Elephant on my Shoulders

by Victoria Pietsch

The warm rays of a rising sun filtered in through the glass doors to my right. Down the hall, I could hear the disorganized shuffling of the papers and backpacks as tired students settled into their seats for the morning. Hushed voices of students rose up to greet the morning and their peers as everyone tried to make sense of how the week was already coming to an end and how the weekend was just around the corner. It’s the small talk that only a morning class can bring. Students slipped into their roles as diligent learners while banishing thoughts of a comforting bed or dreams where the pressures of life aren’t baring down on their shoulders.

In those silent moments before class began I wondered, how many people did that hallway see deep in thought and completely at a loss for what they want to do with their lives?  

Surely, I was no exception and could be added to that list of individuals who deliberates exactly where they want to be in five years. I sat outside the door and listened through my own morning haze. I’m not a morning person. I doubt I ever will be, but at least I recognize that I learn best in the morning. I observe and listen with a clear mind so that nothing else interferes. I don’t have to let the pressure of everything that happens in the day cloud my ability to soak up all the knowledge I can. It’s in these precious moments I know a part of me is at my best self. I’m truly ready to learn.

Over the last six weeks of my first semester of graduate school, I have felt an enormous pressure to have life figured out. Incessantly, I asked myself “where do I want to be five years from now? Ten years from now? And at the end of the day, what do I need to do to get there?” The fact of the matter is I had no clue how to begin answering to any of those questions. All I knew was that I love working with student leaders and with my staff. I love having an impact and I want to continue doing so in the environment that I love most, college campuses.

I’ve desired, more than I thought possible, to figure out how to be the best professional I can be and to be a good competitive candidate. After all, two years pursuing a master’s degree is a short amount of time. It doesn’t feel like it, but it is and before I know it the job search will be around the corner.

This incessant need to know what to do and what comes next is overwhelming. I realized before class that I felt like there was an elephant sitting on my shoulders and that eventually the weight of supporting that would crush me. I couldn’t be stuck in this stage of need and survival forever.

On this day, our professor invited seven to eight student affairs professionals to speak to us about their journeys and any advice they had for new professionals. Before going in I promised myself that I would go into that room with an open mind. I knew I needed to be open-minded. No, I wanted to be. I was terrified the pressure I was putting on myself would crush me. I wanted to change my mindset not just for my career but for myself, for my well-being, and for my sanity. I wanted to find my new why and I wanted that why to fuel me, not drain me.

Surprisingly, my pep talk to myself worked.

I did nothing but listen and take notes. I wrote down everything that resonated with me, good and bad. Even if I didn’t know why something resonated with me, I wrote it down so that I could figure it out later. I let myself be a canvas upon which these wise and relatable professionals could imprint their wisdom upon. In the end, it worked.

I walked out with tears of joy brimming my eyes. The elephant sitting on my shoulders finally let up. I can’t pinpoint an exact moment that the soul-crushing fear that I wasn’t going to have it all figured out subsided. I know the fear hasn’t subsided forever, but it has subsided long enough for me to have hope. I can be fueled by that hope instead of feeling misguided. My perspective shifted that day and for that I am grateful.

I know I still don’t know my exact why for entering student affairs. At least, not as fully as I’d like. But what I do know is that I am willing to find it now. My pursuit of student affairs as a profession is no longer a need or an obligation, but a want. One that I am excited to pursue despite the unknown of everything that comes with it. In the days that followed that panel, the knowledge left with me continues to echo in new and beautiful ways. Every day, I look forward to seeing how this new hope will shape me. Yet at the end of it all and I can’t help but wonder, am I the only one? Am I the only one to have had such a shift in mindset so early in my career?

I pose to you dear reader, this question: have you ever felt lost and a tad hopeless in your pursuit of a student affairs? Have you pursued parts of your profession (or graduate school) out of need instead of wanting? What helped you change your perspective? I’d love to hear your stories and invite you to share.

Student Affairs - the First Years

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