When the Perfect Job Is No Longer Perfect
I am blessed to be working as a student affairs professional. I just started my 30th year in the field and have enjoyed the opportunities provided to me in both public and private institutions, along with land grant and directional (regional) institutions, urban and rural, and in systems on both the “main” campus and a branch campus. In each experience, I sought an institution and a specific role that would be congruent with my values as a student affairs professional and personally.
Values congruence with your institution, students, and co-workers should never be underestimated when evaluating your experience. As union and activities professionals, we don’t always use our learned theories to discuss our job searches or even our work. When it comes to finding the right position or that “fit” with the institution, understanding your own values within the context of congruence in a position and institution is critical to your career development.
Identifying what attributes of your work environment will foster values congruence is not an overwhelming process. Consider what you are looking for in a position, the environment in which you will be asked to work, and the institution itself. A few simple questions to ask yourself may include:
- A sense of belonging. Do you feel like you belong at the institution? Are you comfortable in the environment and are there colleagues to whom you feel connected? Do not confuse a positive work environment with personal friends. There are times in our field of work where “work colleagues” also become friends, but that is not always the case. The bigger question is if you feel welcome and valued as a professional and colleague.
- Your presence matters. Do you feel like your ideas are welcomed and your input encouraged? Are you engaged in the delivery of programs but also empowered to make change when necessary? You want to feel as your contributions matter and are respected. This means deciding whether your insight, experiences, and suggestions make a difference to the students you serve and to colleagues in your department and across the campus.
- You are not the only one. Are there times when you feel that you are representing an entire population either due to your sexual orientation, race, gender, or other identity? Do you have colleagues who look like you or think like you or who may have shared or like experiences, or are you the only one? How often do you feel that you are the only one who is speaking up on behalf of students with whom you identify? This situation is still common on many campuses, and it is an individual decision on how you fit in at the institution and if you feel supported both professionally and as an individual.
At some point, everyone may experience challenges in their work either from a colleague, a supervisor, or possibly an ongoing issue hampering the campus. Before you begin to think that you are the only one wrestling with these conflicts, please know that my experiences have, at times, tested my values at each of the five institutions where I have worked and within the specific roles I held at those institutions. I would speculate that most individuals within student affairs and specifically in the union and activities profession have found themselves at such a crossroads.
There are two possible responses when you find yourself in a space where you are feeling frustrated at work or with a colleague/supervisor. One option is to begin looking for that next “perfect job” or better institution. For some of you, this may be your only option and only you can make that determination.
I would offer an alternative set of considerations in your response when you feel like you have given all that you can:
- What have you done to adapt to the situation? Is your frustration being caused by a policy, a process, a person, or the outcome to an event/activity? Is there something that you could do to better understand the situation or the rationale for the policy or process? Have you tried to see the situation through another person’s perspective? Is there anything that you could do differently in your approach or understanding of the situation? If you were to make a change in how you approach the situation or individual, would that cause the needed improvement you are seeking?
- Do you bring solutions to your supervisor or are you waiting to be told what needs to happen? As someone who has been supervising full-time professionals for my entire career and most recently department heads in my current role, I value those who bring options for solutions to problems. While you may not be the cause of the conflict, you can certainly be the individual who tries to correct it.
- What will you learn from the experience? You may not be able to correct the conflict you are experiencing and the situation may not be able to be resolved to your liking, but you can still learn and grow professionally (and maybe personally) from the situation. I am not suggesting that you accept a scenario that causes you great discomfort or harm, but consider whether the situation is livable or workable even though it is not what you prefer.
If you cannot resolve the problem or your work environment has become less than desirable, I also don’t want you to fail to see the proverbial red flags. At some point, if the perfect job is no longer perfect, it may be time to move along. When your values are no longer congruent with the institution, coworkers, or students, it is better to move along than to become a martyr. As a union and activities professional, you can positively influence the lives of colleagues and students through programs, services, and facilities. If you are not happy at what had been your “perfect job,” you are not going to be successful in doing good work at that institution and you may find yourself negatively affecting the students you wish to serve and the colleagues you are working alongside.
Values congruence is more than just a concept you learned in your master’s program. Values congruence with your role on campus is critical for your professional success. Don’t cheat yourself out of an opportunity to build campus community and to have a fulfilling career in student affairs.