My path into Students Affairs is not what one would consider a “traditional path.” During the spring of my senior year, I struggled to figure out what to do with my life. Having worked with various AmeriCorps VISTAs on projects at my undergraduate institution, I decided to apply for VISTA to explore different career options. AmeriCorps VISTA is a National Service program through the government which allowed me the opportunity to work on college campuses on community engagement initiatives resolving around poverty-fighting initiatives. This lead me to complete two AmeriCorps VISTA terms, then a year in residence life before making my journey to start my Master’s degree, just over 3 years after I graduated with my Bachelor’s degree.
When looking at “How to prepare for graduate school” articles or resources, they often times focus on the transition straight from undergraduate to graduate school. However, this is not the case for some graduate students. Nowadays, many graduate programs are flooded with more applications than spots available. For others, even if they can get into the program, they may have life situations that prevent them from entering right away or at a full-time student pace, such as financial barriers or familial commitments.
I know that I am not the first person to go to graduate school after taking some time to work full-time, but at times I feel these stories are not shared. I felt alone at times during this transition, not having someone I could talk to who understood the unique struggles I was going through going back to school. Reflecting on the past few months as I transitioned from a SAPro to a SAGrad, I’ve hit more road bumps and struggles than I anticipated. Looking back, here is some of the advice I wish someone would have told me to help me prepare for this life change.
- You will have learning curves. You may have the skillsets, but learning the culture is a completely different story. I felt leaving my last institution that I had, at times, just knew how to do the job. I could go through the motions. However, when you transition to a new institution (whether you are a SAGrad or a SAPro), learning the campus culture can sometimes be harder than learning the skills needed for the position. Each school and department has “their” way of doing the same task. The struggle becomes breaking your old habits to adapt to the new “way” of handling a crisis, paperwork, or other tasks.
- Take some time off between ending your SAPro position and your SAGrad position (if you can fiscally afford this). I only took a week off when transitioning. Looking back, I was exhausted by the time I started classes at the end of August. I wish I would have taken more time off between my two positions so I could have prepared more not only physically but mentally for this life transition.
- Figure out your health, dental, and car insurances as early as you can, preferably prior to starting your SAGrad position. While working as a SAPro, I covered myself under my own insurance policies under my own name. Since I was older, I did not have the option to go under my parents’ insurance as a graduate student. As well, since I was not a full-time employee, I did not qualify for health and dental insurance under my employer. Look within the state networks for health and dental insurance options.
- Realize the value in your experience. Most likely, you will bring a different lens to your position and classes than some other students. Don’t be afraid to reflect on these experiences and use them to improve yourself and your roles. Sometimes, this will help you see better ways tasks can be done. Other times, this will help you learn from past mistakes and want to learn better ways to do things.
- Self-care is still an important thing. As a SAPro, I had developed some self-care rituals (such as scheduling Thursday nights to watch Grey’s Anatomy while on a phone date with my bestie). Don’t drop these habits. Even though you are going back to being a student, you still have to take care of yourself. In all actuality, it will be even more important for you to take care of yourself since you will have more things on your plate, such as tests, papers, and case studies. If you don’t take care of yourself now, you will burn out even quicker.
- Invest in yourself. This is a great time to focus on your own development, both as a person and as a professional. Use this time to think about what skills and knowledge you want to gain to improve as an SAPro. Within the first month or two of starting your SAGrad journey, think about what you want in your future positions. Look at job postings to see what skills are being looked for in your dream positions, then look at ways to gain these skills while in graduate school. As well, most conferences and professional development opportunities offer a discount to graduate students (especially the national conferences). Take advantage of going to these opportunities at a discount!
For anyone making a transition in life, it can be a scary and confusing time. Realize that you are not alone in this journey. Reach out to your support network and ask for help. Know that as a field, especially as graduate students and new professionals, we are all here for each other.
Written by Jacqui Rogers. Jacqui is currently a Resident Director at Salisbury University while earning her Master’s of Arts in Conflict Analysis and Dispute Resolution. Previously, Jacqui served two terms as an AmeriCorps VISTA, first with Iowa Campus Compact then with Maryland-DC Campus Compact. After serving as a VISTA, Jacqui worked as a SAPro in Residence Life at a private college in Delaware. In her free time, Jacqui enjoys binge-watching Netflix, crafting, and enjoying her Betta fish, Tony.