Tuesday, February 3, 2015
One of the first unspoken expectations that I think most folks hear and internalize when they go into Student Affairs is that your time is not your own. I don't think we are outright told this, but it is made pretty clear in most job descriptions that student affairs means working nights and weekends. It makes sense - student life doesn't happen in the 9 to 5. Some jobs are more regular business hours than others, but you can usually find folks still on campus in some office after the official work day has ended. And often, how our time is spent often feels established by the students with whom we work.
My entry into student affairs involved a graduate assistantship where I was regularly working over the 20 hours I was paid for. I'm not alone, I have found that is true for most grads. Eager for experience and opportunities to learn, they cram it all in and say yes to everything, just like I did. A snarky twentysomething at the time, I once turned in my actual hours for the week on my timesheet. It was somewhere around 55, and I don't know that it was even a week with a giant program. That was quickly met with an e-mail reminding me "We can only pay you for twenty hours, so you can only put twenty on the timesheet. Please redo this." Message received. I knew what I was doing and that it would get sent back, but I also wanted to make sure there was an awareness of how my time was being spent. I didn't repeat it, but I did continue to track for myself.
When I jumped into my first job, eager to build relationships with students and be a "good advisor," I made sure to be at every single meeting and event. It was important to me to show my students that I was investing in them, and that I cared about them being successful as leaders and in their organizations. I was living in a new city where I didn't know too many folks, minus colleagues from work who became friends, and the two grad school friends who had also moved to the same city. We all had crazy hours, and throwing ourselves into work was just what we all did. When we weren't working, we were together, commiserating about all of the hours we worked. I distinctly remember a moment where a coworker and I asked our boss if we could move into one of the student apartments on campus so that we didn't have to worry about the time it would take to get home to our own places and sleep in our own beds. Our office had a couch that more than one of us napped on. If it had a shower, we would have been set and moved right in. Thankfully, once we got some sleep in us, we realized that was probably a terrible idea.
Things took a turn when a new supervisor set the policy that, no matter how late we worked the night before, we were expected to be in the office from 8:30-5 pm everyday. We were a business, and there would be no such thing as flexing our hours. For those of us averaging more than a few nights leaving campus at 11 pm or later due to student meetings/events and late night programs, it became clear that the value wasn't necessarily on our health and well being as individuals. It was also made quite clear that if we didn't want to do it any more, another fresh graduate of a students affairs program would gladly take our entry-level student affairs job. As this message was delivered, I watched a colleague crumble inside. She would regularly work a 24-hour day when she'd be leading students through concert production. And she was told that didn't matter. Because our supervisor lived to work, so should we. I imagine that this is sadly also a shared experience for some others in the field, although I hope less and less so.
A former supervisor, who had experienced major health issues after basically wearing herself out trying to keep up, told us to be careful and not make the same mistakes that she did. At that point, many of us chose to move on, because it simply wouldn't be sustainable any longer and we weren't feeling valued. The quality of experience we were creating didn't matter as much as being present in the office did. Although I left that position then, I will admit that it has taken me almost four years to realize how much that experience has impacted how I have viewed and valued myself as a student affairs professional. While it should have said more about her, I took it for what it said about me - that I couldn't hack it any more and that I was easily replaceable.
When I started my current position, I didn't actually have many night and weekend commitments. My position was brand new, and I had the opportunity to define much of what I'd be doing. Exactly the type of position I love. But one that can be dangerous for someone like me. I found the standard hours to be boring and missing the excitement of student meetings and events. Over the past four years, my position has grown around me as we have built new things. I started out advising one group, and now advise seven. I have given the opportunity to help plan campus traditions. Every new meeting or event has been something connected to my personal philosophy of student affairs and the mission of our program and department. And most of them are things that I considered highly important. It wasn't until this past December that I realized I hadn't seen much of my husband since our October honeymoon had ended. Our glorious honeymoon where I had time to relax, explore, and eat. Between both of our work commitments, our schedules were out of sync. And we needed another one already for some quality time together.
The thing is, most of the time, the time commitment was and is honestly really fun. I got into the field because my passion is helping students to develop their passions - and I actually get to do it, everyday. Some of my favorite memories are from spending spring break on service trips to Appalachia with fraternity & sorority leaders, bonding over gummi bears and cheese balls while on a retreat, or traveling to a conference. Why would I say no to this? The night and weekend events are some of the best parts of my job. And when the students you advise ask you to come to a program or event that they've planned, or actually enjoy you sitting in on their meetings, you don't question it. You just do.
But the whole thing goes back to sustainability. Burnout is huge in our field, which I don't think is a surprise. So many student affairs professionals invest all that they have into their jobs until they don't have anything to give anymore. I am not there yet, but I was definitely feeling drained as the fall semester closed. And I began to realize that my ability to keep doing what I have been doing is running out. If Chris and I had a family tomorrow, we wouldn't be able to handle our current schedule. It's not happening tomorrow, but it's a possibility that I want to be able to consider without being completely overwhelmed.
So I consciously made an ask to my supervisor. "My goal for next semester is to work less nights and weekends." I asked for permission to try to get students to move some of their meetings to business hours. Or to at least help me stack them so that I might stay one or two nights a week. He not only said "of course," he also encouraged me to set my boundaries and stick to them. He values my personal wellness, and that sometimes simply not being at work is important.
Although I was nervous to do it, I simply put out the ask to the students with whom I work.
"Hey, one of the things I'm trying to work on is better work/life integration. I know that scheduling meetings across a bunch of folks is hard, but could we possibly look at meetings either during the work day, or right at 5 pm? I'm hoping to avoid nights where I'm here later as I'm feeling stretched. If later works better, I'd like to limit to no more than two nights a week"
The responses I got were awesome. I don't know what exactly I was expecting, but not a single person questioned what I was asking. Y'all, Students Get It.
I will repeat for fellow Student Affairs Pros who need to hear it again: Students Get It.
At one meeting, a student said "I totally respect that" when I admitted that I was trying to have more time with family.
Another sent out the e-mail asking fellow members to share their availability and that we were looking for late afternoon or early evening hours, without even mentioning that it was to accommodate me.
When one meeting was scheduled for 8:30 pm on Thursdays because that was the only time that worked for members, I asked if I could call into the meeting from home, rather than coming back to campus. The students agreed that was totally reasonable and that we would do what we needed to do to make it work. My commute is fairly short, but calling in while sitting on my couch in sweatpants makes a huge psychological difference, especially if I have already gone home.
It's amazing how many meetings we were able to make work at 3 or 4 pm. It is doable. And it doesn't make me a bad student affairs professional. I like to think I'm modeling better choices. I will still be on campus some nights for evening programs and events, but it will be on a more reasonable schedule. And it will mean more dinners at home.
I have come to the conclusion that time is all that we really have. Things don't really matter. How we spend our time and the experiences that we create with that time do. Even the ones that are seemingly mundane. Sometimes the greatest joy I get is from throwing a glitter ball for my overweight cat and watching her eyes get big as she wiggles her butt, ready to chase. Or sharing in the shoveling responsibilities with my husband, on snowy days like today. Or taking the time to make a dinner with delicious ingredients, and then sitting down to enjoy. Jack's Pizza is great (don't argue me on that), but I enjoy not eating it three nights a week because I'm cooking dinner at 7 or 8 pm and I know that it takes exactly 13 minutes at 425 degrees. Time spent meal planning, cleaning my apartment, and preparing for the week ahead is time well spent.
I wrote this tonight because I know how many others share parts of this story. I am thankful to know friends and colleagues who have made choices to focus on different parts of their lives and to message that it's okay to reflect, reevaluate, and make changes. At the end of the day, I am still achieving my goal of helping students find their passions. I am still getting my work done. And most of the time, when I feel that sense of urgency on something, it's usually coming from me, and only me. That's a tough reminder with all going on in the State of Wisconsin around higher education right now. It's easy to feel undervalued. I think many folks do. But I can choose to continue to do good in my work and to stay student-centered.
For me, 2015 is about taking the opportunity to rewrite my story. I do not have to be stressed and overwhelmed. I can be healthy in what I am eating, how and with whom I am spending my time, and what I am telling myself about my value. I am choosing joy.