#SAPro Turned MBA: Opening Doors Beyond Higher Education

There’s a movement happening among those working in higher education and student affairs, particularly for young professionals like me. People are leaving the field, or, at least, being more open about reconsidering their long-term career plans. This isn’t new information; research shows that 50 to 60% of student affairs professionals leave the field within their first five years, and at the time of this writing, the Expatriates of Student Affairs group on Facebook has over 4,000 members. Anonymous submission posts on both the Millennials in Student Affairs group and the Expatriates group illustrate the reasons why this field has such a high turnover rate. Friends of mine in the field share aspirations of leaving for another industry, anecdotes about being passed over time and time again for limited steps upward, horror stories about their workplace environments, and exhaustion from taking on a second job to make ends meet or fulfill life goals.

I’ve given myself the freedom to consider what else could be out there.

The allure of the “other side” is hard to deny; relatively higher compensation, upward mobility, clearer separation of work and personal life, and more are compelling causes for curiosity. Paired with the push factors that make growth in student affairs so limiting, the pull factors make me wonder. Could there be another path? Where do I want to be in the next 5 years? The next 10?

This leads me to what feels like a confession: In my second year post-masters, I started to question my own long-term plans and direction. As I enter my third year as a #SAPro, I’ve given myself the freedom to consider what else could be out there and which goals I want to fulfill in the next several years. While I am not going to close the door on higher education, I can’t deny my interest in opening up to other opportunities I have been curious about since my time as a media studies undergraduate. All of this set the stage for my enrollment in the Evening MBA program for my second masters degree.

The first step has been being honest about where I’m at and giving myself the freedom to learn about a different path.

It was early spring and I found myself walking to the building that houses the School of Business. I went in to learn more about the MBA program, skeptical that another masters degree could be the next step in discerning my path. After a rapid application and interview process, a few weeks later, I found myself excited to be one of 94 new students beginning the MBA program. This past week, I experienced Orientation and my first class in the program, a management course focused on leadership and team development. It was an intensive course involving heavy amounts of engagement with classmates, which helped to dig me out of my shell and make new connections.

Group of MBA students standing outside.
I am one of the first-year MBA students beginning the journey with the Leavey School of Business at Santa Clara University.

While I may have seemed cool and collected on the outside, throughout the experience, my inner voice challenged my confidence. In the weeks leading up to my start in the program, I began to feel anxious about being one of the few students in the program with a student affairs background. My classmates have impressive job titles; from engineering to marketing to sales, I found myself wondering how I could ever measure up to my peers and if I might be in over my head. For someone with a masters degree and professional experience, I felt terribly behind. While I do have several years of marketing communications experience, my stomach turns when I learn about the companies my new MBA colleagues work for. A feeling that’s equal parts curiosity, envy, and cautious hope filled my body as I got to know everyone’s story. Could that be me someday? When will I get there? Can I get there?

I have made it no secret that my days in student affairs are limited and I am excited about what the next chapter in my career could be. I daydream about getting solid industry experience in marketing communications, shifting my work back to a creative marketing function and living in either New York City or San Francisco. Agencies and reputable companies are the settings for these career aspirations, and the possibilities feed my ambition. This is the dream that keeps me going, and, admittedly, on my worst days, also feels like a wildly unrealistic fantasy. I know, though, that where there’s a will, there’s a way. The first step has been being honest about where I’m at and giving myself the freedom to learn about a different path.

It’s going to be a challenging task to prove to employers that all of my experience is valid and valuable. While this advice is easy to give and I see the transferability of my skillset, I do worry that I will be overlooked by recruiters for the kinds of roles I’ll be looking for. Getting my foot in the door is going to be critical, and it’s my deep hope that the MBA journey will give me the tools to do just that.

After my time in the intensive MBA course, I am still working on replacing my self-doubt with self-assurance. To my new colleagues, I am inspired by your paths as I look at making some adjustments to my own. If you’re reading this, I thank you for exposing me to the possibilities and allowing me to dream with you.

For those on the “other side” with advice and connections, I welcome any support you have to offer. I look forward to continuing to learn from others and have high hopes for the doors I have yet to open. For those in the same boat, feeling stuck and wondering what else could be, know that I am with you in the ambiguity of it all, and am always glad to share about my current journey. I hope you’ll join me in taking that first move toward new goals, whatever that may look like for you.

Matt Nazario-Miller, M.Ed., is a higher education professional with a background in social media marketing, diversity inclusion, and student affairs. He may be found on LinkedIn, Twitter, or by email at mattmnazario@gmail.com. | Portfolio »

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