5 Ways to Be Like Gandalf through the COVID-19 Pandemic

Frodo Baggins gif where he says "I wish the ring had never come to me. I wish none of this had happened"

Frodo: “I wish the Ring had never come to me. I wish none of this had happened.”

Gandalf: “So do all who live to see such times, but that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.”

– from The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien

In honor of Tolkien Reading Day (every March 25th, the same day that Frodo threw the One Ring into the Mount Doom’s gaping volcanic maw), I ask you to read the passage above to reflect.

A global pandemic has come to us. We all wish that none of this had happened.

Many hearts are gripped with terror thinking of what – or rather, who – we may have lost already or stand to lose – our loved ones, our own lives…and for some craven fools who are more kin to Nazgûl than human, their stock portfolios and profits.

A dour feeling of powerlessness is sweeping across many folks – perhaps just in fleeting moments, like the sting of cold air across your cheek; perhaps the acidic weight of dread that’s settled daily into your gut…among other emotions.

We don’t want to feel powerless. It’s why many humans love all the various superhero themes in pop culture. It’s why one of the most devastating episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer is season 5’s “The Body” where Buffy – the ‘chosen one’ gifted with supernatural abilities that has defeated every Big Bad that she’s met – comes home to find her mother dead of a simple brain aneurysm.  We can’t punch our way through very human maladies.

But we can do something – decide what to do with the time that is given to us.

So if that feeling of powerlessness has been slowly sliding over you as lava slid over Gollum in his final moments, then I urge you to fight past that. Don’t let it consume you. We need you. Society needs you.

Be like Gandalf.

Great evil has risen – not just the virus but the duplicitous fiends who run different areas of government and are essentially advocating for human sacrifice to sate the economy – or rather, their own multi-million and billion dollar accounts (not even Saruman was this evil).

Gandalf was practical and the quintessential man (technically Maia) with a plan. He sought knowledge, from chatting with hobbits to deep discussions with the elves to scouring over books in the White City. He didn’t always make friends because he asked hard questions and advocated for the right thing, which made people in power quite uncomfortable. He learned pity and patience from Nienna, one of the Valar, and those lessons served him well in Middle-Earth.

So what can we do, to be like Gandalf during COVID-19 Pandemic?

1. Determine what is in your scope of power and ability, but dare to dream.

“It is not our part to master all the tides of the world, but to do what is in us for the succour of those years wherein we are set, uprooting the evil in the fields that we know, so that those who live after may have clean earth to till. What weather they shall have is not ours to rule.” – Gandalf, The Return of the King

We cannot do everything. For some of us, chronic illness/disability, caregiving for loved ones, or other components of life can sometimes make just changing our clothes and getting out of bed difficult. For some, COVID-19 is compounding their already existing conditions like anxiety and depression, or re-triggering old traumas. Listen, our most essential goal is survival. Showering, eating, and other forms of basic care – if you only have the spoons for a small amount of personal actions, take care of yourself. Settle into your hobbit hole.

For those who have the ability, consider what more you can do. Focus on 1-5 things that are withing your sphere of influence. For me, that looks like:

  • Making sure my family is okay and has what they need (mom is high-risk, and I am beyond worried). Grocery shopping, very carefully driving mom to an upcoming surgery, keeping the house surfaces clean, etc etc.
  • I work with medical students and my job is literally community engagement, so all my energy is going into supporting students through the traumatic/difficult experiences that COVID-19 is causing + creating service opportunities around public health. I don’t have the time outside of work and family to volunteer directly with nonprofits, but I have the fortune to connect with nonprofits through my work and develop opportunities.
  • In my own time, keep up on public policy and contact my politicians so they listen to science and reason, instead of  oranges in ill-fitting suits.
  • That 2nd one is truthfully 20 different things rolled up in one, and I know how easy it is to burn bright and burn out quickly (like the phial containing the light of Eärendil after being smashed by a giant spider), so I’m investing in self-care. Family time, walks outside, snuggles with kitties, playing Witcher 3, watching Witcher (for the 4th time lol) and Kim’s Convenience Store on Netflix. Oh yeah, and trying out therapy, because mental health with professional support is very important!

2. Flatten the Curve Like a Hobbit, and Settle in for 18 Months or Longer

“Short cuts make long delays.” – Pippin, The Fellowship of the Ring

Many are finding the drastic changes to their daily lives very difficult right now. Hearing that you need to get used to it until maybe November 2021 or sometime in 2022…well, that probably isn’t what you want to hear. But we need to do this – taking a short cut now will delay our society’s chance in functioning normally (and lead to many deaths).

Clashing with public health experts, President Trump wants to re-open the country for business by April 12th – on Easter.The president may have confused the meaning of the holiday, mistakenly believing that the resurrection of Jesus Christ (the same being who told the rich to give up their possessions if they wanted to get into Heaven; Mathew 19:21) also stands for the resurrection of the economy.

Either way, public health experts have issued a series of recommendations based on outbreak science. Some of the statements include:

  • There are 2 ways of ending this pandemic. (1) A vaccine is the goal, and many scientists are working on this, but it will take 1-1.5 years for the vaccine to move to human trials and then longer for testing and final FDA approval. And then longer to mass produce the vaccine, ship it out, and give it to people (Johns Hopkins). We simply don’t know when it will be ready. (2) Eventually we will reach herd immunity. Ideally, because of social distancing and other mitigation and (preferably) suppression measures, the virus will slowly spread through the population to a point that the hospitals will not become overwhelmed and everyone can receive full treatment. As folks recover, they will have immunity (but we aren’t sure for how long).
  • The widely trusted Imperial College Report has numbing statistics that have influenced the reluctant UK and USA governments to act. If we as a society do nothing, COVID-19 will kill 2.2. million people in the U.S. by July or August this year [graph]. One day in June would result in the death of 55,000 people. That is terrifying.
  • Our first option to “flatten the curve” is what we are currently doing – mitigation. “In this scenario, population immunity builds up through the epidemic, leading to an eventual rapid decline in case numbers and transmission dropping to low levels” (Imperial College). We are essentially slowing down the transmission of COVID-19 but not halting it altogether. Social distancing, hand washing, etc.
  • Our second option to “flatten the curve” is what several Asian countries have done, and it has accomplished success – suppression. Essentially, we are severely decreasing virus transmission and even grinding it to a halt. Everyone needs to be tested (since many infected folks are asymptomatic) and folks with the virus must be quarantined. Until we know who is ill, the “stay in place” orders that some states have must be a reality across the U.S.
  • I’m not saying we must shut everything down for 2 years. As Carroll & Jha (2020) described, if we amp up testing and production of medical equipment & treatment locations, we can make it out of this with more people alive and society still somewhat functioning. We can prepare now, get through spring and summer, and see transmissions slow. Once late fall/winter arrive, it is expected that COVID-19 will  come back with a vengeance. But we can practice suppression efforts (close schools and businesses, stay home) as patient cases increase, and then get patients tested, treated, and isolated. As cases decrease, suppression efforts can be lifted. Throughout the winter and spring, this will ebb and flow as we protect hospitals from being overwhelmed.
  • Get comfortable with a more difficult life. This is our reality in a pandemic, and we are all in it together. American traditional (and post-9/11) values have led to COVID-19 spreading like skittering goblins across a mountain cave. Although the time period was not perfect, now is the time to look towards World War II era societal and individual sacrifices (not lives! But like being compliant with stay-at-home-orders and not having a year’s worth of toilet paper) for the good of all.

3. Public Policy Advocacy, like Gandalf the White Counseling King Théoden

“Deserves it! I daresay he does. Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement. For even the very wise cannot see all ends.” – Gandalf, The Fellowship of the Ring

It is frustrating that the political party that invented the “death panels” lie of what the Affordable Care Act (ACA) would come to be in 2009, is now essentially eager for such a reality. The New England Journal of Medicine has published “Fair Allocation of Scarce Medical Resources in the Time of Covid-19” and other organizations like the American Medical Association (AMA) are helping physicians grapple with the ethics of the upcoming surge in COVID-19 critical patients. Ultimately, what it means, is that a scarcity of medical treatment options – like our nation’s limited supply of ventilators – will mean that some critically ill individuals may not receive treatment (to get an idea, review the Sequential Organ Failure Assessment [SOFA] Score) if it is not likely they would survive compared to the other patients.

Look into trusted organizations and news sources:

  • AAMC Advocacy & Policy COVID-19 Resources – “The AAMC serves and leads the academic medicine community to improve the health of all.”
  • American Medical Association (AMA) public health page, + their policy recommendations/options to state governments
  • Brief19, with daily policy updates on COVID-19, is run by MDs,
  • NPRCoronavirus news page
  • Share additional sources in the comments!

Here are things to advocate for:

  • President Trump needs to invoke the Defense Production Act of 1950 to have U.S. factories stop production of their private goods, and instead mass produce Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) for healthcare workers, ventilators, and more. Trump first said he would and now (perhaps due to business lobbyists) has declined, telling state governors that “Governors are supposed to be doing a lot of this work, and they are doing a lot of this work…The Federal government is not supposed to be out there buying vast amounts of items and then shipping. You know, we’re not a shipping clerk” (White House Statement). Tell your congressional representative and senator that they need to pressure Trump for this to happen.
  • Advocate to your state leaders (governor, state rep, state senator, city council and mayor) to put suppression strategies in place and keep them in place as long as needed. Pages 5-6 of the Imperial College Report share 5 different Non-Pharmaceutical Intervention (NPI) Scenarios and the report goes into detail on how all the strategies are crucial for survival. In order to not overwhelm our hospitals and have millions dead, we need to continue suppression strategies for as long as needed. The states who have “Stay at Home” orders have it right, but they have to be okay with extending it (things will be intense through May at least). States like Texas, where the Lt Governor essentially said “Old People Should Volunteer to Die to Save the Economy“, have a hurdle in advocating to their leaders…but keep at it.

Here’s how to contact elected officials:

  • Use www.usa.gov/elected-officials to find fed, state, and local folks.
    • Or, this CommonCause website is WAY easier and lists everyone. They are an organization that advocates for redistricting.
    • Once you find the phone numbers for your senators, congressional rep, state rep, and state senator, PUT THEM IN YOUR PHONE. Do like me and just casually call them to share your concerns on a weekly or daily basis. Call after-hours to leave a voicemail if you don’t want to talk to a real person.
    • Emails also work well – it can be nice to have something more tangible to track.
  • Politicians listen to voters the most (after, I must cynically add, corporate donors thanks to (Citizens United) so visit Vote411 (run by non-partisan group The League of Women Voters) that you are registered/get registered. Also google you local county Board of Elections or your state’s Secretary of State website to check.

4. Serve Your Community

Only a small part is played in great deeds by any hero.”  Gandalf, The Fellowship of the Ring

You may be just one person, who can do just one part to help our society, but if everyone did one action step, we can accomplish great deeds. The idea of a single “chosen one” to save society is a myth – instead we need a fellowship.

Food banks, Meals on Wheels, homeless shelters, and other similar organizations that are run predominantly by retired and older folks, need new volunteers so regular volunteers can stay home and safe. COVID-19 pandemic has caused a critical need for blood and platelets, so donate blood if you’re eligible and willing. Many local United Ways are collecting specific COVID-19 volunteer needs on their websites.  Many communities – though faith-based groups or citizen-run groups – are helping elderly and immunocompromised folks get groceries or doing childcare for healthcare workers. Overall, google is your friend here in finding opportunities, but a lot of content is being shared on social media and on the news – this is the best path to finding local opportunities.

For those of you who don’t have to worry about finances, give to local funds supporting artists, domestic workers, and hospitality employees who all have lost jobs or had hours cut. Give money to organizations helping to address major social needs that will only be exacerbated by COVID-19 (domestic violence shelters, homeless shelters, food pantries, youth organizations, etc)

5. Do not Despair. Have Hope.

“Despair, or folly? It is not despair, for despair is only for those who see the end beyond all about. We do not. It is wisdom to recognize necessity, when all other courses have been weighed, though as folly it may appear to those who cling to false hope.”  – Gandalf, The Fellowship of the Ring

During the Council of Elrond an argument breaks out on the idea to destroy The One Ring, and Gandalf speaks the words above to caution the group. If one assumes they see the end result of a task, one that they presume will end badly, they will despair. Much as Denethor, the Steward of Gondor despaired falsely when he believe the Dark Lord would overcome Gondor. Reason left him, and he sought death for himself and his son, to save them from the coming darkness.

Do not despair! It is wise for us to understand the reality of this pandemic and to take appropriate action. We cannot hope falsely and place our lives into the hands of elected officials, who we assume will work for the betterment of society; not all will, as they have been corrupted by greed as the Nine Rings once corrupted the mortal kings of old, who devolved into the Nazgûl. We must be active in making sure positive change happens if we have the energy and health to do so.

“The world is indeed full of peril, and in it there are many dark places; but still there is much that is fair, and though in all lands love is now mingled with grief, it grows perhaps the greater.” – Haldir, The Fellowship of the Ring

Take a breath, as deeply as you can. Look outside. Remember what you have – be it breath, or the people or resources in your life…It can be so difficult to be thankful during a global stressful situation, but sometimes we need to simply be and reflect.

Have hope, friends. And please, take care of yourself out there.

Happy Tolkien Reading Day ❤

Bonus Quote:

“If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.” – Thorin, The Hobbit


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When I Should Have Left. Reconsider Graduate School for Student Affairs A 2020 blog series Guest Post by @Kristen_Abell #RGS4SAM https://danceswithdissonance.wordpress.com

When I Should Have Left [guest post]

This is part of the blog series “Reconsider Graduate School for Student Affairs” dedicated to exploring if going to graduate school for student affairs – or even going into student affairs – is worth it. To see the introductory post on this blog series, please visit this page. To contribute a guest post, visit here. Peruse past posts on what to look for in a #SAgrad program and alternatives to #SAgrad programs to pursue related interests in different careers.

In this guest post, Kristen Abell  shares her thoughts on an important topic in the field that is not commonly discussed. Welcome to #RGS4SAM.


I’ve started writing this post a few different times now. I had great visions of a post that ranged across topics from Brené Brown and the cult of vulnerability that isn’t actually vulnerable, to all the ways people in oppressed identities could care for themselves in our sometimes (often) toxic workplaces. I even had a whole outline that was practically a work of art. And then I sat down to write, and what came out instead was this. I’m going to tell you a story about my too-long career in higher education (mostly student affairs) and the times I should have walked away but didn’t. 

When I was an assistant hall director as a grad student, we had a student die by suicide in one of the halls I served on call for and another student who fell from the top floor onto a porch roof while drunk (he survived, despite shattering both his legs) in the hall in which I lived. These incidents happened within about a month of each other (it may have been closer together or slightly farther – memory warps the mind. Either way, they felt like they happened fairly close together). After the student death, and after counseling staff had been called in to talk with any student that might need additional help at that time, the hall director took the student staff on a mini-retreat against the wishes of the upper administration. After the student fell onto the roof of the porch, I happened to be on site with two of the upper admins in housing at that time. My counterpart in the hall took the two RAs that were his supervisees to IHOP to get them away from the hall (again, after we made sure all the student residents were okay).

I understood at that moment that to our administrators, the life and health of our students were more important than the life and health of our staff  (even when those staff were students themselves)

At this point, one of the administrators (who I’m friends with now and who I know cares deeply about people, but, like so many higher ups, had been groomed in higher education) turned to me and asked, “Why do they always have to leave? I don’t get it – shouldn’t we be taking care of the students right now? Why are they leaving?” I understood at that moment that to our administrators, the life and health of our students were more important than the life and health of our staff (even when those staff were students themselves). This was the first time I should have left student affairs.

My second position out of grad school was in another large residence life department at a different institution. I was replacing someone whom everyone adored and who was only going to be gone for semester-at-sea, even though he’d left the position permanently. Many of the people I worked with there often compared me to him in subtle but constant ways. I was told by another upper admin that I didn’t know how to communicate (the first time in my life someone told me I was the one with a communication problem). I often went into meetings where it felt like the hall directors ganged up on me and berated every idea I had. When I tried to plan for RA recruitment, I started too late. The next year when I brought the timeline to them almost right after we finished, I was starting too early. I spent an entire night reprogramming our residence life TV channel when it crashed, only going to bed around 3 or 4 a.m. I made sure to email my supervisor when I was done so that she knew how hard I had worked. This department thrived on the cult of busy. 

In order to “heal” the communication issues rife in the department, an outside consultant was brought in who asked us to give feedback to our partners, and our partners were told they should not respond. My supervisor and the director of the department were both my partners. I took their feedback without responding. They did not allow me to provide feedback without responding. I spent an entire year being beaten down over and over and over again. No matter what I did in this department, I was often told it wasn’t enough and I was changing things too much. I lived on campus, and I saw each of the four assistant directors and associate director almost every weekend in their offices. This is the second time I should have left student affairs.

As a director of residence life at a small university – a position I fell into more than sought – I worked my ass off. I stayed late, I checked email at all hours, I cleaned rooms and took verbal abuse from employees. I had a supervisor who knew that I experienced depression and truly did care about me (still does, I believe), but who was in service to a VP who – despite his merits – did not know how to take care of his people. The job drove me to one of the worst bouts of depression I’ve ever experienced. The job drove me to hide under my desk and cry because I didn’t know what else to do. The job drove me to the hospital for a four-day stay because I literally could not breathe. My supervisor asked me to check my email while at the hospital because we’d had a bad incident on campus. This job didn’t just step over my boundaries: it demolished them. This was the third time I should have left student affairs.

I’ve shared three significantly awful work situations, but what I haven’t told you are the million cuts and bruises in between at those jobs and the other jobs I have worked in higher education that all should have been signs to me, as well. That would be too much for one blog post. I also haven’t explained why I stay. 

Our administrators are people, and as such, they are flawed. But more importantly, even the best of people can become warped by the system that exists, and higher education as a whole is tremendously flawed. It has been opaque for far too long and now doesn’t know how to be transparent. It is a system of professional hazing – where we ask new professionals to do it just because we did it, not because it’s the best way. It’s a system that continues to prioritize some lives – often white, cisgender, straight lives – over others. It’s a system that prioritizes learning but doesn’t learn itself. 

If you decide to join the system – and you might still, there are plenty of good reasons to join, too. There are so many truly wonderful people that work in higher education. Many of my best friends I’ve met through work or professional conferences or online networks devoted to student affairs. There are some amazing students who do even more amazing things, and only by working in higher education can you truly witness their development and work up close. There are often even lots of occasions for learning – whether it’s getting to bring the speakers you’ve been wanting to hear to campus to crashing a lecture about a topic that interests you, higher ed is rife with educational opportunities. Obviously I’m still here, so I don’t think it’s all bad.

You will be able to join a long line of pretty great people who were just socialized in a system that was broken but never managed to question the brokenness.  It just was what it was, and they do their best within it.

But what I do think is that if you decide to work in higher ed, I believe there are three possible paths ahead for you. The first is to become (even more) flawed yourself, to give into the professional hazing and opacity, to become oppressors, and to refuse to continue learning. You will be able to join a long line of pretty great people who were just socialized in a system that was broken but never managed to question the brokenness. It just was what it was, and they do their best within it.

The second is to leave. Working in higher education is not – nor should it be – for everyone. It is perfectly acceptable – and even commendable – to leave after your first or second or third position in higher education. I suspect you’ve even got some pretty amazing skills to take with you. There are several people out there willing to help you (shout out to Amma Marfo’s Defectors work and Higher Ed Entrepreneur’s SA Pro to CEO program – go look them up if you’re considering leaving) and even a couple of Facebook groups you could join. 

The third path – the one I seem to have chosen or fallen into – is this: to change the system. I can’t help but notice that this field into which I’ve stumbled half-blindly seems to be at a bit of a crux. We are fed up. We can no longer keep doing more with less. We can no longer be opaque about what higher ed is, what it costs, why it costs, and what it demands of all of us. When I recently told my partner I just didn’t know if I could continue to work in higher ed unless there was a major sea change, he looked at me and said, “But who better to make that change than you?”

None of these three ways is easy, much like any path you choose in life. But I hope that at least, unlike myself, you can go into grad school and your career in higher education or student affairs – if that is what you choose – with your eyes wide open and the curtains drawn back. This is what we are. Choose with care.

* * *


Kristen Abell has almost 20 years of experience in higher education, as everything from an academic adviser to a director of residence life and most recently, the Interim Director of Communications for Virginia Tech Student Affairs. In her spare time, she advocates for higher education professionals experiencing mental illness, is a co-founder of The Committed Project, and is writing her memoir about life with depression and anxiety. Oh yeah, her master’s degree is in social work, and she is still trying to figure out what she wants to be when she grows up.

Connect with Kristen & consider tipping her for her time in writing this:

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Since Kristen is a Buffy the Vampire Slayer fan, I had to give her a special “tip your writer” gif! 🙂

The Power of Politics in Higher Education . Reconsider Graduate School for Student Affairs A 2020 blog series Guest Post by ANONYMOUS #RGS4SAM https://danceswithdissonance.wordpress.com

The Power of Politics in Higher Education [guest post]

This is part of the blog series “Reconsider Graduate School for Student Affairs” dedicated to exploring if going to graduate school for student affairs – or even going into student affairs – is worth it. To see the introductory post on this blog series, please visit this page. To contribute a guest post, visit here. Peruse past posts on what to look for in a #SAgrad program and alternatives to #SAgrad programs to pursue related interests in different careers.

In this guest post, an Anonymous Student Affairs Professional shares their thoughts on how nasty the politics in higher education can become. Welcome to #RGS4SAM.


“You might want to consider working outside higher education,” I heard my dean say. My world shook. “I think your passion would make a great fit for the non-profit sector.” This was the first of two meetings that I had with my dean and my director regarding an incident.

In the second meeting, I found out my contract would not be renewed.

A few months earlier, the campus was notified about an individual who was harassing students on campus. It gave the individual’s height, gender, vehicle, and license plate number, and not much else. I didn’t think much of it. It was an open campus, and I’ve known of a few townspeople who would come to campus and yell at our LGBTQ+ students or post white supremacist flyers, so I assumed this warning was on par with those incidents: heinous and frustrating, but relatively harmless.

In the next several weeks, more information began to leak and it soon began to be known that this individual had a large firearm, and was knocking on students’ doors in search of a specific person at a university-affiliated off-campus apartment; that the incident happened more than 24 hours before the alert went out; that the individual had not been apprehended until 72 hours later in another part of the state.

This happened almost a year after the mass shooting that devastated Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL. And as we all know, hundreds of mass shootings have happened since then.  Our small university community began to realize they could have been one of those statistics, and many of us were disturbed by the inaction of those in charge of communication regarding the incident, including myself.

It was not the first time I was outraged by the way some members of the administration handled issues concerning the well-being of its students. Nothing much had ever been said or done about the white supremacist flyers, until one specifically targeted a student leader. The institution seemed so afraid to tarnish their reputation, they chose to not address serious issues simply because that would mean they had to admit they had an issue in the first place. I felt a sense of obligation to the students I worked with to do something, so I wrote a letter to key members of the administration offering suggestions on how to actively promote the safety of the campus and develop a better university-wide communication protocol. My advice was not appreciated.

Which brings us back to the beginning…

Did I take my dean’s well-meaning, yet cutting, advice? I thought about it. But then I thought back to why I went into this field in the first place. I entered into student affairs to remove barriers. I was moved to action at that institution because I felt that just empowering the students I worked with to stand up for themselves was not accomplishing that goal. How can we say we are removing barriers if we are putting the onus of advocacy on those students who are most in need of our services? Students who already feel attacked by the culture of the institution; those who are working to pay for college; those who are taking several credits to graduate “on time.” Why are they responsible for advocating for a safer and more inclusive campus? Isn’t that my job?

Even though the administration at that institution did not agree with that sentiment, I was not going to let that stop me. I want to transform higher education institutions to be more inclusive and accessible to those in our society who have been neglected, excluded and mistreated by this system. That intention remains strong, and that is what gives me hope.

I chose to write about this because if you are going into student affairs with the same intent, there are a few things that you will want to consider:

  • It is hard work! It is much easier to maintain the status quo than to take a risk to make real structural changes. It is most effective if you are able to form a coalition of allies and champions who can support you and work with you to achieve your goals.
  • It is emotionally exhausting. This is the part of our work that we bring with us everywhere, regardless of whether we’re working or trying to sleep at night. I was not practicing adequate self-care and was constantly physically sick while working at that particular institution.
  • Seek advice from your mentors. This was one of my biggest mistakes. I was so incredibly frustrated, I sent that letter without allowing my supervisor to give me any feedback on my plan. Because of that, my sacrifice was for nothing. Had I taken a less extreme measure at the advice of my mentor-boss, I might have been able to move the needle a little further than I was able to do on my own.
  • Pay close attention to the culture of the institution. While you are likely to encounter moral indiscretions at any institution you work for, the ways an institution may handle those issues can let you know how successful you might be in your efforts to affect change.

When I got into this field, I didn’t realize the power of politics in higher ed. I graduated with hope in my heart and dreams of possibilities for the direction higher education can go. That feeling has not subsided, but I now have a better idea of what to expect, and how to better navigate such issues in my current and future roles.

The field is in need of people who are willing to make sacrifices to enact change. Know your purpose, find your allies, and you can be resilient even through the tough times.

* * *



[Editor’s note: Submission guidelines allow for anonymous authorship for writers who would like to keep their identity unknown. Please respect their anonymity – this series will have a couple anonymous posts at least]

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Toss a coin to your witcher! LOL that’s me, please keep reading below

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Myths and Realities of Life Work Balance in Student Affairs.. Reconsider Graduate School for Student Affairs A 2020 blog series Guest Post by Conor McLaughlin #RGS4SAM https://danceswithdissonance.wordpress.com

Myths & Realities of Life Work Balance in Student Affairs [guest post]

This is part of the blog series “Reconsider Graduate School for Student Affairs” dedicated to exploring if going to graduate school for student affairs – or even going into student affairs – is worth it. To see the introductory post on this blog series, please visit this page. To contribute a guest post, visit here

In this guest post, Conor McLaughlin, shares their thoughts as a current faculty member on what prospective students should know. Welcome to #RGS4SAM.


From 2012 to 2017 I produced and hosted a podcast called Life Work Balances. Each week for three years, and once a month after that, I published a conversation that I had with a person who works in higher education in which we discussed how they had come to understand life work balance. In total I published close to 200 hours of content, all of which is still available for free through Apple Podcasts and at lifeworkbalances.wordpress.com.

I learned a lot from my experiences hosting and producing this podcast. I certainly learned a lot about technology, since I had to teach myself how to record, edit, mix, and publish a podcast at a time when that information was a lot less available. I also took a lot away from the conversations I had with a variety of people in this field, a great deal of which challenged and evolved my thinking about what balance is and can be. The experience helped me to better understand several of the predominant myths that exist in student affairs about what balance is, as well as the truth about balance that is often masked by these myths.

Myth 1: “Doing what you love means you never feel drained by your work”

A lot of people that I talked to got into the field of student affairs because it was something they did as an undergraduate student and found the experience to be exciting and energizing, sometimes more so that the careers more directly associated with their academic major. While some people certainly continue to find the field energizing and invigorating in this way, many if not more do not. One of the most important reasons for this is because student affairs work was once the thing people did to relieve or escape stress and now it is the thing causing said stress. Add to this the trends toward doing more with less and the constant demand for immediate results and responses, balance can seem ever less attainable. You can love students, love learning, and love the values of this field and still find it exhausting. This myth gets perpetuated, often, in order to make people who experience this exhaustion feel like the problem or are somehow damaged. This myth works very hard to stay in place.

Myth 2: “When you leave the office for the day you are done with work”

Some people are able to not check email after 5pm, leave work at work, and easily schedule time for vacation, the gym, and quiet time, but these things are not so easy or even possible for everyone in the field. To this end, balance requires some serious self-reflection to determine what you need before you can chart a course to getting there. So rather than tell you to “leave work at work” and so many other clichés, I would say “take some time to ask yourself what reenergizes you, and look at where there can be space for that in your day/week/schedule”. If you don’t yet know, perhaps making time to try things is a place at which you could begin. Getting to know yourself and what you need to stay afloat, much less in balance, may bring into focus what place this work has in helping or hurting that process.

Myth 3: “Other duties as assigned means you have to say yes to every ask”

Another key take-away from my experiences was the realization of the importance of learning how to say no. It is important to very literally learn how to say no, because as I previously mentioned there will always be more asks and always more requests for your time. It is also important to learn how to negotiate, to say “not right now”, because these asks will not always be optional, and there is no magical way to add more hours to your day, nor can you physically be on campus and at a conference in a different state at the same time. Developing this capacity requires some of the getting to know yourself I mentioned earlier, as well as some honest questions and conversations with members of your department and especially your supervisor. Getting to know what are the non-negotiable commitments, what things you have the opportunity to say no to, and what, if any, consultation you need to do when making this decisions will be important. Everyone will want their request to be your top priority, and being sure of what needs to inform your delegation, triage, and prioritization will make a big difference in how much of that expectation you actually have to carry around with you. Asking these sorts of questions early (in a job and even in your career) may give you some very important insights into whether balance is a part of how decisions get made and whether this environment can support balance.

Whether you are considering getting in to the field, contemplating whether or not to stay in the field, or solidifying your commitment for the rest of your career, spend some time thinking about these things. They are not necessarily things every supervisor or colleague will prompt you on, and they do not always show up as session topics at professional conferences. This is also not a perfect road map with an X at the end marking a perfectly achieved balance. They are at best signposts or broad directions, and often they simply point away rather than toward. Still, we have to start somewhere, and exploring new terrain away from these myths which seem to do more harm than good may help emerge something better.

* * *


Conor McLaughlin is a Teaching Professor at Bowling Green State University I’m the Department of Higher Education and Student Affairs. He teaches undergraduate classes on leadership, and graduate courses on the functions and foundations of higher education and postsecondary students in the United States. Conor previously hosted a podcast on Life Work Balance from 2012-2017 while experiencing unemployment and then pursuing their doctorate.

The Dark Side of Working in Student Affairs. Reconsider Graduate School for Student Affairs A 2020 blog series Guest Post by Dr. Scott M. Helfrich #RGS4SAM https://danceswithdissonance.wordpress.com

The Dark Side of Working in Student Affairs [guest post]

This is part of the blog series “Reconsider Graduate School for Student Affairs” dedicated to exploring if going to graduate school for student affairs – or even going into student affairs – is worth it. To see the introductory post on this blog series, please visit this page. To contribute a guest post, visit here. Peruse past posts on what to look for in a #SAgrad program and alternatives to #SAgrad programs to pursue related interests in different careers.

In this guest post, Dr. Scott M. Helfrich shares his thoughts on The Dark Side of Working in Student Affairs. Welcome to #RGS4SAM.


Working in college and university Student Affairs can be an incredibly rewarding experience. Most of us have chosen to work in this field because of the wonderful out-of-class experiences that we ourselves had in college. This includes the nurturing relationships that we had with our own Student Affairs mentors. As a result, we set our sights on having the impact on others that they had on us, and,

therefore, chose to become a Student Affairs professional. Unfortunately, working in Student Affairs is a completely different experience than what we experienced as an undergraduate student and as a graduate student.

The intent behind this post is not to discourage or frighten those aspiring to be a Student Affairs professional, but to provide insight on the realities of working on a college or university campus. Conversely, I hope to inspire new and veteran student affairs staffers to create a better university environment and experience for both employees and students. There are various aspects of the Student Affairs world that undergraduate students should understand prior to looking to start a Student Affairs-related graduate degree.

Burnout is Real and Pervasive

The world has changed significantly over the past 20 years, and the work of Student Affairs professionals has not been immune to the abundant and significant challenges that have arisen as a result. The advent of the smart phone and its effects on personal interactions, changing Title IX legislation, the skyrocketing costs of higher education, hunger and homelessness, safety concerns, racial and social justice efforts, and increasing mental health issues are only a few of the multitude of complex challenges that Student Affairs professionals face on a daily basis.

The work of Student Affairs professionals is very engrossing, and, at times, can be unrelenting. Seeing that campus life is 24/7/365, rarely can staffers “turn off.” Between long hours involved with program development and implementation (most times in the evening), emergency response, compassion fatigue in managing emotionally charged incidents, and the heightening accountability on the Student Affairs field, staff burnout is a growing epidemic. To compound this issue, Student Affairs is a human services field, primarily within non-profit institutions, and consequently, the salaries of entry-level and mid-level employees do not compare with that of corporate entities, which easily creates additional stressors when employees are trying to survive financially.

Additionally, there is a significant amount of conversation about “self-care” and personal wellness in our industry. However, it should be the responsibility of the workplace to create an environment in which employees are respected and provided a healthy working environment. Two excellent related articles on this topic that I recommend are:

  1. Burnout is About Your Workplace, Not Your People by Jennifer Moss
  2. Overcoming Burnout and Compassion Fatigue in Higher Education by Justin Zackal

Student Affairs Is Always “Last Chair”

The work that we do is very important as we connect students to their peers through co-curricular and extracurricular programs, provide crucial campuses resources, and support them through their college experience. However, Student Affairs is generally seen as the “last chair” in the academy. The work of Student Affairs is not the “core technology” of the institution, which some staffers can struggle to reconcile with throughout their career as we are generally not lauded in the same manner as the faculty. In particularly difficult times with a fragile enrollment environment and increasing costs associated with a college education, student affairs can be viewed as a luxury and therefore expendable. When it’s time for budget cuts, many Student Affairs services are an easy target. There has also been a growing trend in which Student Affairs functions has been subsumed under enrollment management or even under the provost’s division thereby eliminating the senior student affairs officer (SSAO) altogether. This has been disconcerting for many of us aspiring for those roles.

Just like employees in any other industry besides higher education, everyone has different goals and motivations for doing what they do. The same is true for employees in higher education. While it may seem bizarre to a Student Affairs professional that a college professional would not be interested in student development, some see the study and practice of student development as frivolous and not worthy of attention or resources.

Campus Politics Are a Nasty Business

In the 20 years I have been a Student Affairs professional, I have seen university politics that have been antithetical to the spirit of student development or learning (or simple ethics to be honest). While politics has its place in colleges and universities, they can also be extremely disconcerting for new and eager student affairs professionals. I have seen everything from political infighting and bullying to mobbing and underhandedly using students as confederates to move a personal agenda. This can become a fever pitch particularly when budget cuts loom and various departments and employees feel threatened. When livelihoods are on the line, morale bottoms out and the worst of people emerge. Student Affairs staffers, particularly younger staff, can find themselves in a toxic environment only to leave and find themselves in a similar or worse situation. The grass is never greener at another institution, and you’ll never find the “romance” that you experienced at your undergraduate institution. Being a student and being a Student Affairs professional are two starkly different experiences.

Thoughts for Reconsidering Student Affairs

  • Did you come to the realization of Student Affairs as a profession yourself, or did someone else suggest it to you? Just because a mentor and / or friend makes a friendly recommendation does not necessarily mean it is the correct choice for you. It should be more than clear to you that this work is your passion and you have well thought out goals. Be weary of those who may seem to be pushing you into a career path that you are not certain of.
  • Do you feel this career is your only option because of struggles with your current major or inability or challenges to get into graduate school for another field? If that is the case, given some more thought to your plans and reconsider why you are thinking Student Affairs. I have seen colleagues who have been in this situation only to have troubles shortly after because their heart was not in the right place.
  • Have some honest conversations with mentors and other professionals at your school as to the benefits and challenges they see working in Student Affairs. Get their perspective on the benefits and risks of making this career choice and discuss some alternative options in the case you want to change your mind.

* * *


Scott M. Helfrich, D.Ed. has been a housing and residence life professional for 20 years and the is owner of Helfrich Advisory Services, LLC. Dr. Helfrich is a nationally recognized thought leader on the management of student housing public-private partnerships.

Reviewing the Major Issues of Higher Education .. Reconsider Graduate School for Student Affairs A 2020 blog series Guest Post by Anonymous #RGS4SAM https://danceswithdissonance.wordpress.com

Reviewing the Major Issues of Higher Education [guest post]

This is part of the blog series “Reconsider Graduate School for Student Affairs” dedicated to exploring if going to graduate school for student affairs – or even going into student affairs – is worth it. To see the introductory post on this blog series, please visit this page. To contribute a guest post, visit here. Peruse past posts on what to look for in a #SAgrad program and alternatives to #SAgrad programs to pursue related interests in different careers.

In this guest post, an Anonymous Higher Education professional shares their thoughts on what the big picture problems of higher education and student affairs. Welcome to #RGS4SAM.


Like most people reading this, I had a college experience that affected me profoundly. Though my family was of decidedly modest means, tuition in the mid-90s was reasonable and financial aid bridged the gap much better than it does today – so I was able to have a residential experience on a small liberal arts campus. It was immersive and transformative and I am thankful for the faculty, staff, and fellow students who invested so much in me to make that such a meaningful time. This experience moved me to pursue a career trying to reproduce that experience for others by way of Student Affairs.

Bilbo Baggins is running through the Shire shouting "I;m going on an adventure!"

Now: No college experience worth its salt should turn out people who can’t adapt. As I ventured into new institutions and new roles, I saw some students having experiences similar to mine, finding the right resources and niches. And then, as I began to shed my confirmation bias, I increasingly saw students left behind by static student affairs engagement models that don’t meet the needs of a changing population of learners.

I have watched:

  • Social fraternities cling to their influence and demand disproportionate resources of their host institutions while much more inclusive programming models struggle to survive.
  • Urban institutions sink tons of cash into developing a new residential and programming structure while criminally underserving the vast majority of students who commute, work, support families, and struggle to balance it all.
  • Small colleges doubling down on irrelevant curricula, resulting in depressed enrollments, all the while continuing to teach “the students they wish they had” instead of making structural changes to serve the students they have, and that deserve a far more responsive approach.

A recent position with an organization that serves higher education helped me understand that these are not anomalies. There are massive systemic issues facing the higher education sector – issues that for the most part I think student affairs is ignoring. While most of this incredible blog series is centered on the reasons one might want to reconsider a career in student affairs, I am here to offer thoughts on why you might be careful about pursuing work in higher education writ large. To set the stage:

  • American faith in higher education institutions is eroding, and there is little evidence to suggest it will recover quickly. While college degrees do add massive value to a person’s life, our national graduation rates (just over 50%: abysmal) indicate that we do a terrible job actually getting those degrees into people’s hands. We have not adjusted to meet their needs, and we are failing them. The public has taken notice.
  • Another rising critique from outside our walls: Employers are not seeing the skills they need in recent graduates. Students have a much higher perception of how capable they are than do the employers who hire them. Chief academic officers have similar blinders on, habitually overestimating the abilities of their graduates. Given career outcomes are the overwhelming reason students cite for pursuing college educations, this is a serious issue.

So it is not clear we do what our students need us to do at all. And enrollments tell the story: They are in perpetual freefall at all types of institutions over the last eight years, spanning several shifts in the economy. This is driven in part by fewer students graduating from high school, and by people pursuing other options for postsecondary education. Training at work, certifications and licenses, and other non-degree pathways can be fruitful and certainly represent a smaller opportunity cost than the time and money it takes to finish a full degree.

As colleges scramble to figure out how they will entice older learners back to finish degrees – one in five adults in this country is walking around with some college but no degree, which is a direct effect of our terrible graduation rates – they are demonstrating a basic inability or unwillingness to consider fundamental changes to their models. And they are hurtling toward budget crises and closures as a result of having no idea how to attract today’s learner. This is a business that’s experiencing a rapid, catastrophic market correction. Why on earth would you get in now?

This is a business that’s experiencing a rapid, catastrophic market correction. Why on earth would you get in now?

Even if you land a steady job with a reasonable wage, the glut of people coming out of graduate programs (and out of sick and dying institutions) will be competing fiercely for a diminishing number of opportunities for advancement. Moribund enrollments guarantee flat wages and waning retirement contributions. And in the end, adjusting to meet the needs of today’s learners, which higher education has done such a shitty job of so far, is way harder when resources grow thin. So it’s a downward spiral for many institutions at this point.

These are all facts. The numbers tell the story. But here’s an additional suspicion I have, specific to student affairs: While some folks enter a career after considering many possibilities available to them, there is no small number of people who land on student affairs by default, after a minimum of creative thinking. Graduate programs have proliferated, enticing students into mediocre preparation tracks and tossing them into a really challenging employment market and jobs where they seem to be surrounded by toxicity and retrenchment of regressive social values.

And of all of these pathways to the profession, so precious few are taking into account the massive sea change in higher education and who our students are (as artfully laid out by Niki in her opening post in this series). I routinely see big, famous student affairs programs churn out new graduates completely unprepared for today’s higher education landscape, operating on assumptions established 30 or 40 years ago.

There is good work to do in this sector. My current role is one charged with making massive changes to a single institution to make it future compatible. I believe in what higher ed can be, but am skeptical that it will rise to the occasion in most circumstances. If you see opportunities to meaningfully contribute to the change we need, I encourage you to consider those. You don’t always need a degree in student affairs to do so. But if you’re assuming student affairs will be a steady option given all that’s happening, think carefully about whether you’re ready to enter that fray.

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The writer for this blog post has held senior-level positions in higher education and has 20+ years of experience in the field.

[Editor’s note: Submission guidelines allow for anonymous authorship for writers who would like to keep their identity unknown. Please respect their anonymity – this series will have a couple anonymous posts at least]

Work/Life Balance in Res Life. Reconsider Graduate School for Student Affairs A 2020 blog series Guest Post by @ChloeMcDs #RGS4SAM https://danceswithdissonance.wordpress.com

Work/Life Balance in Res Life [guest post]

This is part of the blog series “Reconsider Graduate School for Student Affairs” dedicated to exploring if going to graduate school for student affairs – or even going into student affairs – is worth it. To see the introductory post on this blog series, please visit this page. To contribute a guest post, visit here. Peruse past posts on what to look for in a #SAgrad program and alternatives to #SAgrad programs to pursue related interests in different careers.

In this guest post, Chloe McDowell shares their thoughts on a much discussed topic in the field: work life balance within residence life. Welcome to #RGS4SAM.


Student Affairs as a whole seems to often struggle with the idea of work life balance (or the latest phrase du jour- work/life integration). We frequently hear of departments overworking and underpaying both professional and paraprofessional staff and putting the onus on those staff to find, learn, and implement their own boundaries. This alone should give those considering the field pause.

Given this oft-shared experience, work/life balance is a topic of constant conversation in the field, particularly among entry level professionals, and especially among those that live in or live on. How do you balance work and life when not only is it easy to get called in, but your work is also your literal home?

In my 6 years in residence life, using a lot of trial and error, I have found boundaries that work for me. I plan to share these below, but I want to first recognize that these may not work for everyone. Some may think these boundaries are too strict for our students, and still others may think they somehow make me unapproachable or a bad live on staff member. It wouldn’t even be my first time hearing that statement or implication from a colleague, so if you think that I ask you simply move on and keep it to yourself. I share these boundaries with the hope they provide others with a starting point to find their own balance between work and their outside life should they join the field. Should you be unsure on whether or not to join the field, I share this as a level of caution that these are issues you will need to struggle with and resolve as well.  

I will own that a lot of this comes from my own experiences as a trans, queer, white individual and that there are some levels of privilege to my boundaries and what I share. I feel I can speak up and ask questions. More often than not, I don’t fear saying “no” or “this seems inequitable.” All of this requires some level of political capital some may not possess. My hope in sharing my experiences is that some will find it useful, and others may feel empowered to either take some steps in these directions or share where their own experience differs from my own. Please do not shy away from challenging me or sharing your own experience. 

First and foremost, your time is precious. While many of us are hired on a salaried basis, these positions are rated at roughly 35-40 hours a week depending on the institution and have built in expectations employees will take a 30 to 60 minute lunch break. Keep to that schedule as much as possible. Of course there are going to be exceptions that come up (opening, closing, duty, literal or metaphorical floods of work, etc), but by and large stick to your work schedule. Now this can be easier said than done and requires some other boundaries I’ll mention later to be successful. That being said, I attribute the fact that I am still in this field and in residence life to this boundary. 

I keep my lunch times scheduled on my calendar and noted as unavailable. I will absolutely shift that if necessary, but conduct meetings, RA meetings, etc do not generally happen over lunch. Whenever I do work over 40-45 hours, I talk to my supervisor about reclaiming time. It might mean flexing some morning or afternoon work, or using a combination of flex and vacation time to take time off, or some other arrangement, but by and large I’m taking the initiative to adhere to this boundary. Now not every department will be on board or support that. If that is the case 1) I would consider searching and 2) asking the question “why” is appropriate. If the answer comes back as solely because of salary status, but the department and/or institution claims to align with social justice initiatives, this is an area of incongruence that is worth exploring as a group. In the meantime, reclaim whatever time or schedule you can and use your sick and vacation time as appropriate to avoid burnout and ensure your personal wellness. 

When it comes to making sure I am able to stick to that boundary, I set clear expectations upfront, particularly with student staff. This means providing staff the tools to be successful without me- broadly sharing information wherever possible so staff can answer each others questions, being clear about on call protocols, expectations, and contact information so staff have someone to go to for after hours concerns or incidents, and setting a clear understanding of what is an emergency versus an inconvenience. Having to wait for an e-mail or message response regarding a staff meeting may be an inconvenience for a staff member for example, but my instant response to a staff meeting related question isn’t necessary over a weekend. I also stress with staff that I expect them to adhere to their own similar work/life boundaries as well- keeping to approximately 20 hours (again, excepting training/opening/closing/etc), putting academics and personal well being first, and then approaching and engaging this RA role. This then not only role models the behavior for my student staff, but provides an opportunity for them to learn and enforce boundaries of their own and hold me (and by extension the department) accountable for their schedule. 

After work I then return to my apartment. At many institutions our apartments may be oddly shaped, small, or outdated. It isn’t uncommon for them to exhibit weird quirks a typical apartment may not have. (I once had an apartment where the bathroom didn’t have a sink, but every other room did due to how the space was retrofitted to be a professional staff space, for example). And while these quirks may at times be unusual or annoying, the real challenge they pose is turning apartments into creating a feeling of home separated from work. For me, creating a feeling of home was absolutely necessary to avoid burnout. Whenever I step through my apartment door, I need to feel like I am stepping into a clearly mentally (and ideally physically) separate space from work. For me, that means lots of books and shelves, decorations and art, my own furniture, a closing and deadbolting door, having my animals waiting, and, if possible, an exterior entrance (I’ve only had 1 apartment with one, and it’s added such a significantly different feeling to the apartment for such a “small” thing). For you that might mean buying or requesting floor lamps to avoid fluorescent lighting and asking for new paint or appliances. It may mean having parking options for visitors and a second bedroom. Or it might mean something else entirely. Whatever it is, find a way to make your apartment feel like it is a space that is uniquely yours and somehow feels like it doesn’t “belong” in a residence hall. Anything to help provide that mental separation in addition to the physical separation that doors provide has been incredibly helpful. 

Finally, I don’t accept the premise that late night requirements need to be handled by live on staff alone. Staff meetings and fire drills are one thing, but when it comes to department wide initiatives and programming we should always be asking the question “how is everyone contributing and are we making effective use of all the resources available to us?” I have seen institutions make the transition from primarily relying on live on staff for these late night events to involve other staff members. While their were initial complaints from those being brought into the late night programming fold, it relieved significant pressure and feelings of alienation or lack of care from my colleagues. When it comes to on call, that’s what the on call rotation is for and it is important we support each other in that. In doing so, it not only makes getting off campus and enjoying oneself easier when not on call, but avoids miscommunication, overcommunication, and time or resources wasted when typically only duty staff need to respond to incidents. This also means we often have support networks on call of our own- typically some sort of assistant director or other staff member on call above. We should not be afraid to call up, rather than out to our peers, for questions or concerns about incidents, protocols, or policies. 

More than anything else, my time and my living conditions are perhaps the most precious to me. I work to live, I don’t live to work. Like many of us, I enjoy my work but it’s easy to become overworked and burnt out. Our institutions survived those before us coming and going and most will stand after us coming and going. Sometimes it’s worth reminding ourselves that we just are not that important. We have very real, meaningful, and significant impacts on our institutions and our students, but they will go on whether we work 40 hours or 80, whether we burn out and leave the field or make it a career. First and foremost, for the sake of our students, institutions, and ourselves, we need to take the time to put ourselves first.We cannot keep encouraging people to poor from empty vessels.  But, in many ways, that is what the field continues to push and encourage staff to do. Be aware that should you join Student Affairs, particularly in Residence Life, this is a conversation and struggle you will be joining in from day one. 

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Chloe recently joined the University of Oregon housing team as a Community Director. They have worked at a number of institutions across the country, including Massachusetts, Ohio, and Maryland. Chloe approaches their work as an advocate, not only for their students but for their colleagues and themselves. When they aren’t working you can likely find them on their PS4, with their wife, dog, and cat, catching up on a new show or movie, or exploring their new home. You can follow Chloe on Twitter @ChloeMcDs.

Show your [monetary] thanks to Chloe via the following platforms:

Jaskier from the Witcher is standing inside a pub and sings "Toss a coin to your Witcher O'Valley of Plenty, O'Valley of Plenty"

Toss a coin to your witcher! LOL that’s me, please keep reading below

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Four things I wish my Fairy Godmother had given me on the First Day of SA Grad School by Corinna Kraemer

Four things I wish my Fairy Godmother had given me on the First Day of SA Grad School [guest post]

This is part of the blog series “Reconsider Graduate School for Student Affairs” dedicated to exploring if going to graduate school for student affairs – or even going into student affairs – is worth it. To see the introductory post on this blog series, please visit this page. To contribute a guest post, visit here

In this guest post, Corinna Kraemer, shares her thoughts as a current student affairs graduate student on what prospective students should know. Welcome to #RGS4SAM.


Four things I wish my Fairy Godmother had given me on the First Day of SA Grad School

… or Santa, the Tooth Fairy, Bigfoot, or whoever else you believe in.

By: Corinna Kraemer, Current #SAGrad at Springfield College. UConn Huskies Alum.

fairy godmother from Cinderella gif with text saying "I whip my wand back and forth"

1. A magical map of acronyms and terms my professors would soon throw at me!

The main character from "That's So Raven" anxiously chewing gum

Okay so maybe if you’re 4, 5, or 10 years into your career and considering going back to grad school this may not apply to you, but being 21 and fresh out of undergrad I had NO idea what half of my professors were saying. I vividly remember the ‘deer in the headlights’ look my new cohort (I also did not know this term at the time) and I were making as we were thrown some of these terms, expected to know it all.

Here’s a few to get you started (you’re welcome):

  • NSO: New Student Orientation (fancy speak for orientation).
  • FYE: First Year Experience (that one-credit course you may have taken that some describe as life changing and others describe as an absolute a waste of time).
  • ACPA: American College Personnel Association (one of TWO professional organizations).
  • NASPA: The other professional organization that is an acronym that isn’t really an acronym anymore.
  • CAB: Campus Activities Board (changes names a lot at different places). Other examples include Student Activities Board, Campus Programming Board, or some combination of these words
  • Cohort: Those people sitting across from you that you’ll be stuck with for 2ish years. Get comfy! Cohort models are pretty common for #Sagrad programs.
  • Fieldwork/Practicum: This is a fancy term for unpaid internship that you get credit for. Do these!! (Will go into depth later).
  • Fellowship/Assistantship: TBH I still don’t know what the difference is between the two but I know they mean $$$ to pay for grad school

… And a ton more! I’m sure I missed quite a few so if there are any you’d like to add, drop them in the comments section.

2. A boatload of cash to pay for it all!
Actor Danny Devito on the phone wearing a dog shirt. Caption of gif says "CASH, YO."

Well my fairy godmother doesn’t exist so let’s talk about ways to make grad school at least somewhat affordable.

  • Scholarships: YES, they do exist!! Peep your school’s scholarship lists, local scholarships, national ones, local businesses, etc. My trick was to go back and look at the scholarships I applied to for undergrad and see if they offered for grad school
  • Fellowships/Assistantships: This is an extremely popular option if you’re not working full time already. My first year of grad school I had an assistantship that paid most of tuition with a stipend; my second year I had an assistantship that paid for food, housing, a stipend, but no tuition (yes, it is ok to change assistantships!!). Almost all graduate schools offer assistantships so make sure you ask!!!!! Springfield College (god bless) had an entire list of fellowships/assistantships available that I could apply to. If I’m being candid, getting an assistantship is what made me choose Springfield, because I would not have been able to afford it otherwise had I risked going to a school that I couldn’t find an assistantship at.
  • Alternatives: Other great programs are out there to help you pay for grad school! While they might pay less than an institution-sponsored assistantship, a lot of them offer tuition assistance while giving you experience. A great example is Americorps but there are definitely other options!

Fairy godmother from Cinderella waving her wand. Caption says :She bippity boppity do"

3. Reassurance that not knowing what you want to do after graduation is okay!

Okay so maybe this isn’t a ‘thing’ per se but it’s what I needed. Having been that undergrad who had no clue what they wanted to do in life, that continued on with me through grad school (I blame it on my still-developing prefrontal cortex) and even to this day as I’m preparing to graduate in May! Although it may drive your program director batty, don’t rush into a functional area just because it seems like the highest paying or highest in job availability.

My advice is to try whatever interests you in your fieldwork/internships. Finding out what you loathe is just as great of knowledge as knowing what you love.


4. And last but not least, a spell to make me fearless…

because grad school will challenge you!!!

Yes, there’s the papers and the classes that you’ll expect but there is so much more to SA grad school that you realize. Group projects, 2-hour presentations, long long lectures, balancing assistantships and schoolwork, that side hustle (look at you!), being on-duty, relationships, friendships, family, holidays, FOMO, drama, and keeping up with bach nation.

Seriously though, take time for yourself, #selfcare is underrated.

tiny dog holding newspaper and getting a massage. caption is Self Care Saturday.


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Corinna Kraemer is a current graduate student at Springfield College studying Student Affairs Administration, anticipated to graduate in May 2020. For comments/collaboration contact me at corinnakraemer7 @ gmail.com.

Student Affairs: Career for Some, Detour for Others? By Chris Conzen

Student Affairs – Career for Some, Detour for Others? [guest post]

This is part of the blog series “Reconsider Graduate School for Student Affairs” dedicated to exploring if going to graduate school for student affairs – or even going into student affairs – is worth it. To see the introductory post on this blog series, please visit this page. To contribute a guest post, visit here. Peruse past posts on what to look for in a #SAgrad program and alternatives to #SAgrad programs to pursue related interests in different careers.

In this guest post, Chris Conzen shares his thoughts how a student affairs career trajectory. Welcome to #RGS4SAM.



This post originally appeared on my personal blog six years ago (which has since been archived). I do think the general spirit still holds, though…maybe even more as we continue to see a growth in HESA graduate programs. I, myself, fell into student affairs as I found that I was creeping upon graduation without a clear idea of what I wanted to do once I crossed the graduation stage. Not only that, but I also backed into a career in student life, since the activities office at my graduate institution was the only one to offer me an assistantship, and I found myself facing over a decade of “nights and weekends”. While ultimately I decided to stay in higher education, it took a while before I found the right combinations to create the fit I was looking for.

I think the story of the “accidental student affairs professional” is more common that many of us may think, so I dug up this old blog post to share once again.


A new calendar year is upon us (not to be confused with the academic year, which is just one way we confused the people we try to explain our jobs to). Grad students coming to the end of their programs will begin the job search in earnest, while others ready to take the next step will start monitoring the Chronicle or HigherEdjobs more feverishly. Still others, with New Year’s resolutions (or OneWords) fresh in their heads, might start considering a career change or shift. For some, the soul searching might result in a renewed interest in the profession or a desire to shift into a different functional area, while for others, there might be the “how did I get here and how do I get out of here” moments.

Almost half of the members of my graduate school cohort are not in student affairs. In fact, a few of them did not even pursue jobs in higher education upon graduation. A few years out of graduate school, I started thinking about a career shift, entering a program in school counseling at the institution where I worked. Ultimately, I realized I wasn’t looking for a career change, but actually an escape from what seemed to me at the time as endless nights and weekends of work. Fortunately, with the help of a supportive supervisor and co-workers, I found better ways to balance my own time (which I actually used to work a 2nd job as a youth minister at a church, but that’s another post for another time) and I once again found the career satisfaction I had been lacking.

Student affairs will be where I forge the rest of my career path. However, I’ve recently had conversations with folks who don’t see their futures in the same field. I’ve started reflecting on how we all end up on the “SAPath” in the first place. I’d venture to guess almost none of us came to college thinking “Hey, I’m going to be the Director of Campus Activities one day”. This is a career many of us find as we’re in the process of finding ourselves. How often does this scenario happen:

A third or fourth-year-student who started out in sociology, or psychology, or even mechanical engineering has started to realize “I don’t really like any of the careers that come out of this major”. Yet, the student is so far in, with all of the general education classes finished (except for maybe that math course you’ve been avoiding because it was only offered at 8:30 AM – or maybe that was just me) the student has now embarked on the classes that are major specific. The student is starting to say “Oh crap, I’m graduating soon…what the heck am I going to do”. The student also happens to be very involved…could be a SGA Vice President or a RA. The student gets even more involved because, at this point, leadership is much more fulfilling than coursework. Then, the magic moment happens – it could be that the student expresses the career doubt out loud or he or she says “Hey, how do I do what you do”. Then, like someone has activated the “SASignal” we go into action. All of a sudden we’re forwarding them grad school applications and connecting them to our colleagues. We get so excited about the opportunity to mentor a new professional into the field, we might forget to ask the probing questions like “Well, what is it about student affairs that you think you might like” and help them to explore all of the options that might also fit that criteria. When the student announces which graduate school he or she will be attending and what assistantship he or she is taking, we shed a tear and proudly send a new “SAProgeny” out into the world.

A few years pass – the now grad students learn there’s actually theory and years of practice behind what we do. They excitedly move on to their first position and get ready to cut their teeth. Then, another magic moment happens – the moment they realize that working in higher education is much different than being a student leader in higher education. It might happen when the new professional is required to support a policy he or she would have organized sit-ins against as a student. Or it could be the moment that the students who made excuses to sit their office just to hang out with them are now writing angry facebook statuses about them because they had to hold the students accountable. Or it could just be the last night of homecoming week, when, as a student, he or she would have been out celebrating with friends, but instead he or she is left cleaning up the confetti with the grounds crew. And then a familiar feeling creeps in again – the feeling they had their third or fourth year when they realized their major wasn’t for them, only this time they have student loan payments, car payments, and cat litter to buy.

Of course, I’m being a tad cheeky about this. I know a great many professionals who are in this for the long haul like me and are more than happy to be here. But I think we can also name folks we know that are probably on a career detour right now – whether they have realized it themselves or not. Is this something we need to talk more about as a profession, or is it just par for the course in any profession? Can we be better about helping students explore other professions that might also meet their goals? I’d love to hear thoughts from other folks about this…even thoughts that I’m way off base on this one.

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Chris Conzen (he/him/his pronouns) is a 20-year veteran of higher education, having spent 18 of them in student affairs before transitioning into academic affairs. Chris has a B.A. in Social Work, an M.Ed. in College Student Personnel and an Ed.D. in Higher Education Administration. Chris has worked in a variety of institutions, but his home is at the community college level. Chris lives in Northern NJ and is a firm believer in taking his lunch hour, not giving back vacation days, and not feeling ashamed about needing a mental health day when necessary.


So...How Do You Live on a Student Affairs Income?

So How Do You Live on a Student Affairs Income?

So How Do You Live on a Student Affairs Income?

This is part of a blog series dedicated to exploring if going to graduate school for student affairs – or even going into student affairs – is worth it. To see the introductory post on this blog series, please visit this page. To contribute a guest post, visit here. Peruse past posts on what to look for in a #SAgrad program, alternatives to #SAgrad programs, and how grad school is more than just a piece of paper. In this post, we’ll review finances.


Many folks who are entering student affairs feel as if they are though on the precipice of adulthood. 

This is not a slam (yes, I know, we are actually adults), but there’s a reason why my generation (I’m an older Millennial, but one nonetheless) and the generation behind us, discuss the concept of #Adulting. We often don’t feel like adults (even though we legally are) due to not achieving culturally significant “Adulthood” markers like being married, having children, owning a home, etc (or perhaps one but not all of these markers) – especially if you are lower-income. Adulthood is a social construct

For  folks like me, who come from low-income backgrounds, we never saw all of these traditional achievements and know more about living day to day and/or the excitement for the first of the month (y’all, so much hunger during the last week of the month – loved when the check came so my family could get groceries!). Our family/caretakers couldn’t teach us, or perhaps not teach us much, so we emerged into adulthood with a big question mark over our heads like confused SIMS characters.

If you feel some kinship with the words above, this blog post is for you. Whether you are a prospective student affairs graduate student, a current #SAgrad about to enter the field, or a current professional (or really anyone looking to enter the workforce/a graduate program), this blog post is for you.

So How Do You Live on a Student Affairs Income?

…not well, I’m afraid.

For folks looking towards entry-level positions, we shall start with your prospects. Please see this spreadsheetA Student Affairs Professionals’ Example Budget to Living in a Mid-Sized Midwest Metropolitan Area”. It will work best if you pull this up in a different window, and follow along as you read.

This spreadsheet is based on my actual paycheck and my lived experience of bill paying (but extremely generalized). I live in Indianapolis, Indiana (a fact you can easily google, so why not share). But you could inflate or deflate anticipated costs + income as needed for the jobs you are considering. 

Let’s walk through the spreadsheet:

Overall, this is for an entry-level position that advertises a salary of $36,525. (note: most non-res life entry-level jobs in student affairs range from $32k-$42k. Maybe $45k if you’re lucky). The hourly wage (important if you are non-exempt and possibly eligible for overtime) is $17.56.

This salary sounds pretty decent, right? I mean, my family of four managed to survive in extreme poverty on $18,000 annually…I mean this is DOUBLE my family’s annual income? Y’all this sounds like a blessing!

Person saying "I'm queen of the rich" in gif form

Okay, but when you dig into it…

On Tab 1 “Example of your Student Affairs Income”, we see that this gives a gross total (this means, all the money the university gives you, not counting deductions or taxes) of $1,404.8 on a biweekly paycheck.

Once you go through all your deductions (mostly required) of $67.78 and your (definitely required) taxes of $316.45, your net pay (aka, the amount you get to take home) is $1,020.57.

So while your gross pay (total the university gives you) salary is $36,525…

Your annual net pay (take-home) salary is $26,534.82.

Ok, ok. STILL MORE than what my family made. This is fine.

this is fine2

Let’s go to Tab 2 “Student Affairs Personal Expenses Budget Example”.

Taking the average monthly pay (when you are paid biweekly, this can get complicated) of $2,041.14, I did a spreadsheet of examining expenses.

The estimated housing expenses are 55% of the total monthly income in this scenario. Did you know that the federal government says that folks who spend more than 30% of their monthly income on housing are considered “cost burdened” and those at 50% or more are “severely cost burdened” (CNBC). This is bad news bears, my friends.

These costs could decrease if there are roommates, fewer amenities, smaller space, live far from the city center, live in an area with higher crime rates, etc. It could also easily increase for those who wish to live in a trendy neighborhood/downtown, etc, or for those who live in major cities – special shout-outs to the Bay Area folks whose government cares more about gentrifying developers and use police to protect the rich and evict the poor (LA Times) and tech bros publicly advocate for the government to harm people experiencing experiencing homelessness because they don’t want to “to see the pain, struggle, and despair of homeless people to and from my way to work every day” – all while housing prices skyrocket! [rant over. for now!]

After paying the estimated $907 in housing expenses, one has $1,134.14 remaining. If someone has a car, they may spend $190 on regular expenses and maintenance. One could save money by using public transit if they are fortunate to find a home on a bus line and their city has good transit options. For example, I moved to a very affordable side of town so my housing costs were lower and I live near a bus stop, but the commute by bus would be 1.5 hours including transfers, but only 25-40 minutes via car. With my irregular student affairs hours and the need to schlep supplies at times, then a car is my desired mode of transportation.

After housing + car, we are at $944.14.

Now, food is a major expense. It is terribly easy to spend too much on dining out (including coffee, take-out, and delivery) – especially if your work hours are intense. Due to one major program, I used to spend about 3 weeks in February and 1-2 weeks in March working easily 50+ hours weekly. I’d be at the office sometimes from 10am-11pm, so of course I did delivery since my commuter campus didn’t have much to eat after 5pm. When it comes to purchasing groceries, they can add up easily – especially if you purchase frozen meals for convenience and want something sorta healthy or if you purchase fresh groceries. The worst was purchasing great groceries, then having my energy stolen by work stuff, so some food would go spoiled since I didn’t have time to cook that night/week. 

Because food can add up, I budgeted $450. This may be way more (or way less) than folks expect. If you’d expect to spend less on food, that’s fine because this budget spreadsheet doesn’t include quite a few other expenses.

Giant plant saying FEED ME

So now after housing + car + food, our remaining total is $464.14.

Add in student loan payments and a cheap cell phone plan (but no cell phone payments) at $330 and…

Your total funds after paying bills is $134.14

Note, that this budget does not include the following expenses:

  • Healthcare needs, like prescriptions and co-pays
  • Monthly payments on a new cell phone or cell phone insurance
  • Car payments
  • Clothing or household items
  • Funds to put into a retirement account
  • Major car repairs
  • A “fun money” account for seeing movies or tickets to events
  • A larger loan payment if you had significant undergraduate + master’s loans –> Or no payment if you had many scholarships/your family paid for you/you worked a lot during school
  • Supporting your family, if you have a spouse, dependents, or other family members (a real life thing for many first-gen folks!!)

So for the above expenses (especially towards healthcare or a new car or phone) that will likely come up, you think “This is fine. I will save my $134.14 for a whole year and create a nest egg.”

Cool. After one year you will have $1,609.68.

This is better than nothing! This is fine.

tina fey crying and saying everything is fine

But then you go into possible miscellaneous expenses and all of a sudden you owe $5,764 to get a new car, new phone, pay off medical bills, etc. 

And you’re in the red for $4,154.32.

In the red.

Meaning, in debt.

I’ll give you a real life example:

In December 2011, I noticed a hole in my back tooth (!). One of my silver fillings (silver is the least effective for cavities because they will wear down, but hey, Medicaid folks aren’t eligible for anything fancy) had fallen out! Well, fuck. Here I was working at an AMAZING nonprofit but only making $12 an hour with little benefits and applying to student affairs graduate programs. Turns out, I didn’t need a new filling – I needed a root canal that cost me close to a thousand out of pocket.

Fine, whatever. I went into grad school. I graduated in May 2014 and got a new job at a large public university system. I finally, at the age of 29, had good healthcare. I found a dentist. He did an X-ray. Turns out my dentist in Toledo forgot to TAKE OUT BROKEN METAL EQUIPMENT IN MY JAW. 

You read that right. I had slivers of metal in my jar and now had an infection IN MY JAW. In early 2015, I got an oral surgery that cost me $1,300 out of pocket. I could barely afford it and (sadly) honestly didn’t understand my Health Savings Account (HSA) and how it could be used for dental expenses. On top of this, sudden family expenses popped up that I had to cover. So I stopped paying my student loans for a while to make ends meet, resulting in many angry emails from Navient and growing interest on my account. Which wasn’t good, because I had to take a lot of loans out during grad school, despite having a great assistantship, because my father died and I had family obligations (#poorkidlife #firstgenlife).

That is just one example of how quickly your finances can change unexpectedly. 

Danny DeVito setting cash on fire and saying "You Want It?!"

So even though I was making much more than my parents ever did, as you can see by the estimated numbers (not my exact personal budget, but an estimation if I lived alone and didn’t have family expenses), it was still a struggle. For fellow entry-level folks (honestly, and mid-level), they also struggle, especially if they have additional expenses. 

It’s why if you peer into student affairs social media or even conference presentations, you’ll hear a lot of talk on “side-hustles”.

That sounds nice – like, “ooh, folks have hobbies!” or “Cool, they get to make some extra spending money while doing what they like!” But in reality? Most of these side hustles are necessary for folks to be able to breath and not worry about financial ruin.

So…Do you still want to go into student affairs?

(It’s okay if you do. Really. But I just want to make sure folks – especially low SES folks and first gen folks – go into it with a bevy of knowledge at their disposal).

P.S. Amma Marfo has a recent blog post on the topic of resources for learning how to manage finances that I’d recommend.


Want to add to the conversation? Tweet me at @NikiMessmore

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Toss a coin to your witcher! LOL that’s me, please keep reading below

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