by Tony W. Cawthon and James
The on-duty phone. Sleepless
grad school nights. Advising student group meetings on the weekend. These are
just some of the rites of passage for generations of student affairs
professionals. In the new book Creating Sustainable Careers in
Student Affairs: What Ideal Worker Norms Get Wrong and How to Make It Right
(Stylus Publishing), editor Margaret Sallee and contributing authors explore
the impact that these expectations have on the profession and the individuals
who work in it.
Of course, the challenges of
student affairs go beyond the lengthy workdays. As Sallee, an associate
professor of educational leadership and policy at the University at Buffalo
Graduate School of Education, writes in the book’s introduction, “the field
places inordinate burdens on staff to respond to the needs of students, often
at the expense of their own families and well-being.” Fortunately, along with
identifying those burdens and negative outcomes such as workforce attrition, it
also recognizes the rewards and potential solutions. The book is organized into
three sections that provide a thorough examination of the structure of student
affairs work, the toll it can take, and how one’s identity affects the way they
navigate the field. The authors do so by blending established sociological and
behavioral research with their experiences as student affairs faculty and
The resulting work is part warning
call, part leadership handbook, and part pep talk. As Sallee explains,
“understanding how these norms operate will help dismantle them. We owe it to
student affairs professionals to offer the same attention to their holistic
selves as we do to the students they serve.”
The Talking Stick
asked Sallee to expand upon the concept of the ideal worker as it relates to
student affairs professionals, what can be done to help them achieve a better
work/life balance, and how to establish and maintain boundaries.
Talking Stick: The
concept of the ideal worker
is tightly woven throughout this book. Do you think student affairs is
particularly susceptible to this concept versus other professions?
Although student affairs
divisions certainly depend on their employees being ideal workers,
unfortunately I don’t think this is different from what happens in many other
fields. (For readers first encountering the notion of the ideal worker, which
was made popular by sociologist Joan Acker, the ideal worker is expected to
work nonstop or be always available for the job and to have no family
responsibilities that might interfere with work.) Organizations thrive because employees are
willing to (or are told to, either explicitly or implicitly) put their needs
after the needs of their employer. Of course, it plays out differently in
various fields. In student affairs, for example, professionals are told that
they need to sacrifice themselves for the sake of students. There is a certain
moral imperative woven into this argument; employees who wish to place
boundaries on their work lives are seen as selfish for neglecting their
students. But I don’t think that student affairs is particularly susceptible to
ideal worker norms.
ideal worker model also is embedded in much of the research related to
competency development and models. How do you see student affairs competencies
interacting with this ideal worker concept? Is there such a thing as the ideal
student affairs worker?
This is such a great question
and honestly not one that I had considered before. First, I think it is important
to note that being an ideal worker is not something that one should aspire to,
at least not in the ways that we discuss in the book. Perhaps we could consider
that the ideal worker is supposed to be able to serve the organization in every
capacity needed, which can be detrimental to professionals’ holistic well-being
(by leading to burnout) and to the organization (by leading to higher turnover).
So in that regard, given that the ACPA and NASPA competencies, for example,
spell out a wide variety of knowledge domains that skilled professionals must
have, the field seems to be asking its professionals to be able to be all
things to all people. Perhaps we would be better served in recognizing that
professionals might better excel if they have an understanding of the field,
but a deeper knowledge in a limited number of domains.
Is there such a thing as an
ideal student affairs worker? From my perspective, it is someone who works hard
for the sake of students and strives to continually grow while at the same time
ensures that work does not consume their lives. Our job is to role model for
students what life should be, and work should not be all-consuming.
COVID-19 pandemic obviously has made everyone reconsider how and where people
work, longstanding policies and practices, etc. How do you think this
experience could change perceptions of the ideal worker in general and in the
student affairs profession more specifically?
I very much want to be
optimistic about where we are going as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Unfortunately,
preliminary research suggests that women (and particularly mothers) are being
penalized as a result of their caregiving responsibilities during the pandemic.
For example, among faculty, women are submitting fewer manuscripts for
publication, which will have lasting impacts on their careers. Across
professions, including in student affairs, I have seen a lot of discussion about
people not working “enough” and many mothers (and other parents) struggling
with the guilt they are experiencing for attending to their work at their
children’s expense. Additionally, it is important to acknowledge that all of
this work is happening in one place – professionals are trying to advise
students while also homeschooling or caring for their kids. It’s exhausting,
and no one gets a break from any of their roles.
I think, though, that there
has been some recognition that folx can be productive outside the office and
that services can be delivered online, so perhaps we will see some
restructuring of where work occurs. I’m hopeful, too, that we will continue to
see an evolution in the field’s understanding that people can successfully
combine work and family by blurring the boundaries between both.
discuss how student affairs professionals are exposed to and affected by
emotional tolls. And compassion fatigue certainly is a reality. Still, considering
that we are returning to campus climates shaped by a pandemic, systemic social injustice,
and other stressors – as well as the tightening of resources – what can student
affairs realistically do to help alleviate this pressure?
We need to think about this at
both the individual level and the institutional level. At the individual level,
student affairs professionals need to be able to set boundaries. Although our
task is to support students, all of us are experiencing these various pandemics
in different ways and are tired by them, too. It has to be okay for any of us
to temporarily tap out to take care of ourselves. This strategy needs to be
supported at the institutional level as well. Additionally, student affairs
divisions need to think creatively about how to support students who are
experiencing trauma as well as staff who are supporting students. Institutions
might find that their students and staff are better served by reallocating
resources, such as by hiring more counselors in the counseling center or
perhaps implementing programs that provide individualized support to students.
discuss the challenge of establishing boundaries, be they physical, emotional,
temporal, etc. What are some of the more successful strategies you’ve seen in
There are a number of
strategies that I’ve seen be successful for boundaries. Some employees place
fairly strict divisions between work and home lives and do not respond to email
or texts outside of standard work hours. I am sure many of your readers will
gasp when reading this and think that this is not doable in housing and
residence life. It is. Unless you are in an office of one, there are other
people who are likely on-call and can handle whatever needs to be handled. We
all need time when work does not intrude on our lives – we are better people
because of it.
The onus is not just on
individuals to establish boundaries, though. Institutions can alter their
procedures that demand that employees be always available. For example, again
returning to residence life, some departments ask their employees to notify
them if they are sleeping away from the halls, even if they are not on duty. This
practice leads professionals to have no separation between work and their
personal life and makes them feel like they are always beholden to the
institution. Instead, institutions should have clear procedures in place to
make sure that someone is available to respond to concerns while respecting
employees’ personal lives.
book does a thorough job of addressing the implications of these norms at a
variety of career levels as well as the experiences of graduate students. When
it comes to making improvements, it almost reads like a chicken-or-the-egg
question in terms of where change could begin. Is there one area you think
could make the greatest impact?
Although I felt it was
important that we provide strategies for all campus stakeholders to push back
against ideal worker norms, the onus is really on senior leadership to change the
culture. This is a systemic problem and needs systemic change through strong
messaging, policies, and action. That said, change can be both top-down and
bottom-up, so I certainly encourage our newest professionals (and those of us
who have been in the field for a little longer) to advocate for change and
model healthier behaviors in our interactions.
so many student affairs professionals begin their careers in housing and most
of the burnout you discuss happens in those earliest years, does residence life
have a particular responsibility to address these issues?
Yes. I’m so glad you asked
this question. In all of my years working in and with the field, it is graduate
students working in housing and residence life who seem to have the greatest
demands placed upon them, which is particularly concerning, given that they are
students first and employees second. I worry the most about graduate students
who may feel like they cannot say no to demands placed upon them. I similarly
worry about new professionals who, because of the norms of many divisions of
residence life, work nonstop with little separation between their personal and
professional lives. Although some attrition in the field is to be expected as
young professionals gain more exposure to other fields and sort out their
interests, rethinking the demands placed upon graduate students and new
professionals (as well as mid-career professionals) and the structure of work
in residence life would go a long way in addressing burnout.
it comes to creating a sustainable student affairs career, what strategies have
you seen effective professionals employ? Similarly, what strategies can supervisors
or the profession in general utilize to address attrition in the student
affairs profession? Is there one side of the equation that is more responsible
for this than the other?
This gets back to the question
of whose responsibility is it to create change. Given that it is a systemic
issue, I think it is always the responsibility of those in power to change the
system, though we know that people without positional power can force change – or
create change through their daily actions. We need a cultural change so that employees
are told that they can be effective at their jobs, even if (and perhaps
because) they are not available to the institution at all hours.
I’ve seen professionals not
answer emails after hours to protect boundaries between their home and work
lives. I also think building community is critical, which employees can either take
on themselves or supervisors can include in their work to create supportive
office cultures. For example, supervisors might encourage their employees to
share aspects of their non-work-related lives, such as their hobbies or the
challenges of parenting. Doing so not only builds community, but also allows
professionals to be their authentic selves. The absence of community can be
problematic. For example, in a chapter I co-authored with Alyssa Stefanese
Yates and Michael Venturiello on fathers in student affairs, some participants
discussed how lonely they felt by not having a community of other fathers. This
absence of community reinforced the message that parenting was a concern for
women, leading men to feel pressured to strive to embody the ideal worker norm and
deemphasize their parenting identities. In short, the field needs to recognize
that professionals have rich lives both in and out of the office and need to tend
good amount of space in the book addresses the additional hours and
responsibilities that often are asked of minority student affairs professionals
based on their gender, identity, or race. Your recommendation in this area is
that the extra work be acknowledged. In what ways do you think this recognition
would best be accomplished?
We need to acknowledge that
this work is part of the job, not in addition to the job. Perhaps job
descriptions need to be rewritten to take into account this labor. This might
involve reassigning some of an employee’s duties to other staff to free up time
and space. Providing extra compensation is always a possibility as well.
Whatever the approach, this labor needs to be recognized and rewarded.
your implications, you talk about the need to “reembody the disembodied worker”
– that is, not viewing staff as interchangeable and, instead, recognizing the
individual strengths each one brings to the job. That can also be read as
campus leaders respecting the work of student affairs professionals and
recognizing that student affairs professionals offer a unique set of knowledge,
skills, and dispositions. This has been an issue for many years. Do you see the
increased push for credentialing playing into this discussion?
Credentialing certainly plays
into this. I think we can all agree that we want professionals in the field to
have a baseline of knowledge to inform their work with students. But do vice
presidents of student affairs need to have a doctorate in order to be good
leaders? No. Each employee needs to be evaluated holistically for the strengths
that they bring and what they can offer the organization. We don’t need a
workforce that looks the same – we need employees with complementary skills and
book closes with numerous implications for student affairs work. The world has
changed fairly dramatically even in the short amount of time since the
manuscript was submitted. Reflecting on those changes, what new implications
would you add?
It's amazing how much has
changed since we wrote this book – yet the issues are as salient as ever. If
nothing else, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought to light the ways that professional
work and caregiving come into conflict and the demands we place on working parents.
This is primarily a failure of national policy, though institutions are
complicit as well. Institutions need to explicitly acknowledge the demands
placed upon employees right now and recognize that everyone is doing the best
they can to keep moving forward. Work is important and supporting our students
is important, but not at the expense of our selves, our families, or our health.
As we go into the fall and parents continue juggling childcare and homeschooling
with their work responsibilities, employers need to allow their staff to modify
their work schedules, support those who wish to use the leave available to them
through the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, and otherwise think
creatively to help all in the workforce make it through this pandemic.
Similarly, the ongoing pandemic
of systemic racism underscores how necessary it is that we support BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color) student affairs professionals and acknowledge the extra labor they provide,
whether it is by building it into their work responsibilities (if they so
desire) or providing some sort of compensation for their physical, emotional,
and mental labor. However, campuses need to not just acknowledge the extra
labor of staff, but work to change conditions on campus so that such extra
labor is not necessary. Systemic racism extends far beyond any one campus, but
divisions of student affairs can create intentional programming to educate
students and staff and work toward dismantling oppressive structures.
in reading the acknowledgments, it is evident that working on this book was
quite personal to you. What did you
learn from this book? What were your takeaways?
I learned so much from the
ideas shared in various chapters. I have been studying work/life issues for much
of my career and was pushed to think in new ways by some of the contributions
of various authors. In particular, I really appreciate the idea of us-care that Pamela Graglia, Karla Pérez-Vélez,
and D-L Stewart introduce in their chapter. We hear a lot about notions of
self-care – that we each need to make time to take care of ourselves. But what
would the world look like if we instead engaged in us-care and had a community
to take care of us (and to take care of)?
In many ways, this is what wearing masks during the COVID-19 pandemic is
all about – we are showing others we care about them through our actions. These
authors point out that it is not up to the individual to take care of
themselves, but rather it is up to all of us to take care of each other. Society
would look so different if we lived by this mantra.
Ph.D., is the director of graduate studies at Clemson University in South Carolina.
James Baumann is the editor of Talking Stick
and the ACUHO-I director of communications and publications. Creating
Sustainable Careers in Student Affairs will be published in September