent too much time wondering what I needed to do to prove myself instead of trusting myself and getting to work. Anyone can experience Imposter Syndrome, though it disproportionately affects womxn and womxn of color. So, my second takeaway is: Do. Not. Let. It. Win. Remind yourself of your value and surround yourself with people who will help you remember that you are the real deal. No imposters here.
Third, the work is always going to be there. I worked in an interim role while our institution was actively recruiting staff and fill vacant positions. As many others likely experienced, I was wearing about five different hats and filling in for a lot of positions all while feeling like I was in a year-long job interview. I started reverting to old beliefs that amount of time spent working equated to effort, dedication, and value. This is not true. There is always going to be mail to send, calls to return, initiatives to start, programs to evaluate, and students to support, but there is only one me. I need to value her at least as much as I value other people. My final takeaway is: Do the best you can. Recognize our jobs are not our entire lives. I need my job. I like my job. I feel fulfilled by my job. And it is just a job. If it becomes too much, I have to value myself enough to at least consider other options.
When I submitted this idea for a blog post, I was still in my interim role with no end date in sight. Had I not eventually applied to and earned the permanent position, my reflections would likely be different. I recognize I am privileged in so many ways including having advanced in my career during this awful time. I am grateful – truly – and I am tired. Whether we have stayed, left, returned, or are still figuring it out – being where we have been is exhausting emotionally and physically. But we are a network of womxn who should be listening, supporting, lifting, and holding space for each other. Life is hard. This work is hard. We can share in the hard things together. As my Mom says (and she’s the best womxn I know), “Let’s take care of each other.”
Ali Scoufield, M.S. (she/her) is the Assistant Vice President for Campus Engagement and Dean of Students at Cleveland State University. She oversees areas that focus on access, engagement, equity, and wellbeing. She is working on a PhD at CSU in Urban Education Policy with a research focus on the intersections between trauma and policy for students with disabilities. Ali is an avid reader, amateur bookstagramer (@spongebooksquarepants), and huge Philadelphia sports fan.