Returning to the Classroom: Being a Graduate Student After Years in the Workforce | Drew Nicklas, Brandon E. Rodriguez, Jamel Mallory, Jr., Ashley Jacobs, Abigail Leppert, Mallory Powers, Ali McGrath

Drew Nicklas
Clemson University, [email protected]

Brandon E. Rodriguez
Clemson University, [email protected]

Jamel Mallory, Jr.
Clemson University, [email protected]

Ashley Jacobs
Clemson University, [email protected]

Abigail Leppert
Clemson University, [email protected]

Mallory Powers
Clemson University, [email protected]

Ali McGrath
Clemson University, [email protected]

There  are a number of myths about student affairs as a career. One of those is that Student Affairs professionals follow a similar path.  This path is one where undergraduate students who were hyper-involved during undergraduate studies are encouraged by a mentor or friend to pursue a career in what they already show interest and competency in – college student experiences. The aforementioned undergraduate students enter a Student Affairs Master’s program after graduation and graduate in two years having maintained many of the connections they had at their undergraduate institutions. Since everyone has gotten into student affairs the same way, student affairs supervisors and faculty cater searches to fill full-time and graduate assistantship for the same developmental needs and skills as those who come directly from undergrad. Yet in reality, this pattern is a myth, and not one that is followed by everyone.

There is a significant number of “nontraditional” students entering the student affairs profession who are forgotten in this process.  Many individuals who worked professionally, both in Student Affairs and other careers, are entering Master’s programs and assistantships that are not cognizant of their prior work experience and are not designed for their needs or expertise.  Ignoring students with full-time professional experience both neglects their unique needs and discounts the value of their pre-existing skills for the program and profession. This article shares with you individual stories of some non-traditional Student Affairs graduate students. These stories are meant to provide better understanding of the challenges these students – we the authors – face and to provide recommendations to best support similar students in their journey in Student Affairs. It is important to stress that just as student affairs Master’s program students are not a single, monolithic group, neither are those of us who come to student affairs by alternate paths. Our stories are meant to provide examples and reflection on our experiences, but each of us in student affairs has their own story.

Overview of the Series

This article is the first in a two-part series on student journeys into higher education and student affairs without coming directly from an undergraduate college experience. This series was created by seven full-time graduate students in the Student Affairs program at Clemson University. We took between one to six years off before pursuing our Master’s. We are students in both our first and second years of the program. Our relationships with one another range from close friends and general acquaintances, but we were brought together by program faculty and encouraged to speak on our experiences.

The second article in this series will begin with an analysis of common themes we found regarding our transition to our Master’s program and implications for practice from faculty, staff, and students. The themes include academics, assistantship supervision, finances, social connections, relationships, and the assumptions our peers, faculty, and supervisors hold.   We share recommendations on how to better support students who work before beginning a graduate program. We and others who have non-traditional journeys into graduate education have important lessons to share and we hope this series provides the groundwork for centering Student Affairs work on all students’ unique strengths and backgrounds rather than developing plans and opportunities based on mistaken assumptions.

Our Stories

Ahead of the second article, we want to introduce each member of our team and share some insight into their time in higher education and the workforce.  Each of the following stories is written by the individual it is about and includes the pieces of their story that they feel are most relevant to the development of their Student Affairs career.  The stories are ordered by shortest to longest time off between undergrad and grad school.

Drew Nicklas (she/her) – 1 year

I am a second-year graduate student in the Counselor Education: Student Affairs program at Clemson University, and will graduate in May.  I grew up in Northern California, in a nuclear, white, middle class family, with both of my parents working full-time for the majority of my childhood. Growing up, I had focused on learning, growing, and pursuing education with few additional worries because of privileges my family have.

Pursing and earning an undergraduate degree was always an assumption for me.  My parents both earned Bachelor’s degrees, from Cal Poly, and most of my grandparents also had college degrees.  When I applied to schools, I was unsure of what I wanted to study because I liked health sciences, was not set on pursuing medical school, but did not know what other career paths existed.

I ultimately chose Cal Poly, not for my major specifically, but because I was most impressed with the idea of the college experience I was shown during their admitted students weekend. Of the schools I visited, I felt best when at Cal Poly and chose it based on that gut feeling.  In 2018 I received a B.S. in Kinesiology from Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo. Cal Poly shaped my path to Student Affairs, but also how I chose to go about pursuing a graduate degree.

During my time as an undergraduate student at Cal Poly I was highly involved with the school’s orientation programs.  I served in multiple leadership roles within orientation each year and was always looking to be more involved.  I loved the work because of the excitement it brought to campus, and the community is built for each individual.  In my senior year, my advisor talked to me about pursuing Student Affairs as a career because I loved the work so much.  I was not ready to commit to a graduate degree but was interested in the idea of a Student Affairs career.  After graduating, I worked at Cal Poly’s Career Services office as a career fair coordinator and administrative aide.  This role allowed me to explore a different functional area of Student Affairs and find that I still was passionate about the work even in an area separate from orientation.  With this confidence in pursuing a career in Student Affairs, I decided to pursue a graduate degree to aid in developing my career in Student Affairs.

Jamel Mallory Jr. (he/him) – 2 years

I moved around a lot when I was younger, but I was born in New York and graduated from high school in Fairfield, OH. I grew up in a single parent household and my mother was disabled. I did not have any intention of attending a university when I graduated from high school, but my mother was the one that encouraged it.

As a first-generation college student, I came from a low-income socioeconomic background and felt like I did not belong at college throughout my first two years. My last year at Bowling Green State University (BGSU) I learned about Student Affairs and I felt the need to learn more about the field before returning to graduate school. I graduated from BGSU in 2018 with a B.A in Media Production Studies with a concentration in Social & Interactive Media.

I worked two years at University of Michigan with their First Year Experience team, and it was an amazing experience. Student Affairs shaped my experiences at my undergraduate institution, and I wanted to do the same for students like myself. I am now a first-year graduate student in Counselor Education: Student Affairs program. I am currently the Graduate Assistant for Off-Campus Internships & Marketing with the Center for Career and Professional Development at Clemson.

Mallory Powers (she/her) – 2 years

I am a first-year student in Clemson’s Counselor Education: Student Affairs M.Ed. program, and I work as a Graduate Assistant in the First-Year Academic Programs office. Raised in Richmond, Virginia by two parents each with a professional degree, I grew up assuming I would one day earn a bachelor’s degree. This privileged perspective gave me the time and space to consider multiple options for college, and I ultimately decided to pursue an in-state, public education at William & Mary.

Throughout college, my active participation in various organizations as both a member and leader taught me the importance of empathy, the value of community, and practical life skills. This personal and professional development inspired me to provide students with the same level of attention and care given to me in college, driving me to seek employment as a Collegiate Development Consultant for Delta Gamma Fraternity upon graduating with a degree in Public Policy. I worked as a traveling consultant for two years, interviewing, training, and motivating collegiate leadership teams weekly across a variety of higher education institutions ranging in region and size.

Working closely with college students across the country for two years reinforced my desire to continue this developmental work at graduate school, combining my academic interest in policy with my love of college student development. Higher education and access to college, specifically, has positively altered my personal, educational, and professional trajectories and motivates me to positively influence the lives of students during and beyond graduate school.

Abigail Leppert (she/her) – 3 years

Before beginning Clemson University’s Counselor Education: Student Affairs program in Fall 2020, I worked for almost three years in Chicago as an Inside Sales Account Manager for Softchoice, a Canadian IT reseller. I joined the company after graduating from Ohio University (OU) in 2017 with a B.B.A. in Marketing and a B.S.V.C. in Photojournalism. I was raised in a White, middle-class blended family in Columbus, Ohio. It was always an expectation for me to earn a four-year degree, as well as expected that I would need to offset financial constraints by earning scholarships and attending an in-state, public school. While at OU, I worked various jobs, from bowling alley attendant to bartender to Learning Community Leader and Resident Assistant, which began my exposure to the field of Student Affairs although I did not realize it at the time. I also served in leadership positions for different student organizations, often leaning towards a mentorship role in whatever I did.

It was not until years into my sales career, when I realized I was driven and fulfilled more by my peer mentor volunteer role orienting new hires more than my direct job duties, that I began to seriously consider Student Affairs as a career. I now work with Clemson Home’s Residential Living department as a Graduate Assistant for Fraternity Sorority Housing while studying in Clemson’s M.Ed. program. While it has been a leap out of my comfort zone to change from business to higher education, it has been an incredible experience actualizing my passion for supporting others’ development during the transitional periods of their lives. I have a particular passion for working with support services for students from foster care and non-traditional family backgrounds, and I strive to use my non-linear path into the field of higher education to better empathize with and empower young adults and non-traditional students.

Ashley Jacobs (she/her) – 5 years

I was raised by a single mother in a low-socioeconomic background and moved around a lot as a child, living in Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia, North Carolina, before finally settling in Illinois with my dad in middle school. Neither of my parents had a college degree but pushed me to receive one, so while I knew I would go to college, as a first-generation college student I did not necessarily know what that would look like.

Because of the lack of stability growing up, I decided early on that I wanted to go to a small institution because I feared that I would be “just a number” in a larger school and would not be able to make deep connections with faculty and staff. I chose teaching because my relationships with my teachers kept me grounded as I moved around often. However, I realized once in the field that I felt limited in what I could do as an English teacher and wanted to focus more on students’ holistic growth, especially beyond high school.

Before attending Clemson, I graduated from St. Norbert College in 2015 with my undergraduate degree in English and secondary education and was a high school English teacher for five years in Northeast Wisconsin and the suburbs of Chicago. I decided to gain my Master’s degree in student affairs because it aligned with how I wanted to help students grow beyond just academics, especially for first-generation students like myself who may have not had a stable background in early education. It took me five years to discover that this was the path in education that most met my passions for students, but I know I needed my professional experiences in the classroom to lead me here.

Ali McGrath (she/her) – 5 years

I grew up in a small suburb of Boston, Massachusetts. My town was affluent even if my family was not and I grew to internalize the messages about college that my peers and classmates were taught. I assumed that I would go to college. Both my brothers did before me and it was not even a question to me when I was approaching high school graduation on what the next step would be. Knowing that I would be paying for my education, I selected a small, public university as my undergraduate institution.

When I graduated from Framingham State University in 2015, I knew that I wanted to make a positive impact on the world. I believe that it is everyone’s responsibility to make the world a little better than how we found it. This core belief is what led me to working for four years at Habitat for Humanity. I had gotten involved with Habitat during my undergraduate experience as a volunteer and intern. When provided the opportunity to continue on after I graduated as an AmeriCorps Vista, I could not have been more excited. One AmeriCorps term behind a desk led to another on the construction site. I later served as a construction apprentice and worked with their volunteers in their retail operation. Wearing these many hats and building my community made me reflect on how I had gotten to where I was.

My passion for serving others was not intrinsic and I was able to connect that motivation directly to my experiences during my college career. Working with local organizations, being educated on social justice issues, and experiencing Alternative Spring Break trips helped shape me  into the person who became compassionate, considerate, and motivated to help others. I was proud of that person and could directly thank the Student Affairs professionals that helped me become her. I am giving back by working alongside them and helping students become the best possible versions of themselves. I pursued Student Affairs and joined this Master’s program because I thought the most positive impact I could make was working with students and helping instill the value of serving others and doing good in the world.

Brandon E. Rodriguez (he/him) – 6 years

I grew up in a sleepy suburb north of Orlando, FL called Longwood where I attended Seminole County Public Schools through my entire K-12 education. I grew up with a single mom for most of my life as she worked two or more jobs in order to support and provide for our family of three. Neither of my parents graduated from college, and my father didn’t get his GED until he was almost 40 years old. As a teenager my father was forced to leave high school early when his parents moved to Brooklyn from the island of Puerto Rico.

In addition to being a first-generation college student, I also come from a low-income socioeconomic background where college was never talked about or ever expected of me. As a result, I had to take out student loans and work part-time jobs to support myself and make ends meet while trying to get that promised ticket to the middle class. I attended community college at Seminole State College of Florida where I received my A.A. degree in General Studies before transferring off to Florida State University in Tallahassee. I ended up graduating from FSU with a Bachelor of Science in Political Science and International Affairs degree that really only lent itself to looking good on a law school application.  My own experience as a transfer student from a non-traditional background has consistently fueled my passion for student affairs work, specifically in transfer student success and advocacy.

After graduating from FSU, I unintentionally took six years off to work full-time as I started my professional career working for the Walt Disney Company. Through my various internships with Disney I was able to find that student affairs spark working for the Disney College Program. I took those six years off between my undergraduate and graduate studies because I truly didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life. I was told my entire life to do something that made me money and made my family proud, so being a doctor or lawyer were the only two options I thought I had. My professional experience post undergrad led me to unearthing my true passion for a field that wasn’t designed for non-traditional, first-generation students like myself. My path to student affairs has been shaped by my personal and professional experiences as I strive to create more paths for non-traditional students like myself to enter the profession of student affairs and higher education.

Six years into professional work from Orlando to Chicago, and I finally landed in Chattanooga, Tennessee where I worked as a Logistics Specialist for a transportation company before deciding to go to graduate school. I made the decision to go to graduate school while also having many adult responsibilities like a spouse and a mortgage, as I then moved across the Appalachian Mountains to Clemson, South Carolina. I currently work at Clemson University as the Graduate Assistant for Multicultural Community Development, specifically doing LGBTQ+ programming, education and advocacy work within the Gantt Multicultural Center. My work has evolved and changed over the years, and today I can say that I am able to do something I love every day.

Conclusion and Reflection

This introduction to us and our experiences is intended not only to give context to our experiences in preparation for the next article in the series. Rather, it is intentionally designed to provide points of consideration for those working with student affairs graduate students – faculty and staff – about the importance of story. While the next article delves into how to work intentionally with graduate students with full-time work experience, we want to offer the following prompts for your consideration based on this article.

Prompts for Practitioners

  1. How do you get to know the stories of the students you supervise?
  2. How can you build understanding more about your students’ lived experiences into your supervision meetings and the culture of your office?
  3. How do you learn more while respecting appropriate boundaries?
  4. What information do you share about your own experiences with those you supervise?

Prompts for Students

  1. How do you set expectations with your supervisor and share what you need and how your past experiences inform your developmental and professional learning?
  2. Consider writing a short “higher education biography” as exemplified in this article. What stories, experiences, parts of your identity inform who you are as a graduate student?
  3. If you worked before graduate school, what can you learn from students in your program who came directly from undergraduate education? If you came directly from undergrad, what can you learn from cohort mates who have full-time work experience?
  4. What efforts have you made to get to know the stories of others in your cohort?

About the Authors:

Drew Nicklas is a second-year, full-time graduate student at Clemson University.  She is a graduate assistant for the Tigertown Summer Bound program and will graduate May 2021.

Jamel Mallory, Jr. is a first-year, full-time graduate student at Clemson University.  He is a graduate assistant for Off-Campus Internships & Marketing in the Center for Career & Professional Development and will graduate May 2022.

Mallory Powers is a second-year, full-time graduate student at Clemson University.  She is a graduate assistant for the Tigertown Summer Bound program and will graduate May 2022.

Abigail Leppert is a first-year, full-time graduate student at Clemson University.  She is a graduate assistant for Fraternity Sorority Housing in ClemsonHome and will graduate May 2022.

Ashley Jacobs first-year, full-time graduate student at Clemson University.  She is a graduate assistant for Student Services in the Department of Language and will graduate May 2022.

Ali McGrath is a second-year, full-time graduate student at Clemson University.  She is a Graduate Community Director for ClemsonHome and will graduate May 2021.

Brandon E. Rodriguez is a second-year, full-time graduate student at Clemson University.   He is the graduate assistant for Multicultural Community Development in the Harvey & Lucinda Gantt Multicultural Center and will graduate May 2021.