Going to graduate school is one of the best decisions I have ever made. I have learned so much since I moved to Dayton, OH just seven months ago. I am currently in a college student personnel program while working as a graduate assistant in Housing and Residence Life. While applying to graduate programs during my senior year, I noticed a high number of other seniors applying for higher education programs. Throughout the past few months, I have seen a tremendous amount of students expressing interest in student affairs graduate programs, some of them being only sophomores! While that makes me extremely excited, it also makes me a little nervous. I think it is important for people interested in graduate school to truly research and reflect on the idea. I decided to write this blog post (which I hope is helpful) for prospective student affairs graduate students. Keep in mind that this is just my personal experience and I cannot generalize the #SAgrad experience for all programs and people.
The following is a list of things I have learned in the past seven months. Some of these things I sort of knew before I began my courses. Some are things I did not necessarily predict or realize about graduate school when applying. I think it’s important for potential graduate students to know some things before changing their entire life career plans and accepting that offer.
1. Being a student affairs graduate student/professional is not the same thing as being an involved undergraduate student leader.
It makes me so happy to see how many undergraduates love their organizations, sororities, fraternities, etc. I remember being extremely involved and loving every minute of it. However, I think it is important to not automatically equate “loving sorority/fraternity membership” to “I must become a graduate student in student affairs.” There is a big difference between being a single member of an organization/staff and advising/counseling an organization/staff and holding all of its members accountable. Being an RA and supervising seven RAs are two completely different experiences. Are you truly in this to support students? Or are you in this because you want to stay in college forever?
2. Graduate coursework is no joke.
Be prepared to read more than you have ever read in your life. Your coursework will be full of complex theories about identity development, student development, and cognitive/intrapersonal/interpersonal development. You will also spend a lot of time diving into key issues in higher education. There is so much more behind being a student affairs professional than what you perceive as an undergraduate. Student affairs professionals are intentional about the way they approach their work. I did not realize this as an undergrad, but there is an intentional reason behind almost everything they do. They are designing learning experiences for students that promote development. I am learning how to do this now and at times it seems impossible.
3. Graduate school is adult limbo.
You are not an undergraduate, but you are not a professional staff member. You might live in a residence hall with first year students. You have left your best friends at your previous institution and now you must make new friends so you can make it through the next two years (this is your cohort and it will be full of the coolest people you will ever meet). Life is weird in graduate school.
4. Nobody will understand your program and career path.
You would think “I want to work at a college” is easy to understand, but most people just will not get it. I have spent many family gatherings, friend reunions, and interactions with people trying to explain what I do. Just smile and let it go!
5. You only have two years to jam pack as much preparation and learning as you can.
Go to a conference. Present at a conference. Join that extra committee. Diversify your graduate experience! Do not stick with the mindset that your graduate assistantship will give you enough preparation. Intentionally pick internships in service areas that you are passionate about. Intentionally pick internships in service areas you have absolutely no experience in. This is the perfect time to explore service areas so you are able to narrow it down for the job search.
6. Some students are not going to like you.
Many of us are interested in student affairs because of an amazing mentor we had as an undergraduate student. You will not be that amazing mentor for some students. That might sound harsh, but it is true. Some students will not like you. Some students are not interested in a mentee/mentor relationship. Some students will only want your help as a supervisor, not a mentor. This is normal and do not feel like you are an awful person because you are unable to form an “amazing” relationship with each and every student you interact with. Also, do not gauge your success as a supervisor on if you think your students “like you” or not. Your students are not your best friends. If your students are filling your personal needs as a person then something is wrong.
7. You will learn SO MUCH about yourself in graduate school.
Get ready for those student development theories! Many of them will freak you out at their accuracy. You will make sense of some things that have happened in your past. Studying student development theory has been a phenomenal learning experience so far. It is pretty crazy how a theorist’s student development theory can pretty much outline your entire life starting at birth. These theories will challenge you to create your own personal theories. These theories will provide you with the tools you need to design learning and developmental experiences for your students.
8. If you truly want to be in this field, you will love graduate school.
Graduate school means being on the path to your dream job. Sometimes you will want to quit school. But other times, you will realize how much you love it. You will meet new friends. You will find new mentors. You will make jokes with cohort members about how awful some of your assignments are and it will be funny. You will meet those students that remind you why you chose to pursue a career in student affairs. At the end of the day, all the hard work will be so worth it.
This was blog post was not meant to scare anyone. As a current student affairs graduate student, I think it is important for people to realize how big of a decision they are making when they change their career path to something most people will not understand. I also think it is important to get a glimpse of what life will be like for the next two years.
Graduate school is a roller coaster. Be sure to keep your hands in the air and enjoy the ride!