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The Decision to Pursue a Career in Student Affairs: Following My North Star

By Jennifer Maloney
Residence Director
Elizabethtown College

Have you ever wondered, "Am I doing what I was meant to do? Where am I going? Where is it that I want to be?" I have...

As a senior in college, I began my job search like everyone else. I put a resume together and headed for the Career Center. As a double major in mathematics and economics/business, I had watched both math majors and business majors accept positions with very powerful and influential consulting firms such as Price Waterhouse Coopers, American Management Systems and Anderson Consulting. Since consulting seemed to be a growing industry and my friends were enjoying their post-college life, I just assumed that my life should head in that direction as well.

Through the Career Center, I interviewed with two major consulting firms and, by the end of January, had two fabulous job offers. At the beginning of February, I accepted one of the two positions and felt very positive about the choice I had made.

At that time I was heavily involved in student affairs; I was a Resident Advisor my junior year and a Head Resident Advisor my senior year. During the spring semester of my senior year I also worked on an internship with the Office of Student Residence and the Office of Student Activities. A friend and I were very interested in college-sponsored late-night non-alcoholic programming. The attendance rates at our programs had dropped in recent years, so we researched successful late-night programs and activities at other schools and introduced a late-night programming calendar to our student center.

I did not think about the career decision I had made until midway through this internship. I had loved being a Resident Advisor my junior year. I had been placed in a wonderful building where I was able to gain valuable first-year experience. I was close with my residents and loved programming for them. I also enjoyed my new friendships with both residents and other resident advisors. I liked the job so much that I applied for a Head Resident position at the end of the year. As a Head Resident, I supervised a staff of six RAs and was the resident advisor for my floor. With this new position, I was able to gain more administrative experience. At the same time, I was able to gain even more administrative experience through my internship and shadowing the Associate Director of Student Residence.

I loved all the work that I was doing for my internship and finally realized that I could do "that" type of work as a career. For some reason, I had never thought about a career in student affairs. Then I began to worry...had I made the right decision? Should I have rushed into the job search? I talked with my internship supervisor about a career in student affairs and higher education versus a career in consulting and corporate America. She was very supportive of my initial decision to go into consulting. She told me that the student affairs field would always be here waiting if the job didn't work out. As we talked I felt comfortable again with my initial decision.

As I graduated college, I didn't give another thought to a career in student affairs; I was excited about the prospect of life after college and starting the new job in August. The summer flew by, and before I knew it, I was on a train on my way to my first official day of work. Initially I loved the job. The first two weeks were an orientation to the company. There were 28 new hires in our office so we immediately became friends. We met some very successful individuals from the company and learned all about the world of consulting. We were each assigned a "buddy" to help make our transition to the company smoother. After the two-week orientation, I felt at ease with the company and my fellow co-workers. I was ready to start on my first project.

That's when the trouble began. I had been hired as a programmer analyst, so the majority of my time was spent programming. Learning a new programming language and my client's system took up the first few months of my project. Slowly, I was given assignments, but for the most part, I would finish them faster than new ones could be prepared. I sat around a lot and felt very unproductive; I was constantly waiting for something to do. After a few months, my frustration had grown and I began to question my decision to work there.

As time went on, I become more involved with the project. I was learning more and more everyday and my managers were giving me more work and responsibility. Still, I felt uneasy. I wanted even more out of the job. I tried switching to another project, but that didn't work either. It seemed as if there was no way to take initiative within the company.

As the days continued, so did the job...everyday the same routine. I decided to start looking for a new job and a new career. I updated my resume, wrote a cover letter and was faithful to the Chronicle of Higher Education's job listings every Friday. I applied to every entry-level residence life position on the East Coast. At first the response was slow and very much nonexistent. Then, after attending a regional job placement conference, I had three campus visits. Within a month, I had a job offer from Elizabethtown College.

I sat down and thought about my two options: With consulting, I would work 8 am - 4 pm everyday. I would get programming assignments every day. But, I would never feel part of a greater team. I would not look forward to going to work every morning. With my other option, I would truly contribute to a team and hopefully enhance the lives of many. No two days would be the same and I would be in total control of my career. I would love my job. Was there even a choice?

I accepted the job offer from Elizabethtown College and have never looked back. My managers were very surprised when I told them the news. I was very good at programming and my job, but no one ever realized how much I had disliked it. June 30, 1999 was a very important day in my life... it marked the end of one chapter and the beginning of a whole new one.

The North Star, by Peter Reynolds, is a story about a young boy's journey through life. It is an allegory, raising questions about which road we take, and how to seek out our own unique path through life.

The story starts with the awakening of a child.

A sweet breeze met the boy as he awoke to his journey. He traveled on all fours for quite sometime...and he grew. And he paused. One day he had the urge to stand...to walk. It made his journey easier. He was soon inspired to learn how to run. But for the most part he walked. He wasn't afraid of much.

As he begins walking, he sees a rabbit hopping by onto a path he had never noticed before. As the boy wanders toward the path, he meets a cat.

The boy asked..."Where did the rabbit go in such a hurry?"
"She was in a rush to start her journey. It's time for you to start your journey, too."
"Oh, but I have been on a journey! I've seen many wonderful things. Some I understand and some I don't..."
"Well, that's fascinating, but I'd hate for you to be late. You don't want to be left behind."

The rabbit explains to the boy that he isn't the only one on this journey...there are plenty ahead and lots to follow. With that, the boy begins walking down the path. There were signs along the way; some parts of the journey were easy and some were very difficult. After some time, the boy feels lost. Right then, the cat appears and tells the boy to hurry because he is falling behind. So, the boy runs and runs and runs until he can no longer see a clear path.

As he continues, he finally meets up with a bird who helps to teach him a very important lesson.

"You look lost," the bird sighed.
"I don't think so. I mean, I'm not sure if I'm lost. I really hadn't thought about it."
"Hadn't thought about it? You must have some idea of where you are going, yes?"
"Well...I've been following the path..."
The crickets fell silent as the bird asked... "But where is it that you want to be?"
"'I'm not sure, but I know this is not the place I want to be. I guess I am lost."

Upset because the bird left so suddenly, the boy looks above him to see a very bright star. He begins to go in the direction of the star and as he follows the first one, many more appear, guiding him along the way. Along the journey, the boy realizes that everyone has "a different voyage, different signs, their own stars, their own constellation." As he follows his North Star, he realizes that there is still a long journey ahead of him, but that the journey is his own journey.

Like the boy, I have been on a journey. And like the boy, I have found myself off the path. Eventually, I found and followed my own North Star. I absolutely love working in student affairs and have decided to pursue a career in it. My journey at Elizabethtown has taught me many valuable lessons and has brought me great joy and happiness. Right now, I am in the process of continuing my journey, as I begin a new job. Starting in January I will be working at Boston College as a Residence Hall Director, and starting this summer I will begin working towards a master's degree in Higher Education Administration.

Although I did not get to where I am right away, I ultimately found my way. Good luck to all of you in charting your own paths and finding your own North Stars.

About the Author

Jennifer Maloney is a second-year Residence Director at Elizabethtown College. After spending a year in corporate America, Jen returned to higher education and residence life last year...she just missed working with people. Jen's love for programming began as an undergraduate and has continued into her professional career where she is Programming Coordinator for the resident assistant staff. Jen truly believes that programming is the key to building a successful community.