Musings of a Recovering Higher Education Wanderer

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“If you want to move up, you have to move on”. This quote is one many higher education administrators have heard countless times during their career. While I am sure it is not a quote unique to the field, I often find myself wondering if this idea of location mobility is as pervasive in other industries. It is so strong in this field that we instill the idea in our aspiring graduate students before they even apply to graduate school. How many of us find that the first two pieces of advice we give to interested undergraduates are, “Don’t do your Masters at your undergraduate institution” and “You should look to leave this region so you can get perspective”? I have said those sentences many times even though I have no idea why I believe them to be accurate and true. Have you?

Now, putting aside for this discussion the massive amount of privilege we assume when making those statements, I encourage you to reflect on the environment we create for wellness when a significant amount of practitioners persistently have one foot out the door. I am one of those people, or at least I was. As of a few months ago I have started to view myself as a recovering higher education wanderer.

For eight years we have lived in California but, until this April, California was not our home. It had always been a way station to the next and better thing. When we first moved the thought was that it would be great to have a story for our kids about the time we lived in California. For four years at UC Riverside, we saved money for that house we would buy at our next stop. For four years now at UC Merced we rented a home and did not become engaged in the community because it was only a matter of time before we would leave and move back to New Jersey.

In early January, new job opportunities arose for my spouse that could result in our continued residency in Merced, CA. Though we were excited, we both simultaneously said “Well then, three more years for the bump in retirement, and then we’re out”. In no time we had moved on from the present moment and were, once again, planning our departure. We both felt the anxiety this caused but chose not to mention the feeling.

It took a long bike ride on a sunny Saturday afternoon for things to change. While on this ride, I reflected on how great it was that I could ride for hours without hitting a stoplight. This led to a mental list of all the good things now and in the future Merced had to offer. Soon, a paradigm shift occurred. I came soaring back into the house and said the line my spouse has grown to dread “So, I was thinking…”

Who would we be, how would we behave, what would we do, if we treated Merced as a possible permanent stop? What does it mean to our children who, born in Merced, constantly hear their parents say that this is not their home? What would it look like for our lives and our children’s lives if we stopped thinking that the grass would be greener at our next location and started watering the grass here, now?

As soon as those questions were uttered, you could sense the great weight of anxiety and stress lift from our shoulders and for the first time in eight years, finally, a sense of calm.

I share this story because I know there are many of us out there looking to the next job, the next home, the next something, and I think we have it wrong. We have created a career environment, in my field specifically, that is not conducive to wellness through community engagement and this is terribly damaging to us as human beings. I see so many professionals who work incredibly hard to get the next job that they are summarily forgotten once they leave. I am one of those people, and that needs to change, for all of us.

Beyond health, fitness, seven hours of sleep, balance, and finding a hobby, I am beginning to understand that wellness is really about connection. Connection to your community, connection to the people who surround you, commitment to improving the area in which you live. If you are truly connected, deep roots connected, I believe that the other aspects we discuss when talking about wellness will soon follow. We should, every time we arrive at a new home, lay down roots so deep that it causes significant pain to tear them free. It should not be easy to up and leave a community every three to five years for a new job. It should be hard. It must be hard.

Now, I am by no means saying that professionals should spend their career in one company or at one university. I am not that naïve. I am also not saying that our current home is going to be our final home. That is probably unrealistic. What I am saying is that finally, Merced, for the first time, is our home. For now and for the foreseeable future, we are Mercedians, and that is kind of nice.

Who would you be, how would you behave, what would you do if you treated every stop on your journey as a potential permanent home instead of a resting point before you continue on? What would it mean to you if you dug roots so deep it would hurt terribly to pull them free? How would you be a better professional if you weren’t just an employee of (Insert Name Here) University and became an invested member of the community around you?

For me, those questions triggered a paradigm shift in perspective; I hope they can do the same for you.

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