The best career advice that I ever received was from one of my University professors. After some persistent questioning about how she figured out what she wanted to pursue as a career, my professor told me that “sometimes you just have to fall into things”. At the time, I didn’t know what to think about this advice. Was I supposed to just stumble across my passion and know? Then, about 10 months ago, I realized that I was passionate about working with and for post-secondary students while I was working in a student position, something that I had never anticipated. So, I prepared to graduate and began my search for my first job out of University.
I have been a student affairs professional for just over six months now. Since graduation, I have worked in a contract student affairs position, and now have moved across Canada for my first non-contract role in residence life. My work as a student in student affairs had prepared me to an extent for my first “real person” position, but I still had (and have) many things to learn as a student affairs professional. I would like to share five of the most important things that I’ve learned since graduation about beginning your first job in student affairs.
1. Be open to new challenges
Challenge yourself to do something outside of your comfort zone, whether that means working at a new institution (or two!), developing a brand new program, or switching departments. If you had asked me at the beginning of this year where I thought I would be, my answer would certainly not have been that I would be living across the country. There is such a large range of institutions across Canada, and North America, that the opportunities in student affairs are very diverse. Actively seeking to challenge myself has been the biggest growth opportunity for me this year. It has also helped me to find my first non-contract role, as I was open to move and work somewhere that I had never been before. Student affairs is a helping profession, and when we help ourselves to grow, we can offer new insights and passion to the students that we support.
2. Trust in your perspective
Trust in the learning that you’ve done outside of the classroom. If you’re like me, and have not taken any formal schooling in the field of student affairs, you have to trust in the experiences that you’ve had and your perspective as a new professional. You may be in your first student affairs role, but your fresh enthusiasm and recent experiences as a student both contribute to the value of your outlook on your work. I have also found that coming from a different institution has been valuable to offer me a few different perspectives to approach my work with. Remember that as a field, we continuously have to evaluate and improve our programs and services to meet student needs. New perspectives and diverse experiences help to bring fresh ideas and changes to the table.
3. Don’t be afraid to learn
Your perspective is important, as I outlined above, but don’t be afraid to do your own research and improve your knowledge of current research, best practices, and theory. I have learned in the past few months that it is okay not to have the answer to everything, and to make mistakes, but it’s important to be open to learning those answers and learning how to improve in the future. You are a new student affairs professional, and you can funnel your eagerness to learn into building your textbook knowledge. This can be the best way to ensure that you are using your experiences in relation to best practices to improve the work that you do in student affairs. If you are developing a new program, or even working on something that is well established, making sure that you understand the theory, reasoning, and research behind your work can help you to excel and continue to promote positive change and development.
4. Connect with others
Find someone in the field who you admire, or someone who is working on a program that you are interested in, and connect with them. Building relationships in the field can help you to learn more about what others do both within and outside of your institution. I have found that most colleagues in our field are happy to share ideas and advice with new professionals. This can help greatly to solidify your passion for the field, and also strengthen the work that you do in your position. I have also greatly appreciated connecting with students this year who are interested in a career in student affairs. As a new student affairs professional, you have just been through what these students are interested in doing. Providing any guidance and advice that you have is a great opportunity to use all of the hard work that you’ve put into becoming a student affairs professional to benefit the future of the field.
5. Develop a work-life balance
In my contract position, I found myself focusing directly on work but not on the life that I was living outside of work. This can be especially difficult as a new graduate when your friends from school are scattered across the country, and you need to establish yourself both in your new workplace and your new community. I have also found that most people who work in this field, including myself, are a passionate bunch, who truly care about the work they do. In addition to this, many of us work outside of the 9-5 day quite often. Do not let your eagerness and passion for the work that you are doing in your first student affairs job overshadow the importance of keeping yourself happy and healthy in your personal life. Try to take part in activities that you enjoyed as a student, or try something new, in your time outside of work. You may even meet other like-minded people through this, along with developing a good work-life balance and taking some time to relax and reflect.
I am definitely not done learning lessons as a new student affairs professional, but I am happy with the growth that I have experienced so far within our field. We are a lucky group of individuals who get to work with and for post-secondary students. Enjoy the journey, and remember to continue learning and connecting with others along the way.
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