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. Leading off is Susan Mendoza, representing the Commission for Academic Affairs. For more information on the Commission's work, please visit their webpage.
Why did you choose a career in student affairs?
Like many of my colleagues, I was actively involved in student life as an undergraduate student. After graduating and "entering the real world", I realized that may greatest joy was in helping others learn and make sense of their learning. University life presents immense opportunities for intellectual , emotional, social, and spiritual growth. I wanted to work within the spaces that facilitated moments of learning.
Why did you choose your particular functional area?
I serendipitously found my currently role. My functional area is broadly defined as academic affairs. Specifically, I work within undergraduate research and scholarship. My role allows me to work with both faculty and students on projects and programs connected to scholarship, research, and creative pursuits. This type of role speaks to me because it allows me to use my expertise in student development, university culture, and retention to create contexts for teaching and learning. I love the complexity of my work, specifically the intersection of the rigor of disciplinary learning and teaching with many supportive services that student affairs provides.
What does a typical work week look like in your particular functional area?
I don't have many typical weeks, rather programmatic cycles. My position incorporates large event planning, grant management, advising, visioning and strategic planning, assessment, and research. Generally in one week, I will have multiple classroom visits, student consultations, faculty meetings, grants to review, and campus meetings to attend. My position is quite varied and dynamic, both in schedule and in the type of work.
What is the most rewarding part of your job, and what is the most challenging part?
My greatest rewards come from seeing students walk down the pathway of research. I enjoy seeing how their ideas take shape and evolve. More so, I enjoy seeing them as scholars and making the transition from simply consuming knowledge to critically engaging with scholarship and then to creating their own. Discovery by proxy, if you will. The greatest challenge is in providing the types of programs and grants that are needed in each of the academic disciplines. Each tradition is so fundamentally different that one needs to be an adept generalist to meet the needs of all faculty and students.
What is your top piece of advice for individuals considering a career in your functional area?
To be a student affairs minded professional on the academic side of the house, one needs to know and understand the academy. My professional path took me from residential curriculum to co-curriculum to pure scholarship. I have found that there are incredible opportunities in the space between faculty and student affairs, but the chasm between the two is not for the uncommitted or the faint of heart. There is a need to be able to shift between the faculty and student affairs cultures, and translate between the two. The best way to begin this is simply by showing up. Attend academic lectures, faculty senate, student presentations. Become engaged in the intellectual life of your students.
In your opinion, what are the top three attributes needed to be successful in your field?
Three attributes... First, an authentic drive to learn and understand. Working in higher education, learning needs to be at the center of your praxis. It may manifest in various ways, the authentic desire to be engaged in the learning process in critical. Second, an ethic of care. Our business is about the success of our students. Success can be defined in a variety of ways, but it should always be punctuated and framed by an ethic of care. Students should leave our institutions with the skill sets they need, but also the confidence, and the positioning to have a positive impact on their lives and professions. That ethic should extend to our colleagues, our communities, and ourselves. Third, the ability to hold space. When I use that phrase, I am speaking figuratively to the ability to create an environment. We each should have the ability to hold space for learning, conversation, and dialogue.
What do you believe will be the key trends, issues, and challenges in your functional area in 10 years?
The biggest trend I am seeing is the quantification of success and the impact of the quantification. As we accelerate the need to quantitatively define and measure success for our students, we are not only bound by definition of success, but also by our measures. Within undergraduate research, many institutions are deepening and expanding programs due to the current research that demonstrates the positive power of such experiences on retention and graduation, not to mention skill acquisition and general satisfaction. This issue becomes one of capacity and scaling up. How large can we make these programs without losing the quality of the student experience. A secondary trend worth mentioning is open access. This is one we don't always intersect with in student affairs, but is key within the research and scholarship community. How will the desire to move scholarship from behind the paywall of expensive journals impact the experience of our faculty scholars and our student scholars?
What additional resources would you recommend to a new professional in your functional area?
For someone who is interested in transitioning to work in academic affairs, I would recommend some reading into the structure of the academy and faculty culture. For many of us, this means revisiting some of the books we used in graduate school as a starting point. In addition to brushing up on theory, I would recommend reaching out to functional professional associations. In my area, this includes the Council on Undergraduate Research and the American Association of Colleges and Universities. I have found an enormous amount of information that has been relevant and also provided common language with my faculty colleagues. I would also recommend connecting with the Commission on Academic Affairs. Our functional area is incredibly diverse and dynamic. I have found that connecting with my colleagues in ACPA to be grounding and refreshing.