Vocation Helping Vocation: Lessons About Student Affairs Administration from Career-Specialized Institutions

shutterstock_85571509When I think about college and university campuses, I think about student involvement, athletics, greek life, traditional residence halls, studying on the quad, switching majors, and really learning to discover “who you are.” I think of students focusing on learning as much outside the classroom as they do inside the classroom. I think of the systems, processes, theories, and history that shaped American higher education into what it is today.

Having worked at several schools, these components were consistent from place to place. However, for the last few years, I have been working at an institution that has shifted my understanding of higher education and how to work with students. Working at what I call “vocational” or “pre-professional” institutions is unlike anything I have experienced in both positives and negative ways. These are institutions that specialize in a particular career interest/goal and students often have to be selected into specific majors prior to their admissions. These institutions consist of visual art schools, performing arts conservatories, schools specifically devoted to engineering, theological seminaries, fashion institutes, etc. Prior to coming here, I wasn’t even sure schools like this had robust student affairs divisions. In conversing with others in the field, I wasn’t alone in this lack of understanding.

What myself, and many other practitioners have realized is that there are strong systems of student support in these schools and the approach has to be different due to the nature of the school.

  • A new model for student involvement. Vocational institutions have structures schedules that provide little out-of-classroom time to devote to being a part of clubs and activities. On my campus, there are four clubs total. It’s not a thing. We find other ways such as one-time involvement opportunities, passive programming, etc. to engage students outside of the classroom. Additionally, professionals plan and facilitate many more programs here. Due to the intense schedule, programs are not students-led. By being more active in this process, professionals are able to enhance the quality of programs to students and reach a greater audience.
  • Commitment from day one. Eight years ago, I was working at a larger public institution where I would converse with students about what they wanted to do after college, changing majors, benefits of study abroad, etc. Here, they come in knowing what to expect and are already devoted to a career path. There isn’t much room to deviate. If an engineering major wants to minor in sociology…well, that is simply not an option. It takes a special student to commit to a career goal at age 18.
  • Deeper knowledge of the academic structure. Being at small campuses and having limited academic options, you get to know academic administrators, curriculum, and even students’ performance in classes quite well.
  • Higher pressure environment=greater mental health concerns. Students find themselves dealing with pressure, critique, imposter syndrome (“am I really good enough to be here?”), and parental drive more than most other institutions. The institution needs to have a higher touch with students on a regular basis to support them through graduation.
  • Emphasis on hands-on experiences. Of course academic coursework is important to all these institutions. If they offer accredited degrees, they still need to have components of liberal arts in the curricula. However, traditional classroom experience is not the emphasis of the school. Whether it’s hands-on experiences, performances and productions, fashion shows, or time in the art studio, these experiences take precedence and are the fundamental building blocks of the institution. It takes extra effort to help students see not only the reasons behind this coursework, but the practical application of them as well.

While these may be specific to these types of institutions, there are many lessons that we have collectively learned that can benefit practitioners across all institutions of higher education.

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  • Help students find vocations early on in their collegiate path. Students with focused goals have less issues with conduct, greater retention and do better academically than students without a clear trajectory. As practitioners, we must facilitate these realizations earlier. This makes it easier to devise educational  programs for students that are connected to the “core” of their vocation.
  • shutterstock_164906795All students need validation. Whether students enroll in community college, the Ivy League, a world-class conservatory, or a regional state institution, most of them will feel out of place at some point. We need to be more vigilant about boosting students up in an era (and often in institutions) that say they have to consistently prove they belong there.

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  • Know the academic curriculum as well as you know the co-curricular. If we are truly looking at the holistic experience of the student, we must know the ins and outs of their academic programs better than we do. If practitioners knew major requirements, built relationships with academic administrators, and anticipated stressful points within the year, they would be much more effective in counseling students, helping them navigate careers, planning more relevant programs and utilizing academic colleagues to help identify and address the needs of students of concern.

Working in an institution like this has been a highlight of my career. These students have taught me a different perspective on what it means to be a student affairs practitioner. Not every professional will have an opportunity to work in this capacity, but it has been by far one of the most enriching professional experiences I have experienced and will guide my work and vision on campuses in the future.

This blog was written as part of the Careers in Student Affairs Month 2015 through NASPA

Special thanks to the following for their contributions to this article

Paul Gordon Brown

Brett Wellman, Director of Student Life, Benjamin Franklin Institute of Technology

Cory Owen, Director of International Advisement, The Juilliard School

Jim Love, Director of Residence Life, The Manhattan School of Music

Elizabeth Thompson, Assistant Director for Student Activities and Leadership, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Eric Crumrine, Director of Housing and Student Life, The Boston Conservatory

Candace Dennig, Dean of Students, The Art Institute of Washington

Melissa O’Brien, Student Services, Hartford Seminary

Howie Lien, Student Affairs Associate, The Juilliard School

*These views are my own and are not endorsed by any specific institution or employer.

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