Telling One’s Story
By spring of 1982, my last semester in law school, I had a clear idea of what I wanted to do, but no idea where I would do it. I spent a large part of my evenings in the office of our residence complex typing out letters to send in response to job ads in The Chronicle of Higher Education. I chose carefully because every one of my individually printed resumés was precious and costly. In March, I flew to Boston to participate in the NASPA Placement Bureau – I think that’s what it was called. I count that as my first NASPA, though I didn’t attend any educational sessions. I spent all of my time wandering through the cavernous convention hall, the kind designed for boat and RV shows. The only people I talked to were interviewers and the volunteers helping me find my way around.
In spring of 2022, I attended NASPA in Baltimore. Like the first one, I didn’t attend any educational sessions. But in marked contrast to Boston, in Baltimore I met up with, spent time with, caught up, hugged, and celebrated with dear friends from across the country and across the years. What a difference forty years makes.
At the risk of being one of those old codgers* who can only talk about the good old days, I find looking back at some of my experiences to be interesting, often surprising as I can now see the results of the decisions and choices I made. I can see links from experiences I’ve had, to work I’ve done throughout the years even though they weren’t visible as I lived through it all. I understand now that I was finding my way toward my career much earlier than I knew. I see the steps along the way as I grew from the shy, introvert who barely left her dorm room (as we called it then) to someone who had the chutzpah to think that she could be a vice president at one of the largest universities in the country, something truly unimaginable to me as a young person even beyond the fact that I didn’t know such a job existed.
During the run up to this calendar milestone, I’ve been playing with memoir writing. This is somewhat different than actually writing a memoir since I’m not sure there’s really a marketable book in here. And yet I keep writing and noodling around with the idea. It sticks with me in part because of those lessons I keep finding and the aha moments I keep having as I write. For example, I understand now that while I took on roles in a major campus event my junior and senior years of college for social reasons, I was actually leading a team to put on a large event. It would be decades into my career before I worked with a team as large or a budget as healthy. I look back now and see a budding administrator. Who knew?
But there’s another reason I keep playing with this idea of writing something about my career. It’s a bit of a cliché in the world of Student Affairs that for most of us not even our families understand what we do. When Peter and I met, I was the Assistant Dean for Student Judicial Services at UT Austin. A few months into our relationship, after hearing a number of stories, he said to me. “I didn’t really understand why a job like yours was needed.” As an adult college student, he thought people came to school and just got the work done. Instead, as he put it, “You teach students a lot of really basic things, don’t you?” And it was true. Much of conduct work can be reduced to ‘don’t cheat or steal, don’t hit people or spit on them’. Basic stuff. Important stuff. I’d like to help more people understand what we do, how we do it, and why it matters.
While I sort out whether or not to put a book together, I’ve decided that the first step is sharing some of my experiences here. I want to explore with you how I found my way into this career, some of the choices and some of the people that shaped my career and, therefore my life, for the past forty (really forty-plus if you count my residence life jobs while I was a student) years.
One of the reasons sorting out what to do as a career is so complex is that there are multitudes of ways to earn a living. Similarly, there multitudes of ways to make sense of this journey called life. People read memoir, in part, to learn about those different ways of making a living and of making meaning. To paraphrase the former Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, Jonathon Sacks, it is in the deep particularity of one person’s life that we can find our way to our shared experiences. He wasn’t talking about memoir, but his comment expresses some of what memoir is about. In learning about one person’s very specific story, we often find shared experiences and universal themes. I’ve learned a lot by doing this writing and if you have a similar impulse, I highly encourage you to do some writing about your life as well – for yourself and perhaps, to share with others. I also hope you find something of value in my particular story and enjoy the ride to come.
*Codger is a term for an older, somewhat eccentric man and there’s really no comparable word for a woman. The least derogatory term I found was biddy, an older interfering woman. There’s a whole other essay here on terms for older people with quite a list of synonyms including ‘spavined’ meaning old and decrepit. The most neutral terms are based on the number of years one has lived which makes me a sexagenarian, a term which creates its own problems when used in everyday conversation.
Quote of the Week
“In a Writer’s Digest article, Jeanette Walls, author of the classic memoir, The Glass Castle, is quoted as having said, “One of the lessons I’ve learned from writing this memoir is how much we all have in common. So many of us think that certain things only happened to us and somehow they make us less of a person. I’m constantly urging people, especially older folks, to write about their lives. It gives you new perspective. Memoir is about handing over your life to someone and saying, This is what I went through, this is who I am, and maybe you can learn something from it. It’s honestly sharing what you think, feel, and have gone through. If you can do that effectively, then somebody gets the wisdom and benefit of your experience without having to live it.”
“Jeannette Walls (born April 21, 1960) is an American author and journalist widely known as former gossip columnist for MSNBC.com and author of The Glass Castle, a memoir of the nomadic family life of her childhood. Published in 2005, it had been on the New York Times Best Seller list for 421 weeks as of June 3, 2018. She is a 2006 recipient of the Alex Awards and Christopher Award.”
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