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Beginning a Career in Student Affairs

It is important to remember that we have the honor of shaping the lives of the students who attend our colleges and universities. In pursuit of furthering this honor, many new professionals choose student affairs as their entrance into a career in higher education. It is one of the most popular job posting and search categories on We had the opportunity this month to take an in-depth look at the process of a new professional's job search in student affairs with one of the leaders in the field, Dr. Lori Reesor. Lori Reesor is the Associate Vice Provost for Student Success, University of Kansas and a Co-Editor of NASPA's Beginning Your Journey: A Guide for New Professionals in Student Affairs.

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Andrew Hibel, Some of our readers may not be as familiar with Student Affairs and the work of NASPA - Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education as others. Could you briefly describe how NASPA helps and works with Student Affairs professionals?

Dr. Lori Reesor, Associate Vice Provost, University of Kansas: NASPA is the largest professional association for all levels of Student Affairs professionals. It offers so many opportunities for Student Affairs staff, including regional conferences, national conferences, on-line resources, journals, and advocacy for students especially on policy issues. There are many opportunities for professional development, involvement, and networking. I have met many wonderful colleagues through this association. It is very important for Student Affairs professionals to be involved in at least one professional association. I strongly advocate they be a member of a "generalist" association like NASPA and then one that is more specific to their own work area.

Hibel: What are some of key issues facing Student Affairs professionals today?

Reesor: Student Affairs professionals continue to help students access higher education, have the most enriching experience while they are in college, and then ultimately graduate. In addition to recruitment, retention, and graduation of students, we also face other challenges such as campus safety, technology, the abuse of alcohol and other drugs, and of course the latest economic challenges that are impacting our students and campus communities.

Hibel: How has today's economy and the budget issues affected a Student Affairs team's ability to meet the needs of a growing enrollment of students?

Reesor: Of course the economy has affected our students, their families, and our own campuses. Many of us are having to do more with less staff and resources. We are not hiring as many faculty which impacts the quality of teaching we are able to offer our students. For Student Affairs professionals we need to be sure what we are doing is impacting our students and we need to be strong advocates for our services within the academy when budget cuts are being proposed.

Hibel: Most of our discussion will now turn to a book of which you were a co-editor, entitled Beginning Your Journey: A Guide for New Professionals in Student Affairs (Third Edition Edited by Marilyn Amey and Lori Reesor, published by NASPA).1

Referring to the definition of Culture given in Chapter 2 (Pages 15-16) written by Marilyn Amey, Eric Jessup-Anger, and Connie Tingson-Gatuz, what are some of the ways in which a new professional entering a Student Affairs position might be affected by an institution's culture?

Reesor: Depending upon one's own experiences in higher education, a new professional might be surprised if an institution is more collegial or bureaucratic than they anticipated. Mission, size, and values are just some of the things which can influence culture. It is important for a new professional to assess the institution's culture and do their best to ensure this matches their own professional values and working style.

Hibel: How might a professional be able or unable to change an institution's culture as a member of a Student Affairs team?

Reesor: Change is rarely easy and even more difficult when you are trying to change a culture. You may be able to change the culture of your own work environment and possibly your department or division but changing an institutional culture is huge and often requires leadership from the top. Sometimes it is assessing whether the organization is ready for change and whether you can be a part of making that change.

Hibel: Compare for us some of the unique challenges Student Affairs professionals might encounter at small private colleges versus colleagues at large universities?

Reesor: My co-editor of the book, Marilyn Amey, talks about the different cultures of small colleges versus large universities. She uses the phrase of "family" to describe the culture of a small college. But what does that really mean - especially when we might have our own definitions of what a family is. But then how do you have "family" at a large university? I think you can ... but there are more likely to be many, many families and then an occasional all family reunion.
In general small colleges tend to be more collegial; student affairs professionals wear many hats; there is a strong emphasis on teaching, which translates to an emphasis on student learning. For many large universities, they can be very bureaucratic; there is an emphasis on research and graduate education; collaboration and partnering may be more challenging.

Hibel: Referring to the conversation in Chapter 3, starting on page 47, written by Anna Ortiz and Carla Martinez, what are some trends you are seeing in Student Affairs offices regarding the use of social media networking sites?

Reesor: I think we are just beginning to understanding the impact of social media networking sites. Certainly we should be familiar with these sites because our students use them and they can be an excellent tool for communication, marketing, and sharing information. But they also pose issues of ethics, boundaries, confidentiality, and professionalism. I am not sure we have standards of appropriate behaviors in these areas to share with others but these are certainly conversations we should be having with our staff members so we are clear on expectations and appropriate behaviors.

Hibel: What are some of the growing challenges Student Affairs professionals are facing in our ever more interconnected world when deciding what is an appropriate relationship with students?

Reesor: I think it is challenging for all of us to stay current on technology and its latest uses. Some of my students twitter but some do not. Some use email but some do not. I do not have time to text my students all day but this seems to be a primary tool for college students today. We need to stay on to top of this technology and then have conversations about appropriate boundaries and the ethics that are associated with this technology. At the risk of sounding "old school", I also do not want us to lose the importance of face-to-face conversations and interactions and I think this is vital in role modeling positive relationships.

Hibel: In Chapter 6, Making Professional Connections, Lori Reesor, Grace Bagunu, and Melissa Hazley write about the power and importance of networking. For a new professional entering Student Affairs, how important is it to develop a network of peers to bounce ideas off of?

Reesor: It is vital for new professionals to have a support network within their own area, with colleagues in other offices in Student Affairs, and even with colleagues at other institutions. Student Affairs is larger than just our own specific office and we can learn a lot about how to serve our students more effectively if we understand what our colleagues in other Student Affairs offices do. I am still very close to one of my colleagues in my very first job and I treasure the feedback she continues to provide me today.

Hibel: In Chapter 6, mentoring is addressed very thoroughly (Pages 110-114). How important is it for one who is new to Student Affairs to develop a relationship with a mentor?

Reesor: Many of us entered Student Affairs because of the encouragement of a mentor or supervisor. It is important to have mentoring relationships and we need to be intentional in seeking potential mentors. I am blessed to have many wonderful mentors in my life and I seek their advice and wisdom frequently. Often I will talk to a few of them on one specific issue because they bring a different perspective which helps me think more broadly and comprehensively. I encourage new professionals to reach out and make a connection with a potential mentor and continue to build and develop those relationships.

Hibel: Many of our readers would find Chapter 10 very helpful, Managing the First Job Search Process, written by Brent Paterson and Christa Coffey, as it speaks specifically to the issues and challenges a job seeker in Student Affairs faces when trying to first enter the field. What are some of the most important things a job seeker should consider when researching potential employers?

Reesor: As discussed in an earlier question, it is important to understand the mission and values of the institution and the specific unit with which you would be working. Most importantly, however, is to be sure your supervisor is the right match for you. I often tell staff that it does not matter so much my title or my scope of responsibilities but who my supervisor is - a good supervisor will support you, challenge you, and allow you to develop your skills and abilities. A good supervisor will ensure you are successful at your position and provide you the support and encouragement you need to be successful at your institution. So fit is important - both at the macro and micro levels.

Hibel: Beginning on page 192 the authors discuss how a job seeker looking to enter Student Affairs should get their resume out. What of the options you discussed do you find to be most effective? Is there a combination of strategies one might want to consider?

Reesor: Searches depend upon one's personal circumstances and the boundaries involved with the search. If you are limited to a certain geographical region, type of institution, or specific work, it will influence how you conduct your search. If you have a partner and/or family that are involved in the process, the search can be more complicated and require more compromising and patience. Regardless, it is important to share with your supervisors, peers, mentors, and network the type of search you are leading and allow them to help you navigate.

You should use every means possible to obtain a position, whether that is the Placement Exchange through NASPA,, or individual institutional websites. Frequently I receive emails from colleagues looking for staff to hire; if I know a person is looking for a job, I will forward relevant positions to that person. Take advantage of the network you have and do not hesitate to ask for their help.

Finally, I also recommend keeping a balance on one's job search. The on-line services are extremely beneficial but set up a system so you are checking opportunities on a regular basis and not constantly. It is easy for this process to be over-consuming and then not be as effective in balancing the search with other things happening in your life.

Hibel: One of the most exciting aspects of a job search is finally getting that offer, and especially if it is an offer from your first choice institution. On page 201 you touch upon how to evaluate your offer. What advice do you give job seekers about that process?

Reesor: The first job offer is so exciting and a huge relief. Be sure it is still right. Do not feel pressured to take the job because it is the first offer. Make sure it is right. Reflect on the offer; can you see yourself working there; is it a good fit; listen to your gut. Then make the decision that feels right for you.

Hibel: While reading this book I enjoyed reading chapter 11, Words of Wisdom by Shannon Ellis. Can you talk about some of your favorite words of wisdom that might be of particular interest to job seekers?

Reesor: Shannon Ellis is one of my favorite individuals and I loved her chapter as well.

Talented people will get jobs. Especially in today's economy, patience is even more important. One of my mentors from graduate school, Larry Ebbers (Iowa State University), told us the best jobs come open in the summer. There is some truth to this. During the peak of the job search season (usually January-April), many people will be looking for jobs and employers can be very selective and the competition is stiff. As the semester begins to close and summer begins, job searches still open but the pool is often different. So sometimes employers are willing to be more creative and flexible on their requirements and take a risk on someone with potential. In any case, patience is the key.

However, if you are not getting the offers you were expecting, seek advice from a mentor or colleague you trust and ask for honest input. Hopefully you will have sought input on your resume, cover letter, interviewing skills before you begin the process so you are most prepared; but if things are not working, then ask for more feedback. If you have a number of limitations on your search, then be willing to be creative and flexible on positions because other variables might be more important than the specific job. All job searches are unique so use your network to help maximize your opportunities.

Hibel: An article published in 1988, Career Paths in Higher Education Administration2, discussed barriers that the different genders face when trying to rise in the ranks of College Administration. One thing the study revealed in 1988 was that the majority of women who do hold high administrative posts do so at community colleges. In your experience, has this situation changed, and if so, how?

Reesor: I have not seen recent data but my sense is that it is slowly changing. I know it is sometimes more common for small colleges to also hire senior women administrators. I think it is still challenging for women in large, research universities. Often if there is a senior women administrator it is in Student Affairs but then the cabinet is still predominately male. The research also shows the challenges that women with children have in balancing careers and families. The academy is slowly changing to be more accommodating for female (and male) faculty and staff in this area but this still impacts the rise of women to senior positions.

Hibel: The article also goes on to discuss their findings regarding the different pathways people take to rise in the college administration hierarchy3. One of the differences was taking a faculty path versus a path directly out of graduate school into administration. How important do you think it is that a person has faculty experience before they enter either college administration or student affairs?

Reesor: It depends upon the type of institution. I think it is vital for Student Affairs professionals to have teaching experience since teaching and learning are the heart of the academy. But there are different career paths and trajectories for faculty versus staff. If one wants to be a president of a large research university, they will most likely need to be a tenured faculty member first. This rarely happens for Student Affairs professionals unless they have been a faculty member in a higher education program (and attained tenure). Sometimes I hear a new professional say they want to be a provost or a college president and they have little or no understanding of the faculty world, research, or tenure. A Student Affairs professional could rise to be a president at a small college or at a community college which may have less emphasis on research. So the type of institution and its values influence the career opportunities available especially to Student Affairs professionals.

Hibel: An article, The Academic Career as a Developmental Process4, discusses different career pathways people take in higher education and the implications those pathways have for colleges and universities seeking to capitalize on their experienced faculty and staff. For someone seeking to embark on a new career pathway through higher education, what ought one expect to encounter at older more traditional institutions versus less traditional institutions?

Reesor: Having spent my personal academic experiences at traditional universities and then working at traditional universities, my first experience at a more urban, non-residential campus was very different. It was difficult to program and serve students who were sometimes working 30-40 hours a week in addition to going to school full-time. It was challenging to provide support to students who did not have anyone to watch their children while they went to class. It was hard to listen to students' stories about why they would not be on campus for a while because a family member had been killed due to a violent act. These were not typical experiences I had as a student nor in my early professional work. However, I learned a great deal from working with students on urban campuses and have great admiration for their dedication, hard work, and commitment to their education and making a better life for their children. Many of us who go into Student Affairs work come from more traditional campuses and experiences (especially in our graduate programs) yet higher education is extremely diverse and offers many different types of experiences. So keep an open mind to the type of institution you might choose.

Hibel: My first professional position was a Graduate Assistant for a Residence Life Department while I was pursuing my graduate degree. It taught me that in order to understand the work that we do in higher education, you must be able to understand the experience through the student's eyes. Do you think our profession would be better able to meet our mission if all early career professionals in academe were required to work with students like Student Affairs professionals do everyday?

Reesor: I believe many of our faculty understand students like we do as Student Affairs professionals. They care about their students, want them to be successful, and help them reach their personal and professional goals. A few may care more about other parts of the academy and not see the gifts students bring to our campuses. I think Student Affairs professionals have the opportunity to help faculty learn more about students, their challenges, gifts, opportunities, and frustrations. We can also help provide support to faculty to assist students in their needs. I would like faculty to know more about the work we do in Student Affairs and the support we provide students and the institution. I would like faculty to know more about the leadership, service, and enrichment our students provide to our institutions and communities. At the same time we need to learn more about the challenges faculty have with students in the classroom and how we can provide assistance to them as well. I think the academy would be well served if we all understood more of what we do at our institutions and how we collectively serve students.