While sitting at lunch at the recent NASPA Region One conference, three of us “old timers” shared the story of our friendship — professional and personal — with some slightly less experienced NASPA professionals. We weaved together the story of how we met, how we supported each other, and how our lives have intertwined over the years. I thought to myself that the value of these professional relationships would make a great blog post.
Then I read Marcella Runell Hall’s post, Gratitude, Relationships, and Mentorship in Student Affairs, and quickly realized that her reflections on this topic were far more eloquent than mine would ever be. But in a brief email exchange she assured me, “There was more to say for sure.” So ever since, I have been thinking about how grateful I am for the relationships my profession has given me. Particularly the relationships that come with continuity at one institution since I have been at my university for almost 30 years.
Early in my career, one of my mentors told me, “To move up, you have got to move on.” While I trusted her advice and have followed it many times, it seemed like a philosophy that I wasn’t sure I embraced. While ever since entering graduate school my goal was to be an SSAO (Senior Student Affairs Officer), I was not calculated in my approach. Rather, I approached the work that interested me and explored the opportunities before me, unsure if those choices along the way made sense. Like when my boss suggested that I continue to work for her while getting my Ph.D. instead of leaving and moving to another state. Or when that boss retired and the president said, “You are the new SSAO, and I want you on my team.” And though I have no idea where I would be had I decided to move on to move up, what I do know is that I feel lucky every day to be doing what I am doing.
No doubt, whichever path I chose, I would have maintained terrific relationships with colleagues and students alike. Those are the relationships all of us in student affairs maintain because we choose to do so. But staying at one institution for a long time means that I connect with former students more by happenstance and get a chance to reinvigorate relationships I would not have been able to, had I moved on to another institution. This allows me to directly see the impact our student affairs team has had on so many students’ lives.
This past week I attended three events where many alumni were present. Of course, there were alumni there with whom I would have stayed connected no matter where I worked. But it was the students who walked up to me and said, “Dean Shep, remember me?” that stand out. Some were students I had met when I managed student conduct and our relationship did not start on the most positive of terms. Some were students with whom I had a one-time interaction and was able to smooth out an issue that helped to keep them enrolled and on the right track. I heard their stories of how they had learned and grown since college and how much they appreciated their education. I heard the impact that listening had on their lives and their appreciation for someone who cared.
Had I moved on to move up, I am not sure I would have this chance to see this direct impact of the work we do in student affairs, to see students grow into young adults and then to parents themselves — the small things we do to make a difference in a student’s life. I am immensely grateful for this chance, and it inspires me to continue to find those random times to stop, listen and help a student achieve their goals. And I remind myself, in each of these conversations, that our paths will cross again.
J. Andrew Shepardson serves as the vice president for student affairs and dean of students at Bentley University and is the chair of the NASPA James E. Scott Academy Board.