I currently serve as the Director of the African American Cultural Center at Austin Peay State University, and I’m often asked about my background. When I tell them that I have a law degree and a master’s degree in philosophy, I’m usually asked:
"How/why did you get involved with students affairs?"
The “why” is simple. I have always enjoyed working with and mentoring students. Whether through research, internship, or job, I gravitated to helping and engaging with students. Finally, I decided that I needed to have a job where I always worked with students.
The “how” was not as simple. For those of you who are looking to begin a career in student affairs without a traditional background. Here are a few practical ways to make you a viable and marketable candidate.
Use your education to stand out.
You may not have a graduate degree in higher education, but use your education to highlight what you can bring to the table. For instance, if you have a degree in Economics, Business or Statistics, you will be an asset because of your experience and comfort with numbers, particularly since budgets play a large role in student affairs. If you have a degree in Philosophy, reinforce that you have experience with logic and critical analysis. If you have a law degree, highlight your legal knowledge, which can include education law, business law, Title IX issues, immigration law, housing law, or another form of law that plays a role in student affairs. If you have a degree that emphasizes leadership or communication skills, make that known as an asset that can be utilized throughout student affairs. If you have a degree that emphasizes writing or research, show that your education can be used for research based student affairs positions, such as those that prioritize assessment.
Relate your experience to student affairs
Most student affairs positions require a combination of both education and experience. Even if your background does not include student affairs, your experience can be translated into student affairs. Additionally, highlight any service, training, volunteering, pro bono, or committees that might connect you to student affairs. For instance, as I was completing my master’s degree in Philosophy, I also served on multiple local and national boards and committees that advocated for students on issues that were relevant to my interests. I also was able to relate legal pro bono work, internships, and externships that I completed in law school to student affairs interests. Prospective employers will be looking to see how closely your experience relates to student affairs. Additionally, not only should your experience show how it relates to student affairs, but it brings a perspective that many of your colleagues do not have.
Explain why your experiences are leading you to a career in student affairs
It is important to show how your education and experience path led you to student affairs. Employers could be (rightfully) skeptical of hiring someone outside of student affairs. Perhaps you had an opportunity to work with students in the past and would like to continue. Perhaps your passion or experience with law, diversity/equity, immigration, LGBTQ, or another issue made you want to pursue student affairs. No matter what brought you to student affairs, it is important to sincerely let potential employers know how and why you got to this point.
In order to be successful, I needed to stand out from other applicants with a traditional student affairs background. I had to convince employers that I had relatable experiences and would provide a unique and valuable perspective that benefitted the school and the students. Most of all, I showed my potential employer that I had a sincere interest as well as experiences that would allow me to easily transition to student affairs.
After entering the world of student affairs, I found that not only was I able to succeed, but my nontraditional background could be used as an advantage for growth and advancement.
Austin Peay State University