Monday, March 14, 2005

Perhaps I've found it?

When I worked in a student activities office at a large research university in the Southeastern United States, I often wondered if I had found my home in higher education administration. I admit I was skeptical. Let me explain: first, let me express that student "activities," referring to social and educational (yet non-academic) activities usually planned by students, are essential to the college experience, in my opinion, because they provide ample opportunities for students to gain some 'real-life' experience or application of knowledge outside of the classroom, couched in a "safe" environment. What I mean is, the out-of-class experience is just as important as those experiences within the classroom.

However, I have always felt a pull more toward the academic side of the house. I found myself saying to Wife, is all this really important to these students? I thought it was mildly important, but the most important things were learning something marketable to get a job, making good friends, and learning about oneself. While there were certainly some connections to be made between student activities and these "important" things, I always felt a little disconnected from the real reasons why my students were attending college.

And then I moved over to working in new student orientation. I ran a small shop that helped over 4,000 students embark upon the college experience, from administering placement tests and setting up meetings with an academic advisor to scheduling their first semester of coursework and helping them to make friends. In general it was a very rewarding job, and I was able (along with dozens of others) to create some new programs that I believe improved upon the college experience for these students. Finally: doing what was "important."

About three years later I realized I wanted to learn about what made students tick: what made them make the decisions they would make, and how those decisions would affect their future. I wanted to use the energy I found in doing something "important" by finding out more about the core of the college experience. I decided to pursue the doctorate and do some of my own research on this stuff.

But then I experienced a loss of self-confidence upon entering the doctoral program. I guess I was working hard to find my footing as A Doc Student and started exploring other things that I thought I should explore, fighting the internal battles of studying what I think is practical, i.e. what will help me find a job, vs. what I actually am interested in studying, which I now realize will probably still help me find a job.

I'm back to square one now with wondering what makes students tick again. And I like it here much more. I'm studying something I've been interested in studying since 1994: college student development. Why I didn't move along this path earlier is beyond me, but sometimes a good kick in the ass from an advisor can help me remember why in the world I would choose to leave behind certain things: a decent salary/benefits package, a good reputation as an administrator, and a rather predictable though certainly not boring lifestyle. The fact of the matter is: this time of instability, self-consciousness, and poverty will probably lead me back toward becoming a good administrator again with the aforementioned benefits, but hopefully a scholarly door will open as well. I truly missed using the right side of my brain during my 6 years in administration; now I'm using it again and am able to combine skills and interests from the past without wondering if this is what I should be studying. Kind of a nice feeling.

So, perhaps I've found it? Perhaps I've finally figured out what I'm doing "with this one wild, precious life?" I dunno - feels like it, certainly, but we'll see.

(quoting Mary Oliver's "The Summer Day")

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