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KC Wednesday: An Unintended Message, a Reluctant Role Model

by on August 1, 2012

This week’s KC Wednesday post comes to us from the AGAPSS KC and is written by Dr. Kelly Anne Nelson, Director for Student Services at Ross University.

An unintended message; a reluctant role model by Dr. Kelly Anne Nelson

Several years ago, I was working in student affairs and was asked to put together a professional development day for the students enrolled in our student affairs and higher education masters degree program. We also invited the graduate student employees who were working within the division of student affairs. One of the sessions I planned was a panel presentation with senior administrations reflecting on their career paths. I selected a woman who was the program director for the masters program and a woman who was the Associate Vice President for Student Affairs. I selected them because I considered them to be dynamic professionals with interesting stories to tell. I also knew that they were both engaging speakers. The session was very interesting, but it sent our female students into a bit of a panic.

One of the women on the panel made brief mention to having chosen her career over her personal life. She felt she had missed the window of child-bearing years and wondered, aloud, how she might feel about that later in life. The other woman chose to have children on her own and said she just never found the right partner. These were, to me, just a tiny portion of what was said during the presentation. For the students, many of them didn’t hear anything but those comments. When the students shared their feelings with me, I mentally went over the organizational chart of our division and realized that almost everyone who reported directly to the Vice President for Student Affairs (as well as the VP himself) was either single or married without children. The students had realized this before I did and inferred that they would need to make huge personal sacrifices in order to be successful at an institution like ours. I am not sure how true that statement was, or is, but it was definitely the perception of that group of students.

Immediately after the session, students approached me and wanted to talk about my strategies and suggestions. To them, I had it all: a good career, a husband, a child (plus another one on the way), and an education (I was working on my doctoral degree at the time). I found myself pulled into being a role model in an area that didn’t quite seem to fit. I spent the rest of my career at this particular institution talking to students (male and female) about the challenges of work-life balance in student affairs. Since I was a reluctant role model for “having it all”, I felt my biggest contribution was honesty. I shared the struggles as well as the benefits of trying to be a wife, mother, and student while also working in student affairs. The reality was that I too had made quite a few sacrifices along my path. I joked with the students that I was working my way backwards and that soon I would be unemployed; and that is exactly where I wound up.

My career had been on a fairly normal path which included promotions and increasing levels of responsibilities which led to an assistant director level position. Shortly after getting married, I followed my husband to a new state where he had a great job offer. After a year, I had only been able to find part-time, adjunct teaching jobs so we moved on to a new institution. I took a coordinator-level job and then, when our daughter was 9 months old, I moved into a graduate student position so that I could also start a doctoral program. Three years later, I was in my last year of dissertation writing, unemployed, and a mother of two kids.

As I look back on it all, I would mostly make all the same choices. I would do some of the little things differently, but the big ones….I would make them all over again. However, if I could go back in time, I would change the language I used with students when discussing the choices we all make when trying to figure out how our careers fit into our lives.

The message our students heard was that in order to be successful, they would need to sacrifice things that were very important to them. I think I failed those students because I did not spend enough time engaged in conversation with them about their own definition of “success”. I think a successful life looks different for everyone. I used the tired cliché of “You can have it all: You just can’t have it all at the same time”. But, I’m not sure I really believed that. I think I still believed that in order to be successful, I needed to have a high-level position which would allow me to fit my family into neat little carved-out “personal life” spaces on my calendar. But, what if I would rather fit my work into neat little carved-out “work” spaces? What would my mentors say if I decided to not to hop back on the ladder-climbing success path? Would I be accused of blaspheme if told graduate students that it was ok to make those same choices?

As a professional, the legacy of that one long-ago presentation and its aftermath is that I have found myself highly conscious of the hidden messages in the choice I make. Currently, I work with future physicians and while medicine and student affairs are very different fields, I think the issue of work-life balance is a struggle in both. I know that, whether I want to be or not, I am a role model for my students who are trying to figure out how they will balance their personal and professional lives. I can only hope that I model a life which inspires them to be creative in their choices as they seek to create their own definitions of success. In the end, I am optimistic that the students I work with in the past (as well as my former students) feel empowered to make career choices that allowed them the freedom and flexibility to create fulfilling lives.

Dr. Kelly Anne Nelson is the Director for Student Services at Ross University School of Medicine. She lives with her husband, two daughters, and an ever-expanding number of pets on the Caribbean island of Dominica. For an intriguing in-depth look at the challenges faced by working women, Dr. Nelson recommends “Why Women Still l Can’t Have It All” by Anne-Marie Slaughter


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