I first began my journey as a full-time higher education professional in the summer of 1997. 1997 was quite a year for me. I graduated from the Higher Education program at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, that May I got married to my wife (we are now 24 years in), and we moved to Texas where I started my job as the Program Advisor at Stephen F. Austin State University. In April I had been hired on the spot at SFA after a great interview. It was the last interview in a series of interviews that included Notre Dame, Coker College in South Carolina, and Lyon College in Arkansas.
My Lyon interview was really the best. It was in tiny Batesville, Arkansas, home of the NASCAR legend Mark Martin and the Batesville casket company. My guess is if you have buried a loved one in the south, it’s been in a Batesville casket. The place smelled like fried chicken because the Banquet Fried Chicken plant was there. During the interview they took me to see the Wal-Mart and the new AMC 6 Theatre and the new Blockbuster Video. I was kind of like, if this is where my first job takes me life is about to get odd.
Then there was Nacogdoches, TX. Not very big either but at least the campus tour did not include the Wal-Mart. I really liked SFA because of its blue-collar student body and the location was near Dallas and Houston. The town was big enough but reminded me of Carbondale. There was a city about the size of Marion about 20 miles down the road in Lufkin and they had a mall, a Sam’s Club, and a decent theatre. The students were a lot like me; first generation, parents were working class and they were eager for an advisor who really got them. They got a lot to like too. The sports programs were fun to follow. The area supported their football and basketball teams and there was a good amount of school spirit. It was the perfect place for me to call my first job.
My favorite memory from that year came in an unexpected way. My new boss, a woman named Beverly, hurt her back right before she was supposed to oversee fall Sorority Recruitment. With her out of commission our boss, Steve, called me into his office and said it was up to me to make sure recruitment went off without a hitch. Now, I have zero Greek Life experience. I was not Greek myself and I had no idea how it all worked. But Beverly walked me through the whole process, and I was off and running.
The exact memory was when I was asked by Panhellenic to make some opening statements in a joint session of all the prospective members and the sorority houses. I tell this story often. As a 24-year-old man I had spent the better part of my formative years hoping for the day I could be locked in a room with lots and lots of beautiful women. I mean, that seemed like a dream come true. But at this point, I was terrified. I walked into the room and over 700 women started cheering and yelling after I was introduced, and I had no idea what I was going to say. But I sucked it up, used the notes that had been provided by Beverly, added some parts that were me and it seemed to go well. But this idea that a few months earlier when I took the job, I would ask to be the only male in a room full of women to help them complete a task I had zero knowledge of just seemed unthinkable.
And what did I learn that day? That you must stay ready. You never know when your number is going to be called. Ever since then I have used that moment as a cautionary tale that the job you are hired for is often not the job you end up doing. But it certainly helped me in my career goals. By navigating that challenge well my boss felt more comfortable giving me other opportunities to explore my goals, talents, and interests. I could have folded up like a tent, but I stayed the course and I was better for it.