At the start of the 2017-2018 academic year, I was beginning my sixth year at an institution where I had been working in the division of student affairs. Whether it was residence life & housing, student conduct, or orientation, Student Affairs was what I knew. I had roots that ran deep, dating back to a two year stint as a Resident Assistant, a rather sub-par performance if I’m being honest, but albeit life changing.
The following fifteen years in totality provided wonderful, fulfilling career experiences. Very much a traditional student affairs professional, I was on track towards the dean of students goal I had initially set for myself. However, in continuing the spirit of being honest here, the nights and weekends and on-call responsibilities and regretfully missed family gatherings in mid-May, and never seen vacation sun in August that others so often enjoyed took its toll, particularly as I was trying to balance my professional life with raising a family of my own. Realizing that I no longer liked the track I saw ahead, I reminded myself that change was possible and made the conscious decision to transition out of student affairs and following a lengthy job search, I not only found myself transitioned out of student affairs, but also in a different institutional setting I had never before experienced—community college.
You’ve likely heard it before: Community college is different. My new professional home proved it true, at least for me anyway. I found myself among a more diverse population than I had known before; listened to student-centered faculty speak about the value of aligning their teaching with the community college mission; and bore witness to what accessible education means as in my first weeks I met a forty-something veteran and an au-pair new to the United States, both going to school for the first time while also bumping into some familiar faces—students in the hallways and on the cafeteria line whom had been suspended or academically dismissed from my previous institution. Awkward to some degree, I was grateful for any amount of positive rapport I had with them, but more than anything I was reminded of the conversations I had with them and their parents about perhaps taking classes at a nearby community college. And here we all were. All under one roof, literally and figuratively.
Over the course of my first year, my one objective outside of my daily job responsibilities was simple: to learn what it means to work at a community college. And I have found that the best way I have truly able to do that is through creating and building genuine professional relationships with my colleagues. I would say that for anyone considering transitioning to working at a community college, or any institutional setting that is a major change from what one has known before, I encourage building relationships with three key groups of colleagues:
- Talk to people like yourself who made a similar transition. What has worked for them versus what hasn’t? I find it important to remember that their experience, while of value for me to understand, isn’t my experience, but rather it’s just their perspective. Take what you need and leave the rest.
- Talk to people who have been there “forever.” Ask them not just why they stay but what keeps them motivated. If they’re inspiring, talk to them again when you have time. My favorite go-to is Deb, an executive assistant with almost thirty years of service and an alum of the College. If you find these people and they’re jaded, move on. I’d bet you’ll find your Deb in another corner of the College.
- Talk to people that are your counterparts at other community colleges in your state. I’m fortunate that my state has fifteen community colleges that provide professional development opportunities so that relationships with those in similar roles are fostered. It’s these dedicated folks that remind me why I changed into this type of work and for whom I remain grateful.
Having now completed a year of working at a community college, I think that I have a solid start but I am far from achieving my initial objective as there is so much left to learn of what I have yet uncovered along with the ever-changing student population, their needs, and shifting priorities of higher education that come inevitably with this work. Moving out of student affairs was something deliberate on my part, but my arrival to a community college was honestly just a matter of good timing and an available opportunity where I took a chance. Community colleges are perhaps not for everyone, but for me, it was just the change I needed and I encourage anyone looking for a new avenue or fresh start to humbly consider it.