Rising Higher & Looking Forward: Finding a Professional Home in the Region | Alexis Michalos, M.Ed. ’20

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Conferences are not only a key opportunity for professional development within higher education, but can be a source of rejuvenation and inspiration. This year’s SACSA Conference did just that and more.

Every November, the Southern Association for College Student Affairs (SACSA) and NASPA Region III gather somewhere between Maryland, Florida, and Texas to hold an annual meeting.  This meeting, though, is much more than an excuse to use a gavel.  

Last fall, I attended my second SACSA conference.  In many ways, I was pressured into my first one by a friend from my undergraduate institution, Molly; it was held in my hometown and after receiving funding from the School of Education, I thought I might as well visit my parents and see what I could learn.  What I did not expect to find were endless engaging presenters, a mad dash at the end of a heated silent auction, and various levels of higher education practitioners enjoying the company of life-long connections.  

The warmth and welcome was only amplified this year, despite the chilly weather that hit Raleigh, NC, as we all convened over the weekend of November 2nd to 4th.  Over the three days, I participated in a case study with a first-year master’s student from West Georgia University, learned about wellness and marketing strategies, and met new faces at familiar institutions (such as the Dean of Students from my undergraduate, the University of South Carolina!).  

The theme of this year’s conference was Rising Higher in Raleigh: Connecting Theory, Practice, and Purpose; central to many of the presentations were student success and empowerment.  Discussions ranged from activism on campus to finding ways to motivate your students, colleagues, and selves to understanding inequity on different campus types. Even the case study this year focused on food insecurity, a campus food pantry, and social media riots from an upset student body. 

One idea that resonated with me came from the very first keynote, Dr. Russell Lowery-Hart, President of Amarillo College in Texas.  Amarillo College is an institution vastly different from William & Mary—a community college designated as a Hispanic-Serving Institution (HSI) that enrolls non-traditionally aged students.  The study body is familiar with poverty, and many are one car malfunction away from having to drop out.  However, Dr. Lowery-Hart focused on the culture of care he has cultivated. He challenges his campus’ leaders—and us—to be willing to say yes.  With this mentality, they have created emergency funds easily accessible for students, and retention has increased. I often forget that students like this exist, especially since most of the ones I interact with are between 18 and 22 and still supported by family of some sort.  However, as I prepare for the next stage in my professional career, it is sobering and inspiring to reconsider how I view my role and the limits that my no’s might contain to students’ whose backstories I do not fully understand.

My favorite part about conferences is how I leave—rejuvenated and with a fire to spark change.  SACSA comes at the time in the semester where I need just this, and spending three days with people who truly care about me personally and professionally definitely provided what I needed after busy weeks of student appointments.  I left the conference this year ready to continue taking advantage of every last minute of my graduate program before May’s graduation.  After several conversations with the SACSA’s Newest Member committee, I also left with a leadership position as co-chair for coordinating the 2020 graduate student case study, despite the fact that I may not be employed within the region.  But that is another thing about SACSA: you can always come back.Professional development is so important for those within the field, no matter what part of that path you are on.  I am excited to have an excuse to be back next year, as it will bring me back to Southeastern Virginia in Norfolk.  If you are looking for something to do the weekend of November 7th to 9th, 2020, I would highly recommend joining me as SACSA “Advanc[es] our Vision” through inclusiveness, professionalism, and collegiality!


About the Author: I am a second year graduate student pursuing a Masters of Education in Higher Education Administration. When not in class or running around the School of Education, you can find me in campus center as the Graduate Assistant for Academic Enrichment Programs in the Dean of Students Office.

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