Finding My Voice in the Student Affairs Community
Years ago, I sat in on a workshop for college women leaders run by a group called The Op Ed Project that focused on encouraging more diverse voices in newspaper opinion pages. I was struck that when asked on what topic these students were experts, most of them could not name a single topic. The workshop facilitator then spent time encouraging each person in the workshop to think more deeply about class projects, undergraduate theses, leadership efforts. At the end of the workshop, each student could name at least one topic where they knew more than 95 percent of the rest of the world.
I remember that workshop because it is exactly how I felt putting together my own Student Affairs Speaks at the NASPA Annual Conference in 2016. I struggled to think of ideas that would further the future of our profession.
My journey with SA Speaks started way back in 2013. It was a complete honor to shepherd the very first NASPA SA Speaks session as a Conference Committee member at the Annual Conference in Baltimore that year with my colleague Dr. Tonantzin Oseguera. I witnessed some student affairs celebrities share their values, their passions, and connect both to our work as educators. It gave me the spark to want to do the same.
Year after year, conference after conference, I looked longingly at the call for programs and wanted to add my voice to those who were shaping the future of our profession. One question remained potent in my mind, “But, what could I say?”
In the summer of 2016, I had just finished a dissertation on the college experiences of bachelor’s degree students who receive welfare and knew from my literature review that I was one of a handful of people in the country who had more than a rudimentary understanding of how these students experienced the academic, social, and functional dynamics of college. I also knew that I had some opinions. I felt strongly that colleges and universities should offer more services, should connect more seamlessly to state and local public benefits agencies, and that our voices as student affairs educators mattered in this conversation. So, I spent some time writing up a program submission abstract about my beliefs and sat down in front of my computer to record a few minutes of me, looking into the webcam, sharing my opinions. It was nerve-wracking, but it was done, and was relatively painless. And then it was accepted!
“But, still, what could I say?” Throughout the Fall, as the SA Speaks committee emailed me with deadlines for submitting my headshot, my bio, the overview of my session, and the PowerPoint slides, I continued to ask myself what exactly I felt confident enough about to share in front of a few hundred colleagues at NASPA.
Moments of inspiration come when you least expect them. In the Fall of 2016, I was teaching a course on college student development theory at Montclair State University and one evening was sketching out plans for a session on self-authorship. I was struck by one particular sentence from our text Student Development in College:
Pizzolato (2004) discovered that although high-risk students entered college at the level of self-authorship (see Pizzolato, 2003), classroom and out-of-classroom experiences challenged this way of making meaning and led them to feel incompetent, misunderstood, and different from their peers.Patton, Renn, Guido, Quaye, 2016
Whoa. Our work harms students. What could be more important than speaking to colleagues about the unintended (at least we hope) negative consequences of our work? I began constructing the logic sequence that would allow me to demonstrate to other NASPA attendees a sense of urgency to reframing everything that we do. The guidance from the SA Speaks committee, especially the assistance of Dr. Ann Marie Klotz and Dr. Josie Alquist, made a huge difference in putting my PowerPoint slides together. I felt supported, encouraged, and enabled to speak!
Yet, the feelings of doubt persisted right up until the moment I walked off the SA Speaks stage in San Antonio in 2017. I worried that my last phrase might be misinterpreted or that I had used the wrong words to express myself. And then other attendees who had heard my presentation came to me thanking me for saying what I had said, shared positive reviews of both content and delivery, and engaged with me in some very real dialogues.
Nearly three months later, I still feel like I could have said some things better and wonder if my words initiated strong negative responses from those who heard them. But, now I know that I had something to add to the conversation and still do.
So, here’s a bit of advice: If you think you have something to say, give yourself time to figure it out. Pay attention to the world around you for those moments of clarity. Then, submit. The SA Speaks team will support and challenge you – as student affairs professionals are known to do – throughout this developmental process. The world around us is in chaos; old ways are in continual disruption. It is time for us to all find our voices – they are desperately needed.