Thoughts of Black New Professional in the World of COVID and Racial Unrest
Being a student affairs professional has been exceptionally challenging these last few months. Being a Black student affairs professional has been almost unbearable. The new professional journey is supposed to be one of excitement, growth, and new beginnings. For many new professionals, especially new, Black professionals, starting a career in student affairs in the time of COVID and racial unrest has created one unforeseen obstacle after another. These past few months have been filled with frozen and canceled job searches, feelings of being overlooked, overworked, and undervalued by your institution, struggling to process your feelings about the state of our society while simultaneously helping students and colleagues to process theirs, and an overall feeling of frustration and exhaustion.
Careers in Student Affairs month is typically a time to celebrate the profession and those that work so hard every day to keep it thriving. However, in October, it felt somber celebrating with the number of SA Pros currently furloughed due to COVID or using their remaining energy just to log into their daily Zoom meetings. Instead, we wanted to offer an honest account of what life has been like for new, Black professionals in the time of COVID and racial injustice. To our fellow Black student affairs professionals and grad, we see and affirm that you are valued and appreciated this and every month.
Tim Hussey, Complex Director, Emory University
My new professional journey can be summed up in two words; anxiety and exhaustion. I was so excited in January to start my job search and attend TPE in a few months. I had no idea what was in store for me. Over the next few months, COVID cases began to spike, and the number of Black lives lost to police brutality was once again climbing. Slowly my job search began to crumble in my hands. Search after search was frozen or canceled, even after interviewing multiple times. I felt like the meme of that dog sitting in a room on fire. The world felt like it was burning around me yet there I was making a permanent home on HigherEdJobs.com trying to get employed. I felt guilty that with everything going on in the world around me, my biggest concern was finding a job. It also didn’t help that everyone in my cohort seemed like they were accepting jobs left and right. I managed to get through the virtual TPE experience and eventually accepted my current role at Emory University as a Complex Director. For the grads reading, I wish I could say that there was something specific that I did to get a job, but there wasn’t. I just kept applying and hoping for the best. After what felt like endless interviewing and search I had finally landed a job, however, it hadn’t yet dawned on me what that meant. Nothing had changed. The global and racial pandemic was still raging outside and now, I had to add learning a new job, a new university, new students and colleagues, and a new city to that.
The new job has been great, but I am constantly questioning if the work that I’m doing is making a difference for my students and finding a balance between processing my thoughts and emotions while also providing a space for my students to do the same. I want to have conversations about social justice and equity, but some days, it is exhausting. I tell my students all the time to take time for themselves and to not let this job consume their lives, but why can’t I take my own advice? Why do I feel guilty for taking a day off or getting out of town for the weekend? It’s hard to allow myself to sit in my own discomfort when so many people rely on my ability to be well every day. I am fortunate that my institution’s response to COVID has been fairly good and I am able to still work virtually, but I am starting to see even after only being here for about 3 months the toll that is being taken on my Black students and colleagues from the recent news and never-ending struggle of being a Black person in America. If I could offer any advice, it would be to look for the joy and light in what likely feels like endless darkness.
Alonzo Cee, Coordinator for Leadership Programs, Auburn University
Coming into 2020, I was feeling lucky and excited. Securing my first job out of graduate school months in advance of graduation would make anyone feel that way. I was about to move to a new state and start a new adventure, however, this year has been nothing like I could have ever imagined. COVID-19 and racial injustice have made it incredibly difficult to be Black in general, on top of having to work in higher education.
We now live in a society that is socially distanced with what seems like increasing ideological polarization. This for me as an extroverted Black man, in a new state with a new job, means struggling to create a new community for myself, while also tip-toeing around anything regarding how I feel in my own skin. These first four months have been lonely and hard at times, even when I know I have a supportive group of colleagues that I feel like I can be my full self around. I find myself missing friends, family, and friends that have become family back home in New York City and in North Carolina, where I spent the last six years of my life. Virtual connection, even though it has given me access to people I have not talked to in years, sometimes feels empty. My work as a leadership educator, working with the impact of helping to shape minds that can positively influence our country and the world, sometimes feels heavy. Weighted by the facade of having to be okay with what is happening around us in the world.
Life and work can be overwhelming right now, and purpose can be easily distorted in the mess. As Black higher education and student affairs professionals, living through our values, refilling our cup, and self-care are more important than ever. Especially within a country and institutions that were never made for Black bodies to thrive or succeed. Blackness and the emotions that come with being Black in America are easily weaponized against the very people who struggle within Black skin.
I will say, however, to anyone that is reading, that even with all this pressure and the weight of the world, I am ok with just making it. If I learned and became good at anything during this time, it was making sure my work did not consume my life and to protect my peace. What I say and what I do as a Black man in higher education will always come with scrutiny, especially as I educate those on how to incorporate diversity, equity, inclusion, and social justice into their leadership practice. This work can be tiring, these times are definitely tiring, so I must make sure I protect my peace and that my cup is full each and every day. I also will not succeed in this all the time and that is ok. It is an imperfect balance in an imperfect world, but one thing is for certain; my Blackness will never change.
Sierra Smith, Program Specialist for College Programs, NC State University
My professional journey started much earlier than expected. I will preface this by saying that my situation was nowhere close to the average application experience. I only applied to three jobs before I accepted a position. I started applying in December with no expectation of being offered a position until late Spring. To my surprise, I was offered my current role in the Shelton Leadership Center at NC State in February, and they wanted me to start as soon as possible. I accepted the offer on the spot and started working part-time in March. Now, you would think that I would feel great relief after accepting a job as early as I did. Absolutely not. I was terrified of starting my first full-time job in a functional area completely different from my graduate apprenticeship. Not to mention the fact that I would be the youngest, newest, and only person of color in my office. I felt so much pressure to bring something substantial to the team and truly make a difference, especially with the current uprisings in the country. Fast forward 7 months, I have not worked a single day in my physical office space and have only met a handful of my coworkers and our students in person.
I absolutely love my job and I feel fulfilled by the work that I am doing. However, starting a new job in the midst of a pandemic has presented a number of struggles. I find myself struggling to build relationships with colleagues and students in a virtual environment and finding time to care for myself so that I can care for my students. I find myself heavily identifying with the first-year students I work with as I too entered a new phase of life during a pandemic and am trying to find a new “normal” in a world that is anything but normal. I often remind myself and my students that it is okay not to be okay right now, and I would offer the same sentiment to those reading this article. Take everything as slow or fast as you need to and trust the process. Above anything else, protect your peace. Now more than anytime before you should ask questions about the work environment and know what you will and will not negotiate. No one knows what is best for you except you.