Belonging.

Nancy Schlossberg’s theory of Mattering and Marginality has always been one of my favorite student development theories.  This is partially due to the simplicity of it and partially because it (and her transition theory) are ones that I so easily and consistently apply to my own life.

Schlossberg’s theory outlines five aspects of mattering:

  • attention; the feeling that one is noticed
  • importance; a belief that one is cared about
  • ego-extension; the feeling someone else will be proud of what one does or will sympathize with failures
  • dependence; a feeling of being needed
  • appreciation; the feeling that one’s efforts are appreciated by others (Evans et al, 2010).

It’s really a theory of feeling like you belong, like you have friends, you are important, and simply, that you matter. It should be no surprise that these can be hard to come by for many college students and for anyone that is taking on a new endeavor in life, especially for us new professionals. If you don’t get those five aspects, you can feel marginalized, depressed, and likely to give up on your environment.

Being a new professional in student affairs is, for many reasons, unlike working in any other field. Many new professionals are young, single, fresh out of grad school, and picking up everything, moving to a new city or town, a completely new campus, a new culture, new everything. We go where there are colleges and universities (which is frankly, often the middle of nowhere) and for those of us in housing, we live exactly where we work. It requires an intense level of engagement with the campus, which most of us in student affairs first experienced at our alma maters.

After six years at the University of Maine, it had truly become my home. I’m pretty sure that I “mattered” there more than I’ve mattered anywhere else in my lifetime (except for with my family). I was known on campus and I was an expert on UMaine. I had an outstanding network of friends, colleagues, peers, classmates, mentees, and mentors based on the shared experience of being a Black Bear. I knew how to get things done, who to talk to, and had a sense of ownership of a variety of programs, organizations, and even physical spaces on campus. I didn’t just know the history of UMaine; I was actually part of the history of UMaine.

My experience at UMaine is a perfect example of mattering, of how I went from being an out-of-state student who didn’t know a soul in the state of Maine to being so much a part of campus that my picture was in a slide show presented by the President. Which made starting completely fresh for the first time in six years completely scary.

It’s one thing to know in my mind that I’ve made a great choice in my career by coming to UConn; I knew that months ago when I accepted the position. It’s another thing to feel in my heart that I belong here; that’s a feeling that comes only with time and experiences. And those things don’t come in a job description or an offer letter, but by building relationships, getting invested, getting to know students, and putting my unique mark on my work.

Although I tentatively approached the prospect of starting over, this experience has made me value the process of becoming someone who belongs here. It has helped me to get closer to the experience that many of my students are having and reminds me of things I used to take for granted, like recognizing people on campus, learning the history and traditions of a university, and truly getting to know some awesome people.

References: Evans, N. J., Forney, D. S., Guido, F. M., Patton, L. D., & Renn, K. A. (2010). Student Development in College (2nd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Helping.

Last week was one of those weeks. You know, the kind of week when I said things like “I miss grad school, when things used to be simple and easy”. Which must mean that I was delusional, because grad school was neither simple nor easy. I returned from the beautiful lull of a three day weekend, with fresh memories of  sand, surf, seafood, and late summer sun, and BAM. Tuesday was basically a brick wall. And the rest of the week followed suit. I wound my way through a labyrinth of mental health concerns, conduct meetings, roommate conflicts, confrontation, awkwardness, and tears shed on my university-issued office couch. Even when I was just trying to do an innocent door-to-door program, I found students smoking pot.  By Friday afternoon, I was making wagers with colleagues about how long building improvement projects would take (which is obviously a form of reckless escapism).

But guess what? I DID IT. I did it. Issue after issue, and I just kept going. It was like a whack-a-mole game and I nailed every single one of those moles right on the head. I know that’s a really weird analogy. And yes, things happened that are outside of my control. Not everything ended up rainbows and unicorns last week because my job is about real stuff that happens in young people’s lives. Human emotions, impulses, conflict, identity crises, transition, transformation, and life are never going to be clean and pretty.

My job is not clean and pretty. Sometimes it seems thankless. Other people in the “outside world” ask me if I want to be doing what I’m doing, as if it’s impossible that I went to grad school with the goal of becoming a residence hall director. Yes, I went to grad school so that I could do this challenging, time-consuming job that requires I live in a residence hall at age 24.  And last week was the kind of week that makes you ask “Why exactly am I doing this, again?”. Thankfully, I have answers.

After dealing with a mental health concern, I told a colleague “I went into this field for a reason; because I want to help people.”  I said it off the cuff, as an explanation for my calm and focus under pressure, but in that moment, I realized that is my explanation. That’s my reason. When the chips are on the table, when I’m tired, when I’m going “above and beyond”, I’m not doing it because I think it’s going to advance my career, get me recognition, or even a thank you. I’m doing it because I feel an intense obligation to make other people’s lives better. I’m doing it because there are people who helped me in college, who listened to me when I was upset, who offered me opportunities and hope. I do it because I don’t want anyone to ever feel alone. I do it because I want these students to make it through college. I don’t want anyone who feels like they need help to not have help.

I’ve said many times that my philosophy in life is to ask myself at the end of each day if I’ve helped someone. And that’s it; at the end of the day, after all of the student development theories, history, law, organizational context, educational philosophy and what have you, it’s about helping people and doing the right thing.