This post is inspired by a fantastic conversation with Tim St. John. Thanks friend!
Why are we here? Why do we do what we do? What brings us into work every day, day after day?
These deeply philosophical questions can be answered in many different ways and by many different behaviours. Our guiding mission in student affairs is written on plaques and pages, heralded as the ultimate ‘why’ for the long hours and endless emails. Our why is not only an internal motivator, but also an external validator. We may know why we do what we do, but do others outside of the institution, or, perhaps more importantly, outside our department?
In thinking about mission statements (or, more accurately, in talking about mission statements with Tim), we discussed how student affairs mission and vision statements are seemingly different from those that guide other professions. Ultimately, our mission statements may fuel the passions that brought us to the field, but they can also create a dangerously utopian view of what it’s like to work in student life.
Companies in the ‘outside world’ (in quotes for a future blog post topic), most mission statements focus on the goods and services the company provides:
“It is the Mission of Advance Auto Parts to provide personal vehicle owners and enthusiasts with the vehicle related products and knowledge that fulfill their wants and needs at the right price.” (Advanced Auto Parts Inc.)
Any reference to relationships, their clients and the ‘warm fuzzy’ we take for granted is often an afterthought, and in reference to the delivery of the ‘stuff’ they sell.
“Our friendly, knowledgeable and professional staff will help inspire, educate and problem-solve for our customers.” (Advanced Auto Parts Inc.)
Compare this to a Student Affairs mission statement:
“The primary mission of the division is to help students realize, develop, and fulfill their personal potential to better enhance their university experience. The division is dedicated to the well-being and development of all students, and helping students achieve the success they deserve.” (University of Windsor)
I will concede that writing a mission statement about selling car parts is a bit easier than trying to make student learning and development a tangible commodity. However, what’s interesting about comparing these two statements is where the emphasis lies.
In most mission statements, the emphasis is on what the company and its staff can do, provide, or sell. In Student Affairs, our mission statements focus on the same, but emphasize the people over the product. We highlight our commitment to our students, acting in service to them outright rather than through a customer service experience that wraps around buying auto parts or selling bedding.
In Student Affairs, our mission statements show that we’re in fear of being an office offering services, yet we praise, highlight, and demand service – to our institution, our department, and our students.
Why is that?
Rightly so, we extol the virtues of a career in Student Affairs as being ‘in service to’ many things – namely, our students and their development. We work ‘in service’ to a higher calling to support and aid our peers, an attractive proposition for new professionals.
However, although we may deny it, we are also a service. Selling a locker to a student so they can keep their books on campus instead of carrying their heavy load around campus is as much ‘in service’ to our calling as it is to invite that same student to a leadership workshop. The service of our regular budget projections and report writing is in service of our charge to make data driven decisions on how to best spend money students have invested in us and our institutions.
Being ‘in service’ to a calling demands passion, energy, commitment and an unfailing sense of purpose. While admirable, taken together these same traits can be outright exhausting. When coupled with the service work we do on a day to day basis, it’s no wonder the picture we paint of following a passion to Student Affairs isn’t as rosy once a new professional begins their first full time job.
While I continue to see myself acting ‘in service’ of and for my students and my colleagues, I no longer shy away from ‘services’. A service (a transaction) is not a more lowly route to a higher calling, but rather a stop, a landmark, a way station on the path to achieving a mission meant to broadly cover the tremendous number of stories we will be privileged enough to share in. Could our disdain of the lowly services paint too bright a picture of what it means to be ‘in service’ as Student Affairs professionals?
Do you act in service, or as a service? Is one better than the other? Can we be both? Tell me in the comments below.
unrealistic expectations of service as a calling but services as ‘the hard stuff’