Although I started college as a biology major headed for medical school, by sophomore year I realized that I did not want to be a doctor. In addition to nearly failing my physics courses and struggling through organic chemistry, a volunteer opportunity at our university hospital helped me understand that I did not want to do clinical medical work but was still interested in pursuing something in the medical field. And so my plan to pursue health education and public health was born. From then on, I carefully chose student opportunities that would move me closer to that goal: I was part of a theater company that crafted an educational performance about HIV prevention; I worked on social norms campaigns for alcohol risk reduction; I was a peer health educator for eating disorder prevention. I was also a Resident Assistant (RA) and was fairly involved in the student affairs division and loved this work, too. Once I completed my master’s degree, I got my first professional job as a Residence Hall Director. I was thrilled when I was placed in the Health and Wellness Living Learning Center – I was able to mix my love of student development with health education and it felt like a perfect fit. I had the opportunity to help develop an academic minor in health and wellness and teach several classes there. This was my dream!
During these first years of my professional career, I found myself gravitating more towards the student affairs work. I truly enjoyed working with students to help them achieve all of their goals, not only those that were related to health and wellness. I found that I had a knack for programming and event planning and was becoming more and more interested in how things work in higher education. However, a few years in I still viewed this student affairs job as a stop-over in my journey towards health education. I was offered a position as an area director supervising Residence Hall Directors. I reluctantly accepted – I feared that it was taking me further away from health education, but it was a higher-paying promotion and would bring me experience in things I thought I’d need in future jobs: budget management, supervision, and campus-wide committee leadership. I actually referred to this job to my family and friends as a “necessary evil!” During this time, I had an opportunity to co-teach a course for social workers who wanted to work in higher education. In order to teach student development concepts and current issues in higher education, I was researching and learning so much about my own field and my own job. By understanding the academic theories that guide the work, I fell in love with the profession from a whole new lens. The person I was co teaching with told me that when I taught about these topics, I looked joyful. He challenged me to think of my current role as a happy scenic route rather than a necessary evil. I thought to myself: why not choose joy?
From then, I decided to pursue higher education fully: I enrolled in a doctoral program, applied for jobs in other areas of higher education than student affairs, and read everything I could get my hands on that had to do with this field. I still use many of the skills that I learned as a health educator, but am so glad I kept my heart and mind open to a new career path. There was a time where I was getting in my own way and almost turning down opportunities because they didn’t fit my “plan”. You never know where scenic route will bring you.
Jean Peden Christodoulou, Ed.D.
Associate Vice President for Student Affairs