1500 words of reflection

Odd though it may seem, I am just realizing that this is my last semester of being in a classroom taking classes ever (ever ((ever(((ever))) echoes into the infinite hollow). I have been in school in some shape of form for the past 27 years. That is a significant amount of time and now that I’ve come to the end, I genuinely can’t believe it. True to form, all I can think is, “What happens next?”

Technically I know. I mean next semester I enter dissertation stage and I’ll be in seminar, then I’ll propose and transition from Doctoral Student to Doctoral Candidate (Jessica Williams, ABD!) and then…it begins. I am very fortunate that Annie, my work-wife and writing partner, is a speed racer and I am a slow turtle because it means we are now on the same pace and will be going through this together.  I keep reminding myself ‘one bite at a time’  that’s how you eat an elephant and that’s how I’ll finish this dissertation. Come what may, Lord willing and the creek don’t rise.

As I take a moment to reflect on all the tiny moments that got me here a few stick out that I think serve as lessons I can always return to.

  1. If it is meant to be, IT WILL BE.  This is the greatest lesson.  My journey to physically get to San Diego was crazy, dramatic, unbelievable and so humbling. It really taught me the lesson that the universe really is conspiring on my behalf and I was supposed to be here. In fact, I was never not going to be here. I am so happy I went with my gut.  USD was the only PhD application I completed. My Stanford and Vanderbilt applications went unfinished because I just did not get the same feeling from those universities that I did from USD.  All of the things in the checkboxes matter: Cost, Program, Faculty, Location, etc. But at the end of the day you have to feel it. At the end of the day your doctoral program, or really anything has to FEEL right. It has to be somewhat organic.  Fit is by far the most important decision making factor for me when it comes to things I align myself with or commit to and I learned that from this process.
  2. If its costing too much energy to keep it together, let it fall apart. It is kind of the antithesis of #1. There were many things I tried to force into fruition. My timeline, my topics, certain projects and even certain friendships or relationships throughout my program. But, what I’ve learned is that it is not working for a reason, pay attention to the signs! There has been nothing I’ve lost that was not for the better (in the long run).  So if you are falling out of love with your topic that you have so much research on it is okay. Do not cling to it fearful of what you might lose, open your arms in anticipation of all you may gain. You might find yourself returning with renewed perspective or you might find yourself somewhere entirely new, but do not deny yourself that journey.
  3. This is YOUR education, own it.  I am not exactly what one would call a rule follower. Sometimes I do things my own way and in my own time and the beautiful thing about a terminal degree is that you are charged with the task of being original. Take that up! There have been assignments that I’ve completed in a different way than asked by the professor. I explain my process, and then I do it in a way that is more suited for me and my learning. It is tricky because you want to make sure you are challenging yourself, but at the same time you have to be true to your vision.  I am fortunate that my professors and my program support innovation and creativity (see why fit matters?), and I have really been able to step into my own as a professional as a result of their blessing.  Your professors are your future colleagues, collaborate with them in that way.
  4. Year 1–meet everybody Year 2–say yes to everything Year 3–tighten your circle and your interests.  It was important to me to leave my university, and every university I have attended, with relationships as rich as knowledge I acquired. In many cases those relationships have opened more doors than the knowledge. I have found at the doctoral level, the situation is no different in fact in education, who you know is kind of everything.  My first year I was a sponge, and I absorbed everything. I met everyone that I possibly could and kept in touch with them too (that’s important). Those relationships led to opportunities that I was offered my second year when I had a bit more experience under my belt and had my bearings. My third year I had discerned which opportunities were great for the experience and which ones I really wanted to invest more of my energy into. I could not have done this if I hadn’t experienced so many things the previous year. For example, I got my job teaching in the counseling program (2nd year) because of a relationship that began and I nurtured from my 1st semester. When offered the chance to TA a class, I took it even though I could technically teach my own. That lead to me being able to teach abroad in Jamaica that summer.  Which leads me to the next lesson…
  5. You are never “too smart” “too experienced” “too successful” to take a back seat.  One of the first assignments I had to complete as a doctoral student was shredding for our teaching department.  I hated it, who wouldn’t? But I did it and showed up everyday in business casual attire to lift heavy boxes and shred paper. The professors who were around would notice me shredding and eventually they started to talk to me. I told them I didn’t mind the work even though I hated it, and seeing my work ethic I got two more assignments. One was a research project with a professor in that department.  I have experienced so many doctoral students who are “full cups” and who are unwilling to really listen and take in feedback or humble themselves and do menial tasks; but people notice that. It is unattractive to say the very least, and in the field of leadership? And yes we are working towards terminal degrees so that we never have to make copies and shred papers again, but that does not make you better than the work. It does not make you above the work.
  6. Don’t be afraid to be wrong, and don’t be afraid to be right. Some of my greatest learning lessons have come from conflicts, arguments.  When I disagree with someone or something that was said about me and I have to sit back and engage in critical self inquiry.  Not only was the comment or observation true, but why was it bothering me? What did I believe about myself?  It resulted in the greatest growth.  Similarly, learning when to stop hoarding insights was key.  Why was I holding onto it and not speaking up? Whatever the reason it was not a good one and I finally started speaking up and coming forth with my opinions. Sometimes people agreed, sometimes people didn’t respond at all but it was out there.  The most rewarding byproduct of this degree has been access to really really intelligent and opinionated people. Take advantage of that audience, dialogue really helps to sharpen the saw.
  7. Have Fun. Seriously, if this work doesn’t fill you up with all the good stuff at least some of the time, why are you doing it?  It is a question worthy of consideration. I’ve had people who just want the title of Doctor. I’ve had people who just “love school” I’ve had people who feel its the “next step” and having been through3/4 of a PhD I can say with some authority that that’s ridiculously stupid. Yes stupid. It is far too difficult a process to go through not to love it and quite frankly what joy will you have at the outset if you’re killing yourself in the meantime? I may complain (often) about my program, my being a professional student, my debt (!), my work, but I sincerely love what I do.  Otherwise I would have walked away a long time ago.  Marching too long in the wrong direction just means more work for me in the long run.  There were certainly times when I thought maybe I’d gotten what I needed from the experience and could quit, but then I would learn something new. I would have another opportunity, I would gain another new insight and I would be reminded that I am supposed to be here.

What a blessing this has been.  What an absolute blessing.

The Arrival

I have struggled for a while with the idea of my dissertation. At the same time, I’ve been salivating at the idea of having to produce this major body of written work. I consider myself a writer–actually I consider myself an artist with the written word being my favorite medium of creating. So, for “a writer” someone who literally wakes up everyday drafting, someone who writes everyday be it in journals, on notepads, on a blog, or even just in her mind, the idea of a dissertation is something that I can totally do. It is not a question of can, or even will, for me it is a question of how…the process.

Words just flow through me. I do not sit down with an intention or a plan, no outline no map. I flow in and with words at the same time. I’ve been working on cognitively not creating such a dichotomy between my joyous writing and my academic writing. I believe that it is in large part due to my own paranoia have I found there to be such a difference between the two. I have also realized that there is no way I am going to be happy writing a dissertation that is not both academically rigorous and yet poetic and meaningful. So, I decided the route I am going to take.

Earlier this week, I said to myself, “On Friday, you are going to begin. You are going to start to pull all the inside to the outside and you are going to get naked in this thing.” Risk. I guess the best way to explain my decision is that I decided to be vulnerable in my work. That is what I believe separates my joyous from my work. I learned really early how to “do” school, I figured out what teachers valued and I played to that strength, however when I began my PhD program I decided this degree would be for me. So, I’ve taken opportunities that have scared me. I’ve pushed myself and sometimes failed but learned in the process. I’ve whole-heartedly believed in every piece of work I’ve produced in this program and I want the end to be an illustration of not just research but of my journey through my work.

It started with mentorship. Safe. Then spirituality, but it was too big and I got lost in that. So I pulled back out. Then decision making, but I realized it wasn’t the decision it was the process. Then I read. And I found that the decision making process is different depending on where people are developmentally. So it became about development. Then, there was a question of but who? First I looked at different types of individuals. The student. The professional. But I realized something, that at the same time I am me, I am also we. So I couldn’t just study the individual. It has to be both the individual, the system, at the same time.


Artwork by Nychole Owens

It was a question to Brené and it is a question that I think is coming for my own research, and that is how does one encourage and promote vulnerability systemically? There are some things that happen, people open up with you or those that cannot or will not almost resent the vulnerability and act out in different ways. But how does that shape the organization? And what does the individual who was first “open” do? Do they experience shame ? Or are they shame resilient? And because I am looking at student affairs practitioners, how does this then affect the students that he or she advises?

It is still taking shape. But it’s my place. It is where I fit and it involves all the other pieces. I had to leave it so that I could arrive in this place, and I am excited to share it with my advisor who will soon get a new name, My Chair. It is a tricky thing, time. It moves so quickly and even before you can catch your breath, sometimes the seasons have changed and time has marched on.

So it’s Friday. I’m ready to write. I set my intention, I’ve taken off my armor and I’ve got my pen. I am right here right now and it’s the only place I want to be.

Depart to Arrive–A letter to Zachary

Lost in what could certainly be described as a quarter life crisis, I sent my work wife, Annie, a message and asked her if she had time to talk; “I need to think out loud,” she called and this was the result of our conversation.
I explained to her how nothing has ‘stuck’ when it comes to work surrounding my dissertation and I felt as though I was missing something. There must be a thread between each of my abandoned topics, but I cannot figure out what the commonality is, so I’ve begun to think about what I know for certain.
1. I know for certain that I want to look at the leader, in this case my leader will be a higher education professional who is❤ out of a college student personnel/higher education program and working in student affairs.
2. I know for certain that I want to look at decision making processes of these leaders.
Annie asks why, through a series of thorough questions, and I discern that the process of these SA Pros likely affects how they advise their students in their decision making. How can you teach intentional decision making if you are not able to model it or make sense of it? Annie asks what types of decisions…I am stumped because Cheryl has been asking me this question for a year.
I resolve the following: I know I don’t want to look at high-stakes decisions because I think that is a different sort of process, but I want to look at meaningful decisions or rather significant decisions.  She asks for an example, and I tell her about my own decision to drop a class last semester in favor of teaching a class.  Brilliantly she deduces, “So you want to look at decisions with long term implications.”  Yes! That it is exactly.
3. Innocently enough, Annie asks me in a sidebar what my hope was in this program in regards to my own decision making. I told her that my greatest wish was to be able to hear and appreciate others’ decision making processes but be able to remain true to what is right for me. Relating back to my SA Pros I said, “…because when you have what your boss thinks you should do, what your peers think you should do, what your students want you to do, its hard to remember what is right for you and what works for you.” I gasped. Here enters my Adult Development final exam in full blazing glory: Winnecott. True and False self. I wrote this down, “Authenticity…how do you make decisions anchored to true self (vulnerable, innovative) vs. false self (pleasing, anxiety reducing)…” Annie added, “…and how do you recognize [the true self] in your decisions?”
And this is my thread. This is what ties together everything I’ve considered to date. Spirituality and feeling “at peace” with decision making=decision making from the true self. Looking at multiple identities and their salience in decision making=which self (true or false) is more salient when considering a decision. It fits, and who knew that I would have to fall apart, quite literally, for this to fall together?
So now, it is with renewed energy that I prepare to dive back into the adult development literature and consider this and other theories from a new space. A space of presence, and a space of my own truth. When I was working solely to dissipate the anxiety over my future I relied on what worked for others and lost sight of what works for me, my slow methodical somatic and intuitive knowing. I had to depart to arrive. And I knew this photo was meant for you when I saw it.  Hindsight is always 20/20. I cannot wait for this summer.
Renewed.   Image

Wine is quicker than therapy

Sometimes shit hits the fan. Sometimes its emotional. Tonight was sometimes. Sitting in class I felt my anxiety hit its peak, I’d been feeling this…yuckiness this stress and I’d notice as it took a slow chokehold on my life. I noticed as I worried constantly about my day to day processes, do I have my keys? Did I check the mail? Did I close the refrigerator door all the way? And I’d become a bit of a check-er. I had to be sure I was doing it right. Doing it at all. It was tightening and binding and tonight I stopped breathing.

Sitting in class listening to a colleague discuss his dissertation process, I felt like I couldn’t breathe. And being the usual light heart that I am my classmates laughed my behavior off not knowing that internally I was counting. Counting to ten, repeatedly just to steady my breath. I was choking. It, the anxiety, was squeezing me and in this moment I knew two things: 1) that this feeling was mental/emotional 2) that something was really really wrong, and I needed to call attention to it immediately. So I went to find my advisor. Sane right?

I knew she was somewhere in the building so I just hung out for a while til she appeared. And I told her everything. And she listened, in her way. And told me the same thing my work wife said: one day at a time, one step at a time. And while that offered some solace, I couldn’t help but still feel very unresolved. I called my Person.

I told her about the panic attack. I told her everything, as I always do and I told her how foreign this felt because I am just not anxious (at all)…she laughed and agreed, because usually that is her role in our relationship. I told her something was wrong. She asked, innocently enough, why I couldn’t just focus on right now and I told her because I felt like working towards faculty meant I needed to do certain things like publish articles, present at conferences and…in the midst of telling her this I realized here was my anxiety. It was performance anxiety. Since I made this decision to pursue faculty, I’ve felt extremely inadequate. Like I need to do more, be more, like I needed to do things that feel so god-awful to me.

My Person asked if I had to “choose” like officially, if there was some track. I said no, but that the preparation for the admin versus faculty tracks was different. And what I realized in explaining to her was that I’ve been putting immense amounts of pressure on myself lately to be what I think “faculty” is. That, in and of itself is not me. I somehow got sucked into the house of should and was suffocating under the weight of expectation.

She shared her personal opinion that she saw me as more of a practitioner, as an administrator. And maybe I am. I don’t know. There are things about both that I like and enjoy. I think what I want to try to do right now, though, is just be where I am. In my 2nd year doing research and not thinking about what it could/might/should lead to…just the right here right now. That’s what I can handle.

In the moments after I felt extremely grateful for my advisor, and for my work wife, and for my Person. For people in my life that ground me and offer far more clarity than a glass of Pinot. I don’t have to stress about what’s coming. I don’t have to BE 5 years from now, it will come. I just have to be right now, over and over again. And for the first time in many weeks, maybe even months, I felt the noose loosen and I could breathe.

Brene Brown and the entire kitchen sink

I have mini panic attacks that my advisor is going to me angry with me. I keep finding elements that have to be a part of my dissertation. Right now it feels like I’ve got all these extremities of work and yet I sorely need them to be a body. So far I have:

  1. Spirituality
  2. Leadership
  3. Creativity
  4. Grief
  5. Decision Making

While that does not seem like a lot…it’s a lot. What is even more frustrating is that I have become increasingly more patient through uncertainty, despite myself really.  I have developed the ability to sit and wait for things to unfold rather than force them or manipulate them in any way. So, I’m waiting, and in the meantime I think my advisor is going to kill me.

Very few writers, researchers, “storytellers”, have influenced me in the way that Brene Brown has; mind you this is an extremely recent thing, too.  The way that she talks about her work, the way that she conducts her research it does not seem like work! It looks joyous, and fulfilling, and there is so much passion in that work–she’s inspirational on different levels.  And while I realize that she has been researching for many years, it appealed to me, and I cannot do it any other way.  Again, my advisor…

When I think of what I want to do, the outcome of my own work, I want to understand the role that spirituality plays in the decision making process.  In that, I believe I will find themes of guilt, grief, creativity, and self-care practices along with many others–I am open to being surprised. I also assume that as people are more developmentally mature, they will experience and describe spirituality in very different ways. I definitely find that where we are in life greatly shapes the perspective we have on it.

My work is on the individual, but it is about a collective. Are “we” recognizing that “we” are connected to one another? Do I consider this connectedness when I made decisions? Do others? My guess here would be that if there is an external consideration that it is likely family, or if its a professional decision, the system or organization.  However, how many people are thinking globally? Jung describes the presence of a collective unconscious and I wonder how many people not just know about it, but live in constant awareness of it?

Spirituality is recognizing and celebrating that we are all inextricably connected to each other by a power greater than all of us, and that our connection to that power and to one another is grounded in love and compassion. Practicing spirituality brings a sense of perspective, meaning and purpose to our lives.”
― Brené Brown,The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are

When I heard Brene speak about her work, specifically her experience with her research topics, I felt like I was given permission to be present in my own work.  Honestly, how could you not be? There is something in us all that draws us to our passions, our vocations.  I loved that her cognitive aptitude did not excuse her from the very human experience of shame that she was studying.  I love that she admitted that.

If I sit back and think about what got me to this topic it was literally a moment sitting in Terri’s office crying thinking, “How did I get to this place? How did I arrive here?” My answer, that came later, was that a series of very spiritually governed decisions led me here.  And an idea was born. Brene says to “dance with the one who brung you.” And for me it is going to be those two things: spirit and choice.

Perhaps it’ll be as “simple” as this: Understanding the role of Spirituality in Decision-Making: A Comparative study between Student Affairs Professionals, and Tenure-Track University Faculty.  And perhaps it won’t.

One last thought, Brene mentioned that shame will often try to make us question ourselves by asking, “Who do you think you are?” I experienced that earlier this week, and earlier this month. Those moments where I call out my audacity, and side-eye myself.  WHO DO YOU THINK YOU ARE.  My mind answered in a small tiny quiet faux-humble voice and began, “I am just…” and my heart said with great certainty, NO. You are ANYTHING but “just”.  And I liked that answer. I told it to shame and I haven’t heard anything since.


Sincerely, Jess, “Anything but Just” J.

Words unsaid part II, and the never-ending degree program

“I am going to be in school forbleepingever.” That was the thought I had yesterday in class as we considered how this conference we attended has changed our research and/or our career path. It was one of those things where I was shown the power of creativity and I know the impact its had on my own life, so I had to ask myself where it was in my work? Then I repeated, “I am going to be in school forbleepingever.” My dissertation keeps getting bigger. There just has to be this piece about developing the spirit, and of course I can’t leave out how that relates to leaders…and now its like but what about art?! While the practical me, which lives in the dungeon of my mind and only comes out to do my taxes, says, “bitch…you need to graduate!”

I had just finished a reflection paper for class in which I wrote about stepping into power and not being fearful of my own potential. I’d just submitted this body of work dedicated to thoughts of self-authorization and the importance of perspective and vision; knowledge that it is not about me. And with these words fresh on my mind I turned the page in my journal and saw this picture.


I chuckled. Then I said, okay okay…noted. The God’s honest truth is that academia is my safe haven, and while I may research here and even reside here, my work will be bigger than the university I teach at, and transcend my field. What I have to get over is…myself. Girl, this is not about you. Get out of the way of this blessing. That’s what I feel right now.

More than ever my thoughts have surrounded grief. I made a claim in my Masters that all work is grief work. I teach to that claim. I used it in Terri’s class, often, to make sense of the overwhelming emotion that lived in the executive classroom. Even today, when I walk in that room I feel the presence of a million mental models laid to rest. You know how Brene Brown researches shame and vulnerability? I want to research grief and possibility. Taking a sweep over the things I write about anyway, its those things. Almost always. And while I see that “coming soon” I still wonder, well what about right now?

I need a thought partner. I need to talk this out, and through, and figure out where in this matrix I fall. I can tell you that, I’m close. And I know because my world has nearly stopped spinning.

If I lay in bed and look up at heaven, dreaming of what my life looks like…I see published books. I see a cherry wood office with three degrees in coordinating frames and a big photo of Neyland stadium. I see black and whites of my husband, children and I scattered throughout. I see a home filled with questions and books and artifacts from a life wholly lived. A kitchen with fresh flowers and fresh fruit. A living room with magazines, coffee table books, blankets, and a sofa that lovingly welcomes your feet upon it. A kitchen table wrapped in prayers and gratitude. A yard with jump ropes and bicycles laying to rest, temporarily. A closet full of clothes for life’s many occasions. A silver frame holding in it a picture of my best girlfriends and I. A jewelry box containing the locket and earrings from my mother’s wedding day. On my fridge, each of the invitations to my sisters’ graduations. And in the cabinets, the cast iron I bought to make my grandmother’s Thanksgiving dinner for the first time. And nowhere in my dream exists fear or trepidation, just love. Love and love’s residual.

And so, to get there I must say the words that burn my throat and cause my palms to sweat. I must be disheveled and imperfect, and everything else that scares me. I have to do whatever I can to get closer to love. And I suppose if that takes another year of graduate school, so be it. Its my own grieving. For “the plan” and the shoulds, and the defense that follows, “oh you’re still in school?!” Yes I am. And I absolutely love it.

The end of chapter 2

I just read this: As someone who knew me during the dark days, Simone even suggested that I had found my heart’s calling. “You needed something to propel you out of your survival story, Jane,” she said. “It wasn’t working for you. You didn’t know how powerful you are on a universal level…”

So naturally, I cried. But it was okay because only moments before I read, “I’ve never been a crier. But when the heart is this full, it must overflow.” The words come from an article by Jane Ganahl about her calling to rescue cats–a topic I’m not particularly passionate about, but pulled relentlessly on my heart strings. As I read the first quote I mentioned, I placed my hand over my heart and wept. And I thought, that’s me. That’s me, with people. People are my cats.

I rarely claim to do things well. Which, I suppose, is befitting because my motto in life is do less, well. However, I an excellent writer and I am an excellent listener. When I listen to a person its a spiritual experience, much like my writing process. I’ve learned not to close my eyes, though that would be my preference, and its like I plug in to right now. I hear things sometimes that I do not call attention to. I used to say I’m not sure the other person was ready for it to be spoken. Though, I think it may also be that I am not. Ready, or willing. Because see, when you call people out on an intangible “truth” they can easily deny it. Then my ego takes a mighty blow. Whap! Right across the jaw. That’ll teach you to meddle. And then I shut up.

But this past week as I was writing a paper for a class I have with Cheryl (my advisor), I found myself accidentally telling the truth. After I submitted I remember thinking, I don’t know what she’s going to say about that… that paper is the first assignment I’ve had since Zachary’s very accurate accusal of leaving myself out of my work. As I sat to write, I felt like I do when I’m here writing. In a zone, a trance and at total peace. I had a short conversation with myself in my head: Ego: Cheryl said specifically, don’t copy one of your blog posts, but here you are blog writing. Self: academic me, blogger me, same-same.

So, I wrote that. I wrote that my goal in life professionally is to not lose my Self in this world of academia. I cited some authors but wrote that I wasn’t sure yet who all I wanted to study, but as I live I’ll know. And after it was done I said to Cheryl (in my head) give it the grade you think it deserves, but I didn’t complete that assignment for you. I did it for me, so it had to be my way. I am at peace with that. All is well with my soul.

And so it seems this PhD journey just got a bit more interesting. There has definitely been a shift, a shift since this summer. A shift since the kundalini. And a calling out by Zachary, but not in a superficial way. He literally called me out of hiding. The space that used to feel safe and secure now feels restrictive and confining. He called me OUT. He pulled me out of my survival story.

So begins the next chapter…