So, here’s the deal: I’m TIRED! Like to-the-core mentally, physically, spiritually, and professionally tired. This is not the kind of tired that a vacation, a long weekend spent in bed, or a weekday massage can dispel. This is the kind of exhausted that I suspect is the hallmark of many mid-level and senior student affairs professionals who are also juggling other demands in their lives. Add to that the fact that many of us who are drawn to this field are innate and lifelong “caretakers” whose responsibilities and obligations in service to others probably predates our professional roles in higher education for reasons that range from being type A personalities, first-born children, lifelong leaders, or even managing more pressing challenges in our inner circles such as addiction or mental health issues. Contextualize all of that within a resource-sensitive era of higher education (read: “we ain’t got no money!”), being asked to do “more with less,” and continually needing to prove our worth as partners in the academic mission of the institution, and it can be a recipe for serious burnout.
My own story is not particularly interesting and is certainly not unique. I am an Associate Vice-President level student affairs professional who has had the good fortune to move up the ranks relatively quickly in my career. While this has introduced me to all sorts of incredible opportunities, it has also meant that the time of most significant professional change and challenge has coincided with my years as a mother of two school-aged children, serious demands as a primary decision-maker in my native family (i.e., parents and siblings), buying a house and other major financial decisions, and a similar career ascent for my partner. Further, as I have taken on new positions and the responsibilities, opportunities, and challenges that they provide, I realize that I seem to be moving further and further away from the very things that brought me to the field of higher education in the first place. Much of my day-to-day activities seemed to be more heavily focused on dealing with some sort of emergency or urgent (yet not usually essential) issue rather than on truly strategic thinking, important activities, and student impact. And so I find myself looking forward to responding to emails at 10:00 pm or craving weekend time in the office just to make progress on my “to do” list that seems to get hijacked on a near daily basis. All of this leads to many mornings when the only thing that gets me out of bed, donning a suit and heels, and into the office is pride and an overactive work ethic.
Now whether you think that I am “preaching the truth” or complaining about problems of privilege, realize that I tell myself both of these things on a daily, if not hourly, basis. As I have already stated, I am not unique in my experience and spend a lot of energy trying to make myself more productive while maintaining my positive attitude and keeping a resilient spirit. Yet, despite my best efforts, my reservoirs of energy and reserves of strength are incredibly low right now and at the risk of being truly depleted. As science tells us, one can only live in a heightened state of awareness, stress, and response readiness for so long before there are very real consequences such as illness, depression, sleep deprivation, and professional burnout. I would also like to add, within the spirit of this blog, that there is significant evidence that the challenges of balancing multiple work-life demands is much greater for women and particularly so in professional or personal environments where traditional gender stereotypes are still strongly adhered to.
So, I think I need a break, but a break with professional purpose. Because while I might enjoy a short stretch of weekdays full of naps, snacks, and daytime television, I don’t really want to leave my position or profession. I just want a chance to reconnect with it in a meaningful way and have a moment to reflect and be truly thoughtful. And here is where I envy my academic colleagues and friends: the sabbatical. I want a sabbatical!!! I want to have full-time (and paid) relief from my regular duties to pursue a significant project intended to improve me as a professional and advance the field that I love. I want to be able to select an idea or topic in higher education and student affairs that truly speaks to my soul and spend time learning about it. I want to pluck something out of the “dream file” or “pet projects” stack and actually get to do it and do it well. I want to reconnect with the unjaded hopes and dreams that I had as a graduate student and pursue a line of inquiry just because it interests me. I want to focus on the bigger picture of the field of student affairs, consider the plight and hopes of the constituencies we serve, and be a meaningful contributor to the future of higher education. I want to fall in love with the incredible potential and practice of what we do all over again.
But, sadly, this is not how the student affairs side of the house is set up. We do not have the luxury of autonomy and independence that our faculty colleagues enjoy and that allows them to engage in time away without causing terrible distress to colleagues and undue hardship to home departments. Further, for many of us who have worked hard to build political capital, strong networks, and recognition of our authority, stepping away for a year would be the equivalent of professional suicide. And I get all of that; heck, I am even writing this blog post anonymously because my home institution and department could construe this post as a lack of commitment or intention to leave my position. But I wonder if we have it “right” if it is our intention to create a career pathway for effective, lifelong student affairs professionals. Maybe we should take inspiration from our faculty colleagues and figure out how to allow ourselves periodic career breaks of significant duration for restoration and to reconnect with our work and our professional passions. We could even assign a mentor or counselor during the administrative sabbatical to be our emotional, professional, and spiritual guides and keep us true to our goals and the purpose of the sabbatical.
All I know is that if my institution offered such a program for student affairs professionals and structured it in a way that protected my career investment to date, I would be the first to sign up. What about you?