Finding your functional area can feel as decisive as the Sorting Hat announcing your Hogwarts House or as perplexing as solving or trying to understand Sheldon's scientific explanations. Nevertheless, the pressure to start off "right" in this profession can be overwhelming. For me, there have been some guiding signs and affirmations that assisted me during my discernment process in finding my functional area within student affairs.
Take note of when you are vibing and thriving. Do you enjoy one-on-one conversation or working with groups? Are you losing track of time when you are on Canva or creating programs/workshops? What are the projects, articles, and conferences that you are gravitating towards? Think of it this way, if you're going to be spending the majority of the week doing this work, it might as well be doing something that is filling your cup and you find enjoyable.
Know Your Why and Yourself
I truly believe if you know your “why” that your True North will help you find your way. Likewise, if you know your needs, values and motivations, you can compare them to the functional areas and see how well you fit. If there's an incongruence, maybe that position or functional area is not for you. If things align well, maybe that functional area is the place for you.
For me, I pursued a career in higher education because of the empowering relationships from faculty and staff and the joy I experienced serving supporters and students during orientation. Consequently, I wanted to be in a functional area that would allow me to support students ,welcome people to the campus community, and help them feel at home.
Meet Current Professionals/Experience the Functional Area
One of the most beneficial pieces of advice I received was to meet other professionals. If you have the time, try a short term experience in that function area (i.e., conduct a project, volunteer, etc.). If you don't have the ability for a more structured experience, shadow or meet for coffee/lunch with a professional in that office. It may feel intimidating at first to put yourself out there, but many professionals are open to meeting and helping you succeed. Plus, a free extra pair of hands is INVALUABLE and great for breaking down university silos.
It's Ok to Change Too
I remember thinking my first position was the equivalent of selecting a university, choosing a major, or getting a pet- it was a definitive decision that would label and (more than likely) wouldn't come with an undo button. Now after being in my position for over 2 years, I see that the first position or your initial functional area doesn't have to be the last one. It's ok to switch areas because you'll learn and change as you experience new responsibilities and relationships within higher education.
Finding your functional area or even your top 3 areas can feel overwhelming. However, you are not alone. Be patient and observant, and in one way or another the pieces will come together and you will end up where you're meant to be.
Author: Annie Henning (she/her) is a Program Coordinator at Saint Louis University and serves on the New Professional and Graduate Students Steering Committee. She earned her B.S. in Corporate Communication with a minor in Business Administration from Southeast Missouri State University and M.S. in Student Affairs in Higher Education from Missouri State University. When not on campus, she enjoys watching Food Network and the latest episodes of her fandoms as well as baking treats.