In student affairs we talk a lot about self care – with one another and with our students. It’s our mantra. We can’t take care of others if we don’t take care of ourselves. Our students will burn out (and sometimes fail out) if they don’t balance the rigor of academics, co-curricular activities, and their social life. Like most everything, self care needs to be taught and practiced. The irony is that save for maybe res life, it’s not something we’re really taught.
And the fact is I’ve never been very good at it. I move full-steam ahead. In college I graduated Phi Beta Kappa, served as an orientation chair (which was a big deal at my tiny college), an executive board member of several other organizations, traveled each spring semester, and had a healthy social life. As a doc student I worked full time and balanced a full course load. When I finished my dissertation I was bored (and broke) so I picked up a part-time job. I’m uncomfortable with free time.
As an adult I’m trying to be more mindful of how I take care of myself. I know that I don’t process my personal stress nearly as well when I’m not going to spin class regularly. I know that I eat poorly when I’m a little stressed or not at all if I’m very stressed so I keep easy to prep food and healthy snacks close by. Travel is also an important part of my “self care plan,” though I know I will feel more anxious if I don’t check my work email throughout.
Most importantly, I’m getting better at asking for help. I tell my close friends when I feel like I shouldn’t be alone and I pick up the phone or make plans with friends. Dogs also help, always.
In the spirit of self care, I’m heading out on vacation in a few days and look forward to sharing some travel posts and photos. This trip was planned nearly a year ago during a snow storm that closed DC for several days. I had visions of traveling around Germany by train for two weeks. But my need for self care kicked in recently and I knew I needed to be some place that was “home” and for a shorter period of time. Although I’m a work in progress, I’m proud of myself for recognizing this and for not being complacent about it.
How many higher ed programs are teaching about self-care? If not, how do we learn about it before its too late and we’ve done damage to ourself and others?
Since Grey’s Anatomy came on the scene, there’s been this notion that everyone has “their person.” As an only child and an introvert, I’m generally most comfortable sitting with my own thoughts and processing them by writing. It’s one of the reasons I started this blog. But that doesn’t mean that we don’t need our person. I was fortunate to find several as a graduate student. These people love you and support you without judgement. You share your fears and your secrets. They are the family you choose. This is especially true in graduate school and in academia. It’s difficult to articulate the experience to others and for them to understand how to support you if they haven’t been through it. Maintaining existing friendships and developing new ones in graduate school was critical for my success.
Grad school is a marathon. You must train, pace yourself, and practice self care or you’ll burn out before crossing the finish line. Sometimes these individuals serve a purpose during a particular time in your life and others will stay with you always.
During my masters program my classmates became my people. We drank wine and coffee in equal amounts, solved quantitative problems, wrote papers, held theme parties, and watched endless hours of The West Wing.
As a doc student your people become your lifeline. It’s an entirely different need because of the rigor and the time commitment. I needed someone who would let me safely run away, ask the tough questions, wipe away my tears, and tell me it was okay to quit if that’s want I wanted but that I could also be a college president. I needed others who would bring me into their family, share a meal, and sit on the floor and color when it got to be too much.
In addition to my parents, I was fortunate to have the same advisor throughout my two graduate programs. He became another father figure to me. I could come into his office crying (apparently there was a lot of crying in grad school) and leave knowing there wasn’t anything I couldn’t tackle.
Sometimes you lose your people like Meredith lost Christina and you need to negotiate the next phase of your life on your own. Other people are in it for the long haul. It seems that relationships are becoming a recurring theme here. Later we’ll tackle how to get through the post dissertation blues.
On November 14, I joined my colleagues, supporters, and funders at an event in New York City that launched both our organization and the next chapter of the service year movement. Last week I wrote about the history of bipartisan support for national service and John Bridgeland, our vice-chair, dug into this history during his remarks on Monday. I encourage you to read them – each time I see Bridge I feel like I’m a US history master class.
Our event had a mix of representatives from service programs, higher ed, nonprofits, funders, tech companies, and more. In some ways these are unlikely partnerships, knitted together by passion and the belief that service has the power to uplift communities and empower the young people who serve.
Passion is a funny thing. Unless you’re Mark Zuckerberg, there’s a good chance that your passion won’t necessarily pay the bills. There’s also the risk that when it does pay the bills, passion becomes your work and you end up hating it. That’s a risk I’m willing to take. Although I most closely associate with the generation before me, I’m technically a millennial. One of the ways that I am a millennial is that I want to be passionate about the work that I’m doing. We spend more of our time at work than we do with our friends and partners. It’s a fact of life in America.
I spent 11 years in school and racked up tens of thousands of dollars in loans to have the credentials to work in the higher education sector at a high level. It’s unlikely I’ll ever be wealthy, but I get to work with issues I care about and with people who (generally) share my enthusiasm. I am lucky. I had a good support system which you’ll read more about next week, and the cultural and social capital to pursue higher education. Not everyone has the opportunity to do this, and my hope is that both my professional work and my work as a mentor can help help more people who want to follow their passions and be able to pay the bills.
It’s also okay not to know what your passion is and go through the motions to get credentials that will help pay the bills until you do. If I’ve learned anything it’s that what is right for one person may not work for you. As a society I think we’re quick to share our personal experiences in the hope that it will help someone else out. I am guilty of that.
Typically I don’t write about or even allude to politics on my social media. I talk about it enough in real life and usually I’m introduced by my liberal friends (who make up the majority of my friends) as “my Republican friend, Jenna.” However I generally prefer to live in the fake world of The West Wing and use my social media to fangirl over Aaron Sorkin.
I’m not going to talk about the recent US election because the president-elect doesn’t represent the vast majority of my views, nor the views of most other Republicans I know. What I am going to talk about is reconciling my belief in small government, market-based solutions, a strong military, and individual freedom and responsibility with my work in civic & community engagement. To many, these things may seem to be at odds.
My first job in higher education was managing a student poll worker program. For two years we worked with the local Board of Elections to place nearly 400 students from four area colleges in the field working on Election Day. I also advised college republicans and college democrats. I cared less about how students voted and more about their ability to back up their beliefs and engage in the political process. I remain so proud of the work we did on campus and the civility and friendships my students cultivated. Those students are now adults, many with amazing careers directly in or related to politics, including working in the White House.
When that funding stream ended, as it so often does, I needed to make a choice about whether I wanted to manage an AmeriCorps program. I knew little about AmeriCorps at the time and probably thought as many still do, that it provides handouts to communities and why would we ever agree to pay someone to volunteer? Shouldn’t people want to do that regardless? Five years later I’m working at a nonprofit whose mission is to make a service year a common opportunity and expectation for all young people in America. I also wrote a dissertation on the impact of AmeriCorps on civic engagement outcomes for alumni.
While our country was built on the backs of elite White men, it was also founded on the belief that with rights came great responsibility to ensure our freedoms continue. Community and civic engagement initiatives are actually at the very core of what it means to be Republican, at least to me. I believe in small government and that communities know what is best for them better than any federal entity. I believe that those community members need to be engaged in finding and executing solutions that will address the needs they have. Those solutions should be asset-based and draw on existing strengths. I believe that we should all find a way to give back to our country whether it’s through military or civilian service, educating our young people, or any number of other public service professions. While tax payers do invest in these programs, they are a conduit to mobilize millions of unpaid volunteers and billions of dollars in donations and in-kind support. That far exceeds the federal allocation to these programs. They stimulate entrepreneurship and give young people the personal and professional skills our country needs. With AmeriCorps specifically, young people earn education awards that can serve as an on-ramp to higher education or help to pay back student loans.
Civic and community engagement programs also often instill life-long civic habits of volunteering, voting, deliberation, and other things that are important to the health of our democracy. Those values are valued and fostered by both parties.
I’ve been thinking a lot about relationships lately. Relationships are everything in your personal life and in your professional life. My work in community/civic engagement depends on cultivating mutually beneficial relationships. As an introvert it takes a lot of energy to develop these relationships but it’s very rewarding.
While there are thousands of higher ed institutions across the country, I’ve always considered the field to be extremely small. I think that’s because so many of us are transient; most of us don’t stay in the same position or institution for very long. When we begin a new role we take our existing relationships with us and build new ones. Higher ed also has a conference for nearly everything. So although we might not see our friends and colleagues in person that often, there’s a pretty good chance that we’ll see them at least once a year at a professional convening.
In mid-October I presented at the Coalition for Urban and Metropolitan Universities (CUMU) conference with my friend from Drexel University. Coming from a nonprofit I find it valuable to present with someone at an institution whenever possible and it’s a great way to highlight their hard work. It some ways this is an unlikely partnership. As much as I loved Rochester, there came a time when I knew I needed to leave. I applied broadly and while I hoped to end up in London, Boston, or DC, I left my options open. I ended up being a finalist for a position at Drexel. I enjoyed the process and while I was not selected, we ended the process on good terms.
Following that experience I saw the woman I interviewed with on several occasions at conferences. We also ended up sitting next to each other on a flight home. I was particularly grateful not to have to sit awkwardly for several hours in tight quarters. Jen and I became friends and years later she and her team put together a strong proposal for an award my organization was offering. (Full disclosure, I was not a judge during the finals). I was excited to work with her to present at CUMU and look forward to our continued work as we develop their program. She’s been generous with her time and her connections and I support her as much as I can. I’m also fortunate to be on good terms with both former employers and look for ways to highlight the work they are doing and offer my time to them whenever possible. I usually see them a few times a semester and sit on panels or host students.
Another aspect of the small-ness of higher ed is the personal relationships you develop with your colleagues. Few things bond you like writing a 40-page thesis paper, long grading sessions, or on-call duty rotations into the wee hours of the morning. As with most professions, we tend to spend more time with our co-workers than our family and that is most certainly true in this field. Your co-workers can either make or break your work life. I don’t know if the data exists but it would be interesting to see the statistics on higher ed professionals dating one another. I think they would be especially high on the faculty and student affairs side.
Humans are social beings and we (hopefully) learn from past experiences. We carry these experiences and relationships with us. There’s no getting around that, especially in our small field.
My organization is growing rapidly. We’re at around 35 people now, with the intent to grow to about 70 by the end of 2018. Every few weeks I take a meeting with the newest member of the team. I tell them about my work, how I envision my work will intersect with theirs and answer any questions they have. Towards the end of the conversation I tell them that when they introduce me to people in a professional capacity, especially anyone in higher education, that I prefer they introduce me as Dr. Dell. I preface it by saying that it will save me from sending an awkward email later on and that while it shouldn’t matter, it does.
It matters to me and it potentially matters to the people to whom I’m being introduced. For the first time I’m working in an organization whose mission isn’t explicitly higher education. While it’s not a flat organization, it’s fairly casual and all of us are are involved in each other’s work – it’s a typical start up. Titles don’t matter a whole lot to us, though we are led by a four star general. He enjoys bud light lime and pizza. As I said, we’re pretty casual.
But how I’m introduced matters to me. It matters because I worked extremely hard over a decade to finish three degrees before I turned 30, an arbitrary goal I was committed to achieving. It matters because before I had collected my dissertation data I replaced my dissertation chair and my entire committee, quit my job, moved 400 miles to a new city where I didn’t know anyone, and started a new job.
It matters because so much of my identity is wrapped up in being an “academic.” Now I am #altac -someone with academic training but with an alternative career.It’s a term I quite enjoy and it resonates with me. There’s also a rich online community that has helped me to process my new identity.
It also has the potential to matter to people I interact with on campuses. While higher ed leadership no longer exclusively comes from the faculty, and hasn’t for some time, having a terminal degree lets people know that I can speak their language. All campuses are unique, but to many it commuicates that I understand some of the challenges campuses face and their organizational structure. This latter part could very well be in my head, but a shared sense of identity is important in higher ed. It’s something we discuss often.
I’ve been asked quite a bit about the term altac. I don’t know it’s origin, but I do know that finding this community has been a great help to me. I went through a period of depression and uncertainty when I was no longer who I thought I was – an academic. Now I understand that there are lots of us out there and they are extremely supportive. To learn more, I encourage you to follow #altac and #withaphd on twitter.