Wait, This Can be a Career? The Best Kept Higher Education Non-Secret

Yes, Student Affairs is a real job – we didn’t all just randomly fall into it.  Many universities fail to express this to their RAs.  I refer to this unfortunate circumstance as a “non-secret” because, as Student Affairs professionals, we don’t intentionally keep this information from you.  We do, however, often seem to overlook it.  In this blog post,  I will share my personal experience with this realization and how knowing it sooner could have saved me years, provide a simple explorative action plan now that you have this valuable knowledge, and offer some links to begin your Higher Education program search.

Shhhh

My Experience

Outside of being an RA, one of my favorite groups was Pride Productions, the Student Activities organization we had at Greensboro College.  I loved helping organize and run university events and was lucky enough to attend the 2008 NACA Conference in Atlanta, GA.  I was also appointed the SGA Student Activities Liaison, meaning I was directly responsible for approving or denying student organizational funding requests.  I was right in the action!

I worked side-by-side vast numbers of Higher Education professionals on a daily basis and I took every opportunity anyone offered.  I had the skills, I had the energy, and, while I didn’t know it at the time, I also had an interest in the field.  But no one ever told me!  I obviously enjoyed working with students and I was good at it…but no one ever broached the topic and, as naive as it sounds, I never stopped to consider that the “grownups” around me were working real jobs.  For this, I ultimately paid the price.

Graduation imminent, I began looking for graduate programs. I became especially interested in the English program at NC State.  I was also excited about their Resident Director positions, which provide a tuition remission, furnished apartment, stipend, and partial meal plan.

As I began inquiring about this opportunity, I discovered that the university had just changed their assistantship policy and required that all Resident Directors pursue a degree in Higher Education.  I was a top candidate and came highly recommended, but I had applied to the English Department instead.  My recruiter spoke with the director and even presented my case to a board, but in the end it was decided that I did not qualify.

During my final phone call with NC State University Housing, they asked me if I had any intention of going into Higher Education.  I remember thinking, “Higher Education?  What’s that?”  Slightly perplexed, I said “no,” the phone call ended, and I began looking at other options.  I literally look back on this memory and cringe!

I ultimately chose Radford University because I could be a Resident Director and work on my Master’s in English at the same time.  It was not until halfway through my first year that someone finally shared with me the secret of Higher Education.  Unfortunately, Radford had discontinued their Higher Education program and I settled for a Master’s in Curriculum and Instruction, hoping to gain some transferrable skills.

Don’t get me wrong – the path I chose lead me to my husband, provided exceptional experiences, and has worked out beautifully!  Knowing what I know now, I would make the same choice again.  But I didn’t know then what I know now and logically, if I had been aware that Higher Education existed, I could be at a very different stage in my career.  If I had known, I likely would have attended NC State, would have a Master’s in Higher Education instead of a “related field,” and would be better qualified for future positions.

Don’t let this happen to you!  Take some time to think about what opportunities being an RA offers and whether Higher Education is right for you.

Action Plan

So you’re interested – now what?

  1. Explore.  You are likely already doing this.  As a student, you are being exposed to what Higher Education is every day by doing nothing more than what you are already doing!  You are further involved because you are (or are considering becoming) an RA.  I recommend exploring other parts of the campus too.  So you don’t want to be an RA forever?  That’s just the gateway.  Counseling, Career Services, Admissions, Student Activities, Greek Life, Advising – these are all Higher Education positions too.  Try some things and see if this is a career you could see yourself doing for the rest of your working life.
  2. Talk.  There is no greater power than the power of communication.  Go out of  your way to speak with campus professionals.  Express your interest to them.  You will find that, while we are slow to inform you that Higher Education is a career, we love to share our excitement for it with people who are interested.  Many professionals will be impressed that you are approaching them and will be more than happy to take the time to chat about their office.  This will leave a lasting impression, I promise you.
  3. Consider.  Once you have done some exploring and talking, take time to consider if Higher Education is really the career for your.  This is an important decision.  Don’t blow it off.  It is easy to think you have been thinking about something for a long time because it crosses your mind every now and then.  This doesn’t count.  Take time to literally sit down and reflect on what you want and how you can get there.  Ask yourself – What makes me happy?  What am I good at?  What do I see myself doing in 20 years?
  4. Do.  This isn’t just about making the decision and committing to it.  This is about taking every opportunity that presents itself and running with them.  I was once told that Higher Education is what you make it – the more you put in, the more you get out.  I have found that this is absolutely true!  For every ounce of energy you expend, you will be repaid.  Make a commitment to doing more on your campus and within the field to gain experiences that will become vital later in your career.

Okay, let’s say that you go through these steps and decide that Higher Education just isn’t for you.  There is not problem with this!  I love this field and am dedicated to it, but that doesn’t mean that everyone has to be.  It’s okay if you have other goals – just remember that a graduate assistantship (like the one I had at Radford) may provide you a really inexpensive means of achieving those goals.  Even if you aren’t “in it for life,” it is still worth using your experience as an RA to help advance your education.

Suggested Resources

Summer Internships

Many universities offer summer RA positions for high school student camps or college prep.  This is a wonderful way to explore the field a little and make some additional money over the summer!  Most large universities offer positions like this.

Some examples of programs to look for include:

  1. Governor’s School
  2. Upward Bound
  3. Boy’s and Girls State of America

A really great resource for summer internships is ACUHO-I.  You can learn more about their internship programs by clicking here.  I also recommend speaking with your supervisor.  Professionals are often on listservs that send out information about summer internships for RAs all of the time.  If you inform your supervisor that you are interested in them, he/she can easily forward the announcements to you.

Placement Exchange Programs

Many Placement Exchanges take place during the Spring and are open for those looking for either summer placement or graduate-level positions.  If you are looking for a little summer adventure or are very open to going anywhere for graduate school, I highly recommend looking into one of these programs.

  1. Oshkosh Placement Exchange (OPE)
  2. Southern Placement Exchange (SPE)
  3. New England Student Affairs Placement Conference (NESAPC)
  4. Western New York Placement Exchange (WNYPE)
  5. The Placement Exchange – The Placement Exchange does not usually highlight and hire for graduate-level positions.  This is really good if you are not planning to do your graduate work yet and want to go straight into the workforce for a while.

Student Affairs Graduate Programs

It would be impossible for me to list all of the Higher Education graduate programs in the nation, but I do want to highlight a few of the ones I hear professionals mention most.  I recommend that you research these schools in depth and talk to some of the professionals on your campus.  Who knows, maybe someone you talk to everyday has a connection at the school you are considering!

  1. NC State
  2. University of Connecticut
  3. Virginia Tech
  4. Duke University
  5. Florida State University
  6. Miami University of Ohio
  7. University of Georgia

Closing Thoughts

Have you considered a job in Higher Education?  What are your personal thoughts on this career choice?

If you have already decided that this is the field for you, please share any suggestions you have for making this decision.  What resources have been helpful to you?

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