To help celebrate Careers in Student Affairs Month, we are happy to have ACPA's Doctoral Intern Mei-Yen Ireland share a personal reflection on her experience in the field and as a graduate student.
We all have stories about how we came to the field of student affairs. For many people it was through personal experiences as undergraduate students in areas such as residence life or orientation. For some, the area of student affairs that initially drew them to the field is the area that continues to be their professional home. One of the great things about a career in student affairs is the opportunity for our own personal development while creating opportunities for our students to grow and develop. My career in student affairs has not been a linear path. Student affairs has provided me the opportunity to continually evolve personally and professionally.
My entry into the field of student affairs came through my involvement in co-curricular service-learning. I enjoyed participating in service-learning throughout my undergraduate experience and worked as an AmeriCorps civic engagement coordinator at my alma mater after graduating. I was drawn to a career in student affairs because I saw the transformative impact service-learning could have on student learning and development and I believed that there was also a reciprocal benefit to the community. To me, experiential learning and co-curricular experiences enable student to engage with social issues in tangible ways that may not occur in the classroom. The opportunity to learn through real world issues and have an impact on those pressing social issues was a goal that I was eager to adopt in my professional work.
During my six years working in student affairs and focusing on service-learning, I was exposed to complexities, not only within the social issues around which the service-learning was structured, but within the bureaucracy, privilege, and stereotypes that make service-learning in higher education challenging. I learned about the limitations and assumptions service-learning could place on students who may not always come from privileged backgrounds but in some cases from within the community being served. I also noticed the ways in which service-learning could lack the reciprocity that is generally thought to be a guiding principle of community-university partnerships.
Over time I realized that, despite my questions about the idyllic possibility of service-learning, at its core, I still believed that student affairs could create powerful opportunities for promoting student learning and development while addressing social issues in the larger community. I returned to graduate school in higher education and student affairs in an effort to explore my belief that higher education has the opportunity and responsibility to positively impact both student learning and the local community. Along the way I found myself drawn to two-year institutions as models for how institutional missions could pursue a social justice focus with tangible and positive effects on social issues and the local community.
Two-year colleges have at their heart the goal of meeting the needs of their local community and decreasing inequality through the educational opportunities they create for students. However, their goals have many challenges such as the large numbers of nontraditional students, lack of funding, and strict accountability measures. Throughout my graduate work my research interests have focused on access and retention of underrepresented students at two-year colleges and the many complexities two-year institutions face with the changing economic landscape.
Influenced by my early career work in service-learning, I have come to see that higher education’s context is not just its own isolated environment, but there are interactions with external social and policy structures that need to be illuminated. I think higher education has the potential to be a strategy for equity, and I see access to and success in higher education as inextricably tied to social issues, such as racism and poverty. The next evolution of my career in student affairs is marked with questions about whether education as a strategy of equity is a viable mission and what role student affairs can have in shifting higher education toward this goal. A career in student affairs is an opportunity to promote the learning and development of students and ourselves. I am hopeful that we will all embrace the questions and complexities of the work we do in student affairs and strive to use these questions to shape the culture and promote the powerful outcomes that are possible in higher education.