Campus Activities by Accident or Design?

This was originally written on Feb. 28, 2010, just two years after I had started my role as Director of Campus Programming & Leadership (now Student Involvement) at Southern New Hampshire University. There was finally a moment amidst all of the newness to reflect upon what I had learned. Now, nearly five years later and in a new role related to student engagement, I find myself taking my own advice. 

Some people believe in luck. Some believe everything happens for a reason and that there are no accidents in life. Others believe that opportunities come only through preparation, logic, reason and a five-year plan.

On April 13, 2008, I became a campus activities director. Never in my life had I imagined doing this as a career. Truth be told, I am no tourist to the field of campus activities – I was a past president of a programming board and held a graduate assistant position managing the campus pub and Student Government Association. At the time, I joked with my bosses that one day I would become the director, but I never actually believed that it would be a career path for me. I was a business major through and through, and had always dreamed of becoming a psychologist, a small business owner and even outdoor experiential learning facilitator. How could you make a career out of campus activities anyway!?

So what do you do when you enter the field of student affairs without a background in student development theory or higher education? You dive right in. Now in my second full year, I still feel like an accidental tourist at times, but I punch that feeling away every day as I fight to learn more about the many dimensions of this wonderful field.

Though I didn’t come into student affairs through the traditional educational channels, I find it very interesting to connect the dots from my background in the following positions and experiences:

  • Day camp counselor
  • Business management major
  • Ropes course facilitator
  • Sales & marketing professional
  • Public affairs intern
  • Small business entrepreneur
  • Web design freelancer
  • Young professional organization programmer

Okay, so life experience counts for a lot! If you’ve ever felt like a bit of an outsider, check in with yourself to see how your past has prepared you for the important work in student affairs.

As I reflect on the journey thus far, there are a few things I would tell that 2008 fresh-faced director who began her first day on the job with a major spring concert:

Realize that you won’t have all of the answers. Perhaps patience is the key. Don’t react – research. To believe in the answer you are giving, you must first understand the history and reasons behind it.

Take the time to read the old office files. There are brilliant people who came before you, which means that they have probably paved the way for most policies and documents that exist.

Don’t spend time creating everything from scratch. Spend your first six months reading the paper and electronic files. Even if you don’t know how you might use it now, you’ll draw from that knowledge later down the road.

Attend conferences and read trade publications. You’ll often cringe with the frequency at which The Chronicle arrives. Add to that the AFA, NACA, Campus Activities Magazine and numerous other publications and you’ll wonder how reading all of these can possibly be a priority when there are so many other things to do and learn. Bring it home, to the airport and to conferences. While you are connecting with colleagues and attending educational sessions, you’ll find ways to reference that content in conversation, making it that much more relevant.

Ask why. You are walking into years of tradition. Be gentle, but ask why things are done the way they are. Be ready to offer suggestions for improvement and be prepared to roll up your sleeves.

Make a bunch of little mistakes (and maybe even some big ones). Not necessarily on purpose, but know it is okay when mistakes happen. It’s the best way to learn where you stand on an issue.

Give yourself credit. You know more than you think.

Balance. It’s tempting to work overtime because there is so much to learn. You’ll spend a lot of time adding to other people’s buckets, so it’s important to find ways to fill your own bucket, too.

While I do feel extremely lucky to have this position, I also know that preparation met me halfway. Different paths do indeed converge in the same field!

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