As part of Careers in Student Affairs Month, we have invited individuals from different ACPA entities to share their unique perspectives on the field through Career Spotlight Q&A pages. We hope these will be a valuable resource for individuals considering work or graduate school in student affairs and higher education. This submission is from Robert Aaron, representing the Commission for Assessment and Evaluation. For more information on the Commission's work, please visit their webpage.
Why did you choose a career in student affairs?
I, like many others, fell into student affairs after serving as a resident advisor during my junior year of college. I was a music major, based on many years of studying classical piano. The piano had always been my escape from the world, so I became wary to make it my career. However, I found my work as an RA to fit me well - I enjoyed helping individuals on my floor in addition to planning larger educational programs. After researching what a career in student affairs actually looked like, I soon learned that student affairs would fit my career personality better than working as a full-time musician.
Why did you choose your particular functional area?
After working in the areas of student activities, fraternity/sorority life, and first-year experience/new student orientation for several years, I found myself developing larger-picture research questions about groups of students. Some say I "caught the research bug," so to speak. I decided to pursue the PhD in higher education in order to better understand the research process and attempt to answer some of my questions. Through this process I came to learn that I was a bit of a data nerd. I also learned that my work in higher education could ultimately serve more students when I was able to explain certain trends based in data to major decision-makers in the field. I realized I have always fallen into the role of "data translator" in other jobs I have had (good with technology, could explain a complex process to new students and their families, and so forth), and now I found an opportunity to combine my interest in helping students with my new-found acknowledgement that I could absorb a set of data all day and not get bored! Student Affairs Assessment, for me, has been a really wonderful combination of numerous things I have learned since starting my master's degree in higher education and student affairs 20 years ago.
What does a typical work week look like in your particular functional area?
I feel lucky that a typical work week involves feeding both my introvert and my extravert. In my present position I lead a talented staff toward helping over 35 functional areas with their assessment, evaluation, planning, and research efforts. As such I spend time with staff getting organized to do a variety of projects, with colleagues coaching on conducting assessment, and alone analyzing data and writing reports. In addition I spend a significant amount of time educating others on how to conduct assessment and research in student affairs. No two weeks are alike in this field, and I feel very fortunate to have an engaging position allowing for interaction with talented colleagues in addition to spending some time alone.
What is the most rewarding part of your job, and what is the most challenging part?
The most rewarding part is helping a colleague to realize a way to improve a program or service to students based on data results we have shared. In addition I enjoy empowering both colleagues and students with using data in an appropriate way to impact student learning. In terms of challenges, sometimes we run into data sources that are just BAD. Either they weren't collected properly in the first place, or the analysis has somehow gone haywire. This creates a barrier toward actually making improvements for students. When we plan accordingly, usually we can mitigate these issues ahead of time, but we certainly do not live in a perfect world!
What is your top piece of advice for individuals considering a career in your functional area?
My top piece of advice for anyone considering a career anywhere in student affairs is to develop a set of questions that interest you and ask many different people for their responses. You'll get different responses, all of which are CORRECT. You need to find for yourself how you will incorporate their answers into your own decision-making. Specific to student affairs assessment, I think those interested in it need to be comfortable with a variety of ways of collecting data and also need to have a willingness to keep learning more. In other words, KEEP READING. Keep up with the current literature in the field, and then help others make connections between that literature and their practice.
In your opinion, what are the top three attributes needed to be successful in your field?
- Enjoy helping others make decisions informed by multiple data sources;
- Enjoy learning something new every day;
- Enjoy juggling multiple projects at one time.
What do you believe will be the key trends, issues, and challenges in your functional area in 10 years?
Increasing demand for services with decreasing resources over time will need to be handled in creative, innovative ways. The demands are driven by numerous factors including technology, access to higher education, increases in diagnoses of special needs populations, and many others. All of these external issues have a significant effect on the types of data needed to make decisions for growing with the future.
What additional resources would you recommend to a new professional in your functional area?
Quickly get involved in a professional association related to your work. Some of my best colleagues are at institutions all over the country, thanks to the good work of organizations like ACPA!