On NASPA, Yik Yak, and Perhaps What Really Matters

imageI’m in the airport on my way home from the annual NASPA Conference. And I’m thinking about the great NASPA Yik Yak fiasco of 2015. If you haven’t caught up yet, there’s a lot of brouhaha about a variety of yaks that have been made by conference attendees over the past couple of days. It made it into The Chronicle, in fact. I find this whole situation to be fascinating. The presence of the offending yaks. The responses. It’s all very interesting.

Let’s start with the very beginning: the types of things people are saying on Yik Yak. There are yaks about the other SA pros that people find hot. There are yaks about getting drunk. There are yaks about being hung over. There are yaks about hooking up and getting laid. There are yaks complaining a bit about sessions or the conference in general.

It’s sort of like Yik Yak on every other day. It’s an anonymous, written manifestation of the reality of social interactions, behavior, conversations, and personal thought in the microcosm of the immediate geographic community.

Don’t get me wrong; do I think it’s the epitome of professionalism to be focusing on getting laid, getting wasted, and dropping snarky or hurtful remarks about others while at a conference? Nope. But I invite you to consider with me the ways in which some of our natural or first responses to this behavior are tinged with hypocrisy, naïveté, and some unrealistic expectations for ourselves as profession.

Response 1: Yik Yak is the enemy. How dare you use Yik Yak (thereby compromising the good fight)? Yik Yak is definitely not the enemy. Yik Yak is just a platform. It’s a forum. The real enemies are hate, misogyny, racism, homophobia, transphobia, bullying, harassment, and the inhumanity and harm that come from fear, anger, and misunderstanding. If Yik Yak is a “problem” on your campus, I promise you that the problem is not the app. The problem is the culture and our society at large. Don’t fight the symptom, fight the cause. Mocking and shaming SA Pros for being on Yik Yak is not productive. In fact, it’s sort of ageist, because younger professionals are much more likely to be using emerging social media technologies. I understand that some responses that fall under this category are attempting to call out specific types of behavior on Yik Yak, but generalizing and shaming use of the app overall is not helpful.

Response 2: Shame on you. You should know better. Implicit in the act of shaming someone for behavior that is regarded as unprofessional, unethical, or otherwise inappropriate is an unwillingness to understand, engage with, and call in our colleagues. When our students act in a way that we find unacceptable, we have educational and meaningful conversations with them to discuss the impact of their behavior, understand where they are coming from, and make plans to help them act in ways that are more appropriate in the future. But when our colleagues foul up? So much for compassion. The student affairs sword of judgment is swift and sharp. We need to be willing to challenge and support each other. Development does not end after graduation. Making mistakes does not end after graduation. Young professionals are still developing and learning ways of being in the world and acting professionally. If you bear witness to a colleague behaving in a way that is detrimental to their career, to our profession, or to the well-being of students, please summon the courage to hold that person accountable in a caring and compassionate way. Maybe they don’t really know better. Be a role model. Let them know (but try to do it without condescension).

Response 3: Student Affairs is better than this. I really don’t even know where to begin with this one. This response feels most defensive and most likely to be hypocritical. Last time I checked, Student Affairs professionals are humans. Humans who get drunk and get it on. I’ve only been in the profession for a handful of years, but I’ve always found it to be an incredibly…progressive…space. A space in which people regularly get very drunk at conferences. A space in which professionals are definitely sexually and romantically involved with each other. I’ve been watching professionals get drunk at conferences since I was an undergrad. These things are not secrets! Also not a secret is the fact that individuals and the field are still on a path to more socially just practice, and that not everyone is “there” (wherever exactly “there” is) yet. So yeah, people are going to make comments that are not cool, that are micro aggressions, and that are harmful, and we need to call them in and invite dialogue to move everyone forward.

We absolutely cannot act like our whole field is constantly attaining some level of ethical and professional perfection. We are educators, not saints. The reason that we have standards and competencies is because we need to work to meet them, not because becoming a student affairs professional comes with automatic immunity from making mistakes or acting human. It’s unfair and unreasonable to set up shaming systems that promote double standards of behavior. We talk constantly about living authentically. Authentic living includes mistakes. It also includes examining where judgmental reactions come from. Are we afraid that if people get turnt at conferences, we won’t be taken seriously as a field? Are we worried that such baseness will mar our prestige? Are we worried that this is making us look bad with our academic colleagues who are reading about us in The Chronicle? Because I promise you, they are turning up, too.

Of course, we need to promote and foster boundaries regarding ethical and professional behavior in all aspects of our supervision, mentoring, and role modeling. The behavior of student affairs professionals at conferences and in Yik Yak and other forums indicates something about the culture of our field, of our institutions, and of our association.

I’m willing to bet that the sources of these offending yaks were new professionals. And I feel fairly confident in saying that this is a symptom indicating that there are gaps that exist in either how we are socializing new professionals into the field or in how we enact vs. espouse our values. I think that it’s a little bit of both, to be honest. Responses to issues like this go beyond public shaming. Certainly, given the anonymity involved here, it is impossible to target specific individuals with caring and compassionate professional interventions. But perhaps that is for the best, because that challenges us to consider the way we hold ourselves at all times, with all colleagues, around social expectations, role modeling, and fostering reasonable and authentic standards of ethical behavior.


My Existential Crisis of “Home”: Where am I from?

“Where are you from?”

This is a seemingly simple question to which I routinely respond with complicated answers. Most inquirers are just being polite or trying to ascertain some small amount of information about where I live. However, they usually end up with significantly greater detail than expected.

My answer  and corresponding internal dialogue usually goes something like this:

“Well, I guess I’m from Connecticut now” (that response inspires confidence; I guess? My driver’s license and the plates on my car sure seem to think I’m from Connecticut)

“I live there. In Storrs. Actually… at UConn.” (I don’t want this person to think that I just moved out to rural Eastern Connecticut in my mid-twenties to live a quiet country life or something)

I live at UConn, but I’m not a student. I’m a residence hall director. So I live on campus, but it’s not like, a dorm room. It’s a real apartment…in a residence hall.” (They need to know that I’m a real live grown-up. Maybe I should mention again that I’m not a student. I have a kitchen!)

“But I’m originally from Rhode Island! From outside of Providence.” (Now they know who I really am!)

“And I lived in Maine for six years while I was in school.” (Haha! Wildcard! Betcha didn’t see that coming.)

My long-winded explanations, of course, stem from my own confusion about “home” and where I am rooted at this juncture in my life. Numerous factors contribute, not the least of which is my somewhat unique position of living on a college campus because of my job. After two years in Connecticut, I feel that I owe my experience as a resident there some level of recognition, but that recognition is almost always qualified by explanations.

For me, “where are you from?” is a question that has very little to do with geography. It has to do with values, context, and history. The name or location of a place tells a story (accurate or otherwise) about the person who lives there. It would seem that I find my story complicated enough that it cannot be condensed into one single locale. It would also seem that I see my current, employment-related residence as not quite worthy of full “home” status.

I enjoy my job and where I currently live, and I’ve put in a lot of effort over the past two years to build a sense of connection and belonging there, but I think that I will always have some dissonance in explaining where I am from as long as I live on campus. As long as I live on campus, my home is defined by my job, and I am unwilling to reduce my definition as a person to my job. So for now, I’ll continue to confuse new acquaintances at social gatherings by embracing my multifaceted, trans-state definition of “home.” I don’t exist in just one place and neither does my story.

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.


A Year of Change

The first blog post I wrote on this website almost a year ago was about the “One Word” that I was choosing to live by in 2012. With what I now recognize as an impressive amount of foresight, humility, and a good dose of crippling fear, I chose “change”. Even now, it feels empowering to say that I chose change, instead of feeling like change was always choosing me. I knew then that change would define this year, and I’m grateful that I embraced it.

Without question, this has been one of the most change-filled years of my life. When I look back to last December, I’m looking into a totally different life. I was on the brink of transition, ready to find the next phase of my life. I was preparing to leave behind a place that had defined me for years (and which will always hold a big piece of my heart). I was unknowingly about to experience months of heartbreak, soul-searching, doubt, questioning, and ultimately, self discovery and renewed confidence. There were many times in the months that followed that I sat on the floor and sobbed, whether out of confusion and frustration at a relationship that was rapidly falling apart, fear and sadness for leaving the place I loved, exhaustion from tirelessly working to finish my degree, or the mixture of apprehension, anxiety, and abandon that I fondly refer to as “quarter-life crisising”.

In those and numerous other challenging moments, “change” became my mantra. I have reminded myself quite frequently over the past 12 months that I am choosing change. I want change; I love change. It hurts like hell sometimes. But when I commit myself to something, you had better believe I’m going to follow through. Had I not gifted this magical word to myself at the beginning of the year, would I still have gotten through all of the transitions in my life? Most likely. However, I really believe that I met these challenges with greater conviction, grace, and faith than I would have otherwise. I defined myself as a lover of change; I chose my attitude in anticipation of what I thought was coming for me. In many ways, I got more than I anticipated; but I was ready.

Today I feel that I’m better off than I was a year ago. Yes, I have a degree and a full-time job now (whew), but it is more than that. I have a better sense of who I am and what matters to me. I have, in many ways, reclaimed permission to fully be who I want to be. I realize that my life will always hold changes. Likely, there will be other years similar to this one, during which I will turn to my good old friend Change and ask her to hold my hand along my journey. After all, Change and I are well-acquainted now.

“Actually, I’m a professional staff member…”

Oh, the plight of a new professional in ResLife: everyone thinks I’m an undergrad. And by everyone, I mean mostly the students and parents who arrived this weekend. My staff gets it for obvious reasons. Really, though, it’s tough to be 24, live on a college campus (in a residence hall), and not be mistaken for an undergrad.

Several well-meaning parents asked me this weekend “So what year are you?”, at which point I explained to them that I am actually a professional staff member with a master’s degree and I oversee all of the student staff, programming, student conduct, etc in these buildings. One mother told me “Oh, well that’s a cool job; you’re a full time staff member and everything?”

Ugh. Yes. And everything. I get paid, even. I have benefits. I have an advanced degree! I know what I’m doing! It’s really tough not to be frustrated with these kinds of questions. Students are equally confused when I shake their hand and say “Hi, I’m Ashley, I’m your Hall Director”. One senior even said “Wait, really? How old are you?” ( I think lots of students have a crazy moment when they shift from the assumption that I was a peer to the knowledge that I am a professional. They realize that they can’t be friends with me/hit on me/go out to a bar with me, etc. It really throws them for a loop).

Students were particularly surprised when I was playing volleyball with several RAs and residents tonight (I was wearing gym clothes and none of the typical “HD” markers like a polo or nametag). I almost felt guilty, like I was going incognito by wearing gym shorts and then introducing myself later. I felt weird about acting my age, and nearly didn’t tell the student who asked me how old I was. But I did tell him that I’m 24. Because I am.

I’m 24; I have a master’s degree, and I’m their Hall Director. I decided what I wanted to do with my life when I was their age and I’m thrilled every day about the job I have now. I’m qualified for my position and that doesn’t mean that I’m always going to be sitting in my office wearing dress clothes. I’m going to be part of the community that I oversee, as a role model for good behavior, integrity, and experience in the college environment.

So yeah, I look a lot like my students. And parents, you look a lot like my parents. But really, I know what I’m doing here. This is my real job. Trust me; I’m a professional.

How have you dealt with difficulties in perception of age and experience as a new professional?

About Me

I am a graduate student Higher Education and Assistant Community Coordinator for Residence Life at the University of Maine. I am interested in orientation and new student programs, residential education, first year student development, and diversity and social justice on college campuses, specifically related to social justice ally development, access to higher education, and transition and retention of traditionally underrepresented students.

I am also an active member of the National Association for Student Personnel Administrators (NASPA), as a Graduate Associate, Region I Conference intern, and member of the Maine Association for Student Affairs Professionals.  I enjoy sharing my love of the profession with aspiring undergraduates, increasing awareness of professional opportunities, and sharing knowledge with my peers.

I am a native Rhode Islander and adopted Mainer with a love for cooking, college hockey, and the outdoors. I am a proud Gamma Sigma Sigma alumna and a Black Bear at heart. My philosophy in life is to ask myself every day if I have helped someone.

This blog is the next step in my goal to use the online world to the best of my abilities in my work. I have gained incredibly from the online Student Affairs Communities on Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr, and I am excited to take the next step with an official website of my own.

So, should you choose to follow my adventures here, what will you find? I can promise lots of insights about change and transition, loosely detailed chronicles of my job searching, musings on social justice, privilege, and oppression, the trials and tribulations of residence life and working with first year students, and anything else higher ed that crosses my path. A bit of a grab bag, isn’t it? You can’t blame me, though, because I’m the new kid. I’m still figuring this all out!