Beyond Universities: What I Learned About Student Affairs During My Internship Away from Campus

Blake Lewis

October 1, 2019

As a current graduate student in student affairs, I have had what many would refer to as the typical student affairs journey. I entered college to study something that I believed would lead to a lucrative career, computer science; I wanted to be a software engineer for a big company like Google or Apple. However, I fell in love with a job I had on campus for three years as a Community Assistant—the equivalent of a Resident Assistant (RA) at many institutions—and swiftly entered student affairs as a graduate student. During my time as an undergraduate student, I completed an internship through the Association of College and University Housing Officers International (ACUHO-I) internship program, a program that many students participate in to deepen their understanding of student affairs careers. Beyond these opportunities, I busied myself with various student leadership positions on campus like the National Residence Hall Honorary (NRHH). By the time I entered my master’s degree program at Ball State University, I had a breadth of experience that helped me feel both excited and prepared to learn even more. 

My graduate program expects that students complete an internship experience during the summer between our first and second years to broaden our knowledge and support postgraduate career decision-making. I felt stuck. I did not want a housing internship because most of my student affairs experience is in housing and residence life. I asked myself, “What do I want to do after I finish my master’s?” I knew I was passionate about two things, (a) social justice and (b) building relationships with students. One day, a friend sent me a post in the Student Affairs Graduate Students Facebook group. It read, “Hello #SAGrad! We're looking for a Computational and Information Systems Laboratory (CISL) Outreach, Diversity, and Education (CODE) Intern for Summer 2019! We are the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Boulder, CO. Student affairs & higher education skills and experiences extremely transferable with helping us run and manage an internship program. Applications due January 11, 2019.”

This internship experience initially piqued my interest because of the words “diversity” and “education.” However, what excited me most was the opportunity to work closely with STEM students, particularly those in computer science. I earned my bachelor’s degree in computer science at The University of Mississippi but decided to pursue a student affairs career instead. Since beginning my student affairs journey, I’ve felt slightly guilty about leaving STEM. I know that careers in STEM are in dire need of representation across various dimension of diversity. But as a queer person, I felt a greater sense of belonging in student affairs than STEM. My understanding of diversity and inclusion was informed by the alienation I felt in my computer science classes. None of the faculty, staff, or students were like me. In student affairs I felt seen and celebrated. That made it easy to abandon my prospects in STEM for a future in higher education. My self-talk included statements like, “I’m not the greatest coder anyway,” and, “I’m better suited in student affairs.” Excited to use the skills I learned while completing my computer science degree, I applied for the internship. In my cover letter, I discussed knowing what it felt like to be a minority in STEM education. I was excited to accept when I was offered the position. 

Located in Boulder, Colorado, NCAR is perched atop a mesa overlooking the city. Deer can commonly be seen grazing on the lush fields that surround the lab. The top floors of the five-story facility—designed by I.M. Pei, the late architect of the Louvre pyramid—feature stunning views of the surrounding mountains. NCAR is a beautiful place to work. I entered my position as the CISL Outreach, Diversity, and Education Intern uncertain of what to expect. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that my supervisors, Virginia Do and AJ Lauer, both have roots in student affairs. Both earned graduate degrees from student affairs-related programs and gained multiple years of professional experience in student affairs before beginning their work at NCAR. My main job responsibility was to assist AJ and Virginia with the administration of a minority-serving internship program called Summer Internships in Parallel Computational Science (SIParCS, pronounced “sigh-parks”). The 2019 SIParCS cohort consisted of 13 undergraduate and graduate students pursuing degrees in STEM; three of the students are women, six are students of color, and three of them identify as a part of the LGBTQIA community. Below are three things I learned about diversity, equity, and inclusion work in student affairs during my summer outside of a college or university.

Knowledge of social justice, diversity, and inclusion is necessary everywhere. Working for institutions each with a commitment to diversity and studying in graduate programs containing courses about educational equity and justice has produced more professionals that understand of issues of social justice and diversity on college campuses. As a student affairs professional who is passionate about social justice, I know that advocacy for diversity and equity must permeate every facet of our being in order for change to happen. However, what happens when our students leave the university to pursue internships and their careers, but equity and social justice are not a part of the conversation? When I started my internship at NCAR, I was surprised to find that there were many professionals working with students every day without the level of cultural competency that I was accustomed to in student affairs. For instance, one day I was sitting in on a professional development session about grant writing for students from across the organization. When a Native American student asked how to navigate cases of academic cannibalism (where students’ ideas are stolen by researchers they are working with), an educator with a science background answered, “Well, I would remember that I have other ideas, and that’s just how it is sometimes.” I was stunned. How are we supposed to create academic spaces where underrepresented students can meaningfully contribute and persist if the professionals teaching them are dismissing their legitimate concerns?

This example is just one of many that highlighted the desperate need for culturally competent administrators to support diverse students in these student affairs-adjacent spaces. I’m proud to report that my supervisor AJ is actively working to address this need. I saw her address issues like this as they came up throughout the summer, even when they involved students not in her own program. Additionally, she is a co-facilitator for a series of workshops at the organization for scientists to learn about social justice and equity, and how they can initiate these conversations in a space that is primarily dedicated to science. She says she regularly uses the skills she learned as a student affairs professional while facilitating these conversations with her colleagues.

Communication is key. Student affairs professionals know that honing skills in communication and conflict management is a critical lifelong learning process. Scientists and researchers are sometimes not the most well-versed in communication. I can say it from my own experience: all of the communication skills I learned as an undergraduate student in STEM were related to scientific collaboration. As a result, spaces that scientists occupy that are not tied to their work can be fraught with miscommunications and misunderstandings. The office I worked in experienced significant difficulty communicating with administrators and scientists alike. Student affairs is not immune to similar communication mishaps, but I experienced more issues working in a space not made up solely of student affairs professionals. As university administrators, we should be working to develop the communication and conflict management skills of the students we have the privilege of working with. Eventually, they will graduate and enter careers where these skills will support their advancement and success.

Relationships are everything. Building relationships with the students in the SIParCS program was easily the best part of my internship. As I facilitated professional development sessions and cohort outings for the students, they expressed gratitude that the SIParCS program had an intern dedicated to supporting and getting to know them. I was working with a group of highly intelligent undergraduate and graduate students in various stages of their development. Many of them already had professional STEM experience under their belt. They shared previous working experiences where it was all work and no play, and expressed appreciation for the holistic approach the SIParCS program takes to support its students. Those trained in student development theory understand that relationships are critical to a students’ sense of belonging, especially students who are underrepresented in higher education. AJ deeply understands this concept and intentionally targets intern candidates for the role I had from student affairs for this reason. Those who are passionate about students success know that building relationships with students is critical and that relationship building is useful in many contexts. Consequently, those trained in student affairs should consider all spaces that students occupy (e.g., internships, summer programs, research institutions, libraries, non-profits, and many more) as prospective opportunities to enhance student learning. 

Overall, my summer at NCAR was a dream. Working with a diverse group of STEM students was like having my two academic worlds collide in the best way. I feel like my range of career opportunities has doubled. Beyond traditional students affairs work, I will also actively seek job opportunities outside of college and university settings. Six months ago, I would have been scandalized if you asked if I would ever consider leaving student affairs. However, during my summer at NCAR, I learned that our skills are needed in spaces other than colleges and universities. What happens when students leave the haven of our campus to develop themselves to prepare for their chosen careers? That is why student affairs practitioners need to consider all spaces that students occupy. Our training in social justice, communication, and relationship-building is mission critical in internship programs, research institutions, and many others. Student development does not end when students graduate. Student affairs professionals should bravely enter these non-traditional spaces where student development is happening. If we are in these spaces with students, then we can use our skills to enhance their experiences and support equity and inclusion in all parts of their education. 


Blake Lewis (he/him/his) is a second-year masters student in Student Affairs Administration in Higher Education and works in Housing and Residence Life at Ball State University. He loves coffee shops, his plants, and collecting vinyl. Blake can be reached on Twitter at @blakejlewis1.

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