Blue Brazelton is assistant professor and coordinator of the higher education and student affairs master’s program at Northern Michigan University. When not teaching and advising students, he researches college students, culture, technology, and social justice. He is a dissenting rabble-rouser who believes that we should question cultural convention, which inspired this post.
In college I was a political activist punk engaging in rallies, sit-ins, and protests about equity, peace, justice, and love. I then realized that I wanted to go into education and chase the student affairs dream as so many of us had. When I left Texas Tech to move to Southern Illinois University-Carbondale, I took off my activist hat, stored it neatly away, and let it collect dust. I shaved off the blue mohawk, took out the piercings, and decided to play the game, presenting myself as your average, run-of-the-mill well-meaning white male in higher education. You know, the one who had and carried privileges wherever he went.
What I wish I had known that time, as I drove my packed Geo Prism to the Shawnee National Forest, is that I could have -- and should have -- kept wearing the activist hat in grad school. Fear, tradition, and cultural convention told me to keep it put away and it remains one of my regrets.
As an educator and full-fledged faculty member now, I wish I found an earlier way to transition from activist to advocate. For me it meant bucking the cultural conventions I ingested by being fully ingrained in student affairs life without ever thinking about what it meant.
If you have privilege, you have power; how you use it is up to you. For me I choose to encourage those around me to think better of what student affairs culture means. Such as telling students or new professionals to dress appropriately based on what some wealthy individuals decided was ‘appropriate’ a few hundred years ago as we dress up in their derivatives. Review advice for job conferences and see if you can identify cultural conventions which might be internalized racism, sexism, transphobia, or classism.
Another convention we often carry is the student affairs martyr syndrome which is detrimental to our health, communities, and possibly our students. Hall directors, the building isn’t going to burn down while you’re gone for a weekend. And if it does, there’s nothing you could do about it if you were there. While I was at my first ACPA conference my very first year as a grad hall director, one of my resident assistants was shot seven times while in Chicago (recovered fully). And guess what? We had a great community who rallied and finished the year strong. There’s no need to convince ourselves that we have to work 70 hours a week in order to feel worthy. When you accept and act as a martyr for your students, colleagues, bosses, and campus, you’re possibly preventing someone else from stepping up, growing, developing.
Finally, we need to learn and appreciate the power of “no.” Watch Emilie Aries’s talk on the subject. Half-assing a dozen projects is worse than whole-assing six. Also, in our eternal optimism of student affairs, the heart of higher education, we miss out on what’s to be learned from pessimism. Someone telling you that organizationally, your division is not supporting and developing talent, is telling you the climate isn’t good and needs to be addressed. Saying “Wel,l so and so is working as hard as they can” doesn’t make anyone improve and perpetuates the martyrdom mentioned earlier.
I’m not a pessimist. I hope you don’t read this as such. But student affairs doesn’t exist in a vacuum filled with the values we espouse, especially equity, justice, opportunity, and supervision. And I wish I had known that this is okay. We can be imperfect and still do amazing things, but from time to time, we need to buck the cultural convention and push for growth and improved inclusivity of our field*.
*Note: You might not feel you can push for change or that you can actually push back against the cultural expectations and mythology of the field. Just know that if you have an opportunity to be an advocate, I hope you find an authentic way to do so. And as you advance, remember the feelings and needs from when you felt less able to speak out.
What No One Told You About Student Affairs is a month-long series of guest posts highlighting lessons learned in the field of student affairs.