Last Sunday at lunchtime you would have found me in the sunshine at Illini Grove with my little tribe of U of I students, celebrating the end of another school year, wishing our seniors farewell, and, just in my heart, realizing that this shindig was also marking a decade of advising student groups at the University of Illinois. Five of those years were with my beloved Student Alumni Association members and Student Ambassadors, and these last five have been with the LAS Leaders, who serve the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences much as SA served the U of I Alumni Association. These are excellent students and fine individuals that are always a joy to be around.
Early in my career, when I was much closer in age to the students I advised, it was easy to grow close. We had a lot in common, and I worked all.the.time. With Shane working undercover and crazy hours, no kids yet, plus several meetings held on nights and weekends, I spent more hours at work than I did at home. The students and I had huge events to plan together, but we also spent a lot of time talking about relationships, finding jobs, travel, car problems — everything. A lot of practical jokes were hatched, and others were foiled…
Perhaps one of my fondest memories is of my students’ heads popping over the cubicle walls (not possible without standing on a chair or counter below) to say hello to me on the other side. I know we were the bane of everyone else in the office, but we sure had fun! (With a key to access our office suite in the Illini Union good ’til midnight any evening, who wouldn’t?)
Returning to work after having kids, the game is a little different. I can’t hide the silver streaks in my hair (for long, anyway). I know I’m closer to my students’ parents’ age than theirs. No one tells me about their dating problems or what bar they’re going to that night. They don’t invite me over for supper or just hang out in my office when they’re bored. I know I have their respect and trust, and those are the qualities by which our relationships should be defined.
Some of the differences between then and now are not just a result of a bigger age gap but due to circumstances, such as a weird office set-up, students’ advanced ability to work and communicate remotely, and the lesser obligations of students involved in my current group than the former ones. It can be a relief sometimes not to get so caught up in others’ personal goings-on, but I do miss that special connection I shared with the students early on.
I still enjoy my work, though. The rewards of working with and on behalf of people who are just becoming adults are many and varied. The students are fairly tireless, very enthusiastic, optimistic, idealistic, and I would just say generally refreshing to be around. And they can be so sweet… Look at that blue ribbon I left the picnic with last weekend!