By Nneka Walson

Coordinator for RSO Support | The University of Tennessee, Knoxville


Here I am, at the same place I’ve been for a couple months. Going with the flow of the semester and taking each day for what it is. No forward thinking, no assessment of the past, just doing today’s work… today. Which is quite problematic, might I add. As I stare at a computer and respond to emails, chasing the next adrenaline rush of campus events, I stop myself. The email-filled computer goes blank and I fall into a gaze, daydreaming about palm trees and sunny skies. On that beach, I’m confronted with my inner thoughts. What seemed to be a relaxing vacation soon became an intense moment of vulnerability, featuring my brain as my therapist.

“Did you know your thoughts are so crowded, that you don’t realize your mind is a mess? This paradise is what you’ve convinced yourself to see, serving as a distraction from the clutter of your thoughts. Do you mind if we unpack?”

My mood shifts as the palm trees morph into a messy office. I guess it’s time to be honest with myself. I love Student Affairs, I love my work, but why don’t I like it at the moment? Instead of pointing fingers, I decided I’d look inward. It’s me, not you! I realized I lost sense of what anchored me in the first place… my why.

When I do what I do, I never really have a moment to ask myself “why” I do what I do. I’m so caught up in the moments and the motions of daily life that I haven’t stopped myself to assess why. Maybe that is the reason professionals so easily get burnt out– we were never anchored to begin with!

The journey to discovering my why was somewhat difficult. I knew what it was in my heart, but for some reason, articulating it gave me trouble. So I decided to do more inner work to pull it out. After some time in reflection, I assembled what is now my professional “why” statement.

Why statements are critical for professionals to stay on track toward their career goals. It assists us in recognizing our deepest passions and guides us in intentionality with our practice. Where you work matters. Why you work matters even more, especially in Higher Education. According to an article posted by Apollo Technical, 65% of employees in the U.S. are satisfied with their work, 20% of workers being passionate about their jobs. Satisfaction is the new mediocre, the modern-day bare minimum that we drift in blindly without an anchor and wonder where the fatigue stems from. We need passion! And passion comes from our why.

I struggled creating my why statement, at first. It began with a word vomit of all my higher education experiences. I thought about what brought me excitement in this work, which was being in a space where I could work directly with students. This is what I continued to tell myself from undergrad to grad school. Just to be working with students sounded like fun! However, I believe that is the moment the burnout began. For the next two years, I’d come to learn that I never truly knew why I came back to work every day.

I began to consider the lens in which I approach my practice. This “lens” could be a particular functional area or a capacity/initiative you favor. For example, advocacy, fundraising, wellness, administration, etc.! Initially, my statement was too vague, it lacked substance or any standards, really. Working directly with students could literally mean anything! Time to get specific. What I learned was that I enjoyed working with a certain student population—student leaders. I noticed that the majority of my direct student interaction is with those who have campus influence. It brings me joy to see them impact campus through the usage of departmental resources. My lens is leadership development. A-ha!

So now what. What is my framework? In thinking about all my responsibilities, what brings me the most joy is assisting students in the process of understanding themselves to create lasting change in their communities. The peace that came upon me when I put this statement together was unlike any other. It finally clicked! My why is to equip student leaders with the tools to inspire, empower and influence lasting, positive change, through the lens of leadership development.

This is what I hold close to me on the days that I go with the flow, the days that I forget. It’s a reminder of my motivation and a reflection of my passions. It can also serve as accountability to help me maintain peace and grow my capabilities. I get it. Sometimes all we can do is stare at an emailed-filled computer and chase the next rush. Sometimes all we can do today is today’s work… and that’s okay. The comfort in knowing your why will make tomorrow easier.