Just a few more days left in October and many SA Snapshots left to post! Sean Cook has some major cojones. After spending 15 plus years in the field, he left the traditional world of student affairs to become a Life and Career Coach for his own company, HigherEdCareerCoach.com. Here is Sean’s snapshot:
Why student affairs?
I was a shy, socially inept kid when I entered college, and I compensated for it by being kind of a screw-up…drinking too much, playing pranks, and generally causing trouble. Nothing too serious, but a great example of aimlessness in action. I didn’t take my academics seriously, and my social life was pretty much random and free-floating, from one group of friends to another. I was connected to many social circles, but didn’t really have a sense of who I was, or where I belonged.
My freshman year was pretty much a blur of parties and nonsense. My sophomore year, I moved to another hall and got involved with a new group of friends, including a guy we called “Smiley,” but whose real name was John. He invited me to hall council, because the other hall rep had quit. I decided to get involved because they had free pizza at meetings and parties with girls.
Toward the end of the year, I heard about the application process to be a resident assistant, and decided that I would apply, because I heard it was a good way to stay out of trouble, and I liked the idea of doing more programs. I was the last male RA hired that year and they put me up on the top floor of Johnstone Hall, Clemson’s infamous all-men’s building, which was notorious for being a den of inequity and hijinks. The top floor. Of a section not connected to any other wing of the building. The place where I could do the least harm.
At least that’s how I took it, and some of the feedback I received early on pretty much confirmed the skepticism I had suspected. And it kind of hurt my feelings. So I decided to prove them wrong. I dedicated myself to being a programming powerhouse and a hard worker, and was awarded 3 times over 4 semesters for excellence in programming. I ran Clemson’s first large-scale recycling program, Aluminum Cans for Burned Children, for two years, and raised several thousand dollars for the Medical University of South Carolina’s Pediatric Burn Unit. And I learned that being an RA was about helping people, creating community and enforcing policy for the good of the community.
I also met some outstanding people who helped push me in the right direction and keep me on track. After some post-graduation floundering and a part-time job selling women’s clothing at the mall. (Yeah, I still had a high priority on opportunities to meet girls), I realized that applying for the Counseling and Guidance Services M.Ed. program would be a great way to get back to doing programs, helping people with life issues, and pushing myself to be a better, more community-minded person. In some ways, I considered it payback to the universe for putting me back on track, and giving me hints about my ultimate purpose in life.
How long have you been working in student affairs and which functional areas have you worked in?
I worked for 15 1/2 years in formal student affairs settings before leaving Penn State University in November 2009 to start my coaching practice. During that time, I worked 13 1/2 years in various Residence Life positions, and 2 years with academically-based student organizations at Penn State’s Smeal College of Business. For the last year, I have been working independently as a career coach, specializing in work with college students and higher ed professionals. This August, I began a part-time gig at Wesleyan College in Macon, GA, as a Career Coach in their Office of Career Development.
So I guess the length of service in the profession is open for interpretation. I don’t feel that I ever left the profession. I just went “solo” to see if I could do more of what I love doing and less of the things that had begun to wear on me…policies, procedures, and university politics. So if you ask me, I’ve been doing Student Affairs work for 16 1/2 years professionally. I also did two years as an undergrad and 2 years in grad school, so it’s really been a 20-year journey from where I started to where I am now.
Describe what you do in one sentence.
help people discover their unique purpose and put it to work in their career.
Briefly talk about one person who has been instrumental in your career development.
There are many, many people I could name, but probably the one I most appreciate was Scott Nelson, who was the area coordinator (at least that’s what I think his title was) my junior year. He supervised my resident director, who had to answer for some of my shenanigans, and I had at least one occasion to sit down with him to talk about my need to shape up and fly right. But he also actively encouraged my efforts with programming, always had a friendly word and a smile for just about everyone. During my junior and senior years, I had opportunities to talk with him about family issues, staff issues among RAs and my own personal issues and he was always very supportive. I can’t remember anything specifically he said to me. I just remember that he listened, didn’t pass judgment, and that he was kind. I’ve tried to model these traits in my own career. I’ve had successes and failures in doing so, but he’s one of the people I would think of whenever I had a difficult situation in front of me, especially those times when I had to talk to RAs who were not meeting expectations.
If you ever decided to leave the profession, what would you do?
I don’t think I will ever truly leave the profession. I’ll just find different ways to express my interests. That’s what I am doing with the coaching. But I may add on some other things…Writing, graphic design, public speaking and owning my own pub are things that appeal to me most. Or a coffeehouse. I worked in one between jobs. I really liked being a barista.
What is your advice for students interested in student affairs?
Get involved in student organizations, and pursue leadership roles. Find a mentor. Be yourself, but look for ways to be your better self. When you find the right thing, you will know it.
Final thoughts? Anything we missed?
It’s never too late to start networking, and never too early to start getting your materials together. Expand your network, build your skills and start exploring your options. And if you ever need help finding your direction, or putting together a career plan I know a good coach who’d be interested in talking to you, because he’s been there, and knows what it’s like. Best of luck to you as you move forward in your career!