Belonging, part 2.

20140507-230236.jpgToday, I won a really wonderful award. I was given the honor of Outstanding New Staff member for the Division of Student Affairs. I have a nice, shiny statue to place in my office, I was applauded and hugged by my wonderful colleagues and friends, and many kind words were spoken about me. Being a new staff member in student affairs sure isn’t easy, and the past couple of years have truly tested my resolve, creativity, and knowledge. So I am truly grateful to be honored with such recognition.

I am much more grateful, however, for something that is much harder to see than a statue. When I moved here nearly two years ago, I was leaving a place that I felt a deep sense of belonging. I knew in my bones that UMaine was part of me and I was part of it. Shortly after moving to Connecticut, I wrote about my transition experience:

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.

Somewhere along the way this year, among long to-do lists, longer nights, countless hours talking with students, moments of fear, laughter, and tears, in the midst of difficult conversations and inspirational breakthroughs, between hugs from students and jokes with friends, I started to feel in my heart that I belong here.

I’m so grateful to my colleagues (who have become great friends) and my students for being part of this journey. The opportunity to wake up every day and make an impact and a difference in this community is not lost on me. I am so humbled by the opportunity to be an educator and to learn from those around me. So the statue is pretty great and I’m not about to give it back, but it will never compare to the feeling of belonging.

 

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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.