Throughout the College Counseling and Student Development (CCSD) M.S. program at APU, I have undergone several personal changes in both belief and practice. Whether it was because of experiences in class or in the workplace, I have a much different view towards student affairs now than I did two years ago. The most significant motivation for change came from the hands-on work I experienced in my assistantships in Communiversity (the student activities office) and LA-Term (an urban immersion program).
Before I started graduate school, I had been a student leader, an Alpha Leader, an RA, and a mission’s trip leader. I loved being a part of anything that was going on that would make me feel personally accomplished, look good on my resume, and possibly help others—and at times in that order of priority. At the time, student affairs seemed to me to be a very selfish, cutthroat business, with all student leaders competing against one another for each position. It was so competitive that by the time I graduated, I was more or less burnt out on anything student affairs-related.
However, I knew that this was a field in which I could have a positive impact on students, so I applied to the CCSD program. While I was still unsure about my own academic or professional future, I knew that if I could help students throughout their collegiate journey as much as student leaders helped me, I would have a successful, rewarding occupation. Fortunately, even though I was on the fence at the time, I was accepted soon after and I realized that my gifts and skills as a student leader could be used to help other students in the future.
I went into the program thinking of possibly wanting to be a resident director of a freshman dorm. It seemed like a viable career option at the time, and I was not exactly sure how else I could use the degree. At the beginning of the program, I was most shocked by the diversity of the applicants; not necessarily the ethnic diversity, but the academic and personality diversity of the cohort. I knew from early on in the program that I would learn a lot being surrounded by such an interesting, intelligent, eclectic group of students.
My first real experience as a student affairs professional came working as the graduate assistant in Communiversity. As I oversaw a few undergrad students and headed up the entire Clubs & Orgs program at APU, I felt empowered from the start. I learned that student affairs was a much broader field than I once thought and that it was also a much more essential part of the college experience than I realized.
My first student affairs supervisor, the director of Communiversity was new to the office. Chuck Strawn had been the Director of Housing at Pepperdine University, and had come to APU seeking a smaller, more community-minded and faith-oriented student body. His prayers and hopes seemed to be answered throughout his first year as he continually affirmed, led, and challenged each of the three graduate assistants in his office. He was intentional about each of us leaving our own legacy, our own stamp on our programming—something that future Communiversity staff would look back on and admire.
One of the most important things I learned from Chuck was the idea of the 80%. His mission in life was to challenge the way people thought about life. One of these methods was this theory of practice he had developed over the years. He believed that 10% of students were always in his office for good reasons (applying for internships, and working on campus as student leaders), and 10% were always in his office for the wrong reasons (judicial affairs, etc.), but that most programming should focus on the middle 80% of the student body. This includes the normal, average APU student who goes to classes, works a part-time job, and occasionally makes it to an event or two each semester. This was who he tried to reach through his programming.
Throughout my classes in the first year, I learned that student affairs was not just about retreats, life-stories, group hugs and fun games, but it was about student development theories and quantitative analysis. Overall, it was much more intellectually demanding than I was expecting, and was much more academically challenging than I thought it would be. Because of the rigorous curriculum and high academic standards, I was able to grow personally and professionally with the rest of the cohort, while we challenged each others’ beliefs and assumptions about life in and out of class.
As I watched friends and colleagues work in residential housing assistantships (assistant resident directors), I quickly realized just how much live-in position entailed, and how involved one needed to be to work with students around the clock like that. Watching them waking up at 3 or 4 a.m. several nights a week to break up a fight or shut down a party (most of which involve alcohol and judicial hearings) was an eye-opening, and it made me realize just how serious life-in positions really were. But by the end of the first year, I knew that this whole student affairs thing was still something I wanted to be a part of. While I was still unsure of which area of student involvement I was destined for, I knew I wanted to fit in somewhere within the field of student affairs on a college campus.
My second year in the program began off campus, as I was hired to work as the program coordinator of APU’s urban study program, LA-Term. I actually took part in a very similar program at Gordon College in Boston, Massachusetts during my sophomore year. This experience had sparked a passion and interest in me for both urban immersion programming as well as culturally educational experiences. I began my LA-Term career working for my new supervisor, Frank Romero-Crockett—who was also new to the program. Whether it was because of our love of sports, or our passion for music, we were close from the start.
During this year I have designed programs in orientation, mentored a dozen students, and even collaborated with the global studies office in order to build the LA-Term website. It was an intensely challenging year as there were many outside influences and factors that contributed to excess student and staff stress and anxiety such as sexual misconduct within the homestays, student conduct violations and other negative incidents. Throughout it all, however, I know that I have come out the other side better for the experience. I have learned the importance of letting students live their lives how they want or need to, while at the same time being available to provide support and encouragement to them. I have learned that student affairs is more than just providing the occasional group hug for students, but is about being able to offer a strong support system of listening and counseling in order to meet the needs of the students you are working with.
Working for Frank has been a great experience and has definitely aided in my personal development as a student affairs professional. He has shown me that even if I work alone on a project, I can produce great results. His hands-off style has helped me develop my own motivational structure and drive. When once I needed deadlines to finish any project, this year I have learned how to finish projects simply because I want them done soon. For example, this year it has been my job to design and build a website for LA-Term. Because it is a project I am passionate about, incorporating both interactive student-learning possibilities along with web design, Frank rarely needs to give me deadlines along the way in order for me to accomplish tasks regarding the site. I know that the more I get done and the sooner it is accomplished, the more rewarding and fulfilling it will be.
Along with that, during both of my assistantships, my mentoring relationships have been cherished times in which I have learned just as much from my students as they learned from me. During my time in Communiversity I met with one student on a weekly basis throughout the entire year. Through pre-semester training and retreats, we quickly became close and early into the semester she was comfortable confiding in me with her concerns and fears about college life. Throughout our relationship we covered everything from adding and dropping classes and choosing the correct major to dating life on a Christian college campus and relationships with family members back home. It was the start of a deep, intentional and wide-ranging relationship, which is still being cultivated and continued to this day.
Once I started working for LA-Term, each grad assistant was required to meet with five students each semester on a regular basis. This was much more time-intensive, but soon each meeting became a source of honest and true thoughts from some of the smartest, deepest and purposeful students I had ever met. From visiting local organic farmers in northern Los Angeles, to working with the homeless population of downtown, these students seemed to already have an advanced knowledge and sense of meaning well beyond their years (Williams, 1998). These relationships were profoundly meaningful and directly impacted each of their everyday lives while visiting different sites around LA. It was a breath of fresh air that throughout my relationships with LA-Term students I continually learned not only how much I do not know, but just how mature and unselfish undergraduate students can be.
It was my two assistantships that really helped me develop a new outlook and understanding of student affairs. In fact, my thoughts and beliefs about the field changed so much that I have returned to my initial goal of becoming a resident director. While I am not necessarily looking forward to those late night disciplinary experiences, I know that by living with and supporting college students, I will have the rare opportunity to be a part of their learning experience. Seeing students every day and living life with them will allow me to develop close mentorships and friendships that will be an integral part of my student affairs career.
The CCSD program emphasizes theory much more than I thought it would, and even more than other college student affairs (CSA) programs from what I have gathered in talking to other cohorts. Whether it is Chickering’s seven vectors of identity development or Sharon Daloz Parks’ Big Questions, Worthy Dreams (2000), we have spent significant time studying many of the top adolescent development theorists and scholars.
The student development theory that always resonated most with me was Marcia Baxter Magolda’s (2001) ideas on creating meaningful, challenging relationships with students. She helped pioneer the idea of self-authorship, a practice and philosophy I try to live out in my professional and daily student affairs practice. To me, this means helping students find their voice and their unique niche in this world by guiding them through good and bad times, and challenging them to seek out truth amidst the often overwhelmingly chaotic world that is college.
College students are often forced to make tough choices at a young age, without yet knowing either themselves well or the ramifications such decisions might have on their lives for years to come. Whether it is a choice in major, a class predicament, a relationship dispute, or even a career decision, students often seek out guidance from counselors, staff, and student affairs professionals. It is in these situations where self-authorship has often been at the forefront of my mind, from my own personal experience.
A quote that has stayed with me in regards to students’ journeys throughout college was stated by a first year evangelical Christian student who said, “I have a hard time believing in God or a higher power because you see so much suffering everywhere. You wonder if someone is in charge or why would He or She do this to other people. Why are some people suffering while other people have all the riches in the world?” (Astin & Bryant, 2008). Because this is such an integral time in students’ development processes, it is important to both support and listen to them. While they will eventually find the answers to life’s difficult questions, the most important thing a student affairs professional can do in this situation is simply give them a safe place to allow them to ponder such questions.
In the same vein, Parker Palmer (2000) writes a lot about coming along students, and while supporting them, also empowering them. This is a difficult task at times, and is a constant balance in relationships with students. The choice to walk the line of mentorship and friend is something that student affairs practitioners must decide on a case-by-case basis every single day in their interactions with students.
As a student affairs professional, I see it as my duty not to necessarily provide students with the answers to life’s tough questions, but merely to challenge and support them in their journey (Sanford, 1967). I know that students are much more adept and mature than often given credit for, and that a little support and encouragement can often be the only catalyst they need to reach the next step in their current developmental process (Williams, 1998). This way they can better rely on their own strength and intuition when it comes to making similar choices in the future, instead of relying on others to provide the answers for them.
Alexander Astin (1984) is another theorist who I have identified with for much of my practice. His theory of student involvement centers on the idea that students learn by becoming involved. Whether it is through campus jobs, participating in events, or being involved in the community in their living areas, when students feel at home in their environment and involved in their college life experience, they are much more apt to grow, learn and develop. Because students’ learning is also enhanced when they interact with each other, then creating environments and programs where students have opportunities to work together is essential to learning.
Another student affairs theory that has been a great resource to me throughout my program has been Schossberg’s (1997) transition model. While it is not a linear step-by-step process like some theories, she identifies four different stages of a person’s ability to manage transition periods in their lives: situation, self, support and strategies (charmingly known as the “4 S’s”). Because college life is often one of the most inconsistent and unpredictable times in students’ lives, theories based on the many different types of transitions students undergo is crucial to student affairs practice.
Something I wish to improve upon in my own professional career is being better able to counsel students from different ethnic and cultural backgrounds. In reading theories and practices of Sue and Sue (2007), I know that methods of counseling can be very specific to the culture and background each student comes from. Their model outlines the different stages of minority identity development, how to understand what these students are going through, and how to help them with the diversity challenges they will face on today’s college campuses.
Having recently attended NASPA’s Annual Conference, as well as their four-day job search, The Placement Exchange, I hope that the next step in my student affairs career is a full time job. I would love to become a resident director at a small school, and begin building relationships with students and helping them better cope with the many changes, challenges and adjustments that college life brings. Eventually, I would like to become a director of a student life office on campus, or even move up to administration, but for the near future (5-10 years), I would love to live on campus and be more involved in students’ lives on a daily basis.
Aside from that, I think I would love to improve both my resume by diversifying my own experiences as well as enhance my own personal networking skills with other student affairs professionals around the world. While events like the NASPA Annual Conference are great for both of these goals, I know that I will need to engage the student affairs world more than just once or twice a year if I plan on accomplishing either of these objectives. One way to achieve them would simply be to continue researching and applying to symposiums in order to lead seminars and sessions at student affairs conferences.
Overall though, I am right where I want to be professionally. I had several people at The Placement Exchange tell me that my resume was quite comprehensive and diverse. While I was shocked at first because I thought that two degrees from one small, faith-based college would not mean much to larger schools, I know that it was a direct reflection of the CCSD program which advocates getting as diverse experience as possible while in graduate school.