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I Don’t Know Where I’m Going, But I’m On My Way! Making the Next Step in your Student Affairs Journey.

New Professionals and Graduate Students New Professional
February 1, 2022 Asiah Claiborne

I never understood why the standard practice for Student Affairs entry-level positions is that the turnaround is roughly 2-3 years. It seems that sometimes the search process takes longer than the time served within a role. The general outline for your entry-level position follows: the first year is learning what you're doing, the second you are putting what you learned to practice, the third you're able to implement changes, and fourth, if you're still around, you can iron out the details of the changes made. What about those who learn right away that a role is not a good fit? Or those awkward in-between periods where you don't necessarily fulfill any of the listed checkpoints? Not one size fits all when it comes to traveling along your Student Affairs journey, so the question that many of us are having or have had continues:

How do I know when to leave my first position?

What helped me navigate this question is the HigherEd Jobs Article, When is it Time to Quit Your Job?. This article helped me to consider remembering my why, taking a step back to reflect, and understanding that it's okay to follow your own path.

At first, I loved my entry-level position and thought I'd remain in it for 3+ years. Like many other new professionals, I jumped into the role with excitement and an extensive list of all the goals I wanted to accomplish. I had it mapped out that I would practice the standard 3-year structure of learning, practicing, and implementing change, but then COVID had a different plan. My first year of being a new professional was interrupted, and the excitement and goals disappeared. In my second year as a new professional, I thought I would have some sense of direction of what I was doing; instead, I was repeating the learning stage, trying to adapt everything plus other duties as assigned virtually. My energy quickly depleted. The only thing that kept me going was what I was trying to do. I italicized trying because the future thought kept me going, the results of the long journey I struggled to complete. I was outcome-focused and didn't realize the fire I once had within was all just a flickering lighter running out of fuel.

Self-reflection is essential. I was so constantly on the go that I didn't realize that I was unhappy. Being so depleted of energy, I realized that the goals I once had did not matter because I was "faking it until I made it." Made it to what? Burn out and the potential of leaving the career I loved. I forgot my 'why'.

Embrace the unknown. I was not job searching; I thought I had a little more in me to last the remaining semester of the academic school year. An opportunity in a new functional area caught my attention as the universe knew I would not make it through the semester. I was hesitant and even declined the request to apply at first because all I could think was, "I don't have the skillset for this." It's okay to be afraid, we may not always know where we are going, but it's important to continue taking steps. I realized that I share with students that transferable skills are an underrated superpower. There was an opportunity that I was more than equipped for and aligned with what I loved, so what was holding me back? 

It's okay to look out for yourself. I realized that I did not want to pursue the new opportunity because I focused on imagining what toll my vacancy would take on my coworkers. Who would get my job done? My mentors stressed that the job would get done at the end of the day. The goals I had? Someone new would be in the position before I knew it, and the entry-level cycle would continue.

It's okay to leave a chapter incomplete. I had goals and a plan, but would it have been worth it? Would it be worth it if I lost the fire that kept me going? I am a little over two months out of the role I was afraid to leave. I could not imagine where my mental health would be if I stayed. Don't let the weight of a role make you lose sight of who you are. If a position is beginning to dim your light, it may be time to find an opportunity that will allow you to shine. With this, I don't mean with achievements and accolades; I mean with your happiness.

Overall, the answer to "How do I know when to leave my first position?" will be up to you. Self-reflection will be vital in determining what's next. If you notice you're not as happy as you once were, process and think through what would make you happy again. If the answer is out of your control, it may be time to pursue a new path. It's okay to look out for you, and if the next chapter is unknown, my favorite phrase is, "I don't know where I'm going, but I'm on my way!" because sometimes the future isn't as mapped out as you would like. Sometimes there's a hidden path you never expected that could bring you to your destination or even share other opportunities you never thought to consider. Again, it's okay to take it one step at a time. Just be sure to enjoy the journey along the way.

Author: Asiah Claiborne (she/her/hers) is the Assistant Director of Student Life Programs at the University of Texas at Dallas and is involved in the NPGS Steering Committee Leadership Team. She is a proud first-gen and earned her B.A. in Integrative Studies from UNT and M.S. from Illinois State University's College Student Personnel Administration graduate program. In her free time, Asiah enjoys volunteering with the UNT Alumni Association or supporting the Texas Dallas-Fort Worth community through her foodstagram (@eat.drink.love_dfwtx)!