What’s Next? Navigating Student Affairs Career Pathways as a Social Justice Educator By Dr. Andrea Dre Domingue

The 2014 ACPA Convention was a highly reflective moment for me personally and professionally. This year marks the 10 year anniversary of my work in student affairs and my involvement in professional associations. I had the opportunity to informally celebrate this milestone by attending the ACPA Convention in Indianapolis. It was a bit surreal running into colleagues and friends from various points in my career and academic work. I remember my first convention in Philadelphia where I attended with my masters cohort, overwhelmed yet highly motivated to begin our careers. Ten years later, attending Convention still felt overwhelming but in a different way. This year I attended as recently defended doctoral candidate who was navigating a mid-level position job search.

As friends and colleagues were eager to call me “Doctor”including the long awaited nickname “Dr. Dre,”I was bombarded with questions of “what’s next?”in my career, how the job search was going and inquiries about what I was looking for in a position. While I offered somewhat rehearsed and often vague answers, the honest truth is I felt confused and a bit stuck in determining my next career steps. While I have always been certain in my desire to work in student affairs, particularly supporting marginalized student identity groups, it has only been recently that I started a trajectory as a social justice educator[1].

As a masters student I recall conversations with faculty and colleagues about various student affairs functional areas to consider. None of these talks mentioned social justice education and the closest recollection I have was a discussion about the possibility of working within a multicultural office. While I did not yet have a social justice framework, I was still able to identify how “multicultural[2]”was being used synonymous with “diversity”broadly to capture a variety of social issues and sometimes exclusively for direct support services for students of color. Nowhere in these conversations were mentions of work with other marginalized identities, intersectionality, or social change.

Despite these limited conversations, I did have a unique opportunity of working as a graduate assistant for an LGBT student services office while pursuing my masters degree. This position expanded my understanding of what was possible for “diversity” work and also turned into my first full-time position. While this was an exciting opportunity, I soon faced unforeseen career challenges. At the time of my hiring, the option for LGBT student services was a range of working as an one-person staffed office often times in areas of institutional or geographical resistance or work as what we affectionately called an LGBT2. These positions were rare and almost exclusive to large campuses with offices that had demonstrated longevity and therefore a needs for additional staff support. While these positions offered employment opportunities for recently graduated masters students like myself, there was little room for growth and advancement.

In my five years in LGBT student services, few director positions opened. One reason for this is that directors themselves had challenges advancing beyond this position. I recall several conversations with colleagues who talked about how difficult it was for them to convince search committees that they were capable doing work beyond LGBT student services. In the event director positions did open, these searches fostered high competition from existing directors looking to change campuses, professionals with doctorates and other LGBT2 looking to advance their career. Through this landscape I was faced with a difficult choice: continuing to work as an LGBT2 in the hopes of obtaining a director position in an uncertain time length or pursue a doctorate degree to enhance my qualifications for director positions.

I made the choice to get a doctorate, specifically in Social Justice Education, which in reflection I feel was the right personal decision for me as a student affairs practitioner and emerging scholar. In addition to learning frameworks and skills centered on social justice, my most noteworthy takeaway from my program was developing an identity as a social justice educator with a desire to have an intentional trajectory for this work within student affairs. While I have clarity about the direction of my career, I feel as if I am yet again receiving messages about limited career options and virtually no dialogues on how to pursue social justice education as a career pathway at the mid-level and as a senior student affairs officer.

In addition to my own journey, I have had numerous conversations with undergraduates, graduate students and new professionals also struggling to navigate a pathway into social justice education in student affairs. While at the 2014 Convention I had the opportunity to participate in a NextGen networking session. The goal of this event was to have undergraduate students interested in pursuing careers in students affairs to dialogue with various ACPA Commissions and Standing Committees about our work in the entities and how it relates to the core values of the association. Representing the Commission for Social Justice Educators, I had what I feel was a mutually impactful conversation with an undergraduate student interested in entering multicultural affairs work and wanted insights on which graduate programs that would support his goals.

Through dialogue and questioning, I discovered an incongruence in the work this student aspired to do and what he was encouraged to do. Similar to my experience as a masters student, this student was told his only option was to pursue careers working in multicultural affairs while he is interested in supporting a variety of marginalized student populations, fostering cross-identity work and institutional change. While I was able to offer this student some guidance and am in ongoing conversation with him, I have been in constant reflection on professional preparation and career pathways as social justice educators in student affairs. I feel that it is vital for our existing and emerging professionals to identify and concretely strategize specific career pathways for social justice educators in student affairs.

As the incoming Chair-Elect for the Commission for Social Justice Educators I facilitated a conversation at our recent Directorate Body meeting at this year’s Convention 2014 on the issues raised in this article. Specifically there was energy around creating dialogic spaces and programming to address entry and transitions of social justice educators within student affairs careers. On behalf of the Commission we want to invite you to consider and share your thoughts on the following questions:

  • What has your experience been navigating student affairs positions as a social justice educator?
  • How should we prepare graduate students and new professionals for social justice educator positions (i.e., academic programs, supervision, professional associations, etc.)?
  • How should we prepare social justice educator professionals for mid-level and senior student affairs officer positions (i.e., academic programs, supervision, professional associations, etc.)?
  • What support do professionals interested in social justice educator positions need throughout the the job search?
  • How do you as a social justice educator assess position and campus “fit”? What strategies do you use to determine if your social justice values and practices are congruent with the positions and institutions you seek employment with?
  • How do you reconcile incongruence with “fit”? What personal or professional negotiations do you make in this situations?

To participate in the dialogue, I invited you to comment and share this article. We also encourage you to share your experiences by completing an anonymous questionnaire (https://docs.google.com/forms/d/1FGvWKtNHH7c9F-zdsUZhBCNpAHIl156Q299Xv1MPpEk/viewform).


[1] My personal understanding of social justice education practice involves identifying and addressing systematic oppression on campus, intersectionality through recognition of multiple student identities and cross-group experiences, and developing critical consciousness and leadership development among students to enhance campus communities and beyond. I recognize that other educators may have different perspectives on understanding and in no way is this meant to be an exhaustive explanation.
[2] I feel the terms social justice, diversity, and multicultural are terms that have relationship to each other but with distinct meanings, particularly within educational context. Feel free to contact me for more clarity.

 

Dr. Andrea Dre Domingue is scholar-practitioner that focuses on minoritized college student advocacy, critical pedagogy and college student leadership development. She works at the University of Massachusetts—Amherst where as an instructor for the College of Education. Dre recently completed her doctorate in Student Development with a concentration Social Justice Education and Advanced Feminist Studies. Prior to her time at UMass, she worked at NYU’s LGBT Student Services Office where she also received her MA in Higher Education Administration. A long-term member of several professional associations, Dre is the incoming Chair-Elect for ACPA’s Commission for Social Justice Educators. Follow her on Twitter: @dredomingue where she sporadically tweets or email her directly at dre[dot]domingue[at]gmail.com.

 

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The Exception to the Rule by Tobias W. Uecker

One of my former supervisors liked to say that the ideal set of policies and procedures for a college or university should be made up of “rational rules with reasonable exceptions” (OK, it might have been “reasonable rules with rational exceptions,” but hopefully the general idea is the same regardless). I’ve been thinking a lot about this description as my current campus has been working through the process of helping students select and confirm their housing for the next academic year.

As anyone who’s worked through a housing process can attest, housing professionals believe they have rational rules that guide their procedures for fitting a particular number of students into a particular number of bed spaces in particular building environments that have particular draws and particular drawbacks in the minds of students. But those procedures are also subject to myriad requests for what students believe to be reasonable exceptions to established processes. This same phenomenon can play out in different facets of any Student Affairs office, from allocation systems for student organizations to admission and scholarship decisions to registration deadlines for campus programs.

How we solicit and make decisions about students’ requests for reasonable exceptions to our rational rules says a lot about our offices or institutions. Depending on who is able to access the required administrative processes, granting exceptions can offer needed flexibility to make systems more inclusive or can create an additional layer of advantage bestowed on those for whom the system is already designed.

An approach college and university offices commonly take with established rules, policies, and procedures is to consider exceptions on a case-by-case basis. This approach doesn’t require a given office to go out in search of exceptions but still grants wide flexibility to address unforeseen issues as they come. In a realm where predicting every unique student situation is impossible, this seems perfectly reasonable.

From an equal opportunity perspective, we can extol this sort of ad hoc system by pointing out that no student is excluded when we say we’ll decide things case by case. Any student at all is free to access the decision-making structure to put a unique case up for consideration. The student who asks for and is granted some sort of exception needs simply to “take initiative” or “self-advocate.” Rationally, that student reaps a reward for taking those desirable actions. Any student could have asked us to consider an exception, the logic goes, so any student could have received the exception. If a particular student actually does take action, then only that student actually does receive the benefit of doing so. What could be unfair about that?

What could be—what is—unfair is that countless factors created by institutional environments affect the degree to which it is actually true that all students have the same opportunity to advocate for themselves. We delude ourselves if we assume that the only distinction between a student who comes to our office to make the case for a personal exception and one who doesn’t is a difference in each student’s level of initiative.

In some cases, what might be labeled “initiative” could also be accurately labeled “privilege.” Having family members who’ve attended college could help a given student know about a policy loophole that would never occur to a first-generation college student. Growing up in an environment that places high cultural value on independence and directness could make a particular student more likely to seek a meeting with a school official than a student whose cultural values focus more on deference and modesty. A student on solid financial footing might be more willing to risk rocking the boat with a policy challenge than a student whose continued enrollment might already be financially tenuous.

To minimize the effects of this privilege gap disguised as an initiative gap, our offices must be known as places of inclusion before the question of challenging a policy or seeking an exception even enters the minds of our students. Student Affairs offices that communicate and operate in daily and systemic ways that not only invite but also empower engagement from students of all backgrounds are more likely to be seen as places of resource and refuge when a student’s individual circumstances appear mismatched with a generalized policy or process.

If we hope to minimize the role that existing privilege plays in who seeks and is granted a reasonable exception, we must also be forthcoming about the operationalized exceptions that often exist in long-standing policies and procedures. If students can fill out a form to waive the fee for intramurals or an established process for seeking a housing reassignment, we should provide that information as clearly and openly as possible. The housing application at my current school, for example, articulates the Regential requirement to live on campus for a student’s first two years but provides a link to the “Request for Release” form that lists common reasons a student might be exempted from the live-on policy. Any student who reads the application knows an exemption process exists and has a sense of how that process works.

I understand that we might hesitate to be so forthright for fear that doing so will lead to a flood of exception requests. However, having truly inclusive policies and procedures requires every step of the process to be open to everyone—not just for the basics to be known to all and the add-on options to be selectively available. If our release or exception process functions like some sort of secret menu that’s only available to those savvy enough to know it exists, we risk leaving out those segments of our student population already most likely to be at a disadvantage in navigating college and university bureaucracy.

Working to have truly inclusive approaches to rational rules and their reasonable exceptions could even mean completely reframing the language we use throughout organizational policies and procedures. As housing professionals work to provide appropriate living environments for students with disabilities, the commonly used language is about “providing accommodations” instead of “granting exceptions.” I don’t equate the scope and importance of compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act to the sorts of exceptions I’ve discussed elsewhere in this post, but it’s worth considering that applying a mindset of accommodation to other realms of creating inclusive rules, policies, and procedures—and their exceptions—could put a completely different focus on the process.

How might our whole approach to the standard case-by-case decision-making look and feel different if we think of a fee waiver as way to provide an equal opportunity for a financially disadvantaged student to participate in a campus event rather than as an exception to a required cost recovery policy? What if we discuss a release from an on-campus housing requirement from the perspective of what a student hopes to gain from living off campus rather than identifying why that student doesn’t want to live in University housing? What new opportunities might we discover if we give a student staff member unable to attend a mandatory diversity training session the chance to craft an individualized learning experience rather than thinking of it as getting out of something?

Rules and policies certainly have value in helping Student Affairs educators set up the very institutional environments that attempt to equalize access, opportunity, and achievement on college campuses. However, we risk undermining their value if reasonable exceptions are disproportionately available to those already at an advantage in our system and if we perpetuate a mindset that says an exception is about opting out of the norm rather than opting into a more fitting arrangement.

Maybe I should recast my former supervisor’s guidance to say that policies and procedures are about establishing rational rules with room to reconsider.

Biography: Tobias W. Uecker is Assistant Director of Residential Life for Living/Learning Initiatives at South Dakota State University in Brookings, SD (also his undergraduate alma mater). In addition to earning his M.S. in Student Affairs in Higher Education at Miami University in Oxford, OH, Toby’s work experience outside of South Dakota includes stints in Housing and Residential Life offices at several small, private liberal arts colleges in Minnesota and Ohio.

 

 

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