So, like your typical #SA type, I’ve got some advice to dole out! Mind you, this advice reflects my experiences and the experiences of friends I have spoken to. It may not all relate to you, if any of it does at all. But who knows, it might prove helpful :)
And a word of warning – there is no sugar coating here.
1). The Adjustment Isn’t Easy
The difficulty of the adjustment will depend on your personal life, identity, and past experiences. See, I was working for 5 years in that 9-6, 40+ hours a week lifestyle with free evenings and weekends (generally speaking). Then bam! I began graduate school where there is no free time, and considering I am a “nontraditional student” (quotation marks because I dislike the ‘other-ing’ phrase) with a family dependent, my free time was certainly nonexistent.
Even if you’re coming straight from undergrad, the time constraints are still a shocker. All of a sudden you are (if you’re in most programs) likely doing a 20+ week assistantship, spending 10ish hours a week in class, studying and writing papers, and trying to build connections within your cohort – plus whatever other professional opportunities head your way. You may become involved with committees, practicums, and research opportunities.
Then everyone in student affairs latches onto the phrase “work/life balance” and you’re getting lectured to find such a balance. Nerrrr. Stop. Balance is nonexistent as an #sagrad. It is mathematically impossible.
However, that doesn’t mean you can’t try. Remember to stay in contact with friends and family, make new friends and carve out social time, and make time for your hobbies. That will extend your sanity.
2.) You’re Going to Cry
a) There’s no crying in Student Affairs (lies!) or
b) Yeah, okay, maybe…
On some real talk, graduate school is stressful and the transition can be intense. Not only do you have all the adjustment issues (listed above), but you may be missing friends, family, significant others, pets, etc. On top of that, you’re getting slammed by assignments and readings (first semester is usually known as the ‘higher ed hazing’ semester – it certainly prepares you for subsequent semesters…)
Point is: YOU’RE NOT ALONE. My first semester I was insanely stressed trying to juggle family commitments, work, and class obligations. My mistake? Not really talking about it. The funny thing is that no one else did either and it wasn’t until the second semester that we shared our struggles. It was at that point that I realized “Blimey! I wasn’t going crazy! Everyone else felt the same as well!” So if you’re stressed out, sad, and crying, just stop for a moment and realize one of your cohort mates is probably also crying in their shower too!
3.) Don’t Be Afraid to Challenge Your Studies
You’ll find that most student affairs programs love theories and that they spend a lot of time referring to theories that are based on population samples that do not reflect all students. Unfortunately, it seems like a lot of us, for whatever reason, drink the Kool-Aid. “Challenge and Support! Yeah! Self-Authorship! Yeah!”
But you may be sitting at your desk think ‘This does not apply to me or the people I know’ or maybe ‘um…yeah...challenge and support is pretty common sense’. At one point or another you will likely think a lot of things don’t really apply to you unless you are a white Christian male – at least until you get to that class session that focuses on student affairs studies related to race, gender, sexual orientation, etc.
So speak up! Ask questions! I know…it’s a lot harder than it seems, with the pressure of asking questions in front of everyone, especially if you feel like the one lone voice. But it is important to ask these questions – questions that someone else is probably thinking and if they’re not, consider this a teachable moment.
That’s not to say that student affairs theories are irrelevant…you’ll form your own opinion. It’s impossible to categorize human beings because they are each unique creatures but different theories can be used for different scenarios, depending on the student. However, I know I was (am!) uncomfortable with some theories because of the research behind it (focusing on sample populations like white upper-class Christian males) and think it is important to question everything (while leaving your mind open to everything).
4.) You Know Nothing, Jon Snow!
Sometimes you feel like you should just quit graduate school because you don’t understand concepts and APA citations are the devil. Or maybe you’re getting challenged on the false knowledge you hold, especially as you begin learning about identities different from your own.
Embrace it – Tablua Rasa (black slate) and all that! Remember that your colleagues are in the same boat and that you are not the only one considering dropping out of school to be a roadie for Beyonce’s tour.
At the same time – DON’T DOUBT YOURSELF! Your experiential knowledge matters. You are in this program for a reason, and that’s because you bring something to the table – share that. And if you are hearing something in the classroom that relates to your experiences (or something that contradicts them), share! Your input is valuable and will go a long way towards helping your cohort be the best damn group of student affairs professionals there is!
5.) Don’t Procrastinate & Do Your Readings
“Oh I won’t procrastinate! I’m so excited for grad school!”
The truth of the matter is, is that you will most likely procrastinate on your work. You probably won’t mean to do such a thing, but when you’re trying to balance your assistantship and life, things happen.
As soon as you get your syllabi, map out your semester. Write in all due dates onto your calendar and then add work stuff as well. When you get assigned to a group project (student affairs LOVES group projects), write out an agenda for all your meetings, list out every aspect of the project, and then assign responsibilities and deadlines. Then, hold people accountable – and hold yourself accountable.
Also, learn the art of reading for content. When you’re assigned 400 pages to read each week (it happens), you don’t have to read every word – but you do have to read the right words. ‘Skimming’ does not equal ‘skipping’. With books, read over chapter titles and subtitles to get a feel for the main topic, and then speed read from there. When you find something interesting or have a question, mark it for later. When you’re reading articles, read the summary at the beginning and then the ‘Findings’/’Summary’ at the end to get a gist of the article – then go through the rest to pick up the details quickly.
6.) Remember: It’s Okay to Disagree & Debate
|Except don't actually yell. That's bad. But this is a funny gif, and thus had to be included|
There will come a time (okay, multiple times) when someone is going to make a comment you find offensive and/or that you disagree with. Say something! Take it as an opportunity to sieze a ‘teachable moment’. Don’t be afraid of offending that person or be afraid of them getting ‘mad’ at you. As long as you are respectful and engage them into the conversation, you’ll be able to have a great conversation on the topic.
Likewise, if someone confronts you because of an offensive comment/statement, the rules of social justice are to 1.) Be quiet 2.) Listen to their concerns 3.) Thoughtfully consider your actions from an outsider standpoint and how you may be contributing to unjust systems 4.) Engage in dialogue
I regret becoming so busy with family obligations, work, and the transition during my first semester that I didn’t spend a lot of time socializing with my cohort. I attended some of the larger events, sure, but that was about it. I recommend that new first year students learn to incorporate socializing with the other parts of their lives. For example, everyone has to eat! Make a goal of inviting one or several fellow student affairs grads out to eat a couple times a week – bonus points if it is someone you usually don’t interact with! Host study parties that balance studying with hanging out (i.e., spend 30 minutes of quiet, then 15 minutes of chatting).
Attend the sponsored social events. Create your own events! Love Supernatural and want to have watch parties? Post it on the Facebook group/email list! Want to attend spoken word poetry night? Send an owl/raven to all your #SAgrad friends! Get out and explore your new city in groups to do activities like hiking or study sessions at the hipster-y coffee shop.
Besides the social aspects, make the most of your academics! Ask a professor in your department out for coffee. Get involved with research. Join university committees. Create connections. You'll be happier for it.
Ultimately, your reality is whatever you create it to be*. Enjoy!
*I wouldn't be a social justice educator if I didn't add a disclaimer that your while reality is whatever you make it to be, sometimes we cannot control aspects of our reality due to identity and systematic structures. We can only control how we deal with those aspects and how we push for change.