Almost forty years ago, I decided I wanted to become a student affairs professional. As an undergraduate student, I was like many soon to be student affairs professionals in that I was a student government officer, in charge of the program board, involved in any number of clubs and organizations and little did I realize that would become my career path. While working at my alma mater [East Stroudsburg], I was asked to fill in for a student affairs professional that needed to be on leave for a year. It was the beginning of what became a lifetime commitment to students.
I learned very early in this career that I needed to be credentialed appropriately. I watched many of my professional colleagues with lots of ability never chosen to be more than an Assistant or Associate Dean. Some by their own choosing but many because they felt it was not necessary to have a terminal degree. I should note that many of them were also female and that could also be another reason for not being selected. I made certain if I was not going to move up the career ladder there would be a good reason for it and it was not because I did not fit the academic requirement of a terminal degree.
My goal was to have all of my education completed by the time I was thirty. I missed it by about six months. It meant sacrifice and living on a budget that now seems quite meager. I commuted from Shippensburg, PA to State College, PA for two years before I realized I needed to spend the better part of a year getting the doctorate finished. There was a point in time that I also considered going to law school and not finishing the doctorate but I am glad I made the choice I did and completed a degree in Higher Education.
Our profession is an odd one in that there is no one degree that is preferred over another for the senior student affairs officer. The only criteria that I think is invaluable are the ability to speak in complete thoughts and also write them in communications to our academic colleagues. I have seen very intelligent professionals fail to achieve their goals because they neglect to write well and without grammatical mistakes and can barely engage others in conversation.
All of us read materials by professionals who are published in journals that are pertinent to what we do. Being a senior level administrator, however, does not necessarily mean you need to be published or even know how to conduct research. In these troubled times in all of education, we need to be able to analyze data, put together a plan that will work and become part of every committee on campus that needs to be reminded that students are our customer.
Working with all of the faculty and staff on a campus is always a part of the expectation for the senior student affairs officer. This is particularly true during troubled times and during an emergency, like a student tragedy. We have too many, most of the time, audiences that need to hear our voices. I believe it is critical that the Vice President for Student Affairs learns to be the spokesperson for the campus not only for student matters but in times of great sadness as well as joy. We are one of only a few administrators who can handle matters effectively when there needs to be one voice.
All of the experiences in higher education matter as you wander down the path that leads to the senior officer position. Most of us come out of housing and/or residence life. This is the only way to learn about how an institution functions. As a professional, I also think it is essential to move up through appropriate levels of experience, i.e. Assistant/Associate Dean, Dean and even Assistant Vice President. Learning takes place at all levels of responsibility but different settings are also important. I have worked at five different universities during my career and each one had a different way of doing things. That provided me with more perspective than I could possibly have hoped for.
Take advantage of professional development opportunities outside of the student affairs profession. Time I spent at Harvard’s Institute for Educational Management has been irreplaceable. Find someone on your campus who can nominate you for this program once you become a Vice President. Also, I have thoroughly enjoyed and learned a great deal by becoming a peer evaluator for Middle States Regional Accrediting Agency. Visiting a campus that has just completed several years of studying itself and telling you about it, is a great way to gain ideas that may help you on your campus.
As your campus looks for leaders to participate on committees that are a part of various processes, volunteer to help. Volunteer to be a part of the selection processes for important positions on your campus, you will learn a great deal.
Making a campus better for students is all of our jobs and sometimes we do it well and other times we do not. In these financially troubled times, it will take more than the Vice President for Student Affairs to do that. As anyone begins the search process for such a position, ask others to help you. Practice questions for interviews are essential as you prepare for such an experience. Doing homework on the institutions you apply to is also critical in the process.
Finally, all of us work for a boss. Get to know your President and clearly let him or her know that you are a team player who wants to make the campus a better place for everyone. Being politically savvy and able to talk with other professionals is imperative to making sure you are successful.
Linda D. Koch, D.Ed. has been the only Vice President for Student Affairs in the history of Lock Haven University. She holds a BA and an MA in History from East Stroudsburg University; an M. S. in Counseling from Ohio University and a D. Ed. in Higher Education from Penn State University. A native of Pennsylvania, she has worked for East Stroudsburg University as an Assistant Dean; Ohio University as a Resident Director and Teaching Assistant; Shippensburg University as an Assistant Dean; Western Connecticut as Associate Dean and Lock Haven University as a Dean of Student Affairs and Vice President for Student Affairs. She resides in Lock Haven with four male cats!