This past month, I was lucky enough to swing by both major conferences for Student Affairs professionals, and, wow, am I glad I did. After 2 years away, it was indescribable to spend a day and a half at NASPA, my first professional home that recruited me into the field. I spent time talking with many influential mentors, meeting new people, processing new ideas, finding strength in community (particularly a quickly growing community of South Asian American professionals in Higher Education) and being coached to not only remember what my dreams are but to chase after them in a way I’d forgotten or was discouraged from pursuing within the context of my salient identities. My mentors, many of whom are Asian American women, are spread all over the country and the only time I can see them in person are at these national conferences.
A few days after the closing of NASPA, I noticed a number of Asian American women I’m connected to in the field were reporting feeling lonely, unmotivated, hopeless, and overall sad at work/school. Almost all of them were the only Asian American [woman] in their office or division, perhaps even on their campus and they were all sharing narratives with the common themes I listed. I spent some time talking to people at ACPA and am confident that this experience described above may be pretty familiar for anyone working in student affairs with a minoritized identity. It got me thinking about how a big part of what we need to think about as a field is post-convention re-entry.
For professionals who work in heteronormative environments (which is, well, everyone), and spend the majority of their time being one of “the only”, affinity spaces at conference such as knowledge communities, standing commissions, etc. provide space for a few blissful days where many professionals remember or learn for the first time what it feels like to be part of a community, to speak openly, and – most importantly- to know that when they share their struggles, they are understood. It can be traumatic to come from a liberating space back to a space of feeling silenced, misunderstood, tokenized, lonely, and hyper-visible.
As a student at the Social Justice Training Institute in 2012, we talked at length about the re-entry process. That coming back to work, life, etc could bring up moments of anger, frustration, affection and more that the people around us had little to no context to understand. While some of the topical matter is different, I don’t think this was particularly different from what I saw happening to so many after attending a large national conference.
If you have a staff member who you know identifies saliently as one of “the only”, and that you think may be experiencing some of this post-conference struggle, here’s a list of suggestions to help your staff and colleagues feel supported as they navigate re-entry after a convention:
1.) Make Space for Processing
This may mean either creating a dialogue space to debrief a conference experience, encouraging a staff member to reschedule some meetings to ease back into work, or empowering them to reach out to some of the people they met at the conference for support. In any case, it’s important for a staff member to recognize their manager or coworker can empathize with the re-entry process and values self-care to make meaning of the experience. As a graduate student at the University of Vermont, our first Residential Education Team meeting after a major conference was in small facilitated groups to talk about our experience at conference from a perspective of where triggers were raised, how we were adjusting to being back on campus, where we found energy and where we were feeling otherwise. It was very helpful and allowed me to build bridges of trust and support on my team.
2.) Consult the Theory
In the spirit of being a scholar-practitioner, put this process in the adaptive model of any identity development theory. Identity is fluid and while someone may “arrive” at a certain moment in accordance with a model, it is just as easy to slip into another fundamental stage of identity development. My identity as an Indian American is sometimes completely clear but, after attending and being involved with multiple Asian American communities, sometimes I need time and space to rethink it and how I show up in those spaces. This is going to be happening for the rest of my life. It may help to listen to the staff member talk about which identity is most salient for them and educate yourself on how to support people with that identity in the context of published theory.
3.) Be Patient
This is a process and chances are, with the meaning the individuals are making, they may not appear “back to normal” by the end of the week or month, or maybe ever. Be patient with these people and be willing to accept that the sometimes liberating space of community can mean healthy shifts in self-perception, stating of individual needs, etc. Of course, everyone would expect the work to continue, but there may be shifts in attitudes, energy, etc. Again, provide a space to affirm and listen to the experiences and suggestions.
4.) Be Open to Change
The person or people who are experiencing post-convention trauma will likely have ideas for change to make the experience for others like them less traumatic. I recommend listening to them, consulting other colleagues at peer institutions, and considering implementing some of the changes they recommend in a way that works in your office and institutional culture. Allyship is a major part of this process and action is a critical part of being a good ally.
5.) Support National Conference Attendance in the Future
In a time where professional development funds are quickly disappearing, and “professional development” is increasingly centralized to campuses in the form of webinars, guest speakers, etc., I encourage managers to think about the critical space that a national conference serves in terms of building community and support for people who are underrepresented institutionally and regionally. At ACPA, I worked with one colleague from the Midwest to organize a dinner for South Asian American professionals. Of the only roughly 50 South Asian American professionals identified from all over the country, only 9 were at the ACPA conference and able to make this dinner. It would be impossible for me to find a space like this to share my narrative, feel affirmed, and energized to go back to work and continue my service of students if my professional development support had been encapsulated to my campus or my region. I came back with a network of people from all over the country I can reach out to for support, most of whom I’d never met in person or even heard of before the meal. I also came back with plenty of great ideas for my work, was able to represent my institution, and even participate in informal professional staff search processes. This is a call to expand the definition of professional development and also see it as a way to be a strong ally for staff, promote retention of a diverse staff, and build a truly inclusive institutional culture. Attending a national conference was a critical step in re-energizing around my work as a University administrator, social justice practitioner, changemaker, community organizer, and a member of the field in student affairs. As we continue to see trends of people with minoritized identities leaving the field of student affairs overall, consider what can be done on a campus in order to build communities of support and live true to our campus and professional organization’s missions to increase diversity in the field.
What else would you add to the list?
Here’s a few other great post-convention reflections:
My Reinvention at ACPA by Ed Cabellon
Beyond ACPA: Reflecting on Re-Entry and Involvement by Heather Shea Gasser
Professional Development Soul Food by Chris Conzen