It was junior year on a trip to New Orleans for the Sugar Bowl, specifically on a service-learning portion of the trip, that one of my mentors, Dr. Glenn Gittings, spoke to me about an opportunity to work in Student Affairs and work with college students on a daily basis. Turning a spark into a flame, that moment projected me into the world of Student Affairs. Like many graduate students and new professionals, a majority of my undergraduate experience was solely tied to student engagement and serving as a Resident Assistant in University Housing. Many rising professionals are unaware of the plethora of opportunities in Student Affairs that exist beyond just Student Activities and University Housing. An important part of mine and certainly others’ graduate school and real-work experience is a paradigmatic shift in how we think about our work with students pre-and-post-undergrad.
When I finally decided I was going to attend Florida State University for my master’s degree, I arrived upon the moment that feels like a ten pound weight sinking through your throat: deciding where to do your graduate assistantship. In that moment, something spoke to me and encouraged me to step outside of my comfort zone and what little I knew about Student Affairs. “Do your assistantship in the Student Disability Resource Center,” the little voice inside my head said to me. At first, that decision made me incredibly nervous. I thought to myself, “What if I completely bomb and say the wrong things or mess up?” Thankfully, I made that decision to do my assistantship in a disability resource office because it has colored my trajectory in Student Affairs and taken me to places with which I feel most in sync in my professional life. Working as a graduate assistant in the office challenged my notion of the “traditional” student, changed the way I communicate with students, and molded my professional philosophy into one that advocated for and represented students with whom I did not share the same identities.
Today, most of my work is meeting individually with students and working with them one-on-one to develop accommodation plans, so that they can fully invest their time and energies into their academics without the barriers that a typical college learning environment puts in their way. An example of this might be 400+ person class, a reality for some first-year students at a large public research institution, can be challenging for a student with attentional deficits and difficulty with focusing. I enjoy getting to meet with students one-on-one on a daily basis and directly apply student development theories and what I learned in graduate school (although I’m not consciously applying that knowledge) to support growth and learning of students with disabilities, particularly their transition from relying on others to being self-sufficient and good self-advocates. I also enjoy working one-on-one with faculty, supporting the academic mission of the university while ensuring that all course content and spaces are accessible for students. I count myself blessed to be directly supporting the academic mission of the university while also focusing on student success and direct student engagement.
Some of my work also crosses over into helping students in crisis. I meet constantly with students who have mental health concerns and diagnoses from doctors and psychiatrists that match those mental health concerns. While I certainly cannot provide ongoing therapy or counseling, I help student triage in that moment and guide them through the process of advocating for their academic needs related to their disabilities (i.e., accommodations our office can approve and provide). I also collaborate with other campus partners, such as University Housing, to ensure that students receive appropriate accommodations outside of learning spaces on campus, such as in their residence hall. I even work closely with staff of the university admissions office, the Registrar’s office, the Veteran Student’s office, and other academic-focused offices. These interactions with other higher education professional helped me grow my professional philosophy into one that is much more global and inclusive of other higher education professionals that do not have student affairs backgrounds. They underscore the importance of student affairs professionals’ roles in academics and other higher education professionals’ roles in student success beyond the classroom.
All of this to say that there really is no one path into a career in student affairs. For the graduate students and undergraduate students considering going to graduate school or starting work in the field immediate after graduating, take some time to explore all the paths you have into and through student affairs. All routes to a career in student affairs are valid and necessary. And you never know, you might find yourself in a rewarding and affirming career path unlike the traditional narrative of a student affairs professional. For new professionals considering a change of career path, know that Student Affairs can still be a place for you due to the plethora of opportunities, environments, and needs of the student body. And lastly, I want to encourage all emerging professionals in student affairs to embrace the spectrum of functional areas and focuses that student affairs make take on. At the end of the day, we are all focused on one thing: student success.
Spencer Scruggs graduated with his Master in Science in Higher Education Administration from Florida State University in 2016 and currently serves as a Disability Specialist in the Florida State University Student Disability Resource Center. You can find him on Twitter and Instagram at @bariginge.