The Origins of a Student Affairs Professional

by Maryann Orawczyk

As Student Affairs Professionals, we will never stop being asked why we chose this field, and it’s a valid question. What makes anyone want to essentially be in college forever?

Most of our answers to this question will be similar:

“I got a job as an orientation leader in my sophomore year, and it was an amazing experience I never wanted to end.”

“I was a part of a student led campus events planning organization, and I really love helping to make the college experience fun and exciting for students.”

“I was a Resident Assistant, and it developed a need for building relationships with students and helping them to adjust to their new environment.”

Most of us didn’t go through our undergraduate career not participating in any type of student life, and then realizing out of the blue that we wanted to become Student Affairs Professionals. There’s always the off-chance someone is facing their quarter-life crisis and decides to catch up on all the fun they missed in undergrad, and I applaud you for taking a chance on Higher Education. Get prepared to meet some of the most chipper and Student-Development-Theory-obsessed people of your life. Understanding what brought us into this world of misfits is important to building our network of Student Affairs Professionals.

In general, my story is this: I moved to Las Vegas to attend my first year of undergrad in 2005. I was only two hours away from my small desert town in California, I was first-gen but didn’t really know it, and I was shy, awkward, and incredibly weird according to my new floor mates. I was more afraid of my new roommate hating me because I snored than from going to a new school. School I could do. Making friends, taking advantage of opportunities (both academic and extracurricular), not so much. I had pretty lax parents, so while the other 18-year-olds were looking for ways to rebel and get crazy in Las Vegas with their new found freedom, I was more interested in going to bed at 9 PM, going to class, working, and maybe trying to make friends. I didn’t do intramurals like my floor mates, I didn’t join any clubs or organizations, my parents thought it would be too expensive to try and study abroad, and it was really hard to convince me to go to parties or large events. So, going into my sophomore year, when all of my floor mates from freshman year moved off campus and I was the only one staying in the residence halls another year, I felt that I was starting over. I no longer had anyone to eat all my meals with, or walk to class with, or stay up late watching TV with. That camaraderie you build with a floor of freshman students is non-existent on the upperclassmen floors.

My roommate from freshman year had become a Resident Assistant in another building, and while I helped her decorate her floor, met some of her residents and co-workers, and even attended some of her events, I got kind of interested in the idea of getting paid to live in the residence halls, where I could make new friends and get to be creative. My parents were definitely sold on the idea. So I applied. It was a process, and there was a half-semester class you had to take in the spring, and again, I was shy and awkward, so it was hard for me to fully participate like the rest of the chipper-go-getters in the class. In the end, I was placed in the “alternate” pool. A little dejected, I convinced my parents it would be cheaper for me to move off campus, and moved in with a couple of friends—which became a whole other story. I was settled, I had a home, a job, friends…and then the beginning of August came with a call from a Residence Hall Director offering me an open spot as an RA in the fall. I asked him for time, and then calculated what my income would be vs. my cost of living. While I would be sad to leave my friends and the life I had started, moving back to campus was the cheaper option. It would become one of the most important decisions I had ever made.

Through my experience as an RA I learned to be comfortable as myself. All of a sudden I found myself on a team of people who were just as weird as I was. You kind of have to be a bit of an oddball if you’re going to be able to put yourself out there to 40 of your peers and try to get them to participate in things like “Let’s Talk About Sex Baby: A Discussion on Protecting You and Your Partner from the Consequences of Unprotected Intercourse.” I seriously just made that up… I don’t think any of us were so creative to come up with a program like that. But in any case, I had found my people. It was one of the best jobs I had ever had. The team of people I worked with became my family. It’s been 6 years since I left my job as an RA, but I still look back on that experience as a defining moment in my life. Besides just finding my place in the confusing and ginormous place that is a large four-year research university, I found that I was really good at relating to students and helping them find their own place in the university. I remember the first time I really felt I had made a difference in someone’s life. It was simply helping a freshman student with some English homework (I was an English major). While helping her organize thoughts and ideas, and helping her to stop freaking out about the assignment in general, I was hit with the epiphany that I loved helping college students. Soon enough, I realized that there were jobs out there fitting my revelation. I would just have to go to grad school. I mean, I was an English major, so I was going to have to do that no matter what. But at least I had some direction!

I took two and half years off between undergraduate and graduate school, and I felt that it was a good decision. It made me a much better graduate student. I finished graduate school with a degree in Educational Leadership in Higher Education from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas in spring of 2014. In June of 2014 I moved myself across the country to Chicago, IL, where I have been working as an Academic Advisor for the University of Illinois at Chicago. My first year and a half as a professional has been extremely educating, and humbling. I am excited to begin sharing my experience via this blog. I find that origin stories are important to better understanding and relating to the author you are reading. Specifically, as Student Affairs Professionals, our origins are important to better understanding our community. I look forward to contributing to this online community with my fellow writers and readers, and hope that my story can relate to any of yours. I really feel that the people in Student Affairs are what make a University a community and not just an institution.

Student Affairs - the First Years

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