Social Stratification in Student Affairs: Do we create what we hate?

A ladder. Vernon Wall. #SAChat. Nametags.

I didn’t think those items separately, much less alone would inspire a blog post and yet, here I am. The first idea for this started last week with a service-based reflection we had as a professional staff. One of the (many) things I love about my current job and department is that we take one morning per quarter to go into our local community and engage in a service project as an RD team. Awesome, right? Well, it gets better. The service is then complemented with a reflection during another staff meeting about topics of service, social justice, Jesuit identity (we work at a Jesuit school), and the implications for our work.

The RDs in charge of the reflection asked us to read an excerpt from Father James Martin’s book “The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything.” The excerpt included assertions about social stratification understood by the author as the “ladder.” To paraphrase, the ladder is an analogy for our culture. Some are on top and others are on the bottom. Your status is shown through symbols- job titles, possessions, credentials and one’s personal worth depends on one’s job. Gradually, this is internalizes and you judge yourself on these factors and by what you are able to “produce.” The author calls us to act and to work, but when we judge ourselves by what we produce we become a “human doing” rather than a “human being.” (One of my all-time favorite quotes!) This upward mobility creates inferiority to others with an almost mythical figure at the top. He also says that our security is threatened by others’ success because it’s a reminder to us that we aren’t on the same rung of the later. The author compels us to change the time and energy used to “climb” and instead set it aside and be free of it. Our goal should rather be “downward mobility” because “simple living is not a punishment, but a move toward greater freedom.” (My apologies for a non-formatted citation. We weren’t given the book, just a Google doc. Don’t tell my grad school professors on me!)

This led to an awesome discussion about the social ladder of our field. The pressure to get involved in professional organizations, climb the professional ladder in a very linear fashion (RD to AD to Associate Director to Director to Dean), and, somewhat surprisingly, how conferences add to this social stratification. The example that got my team going was nametags, of all things. Myself and another colleague both went to fairly well-known Student Affairs graduate programs (Bowling Green and Miami of Ohio, respectively) so when we go to conferences, we inevitably get stickers or swag from our programs. My colleague mentioned that other conference attendees often mentioned the strength or selectivity of his program and made judgements (for the better!) about his professionalism or contribution to the field. In his words “How does having a Miami sticker in any way reflect what I’m like as a colleague, contributor, supervisor, or advocate on this campus?”

Fast forward to a week later. I’m sitting at the closing keynote speech of the WACUHO Annual Conference and Exhibition, or WACE for short. (Sidenote: You have to love acronyms within acronyms. Only in Student Affairs!) The keynote speaker was the incomparable Vernon Wall. Vernon spoke on a great number of topics, and if you are interested, check out the #wace13 backchannel. One of Vernon’s concepts really stuck with me. He stated that all of us show up with our group memberships and before we ever open our mouths, others start the mental “checklist.” Unless we have a visual impairment, we see group memberships before anything else. You’ll assume I am a white person who presents as a woman. Perhaps you’ll think I’m middle or upper-class due to my dress or accessories and perhaps you’ll get a clue to my religion if I’m wearing any traditional clothing or jewelry. I am live-tweeting all of this, look down and see:


At this, and most conferences, we had quite literally labeled ourselves. This made me question whether we not only label ourselves, but also we walk around and make judgements about where others are on the Student Affairs “ladder” based on whether I have a rainbow ribbon (if I don’t am I not an ally?) or a volunteer ribbon (if I don’t does this mean I don’t care about contributing?) or committee ribbon (if I don’t then am I not connected to the organization or selfish in some way?) or a presenter ribbon (if I don’t does this mean I don’t have something to teach others?).

And since the universe works in the most magical ways, the very next day our #SAchat topic was all about professional development. I have become totally enamored with this community and took this as a sign to bring this thought to the broader SA community. One of my tweets became a question that stirred up some various opinions. I wrote “Professional ‘involvement’ can be tied to socioeconomic privilege. If I can’t afford conference attendance to present/volunteer, am I still involved?” This got a flurry of responses about getting connected through technology like #SAchat, editing organizations newsletters, utilizing webinars, developing and attending “unconferences,” and a variety of other stellar ideas. 

The question I keep coming back to is what do we consider “valuable” contributions to the field. I’ve gotten more out of the #SAchat community than most conferences, even conferences in which I have volunteered, presented and/or helped plan, but this doesn’t quite have the same panache on a resume or namebadge that the previously mentioned options do. One contributor mentioned that the swag and ribbons at conferences are conversation starters, but what happened to finding out a person’s name, institution and how they contribute to the field by engaging, having a dialogue and getting to know the person, not the swag? Imagine what conferences would look and feel like if no nametags, ribbons, stickers, pins, or other swag existed? What if we were instead called to get off our ladders to know the person and not the label? 

2 thoughts on “Social Stratification in Student Affairs: Do we create what we hate?

  1. Tyler miller says:

    I once had a supervisor ask me where I wanted to be in give years. My response? “I am quite happy where I am. I think I’m going to enjoy my current position as much as I can right now and live in the moment.” Her response? I didn’t have any initiative. Me.

    Well, that was 12 years ago. I am still in the field. She’s not. My point? Live in the moment – take opportunities to LEARN. If the only thing that matters is “what’s next” you may miss “what’s now.” What our profession struggles with is boundaries. A wise person once said to me “saying no to something is saying yes to something else.” Those words have impacted me greatly in my career. Say yes to “now” – live in the moment.

    Great insights Marci!

  2. marcikwalton says:

    Thanks for commenting, Tyler! I’m so fascinated with this prescribed notion of upward mobility in our field. Living in the now is something that we so often stress with our students so they don’t miss out on their college experience, but it is somehow not valued when the tables are turned. Great thoughts!

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