Careers in Student Affairs: Carole Hughes

Why did you choose a career in higher education; specifically (your area)?
I was involved as an undergraduate in student government and student leadership programs.  At the time, I was involved in Student Activities, so that is the area I sought out right after graduation.  However, I discovered quickly that I needed a graduate degree.  No one would hire me with just my undergraduate degree, regardless of my fairly extensive programming experience.

Did you have a career ‘aha’ moment? If so, what triggered it?
My early years as an Assistant Dean at Boston College were really the most formative experiences I have had as a professional.  I was working with a professional group of colleagues who were in and around the same generation as me and who shared my general philosophy of student advising.  We worked in an office where there was access to almost every area of Student Affairs which allowed us to learn across areas and it really was a collaborative environment, if a little unwieldy.   Plus, the students were really wonderful (they still are).   Most days, during that time, I really considered how lucky I was to have chosen this profession and to be working with those people.  Every day was like an “aha” moment.

Describe your current job.
I currently am responsible for the supervision of the student conduct system, off campus  student life,  the Career Center and the Office of Graduate Student Life.  The Conduct area  is new for me.  I am learning more every day and am starting to be able to see areas where Boston College can improve in this area.  In each of these areas; Conduct, Off-Campus, Career Center and Graduate Student Life, we have strong leaders and managers.  They are all experts in their areas and genuinely interested enhancing the quality of students’ lives.  I feel very fortunate to have these people around me.

What types of work activities take up most of your time?
Meetings.  This is always a source of frustration for most professionals.  However, it is important to know that meetings are critical when there is an issue, when a staff needs to get together to re-connect, to plan any sort of strategy and to resolve conflicts that can arise in our day-to-day work.  I have come to see meetings as a place where I can gather information, solve problems, assist colleagues and hopefully help students.  I also find that meetings with colleagues can strengthen our relationships and contribute to our creative thinking in a way that is impossible with simply relating through email.

Is there anything you do that you would have never assumed would be part of your job?
I honestly thought I would leave higher education after 1-2 years.  I was planning to be a lawyer.  I had been admitted to law school and thought that is where I would end up.  Pretty much everything I have done, outside of my first Assistant Dean’s position has been a bit of a surprise.  I never thought I would be so intimately involved in the conduct process.  I also never thought I would be involved in Facilities Management (I spent a year in Facilities at Boston College working on the Campus Master Plan).  I also never thought I would work in the area of harassment (I was the University Harassment Officer for 7 years).

I was considering actually leaving the field at one point, and was asked to work in the Vice-President’s Office on Assessment and Staff Development.  I did not anticipate the departure of that Vice-President, which significantly changed the work I had been asked to do when I signed on to the position.   I also did not anticipate my work in the Office of Graduate Student Life where I was the Associate Dean/Director for two years.  However, in all these situations, I was able to increase my knowledge base in the field across all areas.

I think it is safe to assume that I did not assume or even imagine that most of these things would happen.  What I have learned from that is that I always have to be ready (vita updated, experience in as many areas as possible, good relationships with colleagues, good reputation, etc.)  You cannot always predict how things will go—the best laid plans can almost always go in a direction you did not anticipate.

Is there any sort of career preparation (graduate degree; internships, etc.) that is vital to your area?
My background is primarily in programming, student engagement, advising and leadership and in those areas , it is critical to have had programming experience with small and large scale programs , experience with a wide range of student organizations, negotiation and conflict management skills.  It is also important to understand the theory behind the work and to stay up to date on the changing landscape of higher education in general.    On the conduct side, it is always beneficial to have an understanding of the conduct process and the policies and procedures around that process.  Of course, there is no substitute for just doing the work, so it is always helpful to volunteer, even if it is not in your area of responsibility

What was your graduate experience like?
I went to Boston University for my master’s degree and I was their first graduate intern in the Division of Student Affairs.  I had an incredibly diverse and challenging experience there.  I worked in Student Activities, Greek Life, Residence Life, Student Union operations, Freshmen Orientation and the Finance area in student affairs.  I had great mentoring and attention.  One of my favorite quotes from that time is:  “ Take advantage of this experience.  Never again in your career will so many people be  so interested in your professional development”.  That turned out to be very true.  We are each responsible for our own professional development and learning.  Everything  I know as a professional has its foundation in my experience at Boston University.

What’s important to consider in choosing a graduate program?
Strong academics are important, but you should also evaluate the practical experience you can get in a particular program.  As a hiring manager, I assume people have a master’s degree.  I am much more interested in what kind of experience you bring to the table.

Are there any web sites or other resources that students should use if they’re interested in higher ed/your particular area?
I think it is important to be well read.  Students should be reading the Chronicle of Higher Education weekly.  There are also daily updates.  Setting Google alerts in areas of interest and expertise is always helpful.  Reading gives you a sense of what is happening in the industry related to employment.  Creating a strong LinkedIn profile is always a good professional idea.  I often encourage students to conduct informational interviews with people on campus who are in positions that the student might be interested in learning more about.  People will be glad to talk to you.

Be aware of the professional associations. There are many in higher education.  Some of the most critical in Student Affairs are:  The National Association of Student Personnel Administrators (NASPA),  Association of College Personnel Administrators (ACPA) , Association of Student Conduct  Administrators (ASCA), Association of College and University Housing Officers (ACUHO), and the Association of College Unions-International (ACUI) to name a few.  There are many more that are area-specific.   Students can frequently join these associations at a discount rate.

What sorts of jobs/internships/campus activities did you do as an undergraduate?
I held two part-time jobs all through college.  One was at a McDonald’s in Boston where I worked in every area including staff training and financial management (as well as making the hamburgers!!!) and in a local bank as a teller and then later as an administrative assistant.

On campus, I served in the student government and was the Student Government President in my senior year.  I was also a co-chair of the campus Social Events Committee which organized campus-wide events for groups up to 5000.  This is where I learned all of my programming skills which came in very handy in my early days at Boston College as an Assistant Dean for Programming with UGBC and the performing arts organizations.

What do you know now that you wish you had known as an undergraduate?
That it is all going to work out.

Carole Hughes
Senior Associate Dean, Office of the Dean of Students
B.S. Management, Ed.M. Educational Policy, Ph.D.  Higher Education


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