Value Yourself: An Interview with Shane Cadden

By Christina Ferrari

I met Shane Cadden on Twitter and appreciated his candid nature and willingness to constructively critique aspects of our field that we sometimes turn a blind eye to, so I reached out and we connected to chat in more depth. We both agreed that some of the trends in the work practices of student affairs are inherently problematic, and I wanted to learn more about how new professionals might be able to start a culture shift. Below are some excerpts of our conversation. I’d be curious to read and hear your thoughts—as Shane certainly has shared his. Comment below or tweet us at @SAFirstYears, @cm_ferrari3, and @scaddenFNL.

Want to learn more about Shane and his experience on staffing philosophy and workplace values? Check out his blog:

Q: I only know you from your Twitter posts and our online conversation that started about new professionals. Share with me and my readers a little about yourself and your student affairs journey.

A: I have 15 years experience in higher education and what many have considered a non-traditional background. As an undergraduate I went to Stetson University and majored in English and then went to graduate school at Vanderbilt University Divinity School and received a Master of Theology with a focus on Pastoral Care and Counseling (including a year-long internship in campus ministry) so I’m “outside the box” when it comes to the student affairs route. However, I went into the field because I was very involved as an undergraduate. And as a first generation college student, I recognize that education is a special thing. I want to make a significant impact, which is probably why divinity school seemed appealing to me at the time. In my career, this impact has been with college students and staff and their development. My positions have primarily been in housing/residence life. I started at Barton College, NC then went back at Vanderbilt, and most recently the University of Central Florida as an Area Coordinator and then held multiple Assistant Director level positions.

Q: So, as you might know Student Affairs First Years is a blog written by and for graduate students and new professionals. What is the most important piece of advice you have for student affairs job seekers?

A: Be open to as many options as possible. Don’t limit yourself unless you have to. For instance, family concerns, which we don’t talk enough about in the field, are valid. Geographic limitations should not be viewed negatively, but at the same time don’t box yourself in, and don’t sell your soul to get a job. Be who you are in the job and the job search process or you’ll be miserable. And, if something isn’t a good fit you leave if you need to leave, professionally of course.

We talk a lot in this field about authenticity—who we are, but sometimes it becomes more about who we are supposed to be. Student affairs puts a lot of pressure on new professionals to speak and dress a certain way. But the new professional must be able to share who they are and speak their mind. Share your whole personhood and go to places where it will be respected. Sometimes the field pushes you to act a certain way to be a certain way—we need to change that culture and have people accept us for who we are.

Q: That brings up a great point, being authentic. What are some other insights you have into the student affairs profession?

A: There can sometimes be a lot of idealization in this field. Student affairs programs often seem to prepare grads to drink the Kool-aid, that their careers, life, and their approach to students should be a particular way. I don’t have the [student affairs] degree so there are theories and frameworks I don’t know as well but we need that educational diversity in the field, because there are things I am excellent at in my job because I have a different degree background. Some of this might be an outsider looking in, but as someone who has worked in student affairs for almost two decades there are some troubling trends I’ve noticed. For one, there is an idealized notion—“that’s just the residence life way” or “that’s just the spirit of the residence life profession. For example, a frequent concept is this idea that a student should be an RA for a full year so we then don’t advertise hiring a half year RA or GA. With practices like that, we need to match expectations up against reality. Stuff happens, at the end of the day why do we spend so much time creating policies so restrictive that does not always work rather than hiring the best that we can and deal with circumstances as they arise? I have never worked a year professionally when we did not hire staff mid-year or mid semester, so why advertise we will not hire a RA or GA to work half a year when it happens all the time anyway. The students and staff will both survive the disruption when it happens, and often may be better for the change. Staffing needs to be reconsidered rather than rest in the old frameworks that just don’t work anymore in my opinion.

Another ideal- our [graduate assistants] need to have student affairs backgrounds to get a job. Is that realistic? Who are we excluding? Yes, support the field, but I still believe in hiring the best candidate. We in student affairs live in structures with idealistic circumstances, (i.e. 2-3 years in first job) and we sometimes don’t recognize that things may not work out in this way. Maybe a significant other gets another job, health reasons, bad supervisory experience, etc. As hiring managers, when we look at a resume or read a cover letter why are we trying to match up these individuals against idealistic expectations? We need to allow for the fact that reality intervenes and if a 23 or 24 year old leaves after a year in their first job ever, don’t hold it as a red flag. “Life happens as we’re busy making other plans” per John Lennon.

Q: As a new professional, I just want to say I appreciate your empathetic attitude. What are some aspects of the field you think it is important for me and my peers to be attuned to?

A: Sometimes student affairs sets itself in this bubble. We’re so focused on justifying our field but we need to look at other fields, organizational development for one example, and focus on the business and organizational structures, systems, and strategies of student affairs. We cannot do more with less; it’s not sustainable unless you want to acknowledge you want to kill your staff. So many people graduate from higher education programs with the unicorns and giraffes stuff, the idealism, but the practical stuff of being an ethical administrator is not taught or talked about nearly enough.

If you don’t love and care for yourself, you cannot love and care for others. New professionals need to recognize that there are a lot of positions and departments that have lost that reality. Some places carry an attitude that all of the suffering is ok because it builds character, but burn out management systems and supervisory systems are often not acknowledged. For example, the work day—does it need to start at 8am, knowing when our students are around and the evening commitments we have? Why don’t we have more flex time? Maybe have six professionals work from 8-5pm and others 12-8pm. Maybe we need to totally rethink things.

Counseling is also critically important, for our students but also staff. Organizationally and by design we need to stop taking this badge of honor that I’ve worked the longest. When we do that, we damage the new professionals and they begin to feel this is the way it has to be. If nobody is questioning practices, this is a problem.

We also can’t expect our student staff to be working 50+ hours a week and we can’t do it for professionals. Yes, there will be busy seasons so then the question becomes how do you effectively design staffing practices to allow work to get done without burning people out?

Q: Some people might say that’s not the organization, that’s the individual. How do you believe new professionals can work in a culture like student affairs, be passionate and produce good work, and still keep our sanity?

A: Be authentic to yourself: tell yourself I am not going to kill myself for any job. Balance and set your own boundaries. It’s ok to say no. Identify priorities and do your work well. Some people get caught up in the mindset they are in a job and cannot leave because they feel indebted to students. They become incapacitated to turn down projects or walk away from an unhealthy work culture. In a lot of divisions, when it comes to life outside of work those higher up on the food chain may make it look like it works. That’s because others are picking up the slack, and that their jobs by definition are different kind of busy. How are they doing it? Who may be perceived to be suffering or actually suffering because [the mid and upper level professionals’] life looks so good? There is a difference between new professionals paying their dues and overextension, mental and physical health damage and possible hazing due to bad structures, systems, or supervisory practices.

As a new professional, make promises to yourself and keep yourself accountable. And hiring managers: don’t reward overload. We need to work smarter not harder. Delegate, ask questions better, ask for support, collaborate better, allow others to steps up and hold them accountable too. Communicate that you want to do a good job, and articulate that you can’t do that without taking care of yourself. Develop your relationship with supervisor to be supportive. Seek out real-talk preparation, find a mentor who can be real. Negotiate work strategy, and remember that “other duties as assigned” is not a free pass to work you 60+ hours a week. The field is going nowhere but down a deep dark hole unless people stand up and recognize and make actual time to problem solve many of these issues rather than live from crisis to crisis and never make time for conversations and a commitment to organizational health for the benefit of the education business bottom line, staff, students, and community.

Q: I’m a little scared now.

A: (Laughs.) Don’t be,that’s the great thing about new professionals like yourself. You have the power to influence your locus of control and seek out a culture that respects you as a whole person. You and your peers also have the opportunity to change the field to become something more sustainable and effective.

Q: Well, so for those of us in the throes of the job search, or for the lucky ones who have already snagged a job, what are some helpful tips you can share when it comes to being supported as a professional and as a person?

A: Read something other than Komives and Chickering. What can we learn from business, law, or human resources for example? I recognize that education isn’t the exact same things as a business but there are still things to learn from that field.

Go back to ethical standards from ACPA and NASPA, digest which move and shake you as a professional and how to ascertain what is being said. Ask questions as a trend line, ask everybody. Ask challenging, subtext questions that get back to your professional values for your job search. If someone is talking about “valuing balance” read between the lines. Follow up when you do hear things like this; ask scenario based questions just like they ask of you. For instance, “if it’s a busy time of year and two of ten people are out on vacation, how would you go about adapting to the work environment?” “If it’s RA sign up week and there is a major fire how would you, as a supervisor, honor work getting done, work-life balance, and crisis?” Don’t be afraid to challenge, and remember to be authentic! Find key important issues and then ask them in a critical way. You’ll be asked how you deal with confrontation so it’s totally appropriate to ask them the same.

In short, it seems our profession is at a crossroads. For years, the passion and the drive to serve students coupled with a demand to do more with less has created a culture where work-life balance faded away (and I don’t think it was ever even a ‘balance’ to begin with).

Around the country many student affairs departments, and new professionals especially, accept that work is our life. This must change. The good news is that new professionals can hold ourselves and our employers accountable. We can, and should, demand more. Does that mean we can rely on a 40 hour work week all the time every time? We all know that’s not the nature of our field. But employees at all levels in student affairs must shift away from workaholism and at least allow ourselves the time and space we need to step away from the office. I hope this post was as enlightening as it was inspiring. A giant, special thank you to Shane for taking time out to shed light on what some might call the dark gray side of the profession. Please share your thoughts and join the conversation at

Student Affairs - the First Years

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