This week for #CSAM15, the Learn Forward team took the time to talk with Stephen Scott, Assistant Dean of Students at The University of Chicago.
Stephen, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with Learn Forward today. It’s been great getting to hear different student affair professionals’ stories throughout the month for #CSAM15. It’s always interesting to hear how people ultimately landed in the Student Affairs profession. When would you say you realized you wanted to pursue a career in student affairs?
After graduating from college in 1999, I quickly found myself working as a web developer. It was truly a job to “pay the bills” and after a few years, I found myself wanting more. I was primarily interacting with my computer screen each day, and I realized that I not only wanted more interaction with people, I needed it. After coming to that realization, I spent a lot of time exploring what those careers might look like...what options sounded entertaining and also rewarding. I sought out people that I respected and talked to them about what they did for a career, and after a lot of conversations, I realized that a majority of the people I had sought out, happened to be administrators at my alma mater - Kenyon College. Having realized that a lof of the people I looked up to professionally were in the field of helping young adults -particularly in the context of the college experience - I decided this was something I needed to explore a bit further, so I started looking into higher education graduate programs. In 2004, I left my job as a web developer to pursue my Master of Education in Higher Education Administration at Northwestern University.
What a thoughtful approach you took in selecting your career path! How fortunate that you had so many great people to reach out to when it came time to do some evaluating. How would you describe your career path once you finally made the decision to pursue a profession in student affairs?
After graduating in 2006, my first position was within the Graduate School at Northwestern College as the Assistant Director of Student Services. After working there for three years, my first child was born. It was at that time that together with my wife, we decided it was best for our family that I stay home during the day with our son. I spent the next five years as a full time parent to our son and daughter (who came along a couple years after our son). When making the decision to step away from the higher ed profession for a time, I was intentional about staying connected. I had really taken my investment in graduate school and my career series and because it was such an active decision, didn’t want to just let that go. The one thing I did “on my way out” was to reconnect with my graduate program at Northwestern and expressed interest in serving as a Teacher’s Assistant or supporting the program in some way. That move ended up translating to a TA position for the College Student Development Theory course that I was able to hold over the 5 years I stayed home with our kids. It was a great opportunity that allowed me to keep my blades sharp and gave me the adult and intellectual interaction I was found myself missing at times. Additionally, I quickly realized it was helping me build my network really significantly in the Chicago area. I realized that if and when I decided to go back to higher ed, there were lots of graduates from the program that I could reach out to. Ultimately, it really did pay off when I recently made the decision to return to my professional career. There are a lot of great candidates to choose from in higher education, and having been out of the workforce for some time, I knew that there could potentially be a bias against me. Having a strong network allowed me to connect with multiple people when pursuing different positions throughout my search. I recognized that I might not be able to step back into an institution at the Assistant Director level that I had previously held, but I felt strongly that if I humbled myself and was able to get my foot in the door at an institution, that I could go from there. In 2014, I returned to higher ed as an academic advisor in the Dean of Students Office at the University of Chicago, and in June of this year I was promoted to Assistant Dean of Students.
Congratulations - that’s great! What are you doing now in this new position?
Well, what attracted me to the University of Chicago is that everyone has a role in academic advising. As the Assistant Dean of Students, I have a group of students I advise outside of any conduct cases that may come my way. I also supervise three academic advisors with full advising loads. There are four Assistant Deans in the office and my specialty area is student conduct and managing the cases that come through the office.
That sounds like a great position. Can you tell us a little more about how you made the decision that it was time to return to the field?
I had a professional mentor (who I co-taught with at Northwestern) and she and I would have many conversations about my professional trajectory and in my fourth year of being a full time parent, she suggested it may be time for me to return to the professional field. She suggested that if I was going to enter anywhere near where I had left, I should probably pursue something sooner rather than later. Also, it was becoming increasingly difficult to stand up in front of 20-25 students and tell them how to do their jobs, given that I hadn’t been working myself for 4-5 years. I felt like that de-legitimized what I was saying to the students in that class. Either I was going to go back to work and re-legitimize that perspective, or stop teaching. At the time I did go back, the kids were also at developmental stages where they could really benefit from consistent interaction with peers outside of the house. I definitely felt ready. And while I’m happy to be back now, I don’t ever regret those 5 years.
What would you say are some challenges or turning points in your career that have influenced its direction?
The choice to move to the University of Chicago from Northwestern was a pivotal and intentional decision. When I was contemplating when and where to re-enter the field, I recognized that all of my professional experiences thus far had been at Northwestern and it was important to gain different experiences. While I am really passionate about college access issues and would be interested in pursuing positions at Community Colleges or in offices that specifically served first generation students, I recognized that my privilege as a socioeconomic middle to upper class white male who had only attended private institutions may not make me the best fit. The reality is that even though I am passionate about access and can be supportive of any and all initiatives, I may not be the best “face” to lead those offices.
I’ve been so impressed with the thoughtfulness you’ve taken in every step of your career thus far. Where would you say you see yourself in 5-10 years?
Of course this is all subject to change, but having seen what the Dean of Students here does and what other Deans/Senior VPs are doing at other institutions, I’m not necessarily pulled to that work right now. It appears to be perhaps too much administrative, and not enough in-the-trenches work. I know that I enjoy advising students and managing people, so it is likely that I would hope to still be at the University of Chicago in an Associate Dean or Senior Associate Dean role. I’m not sure about pursuing my Ph.D. at this time. If I were to ever find a question or subject that could sustain my interest for that amount of time, I would absolutely consider pursuing it.
It will be exciting to check in with you in a few years and see what has transpired! Given all of your experience thus far, what advice do you have for new student affairs professionals?
Be comfortable networking. Treat the relationships that you build in graduate school and in your first and second jobs as fantastic opportunities to meet and work with people who are eventually going to be leaders in the field in one way or another. Even if you don’t cross paths for another 10-15 years, putting your stamp on that relationship as someone who is valued and does good work, can really pay off later. I’d also stress the importance of finding a professional mentor - someone whose work you really respect, and to not be afraid to engage with that person from time to time. Believe it or not, they really are happy to do it. It’s flattering to be asked, and you are not an inconvenience to them, so don’t hesitate to ask - it can’t hurt!
Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us today. Your experience taking a break from the professional field and re-entering is an important one for many of us in higher education to hear. Thank you again for sharing your story and thoughtful advice.
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