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.

 

The Truth About the First Year as a New Professional

This time last year, I was at the height of job searching. I was focused on finishing my degree and getting a job, confident that I would then be headed for smooth sailing. The problem with my intense focus on the job/degree goal is that I didn’t understand that challenges that would await me on the other side. I would say that my first year has been pretty good so far, but there is no denying that it’s been a major shift in my life. Here are some things that I’ve learned so far in my transition/quarter-life crisis.

  1. There are some things that you just don’t know until you know. Hindsight is 20/20, so to speak. You could ask a thousand questions during the job interview process, but there are a lot of things that you will never realize are important until you’re in the thick of it. It’s really tough to understand how you feel about something until you’ve experienced it. The nature of a job on paper and in words is quite different from the day to day experience. Because of this, having an open and positive attitude is an absolute must. “Open and positive”, by the way, does not mean, “just accept everything without question”.
  2. You might really miss being a student. That’s right. I said it. Not being a student has made me truly understand how awesome being a student was. I’m not sure if this is because of the constant sense of purpose and motivation that I derived from working toward my degree, the environment of inquiry and dialogue that I was part of, the sense of connection I felt to my institution because I was enrolled there, or just knowing where the heck buildings on campus were. All of the above. I know for sure that I miss it.
  3. Building a social network is a lot easier when you’re in school.  You thought making friends in college was tough? Being a grown up is a lot tougher. In graduate school, I spent so much of my time with my peers. We had classes together, ate meals together in the dining hall, worked on projects together in the library  or at each others’ homes, we were in a student organization together, etc. There was forced social interaction all the time. Turns out, this is helpful for actually getting to know people and spending time with them voluntarily. Don’t get me wrong; I get along well with many of my colleagues now and consider them friends. But living without that circle of friends that I was used to is one of the biggest differences. When your life doesn’t force you to spend time with others, you spend a heck of a lot more time alone. You need to make more of an effort to get to know people and build a network of friends.
  4. Life is hardly ever what you expected it to be like. This lesson is partly a result of my professional transition, but mostly a result of my personal experiences and my growing understanding of this journey I’m on at this particular time in my life. Most of the time, our expectations of the future turn out to be pretty inaccurate. The real question is whether or not we can free ourselves from those previous definitions and embrace the possibilities that await us every day. When I was younger, I can assure you that I did not think that as I near 25, I would be living in an apartment on a college campus, single, and with no path in the near future to getting married or having children. In many ways, that was how I contemplated my successful adult life for a long time. Although I have been shifting away from the “house/husband/children before 30” preoccupation for a while now, I’m still getting the hang of how I define my non-career related success in my adult life.

What important lessons have others learned from transitioning into their first professional position?

Week 1: “Please be my friend”

After arriving on campus a week ago, I finally started to meet other new HDs on Wednesday. Thank goodness, because I was getting to the point where I really couldn’t occupy myself any longer without a TV or being able to unpack my stuff. I was getting a little bit starved for human interaction (to the point where I described myself as “feeling like Rapunzel” in an email about carpooling to my fellow new HDs).

Alas, we all finally convened on Wednesday night for a BBQ. At which point I now had to make friends for the first time in 6 years. Now, I did have to make friends last summer at my internship, but they lived with me and we did everything together, so it was pretty easy. Not so, this time.  Since my #1 friend-making strategy is food, I brought a very yummy salad with strawberries, blue cheese, walnuts, and homemade blueberry balsamic vinaigrette (pictured to the right). For any colleagues reading, yes, I will continue to cook for you in exchange for friendship. At that point, my crazy fears about whether people would be friendly, if I would have things to do, etc, started to dissipate.

That’s right. I’m a “Proffessional”.

The next night several of us went for a delightful trip to the UConn Dairy Bar and got what is probably now my favorite ice cream (Toasted Almond Amaretto), though I neglected to take a picture of it. And the next day was the real deal: Job Day #1.

We went through lots of HR stuff, which was rather informative, though I still have to fill out benefits paperwork. We had a delicious lunch from Sara’s Pockets, a local restaurant, I got my HuskyOne ID (which is great except that they misspelled “Professional” and I don’t have access to anything yet), and I got into my office (which I decorated this weekend and you can see lovely pictures of below).

The best part of Day 1, however, is that 5 of us decided, on our first day of work in Connecticut ever, that we would head down to a NASPA CT Social in Hartford after work. Things were going just great, we got to Hartford, we found the restaurant, we realized we didn’t have to pay for parking, and then we went inside. Noticing a large group of people at the bar, we thought “This must be it”. After standing verrrrry awkwardly for 15 minutes, contemplating why these people did not have a sign or name tags and were not being very student-affairsy (ie. noticing that we had come to their social), one of my co-workers took the plunge and asked a group if they were there for the NASPA Social. SHUT DOWN. After panicking for another moment, we finally turned around and saw the other bar, which had signs noting “NASPA CT SOCIAL THIS WAY”. Whew.

When we actually got to the right place, we were relieved and warmly welcomed. There were a few people we knew, we got to meet colleagues from UConn, there was free food, and we had a generally great time. We went from being ready to give up to having an awesome time and meeting new people. The solution just happened to be right around the corner, and we definitely bonded over how horribly awkward, stupid, and embarrassed we all felt!

I’ve kept busy all weekend with an Olympic opening ceremony viewing party on Friday night, Thai dinner & a movie last night, and putting my office in order so I’m ready to hit the ground running. I’m very grateful so far for the hospitality extended by the returning HDs and for the openness and friendliness of my HD cohort!

Earlier in the week, one of the Assistant Directors asked me if I was ready for Friday, and I replied that “I’ve been ready for Friday since April”. Now with Day 1 under my belt and lots of great interactions with my coworkers, I feel ready to tackle the rest of the days this year as well.

Although I still can’t move into my apartment until there is furniture in it, at least I can decorate my office to be calm & inviting.

Book Review: Not Quite Adults

I’m 23 (going on 24), which means that Not Quite Adults: Why 20-Somethings Are Choosing a Slower Path to Adulthood, and Why It’s Good for Everyone (Settersten and Ray, 2010), is not just a little pro-devo for someone who works with an 18-24 population. This book pretty much describes my life. 

As I write this, I’m sitting in my childhood bedroom at my parents’ house. My relying on my parents to help cover the gap between my two jobs is pretty emblematic of the new transition to adulthood described in Settersten and Ray’s book, which is based on eight years of research by the MacArthur Research Network on Transitions to Adulthood, a research network that includes twelve researchers in the fields of psychology, neuroscience, economics, sociology, criminology, and public policy. Because of the relevance to both my personal and professional lives, I thought that this book was an excellent choice to provide perspective and provoke thought about the experience of “growing up”. I would certainly recommend this (especially to other young professionals like myself!)

It’s Pretty Legit

The research cited in the book covers a variety of quantitative and qualitative studies conducted across the U.S. and takes an interdisciplinary approach to painting a picture of the experiences of the current 20-something crowd as they come of age in a drastically changed society. The book uses excerpts from interviews throughout, weaving the stories of young people into statistics and observations. As a result, the book is an interesting read that is completely salient to those working in higher education, to students themselves, for parents, and for recent graduates. Although one must keep in mind significant current events that have occurred since the book’s print date of 2010 (especially Occupy Wall Street), this manageable read offers excellent insights into understanding the path that young people in the U.S. are taking to reach adulthood today.

Sink or Swim

One of the central themes in the book is the idea of “swimmers and treaders”, working off of the “sink or swim” metaphor. Clear in the designation between young people who are swimmers (mostly those who successfully attain higher education and who have strong family support) and treaders (those who may lack the credentials and support necessary for long-term economic and personal success) is that the socio-economic and racial divide in this country is alive and well in determining the opportunities of young people. Also clear in exploring this theme is that the “American Dream” in the way it was interpreted by older generations is long gone. In addition to emphasizing education, the authors strongly examine the important role that family and parental support plays in the potential success of young people. It’s not about hard work; it’s about social capital, privilege, and having the ability to take advantage of social, economic, and educational opportunities to leverage success (not quite the American Dream, right?)

Speaking of the American Dream…

If it wasn’t obvious already, the old adage of success through hard work is not really flying anymore these days. Call me a cynic, if you will, but this isn’t your mama’s America anymore. Literally, it’s not. This is one of the points that Not Quite Adults drives home strong and clear: this country has changed. The rules are totally different than they were a couple of generations ago, and as a result, parents may encourage their children to follow the same path they did, with completely different outcomes. Financial success and security is almost inextricably tied to higher education, and the path to higher education includes debt. The authors make a great argument for taking on smart debt (like investing in an education that you can afford long-term, buying a house, etc). Perhaps most important to this book (and to the new experience of young people), is that the path to adulthood has become elongated, and that where families and society can support young people (by letting us live at home, for example) to help us get on our feet, it benefits society at large.

Higher Ed Relevance

I felt that this book fit seamlessly into my inquiry about the experiences and development of college students, especially considering the broad viewpoint that it provides on the benefits of education, the role of higher education in society, and practical, real topics like taking on student debt, moving back in with your parents, and negotiating romantic relationships and marriage. This is a book that has helped me to gain increased perspective on the world around me and society’s attitudes toward my generation and has provided me with worthwhile insights to apply to my work with students.