Transition Reflection II: Autumn Comes to Student Affairs

My travel experience in summer 2021 was beyond what I could have imagined. I spent nights under starry skies, hiked and ran on mountain trails, watched whales exploding out of the ocean surface, climbed boulders, and saw beautiful sunsets. I have experienced deep connections with nature before, but the scale and length of this journey into and around the outdoors was unprecedented for me. 

This transition from the summer season was marked, symbolically, by my eastward drive along Hwy 50 in Nevada. The road is long and desolate, and is labeled on my road atlas as “The Loneliest Road in America.” This stretch of the road is just over 400 miles long, and desert plains and basins dominate the landscape. There are three small towns along this long distance of highway, each one marked by casinos, massage parlors and gun stores, not my cups of tea. 

After a long summer of sunshine and warmth, this area was mostly overcast and cool. My mood was following the change in weather as I dove into this real and figurative dimension of my sabbatical journey. This experience resonated with Rilke’s writing:

. . .Summer was like your house: you knew 

            where each thing stood. 

            Now you must go out into your heart

            as onto a vast plain. Now

            the immense loneliness begins. . .

Photos: The Loneliest Road in America: US Hwy 50, Nevada   October 2021

I considered avoiding this transition to the autumn, and had the opportunity to navigate around it by driving southward–to, say, the Grand Canyon: a place I hold close to my heart based on memories of a family vacation when I was a pre-teen. I have retained mental images of the beautiful colors that lit the canyon’s walls: layers of purples, reds and yellows. The end of the summer season was not inevitable for me since driving into the warmth of the South was an option. But, it felt right and important, instead, to enter this new season in my journey. I sought to understand the experience of autumn rather than retreating back into the sunny summer days. 

In his book, Nature and the Soul, Bill Plotkin (2008) presented human development as a venture through seasons. As Plotkin described it, the summer is a time of building identity and constructing related values and goals. The autumn season of development marks a significant change. It is a time to withdraw from the world and into a period of spiritual immersion.  Plotkin referred to it as a time of “psychospiritual darkness.” We turn from being creatures of our culture to being in a real and symbolic sense, alone. It is described as a descent into a place of unease and disorientation, with the ultimate reward of the discovery of core purposes. 

Plotkin refers to the autumn experience as a “soul journey.” That type of journey must involve a step outside the confines of the current, dominant cultural paradigm. It is a 40-days in the wilderness kind of adventure, in which personal confrontations occur. While I believe it is possible for some of us, there is a challenge in doing this within the institution where we are acculturated to conform and bury our authenticity for the sake of institutional preservation and personal and professional success. 

Summer, 2021: Taking it all in at Mitchell Lake in Colorado

I suggest that the most important work we can do as members of this field is to embrace the gift of our profession’s autumn season. The gift of autumn, with its hardships, can awaken us to the need to create niches to step away from the frantic and sacrificial life of work. It has shown us that the formulae that guide our lives are often not sustainable, enriching, or effective. Autumn tells us that it is time to face our deepest questions about our role in the world, and to be willing to “love the questions themselves” as declared by the Poet Rilke. And then, according to Rilke, we will, “. . . without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”

My life transition to the autumn season has presented me with an opportunity for a new immersion into an exploration of my inner life and how these discoveries about myself intersect with my professional journey. I have found that amid the pressures of contemporary life, the most enriching human dimensions of my work occurs in the intersection of connections with students’ journeys and my own professional and personal learning and development. It is a time to question the most basic tenets of the industrial-age realities that squeeze life-giving interactions with students and colleagues out of our work. It is time for the celebrated values of productivity and efficiency to take a back seat to our core mission and the heart of our work: Enlivening and authentic encounters with students and colleagues.

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