Two years ago, I started the Masters of College Counseling and Student Development with a strong sense I was meant to be in the program. I knew that my personal calling was to work with college students and support their growth and development during some of the most influential and meaningful years. Yet in a span of two years, I have a greater understanding and stronger sense of myself as an educator. A significant amount of skill and knowledge are required to make the college years a positive and meaningful experience. I am leaving with an understanding that the work I do contributes to the personal and professional development of all students. As a student affairs professional I create environments with clear learning outcomes that contribute to the spiritual, moral and identity development of students (Chickering & Reisser, 1993; Keeling, 2006). In addition I have a framework in which to engage students in a better understanding of self, spirituality, and experiences (Baxter Magolda, 1999; Parks, 2000).
I have seen significant growth in my approach to working with students. Before entering this program, my involvement with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship gave me experience in mentoring and one on one interaction with students. I remember significant conversations with students about their future plans, their majors, calling and vocation. I cared about their spiritual development and helping them discover their purpose and identity in the world. Unfortunately, I failed to realize how the process of student development influences interactions with peers, staff, and their environment. I have learned that the college experience is much more complex for students. Though it includes personal interactions with peers, faculty and staff and opportunities for mentorship, a majority of their college career is shaped by their interactions with campus culture and organizational leadership. As a result, I can shape my interactions with students based on knowledge of a campus climate, their developmental needs, and educational purposes of an institution.
In the first quarter of the program, as I was introduced to theories about student development and literature grounded in higher education and student affairs research, I saw my practice as a graduate assistant in the Women’s Resource Center change. When I first started the assistantship in the Women’s Resource Center, a significant reason behind the decision was supporting the leadership development of women. I desired to give female students an opportunity to step into roles where they were valued and had a voice. Yet as I took on the responsibility of coordinating and visioning for the office, I realized the work needed to be grounded in sound application of research and theory. In order to demonstrate best practice in the field and create lasting programs and events for the center, I saw the importance of incorporating student development theories into the assistantship. I extended my purpose and vision in the center and engaged my own professional development. Theory and research began to inform my practice. “Student affairs practice without a theoretical base is not effective or efficient. A ‘fly by the seat of your pants’ approach may sometimes result in beneficial outcomes, but it is just as likely to result in disaster” (Evans, Forney & Guido-Dibrito, 1998).
One of the first areas of research that I began to value in the field of student affairs was assessment. In order to truly understand the work I was entrusted with, I needed to assess student experience and campus climate (Schuh & Upcraft, 1998). What programs and events are shaping the relationships students have with peers? What influences students’ sense of belonging? How is the overall campus culture and environment contributing to their development? Moreover assessment is directly linked with learning outcomes (Keeling, 2006). I began to see my role as an educator, creating learning environments that include learning outcomes and goals. My work with students has a purpose and is intentional. If I truly care about their personal development, then I care about the system and environment they are a part of. My work in the Women’s Resource Center reflects this idea. With the help of my staff, we created a mission that seeks to celebrate, educate and empower women through various programs and events. The mission statement and programs were developed with a clear understanding and assessment of student need and development.
Moreover, as I created these learning experiences for students, I observed overall student involvement with the Women’s Resource Center based on development and maturity. The programs focusing on educational issues such as domestic violence, sexual assault and eating disorders attracted students who were further along in their various identities. As Chickering (1993) would suggest these students in the sixth vector, were engaging in programs with developed purpose and a strong commitment to interests and activities that were meaningful to them. As a professional I felt the challenge to foster an inclusive and welcoming environment for all students, encourage participation for these educational programs and support students in their learning and development.
Research has shown that, safe and inclusive environments encourage students to engage with the process of identity development (Astin, 1984; Chickering & Reisser, 1993;Keeling, 2006) . Parks (2000) in Big Questions Worthy Dreams offers insight into creating environments that encourage growth and development. She uses the symbolism of hearth, table and commons to demonstrate a place that is safe, supports and challenges you, provides nourishment and exposes you to different groups. I have come to value this idea in my own work. I desire to support students in their development in safe and inclusive environments as well as become an approachable leader and mentor. I know my work as an educator includes informal teaching moments and frameworks to navigate struggles of identity.
In “Constructing Adult Identities”, Baxter Magolda (1999) discusses the process by which young adults develop and solidify their identity. The article examines the difficulties young adults have in breaking away from family tradition, finding a career that aligns with personal values, and working through prescribed roles as a father or mother. As Baxter Magolda posits there are general and accepted patters that students and young adults feel pressure to follow, demonstrating a lack of internal voice and identity. Unfortunately this is detrimental to their own process of development as adults. I identified with the idea of self-authorship and finding an identity among external influences. I resonated with helping students discover self, supporting them as they sit in the tension of knowledge and authority and ultimately claiming values and principles of their own. Baxter Magolda’s theory of self-authorship continues to frame my experience and interactions with students. I hope to provide students with a skill set to navigate the external forces and find an internal voice.
When I think back to the beginning of the program, I know this experience was successful because I had such a strong sense of my identity. The lessons learned in the College Counseling and Student Development program are beyond this paper and are truly reflected in my admiration for the theory and research developed that directly impact my work and set a standard for best practice. My own process of learning in the classroom through research and theory, combined with my experience in practice, has contributed to a positive growth in my professional and personal life. I have a greater understanding of how to create learning environments that will ultimately contribute to the education of the whole person. I am so grateful for the opportunity to work in the Women’s Resource Center where I was able to experience the relationship between theory and practice.
My goal as a professional is to always place myself in learning environments. These future goals include teaching in a classroom, hiring a staff of students unlike me in some way or another, sitting on a committee in a different student life department than my own, and audit an academic course. With these above goals, comes a commitment to differences and to environments where diverse perspectives, ideas and thoughts are present. It is here where I learn and grow the most. Not only do I learn to express my own values, beliefs and perspectives but also I change how I think and what I do.
Lastly, my goal is to always put my personal life first and to prioritize accordingly. As a woman in this field, the word balance is not cliché nor is the word sacrifice. I am not naïve to the idea of women and men in this field sacrificing promotions to be a director or dean in order to focus on family. I am also not naïve to the idea of burn out in the profession. As a result, I am committed to personal goals of writing in journals, developing a workout routine, hosting friends with dinner and wine, becoming addicted to a television program just because it’s a good escape from reality and lastly falling in love with a new book (which we all know, love is hard to find! Twilight series here I come!)
At the beginning of the program, little did I know how much this profession would resonate with my own values and calling (Palmer, 2000). Never have I felt more at home with my own skills, strengths and voice than within student affairs; I was blessed with the journey that brought me here and I am just as blessed to continue in this career.