To go into a conference wanting clarification of if higher education is what your supposed to do for the rest of your life is a very high expectation. It is an expectation that for me was fulfilled by day two.
I am a senior at the University of Northern Colorado, finishing up my undergraduate career with a new found direction in the career that so many have come to fall in love with. A simple email month’s prior explained that students who wanted to pursue a life in higher education should look at attending NextGen, a conference specific to undergraduate students. It was that very email that led to what I can only explain as a life changing experience.
I was fortunate enough to not only attend NextGen, but also stay for the week and attend ACPA (American College Personnel Association) in fabulous Las Vegas to explore the world of higher education and student affairs.
The standing committee on men and masculinities became a big part of my story when they honored me as their recipient of a NextGen Scholarship. This group opened my eyes to a world I never thought I could be a part of. Hesitant to apply for this particular scholarship, I found myself discovering what it meant to collide the identity of a gay male with masculinity, two terms not commonly associated in today’s society.
I had originally planned to finish my undergraduate degree and really get into a job
within the field to gain experience and then go back to get my masters later on. After
attending the week, that all changed. To the future generations wanting to also pursue a
job within higher education I will tell you there is very little room for students with just
a bachelor’s degree. It has nothing to do with us or how much were involved, or even how
qualified we may be. The fact is that so many others have a higher level of education that put them a step above.
I am happy to announce that after returning from NextGen and ACPA I was accepted into grad school with an assistantship offer in housing and residential education. Attending the conference really refocused my path. I met amazing, inspiring, and experienced people that genuinely cared
about me. It’s not very often that speakers like Vernon Wall and Kristin Skarie will sit down with you, offer advice, listen, and really follow up on how things are going.
I met Deans, Vice-Presidents, professors, and even one of the chairs from NYU’s hiring committee. (My dream school to work at.) These are people that have a say in this profession, people who are passionate and love what they do… But more importantly the realization that they were all people who once started where I am now. Those “take aways”, or what Oprah would call “aha moments” were what meant the most to me as a beginning higher ed professional.
The hardest part of the whole thing was really hearing so many of the fellow NextGen participant’s answer why they were there. Wanting to be a professional chef because you eat food isn’t a reason to be in that profession; much like being in higher ed because you worked for the university in college the last year. I have built such a belief on higher ed and student affairs that continues to be built upon and change with each step.
We need to get our students understanding that although what there doing is fantastic and obviously takes dedication to be involved, it is the visualization to move forward. We need to ask what do we represent as professionals in this field? For me I believe that there are things that are being done well and things that we need to improve upon. I want students to understand that no matter where they choose to go, higher education is an option and it can be achieved. I promote higher education as a whole and working within a specific university or department is an added bonus
that maybe I can assist them even more.
ACPA has become an annual routine for the thousands in attendance, maybe to learn what’s trending, or maybe just to reconnect with old friends. I advise you to never forget when it meant something more. I remind you that the student next to you could have been someone like me, looking for guidance. There was a time when you too were excited to apply to grad school and find your calling in the world. As I look back at my journey and now the path I am on, here’s my five fancy tips to the future NextGen participants and maybe a reminder to the experienced.
1) Don’t get overwhelmed: NextGen may have clarified where I needed to go but the confusion of the next step all became a blur. There’s a lot of information and a lot to learn but take what you can and really enjoy it.
2) Go in open minded, willing to change your path and ideas: Others should test the ideas you have. One presentation can rock your world and shake all you thought you knew. For me that was most of the presentations on social justice. It’s all about perception and understanding a deeper level by the end of these professional development conferences.
3) Do it all, as much as you can: Throw yourself in full force. When someone says, “come join us”, just say yes! It’s sometimes tempting to go back to your room, wanting to get a full nights sleep for the next day of sessions, but if you don’t take every opportunity to gain experience while you’re in the element then you will have missed out.
4) Network Network Network: Generally, people see networking as a chance to try to meet people that may become future employers. Although this may be true, I advise you to look at it differently. These are mentors, these are people who have done this already and want to see you succeed. It’s such a privilege to be able to ask questions and learn from the other professionals around you.
5) Do what scares you, that’s where opportunity lies: I knew that there would be people at the conference I knew but I really went to this conference on my own. I had no idea what to expect and that was terrifying, yet so exciting. I knew that I had two options… meet people or be miserable. I put myself out there a lot, but at ACPA it’s appreciated. If we don’t do these types of things that scare us, we will never find the opportunity that it provides. JUST DO IT!
I owe a huge thank you to about a hundred people I met through this experience. I would list you all but you know who you are. I cannot express my gratitude enough and you have forever become a part of my story.
“It does not matter where you go and what you study, what matters most is
what you share with yourself and the world.” -Santosh Kalwar