The Secret World of Student Affairs
Coming into post-secondary work as a medical professional, it took me awhile to figure out that there was such a thing as a Student Affairs professional, and a bit longer to identify as one. I already had a fully formed professional identity that was inculcated and reinforced by eight years of school and training, and six years of practice (although it was an identity I would gladly shrug off, given the baggage that people put onto the title of “doctor”).
Despite working among Student Affairs professionals for several years, my first inkling there was a Secret World of Student Affairs was at a retreat with Ryerson’s Provost, recently brand new to the job. (Even though I sat with the Provost during lunch, I had no idea what a Provost was—senior administration were just people who came in as patients to the Medical Centre.) I sat through a day and a half of discussion about visions, education, students, and student services. I was reaching into the recesses of my medical training for something that I could relate and contribute to the discussion, when I uttered the magic words “student development”. After that, my colleagues swarmed me, gave me knowing looks, and welcomed me into the fold. All the while I was left wondering—what just happened?
So I spent the next few years watching my colleagues, asking myself questions. What are Student Affairs professionals? What did they do? How were they different? How do you become a Student Affairs professional? Questions, I realized later, that are asked by many, if not everyone, in Student Affairs. (Over the years, I watched these very same questions be asked by the CACUSS Board and its divisions, at CACUSS conference sessions, interview panels, staff meetings, and socials.)
I learned that you can get a degree (or two) to become a Student Affairs professional. (You can identify those with degrees by their references to “Chickering”). Some are “born” into it as student leaders, especially those coming from residence. Others, like me, are naturalized as adults, with other professions and professional identities in health, education, IT, etc.
Part of the confusion about what makes a Student Affairs professional comes from the question of what they do. Unlike other professions, which are described by what they do—teach, manage, counsel, practice law or medicine; design or build cars, buildings, computers—Student Affairs professionals are defined by the people they work with, and not by what they do. They work with a subset of people—students—and do many things which are grounded in different practices, expertise, and theories. They may run a residence, oversee a mentorship or peer program, provide counselling, teach learning skills, develop career skills, or practice medicine.
Since Student Affairs professionals cannot be defined by what they do, they define themselves by their values and skills. Lots and lots of discussions of values and skills—whole student, autonomy, diversity, social justice, assessment, theory, lifelong learning, competencies, etc. So it seems that being a Student Affairs professional is less about what you do, and more about why you do.
And all of this is centred on students. There is something captivating about working with students; to see their energy and potential, to be part of their journey and growth, and to make a difference with someone. It is no wonder that “student development” was the magic phrase that unlocked the door into the Secret World of Student Affairs for me, where I have found a second home.