What My Grandad Taught Me About Student Development Theory

It was the summer after my first year of my graduate program at Colorado State University. I was flying to a wedding and my grandfather, Marcus “Grandpa Bud” Bishop, who lives in Denver was taking me to the airport. He had asked what it was exactly what I was studying in grad school. Many student affairs folks joke that our families really don’t understand what we do. To me that has always said less about our family members and more about our inability to recognize and communicate our own value. After courses in student development theory and a real passion for what I was doing, I had a good answer.

I’m in a student affairs and higher education master’s program. I’m learning how to help college students grow and develop while they are in college. I’m helping college students figure out who they are.

I thought I had nailed it. I had told him the exact details and then captured the real essence of what I was learning about. I waited for him to be super impressed. Instead, he related. Not to me, but to the college students.

That’s great. I’m still trying to figure out who I am.

This man in his late 70’s went on to tell me about all of his fits and starts trying to figure out who he was and who he wanted to be. As a students taking “college student development” I had fallen into thinking that development happened in college and by the time you were done with college that process would be completed. I was also an easy mark for this obvious fallacy because as a recent college graduate, I wanted to think of myself as self-actualized. His stories opened me up to the possibility reality that I would be working to figure out who I was for the rest of my life. This was scary, liberating, and exciting.

As student affairs folks we like to distance ourselves from the developmental processes we see in our students. I remember being in my doctoral program with brilliant folks talking about identity development theories. Generally, we talked about students we were working with as example of working through these changes. Occasionally, one of us would talk about experiencing those challenges ourselves – but years earlier when we were in college. Looking back on it not, it is hilarious to me that we didn’t talk about ourselves facing those challenges right then as we were all at various periods in our adult lives. It’s not like our identity development wasn’t playing out during the class break.

Now the notion that I am and always will be a work in progress is very liberating. It is exciting to think about the new things I am learning, the wisdom I am gaining, and the possibilities ahead. That helps get through those cringeable moments when I look back at things I’ve thought, said, or done.

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