Over the past two and a half years, I have worked in the Department of Student Life at Michigan State University, helping to coordinate the Sexual Assault and Relationship Violence Prevention Program. Although my time spent working with the office diminished from 25 to 10 to 5 hours a week, I have learned a great deal from this position that I would not have learned otherwise. Additionally, my girlfriend is also a student affairs professional, leading to many a conversation about what Student Affairs is and does. I have been, I feel, well exposed. Or at least, more exposed than most anthropology graduate students.
Needless to say, the culture in a student affairs office is dramatically different from that in my office in the Department of Anthropology. A lot of this has to do with the intent of the department: Student Life adopts a student-first orientation, where the single priority is students, particularly their “life outside of the classroom” (a phrase I hate, but people seem to keep using). An academic department such as Anthropology views their discipline first, and students are viewed as one of the priorities through that lens: how do we use anthropology to teach students about the world and how to view it critically? I think that what I have learned at Student Life will (and has been) valuable to my work as a member of an academic department for two reasons: first, it exposes me to a student-first perspective, and second, it provides me with in-depth knowledge about what student affairs programming exists and how I can use it to enhance what I do.
Disclaimer: I’m not suggesting that many faculty or student affairs professionals aren’t capable, or don’t already do, what I’m about to talk about. Many of them do. I’m simply writing about how my exposure to Student Affairs has led me to these realizations about how I hope to approach my professional life. Carry on.
When I walk in the doors at 101 Student Services, I’m responsible for looking at every idea from the perspective of the student. This means I have to look at our programming to figure out how it is relevant to a 19 year old student in 2010. How will this program benefit the student? How will get them there? How will the program get across its message in an effective, relevant way? In order to do this, you have to “know” the student body. You have to know how they work, what they do, what music they listen to, what music they don’t listen to, and so on. You also have to know about where students are developmentally, what skills they have, what they don’t have, why they do what they do. This is part of the student-first perspective. This perspective allows you to keep in touch with what students are thinking, how they perceive the world, and how they are struggling to function within it.
The importance for faculty and administrators in academic departments, then, seems obvious. Instead of asking how can we teach students through anthropology, we can ask how can we teach anthropology to students in ways they will find relevant to their lives and perspectives? How can our teaching help them develop into better people? Instead of focusing on what questions a student missed in office hours, a student perspective might lead to a discussion about studying habits, or what other elements of student’s life might be impacting their learning. Understanding what a student’s life is like will help me make a student’s education more valuable to them.
Working in Student Affairs has done another thing for me that is also important: it has opened my eyes to the number of things that are happening outside of academic departments. Even more important, it has become clear to me that these are not things that are happening separate of academia, they are happening along side it, and would be better if they were working with academia. Additionally, they offer things for our students that would make academic departments and classes work better. And when these collaborations do happen, it will be a great benefit for the partnership when I’m able to utilize a student-first perspective, in addition to an anthropology-first perspective (and for the student affairs side to do the same). Being able to make connections between academic and student affairs programming will help me a great deal in these situations.
Certainly, these are not the only things that I have learned from this experience, but I think they are the most important. There are plenty of other ways for faculty members to gain this perspective. What are some other important cross-over skills that you think I may have benefited from? On the flip side, do you think Student Affairs may have benefited from my perspective as a researcher? As an anthropologist?