(Apologies in advance for the length of this post and for "preaching to the choir" J.)
For the last two and half years, I've served as the director for Penn State's office of Student Affairs Research and Assessment. On May 1st, I'll be starting a new adventure as a Senior Planning and Research Associate in Penn State's Office of Planning and Institutional Assessment. I am really looking forward to the chance to work in this office and to collaborate with old friends, but the change has also led me to reflect on what I have learned in Student Affairs.
I am not a natural "student affairs" type. As an undergraduate student I lived in a residence hall for only a few months, was never active in student organizations, and just generally didn't get involved in university-sponsored events outside of my academic major. As a student and researcher of higher education, I learned to value student affairs based on the research findings I studied that extolled the influence of cocurricular experiences (thanks Bob R. and Pat T.!) and on my interactions with friends and colleagues with student affairs backgrounds (thanks Jen D-G. and Emily J.!). But until I worked in Student Affairs and saw how hard its practitioners work, how closely they interact with students (many of whom will never have an extended conversation with a faculty member), how much they care, how much of themselves they give to their jobs, and how much students get out of the work that they do, I just didn't get it.
Student Affairs practitioners work to develop attitudes and skills that are important in developing the "whole student", but that doesn't mean that these are simply add-ons to the main academic goals of the university. In what discipline or what office are skills like leadership, teamwork, and ethical decision making not important? What workplace wants to hire a person with unhealthy habits that lead to excessive sick days and low energy? In what community are people who live sustainable lifestyles or become involved in community government and organizations not valued? Student affairs programs and staff are not just there to provide something productive for students to turn their energy towards between classes on the weekends - they are a key part of the learning experience in American higher education. Students may not know what "student affairs" is exactly, but if you ask a college graduate about the people that had the greatest influence on their educational experience, chances are a student affairs practitioner's name will come up.
Over the last couple of weeks, I've had the pleasure of watching the capstone presentations of graduating students in Penn State's College Student Affairs (CSA) program. What an amazing group of graduates! The CSA program is designed to bridge theory and practice and it requires/forces students to constantly reflect on their learning and their experiences to make the connections. Watching them inspired me and it reminded me how important and meaningful it can be to give one's self time to reflect. I hope that I will take that lesson with me to my new job and that I won't forget it again when things get busy in the future. Even though I will always be more at home on the analytical side, I feel very lucky to have had the opportunity to engage so closely with student affairs practitioners and to have had the chance to observe first-hand how important they are in the academic enterprise.