Semester One as an #SAPro: It's Miserable and Magical

By Maggie Merryday
@maggiesutton

Since graduation, my cohort from my master’s program has maintained a Facebook group to bounce ideas off of one another, keep each other updated, and have a little comic relief as we navigate this first year as SA Pros together. Recently, as the Fall semester came to a close, someone posed the question in the group: "Sum up your first semester as an SA Pro in 10 words or less..." 

After reading some of the comments from my peers, I decided that I didn't even need 10 words, but instead would quote one of the great lyricists of our time, Taylor Swift, with this one simple sentence to sum it all up, "It's miserable and magical. Also, marriage." (Taylor Swift didn't say that last bit, I added it myself.)  

If we're being honest, I could not think of a truer statement to describe my first semester. It's best if I start at the beginning so you can get the true picture of what I mean... 

I got engaged to my now husband Labor Day week of my third semester of graduate school. (See "SA Year 2: Is this what they meant by student engagement?) At the time, my fiancĂ© was living in Fort Myers, FL, while I was finishing up my graduate work in Gainesville. When the job search process began, I essentially had three institutions to choose from as potential places of employment. While I made peace with my narrow options so that I could be closer to my spouse, it was still stressful to watch my classmates jet all over the country from interview after interview while I waited by the computer for the right job to post in the right location. 

That opportunity came the weekend I was taking my comprehensive exams, Valentines Day, when the entry-level job of my dreams was posted at Florida Gulf Coast University. 

It was the only position that I even interviewed for - I just knew that it was the right one for me. Yet still, here I was, putting all of my eggs in one basket while my cohort was pondering whether to go to Hawaii or New York City. 

The afternoon of our Hooding Ceremony, just one day before graduation, I was getting ready to walk into the ballroom for our celebration when I got the call. I was offered got the job. I would be the new Coordinator for Student Programming at FGCU, where I would advise the Programming Board starting May 22. I sobbed into my fiance's arms because it meant that our long distance was finally over - I cannot express to you in words what that kind of joy feels like.

Even though I was overjoyed to have received this opportunity, I was still very sad to be departing my G.A. position. After all, I loved the program, worked so well with my colleagues, and adored my students. I recall one of my students in my office saying, through tears, "I just realized that next year I won't be able to come here and talk to you whenever I need to." I was especially sad to part from my then supervisor - whom I'm still happy to call my mentor and friend. We had dubbed ourselves the #DreamTeam and had connected from day one. I found myself on my last day still running around trying to complete tasks when my supervisor said to me, "Maggie, it's time for you to go now." I left the office fighting back tears, still trying to come to grips with everything that was happening. 


Wedding Photo Credit: Photography by Ashley B.

I was welcomed with open arms at FGCU, where the position I was filling had been vacant for the entire school year. My new supervisor and colleagues were welcoming and supportive, showing me the ropes and helping me in my transition. Life transitions were going on at home, too - my fiance and I went from seeing each other once a month to every single day. Our mindset had to change from "What do I want/need to do today" to "What do WE want/need to do today." 

Over the summer, I met some of my Programming Board Executive Board members and made all of these big plans - a late night programming series with its own logo, new programming models, an inaugural Homecoming week, training surrounding the NACA competencies, complex assessments that would make my graduate school professors proud... I was so excited to have my very own Programming Board - we were going to take this campus by storm! 

Then, we got to our first retreat that summer. And after I'd spent two hours going over everything from interacting with the media to active shooter training, when I asked if there were any questions, one of my executive board members quietly raised her hand and said, "Can you go back to the very first slide.... what is the 'Office of Student Involvement'?"  

That's when I realized, "Okay, those big dreams... they're going to have to wait. We need to start from the beginning." 

That rebuilding process essentially consumed our first semester together. We let go of two directors (I had never fired a student worker before and the process was miserable), updated the constitution, and worked on getting through basic event planning skills and processes. It seemed like sometimes we would take one step forward, and then two steps back. Meanwhile, attendance was down at everyone's events - not just the Programming Board. Attendance was down across campus departments and moral was low. I had a group with four students that were members in the same fraternity and two students that were in the same sorority, and it seemed like the others were constantly getting left out. One of my strongest student leaders was already talking about pursuing opportunities with Housing and Residence Life next year. The Director of Promotions didn't know the basics of graphic designs, so marketing was a slow process for the events. Sometimes posters were not posted around campus until days before the event. It seemed like the problems that needed fixing were overwhelming and impossible to tackle all at once.

We started little by little, just trying to get through one day at a time. I found support in my Graduate Assistant, who had served on the Programming Board the previous year and had more knowledge of PB's history at FGCU. My supervisor has also been incredibly supportive - she always has my back when I make decisions or want to try something new. I found comic relief in the funny things my students said and did - like listening to one of my tough fraternity guys gushing over how much he loved his pet bunny, "Bunny." 

On January 26, we had one of our tradition events, "Casino Night." It was a late night, with the event lasting from 8:00 p.m. to 12:00 a.m. It seems that we are finally starting to get over some of our usual issues - the marketing went out on time, the director had plenty of help for set up and take down, and everyone stayed positive and worked hard throughout the event. Best of all, at the end of the night, when we were waiting for the vendors to tear down, no one once complained about how late it was or asked to leave. Instead, we all sat in a circle and chatted about our week, laughing and talking with one another. In that moment, I was so proud. So proud of them and how far they have come thus far. It made the past eight months of reform completely worth it. 

Looking ahead to 2017, we're still going to put some of those "Big Dreams" in place. FGCU will have its inaugural Homecoming, Feb. 6-11. The programming board is heavily involved in the planning and execution of this week of events. It's not going to be easy, but I know that we're ready. Then it will be time to finish out the semester strong with our spring concert, train the new executive board, and say goodbye to our seniors. I know that there will be more "miserable and magical" moments ahead, but I can't wait to see what this next semester will have in store.

Sincerely, 

Maggie Merryday

Student Affairs - the First Years

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