Earlier this month, the Division of Student Affairs (DOSA) welcomed Sonja Ardoin for three jam-packed days of presentations, meetings and lunch and learns. Ardoin met with over a dozen groups from Ohio University, including DOSA leadership and staff, faculty members and graduate students in the College Student Personnel and Higher Education Student Affairs programs. She discussed current challenges in higher education, first-generation and Appalachian student success, leadership approaches, and pathways in student affairs careers.
Ardoin was invited to the University because of her atypical but diverse experience in the field of higher education. She grew up in rural Louisiana and started her undergraduate career as a first-generation college student. Through mentorship she received as an undergraduate, she decided to pursue a master’s through Florida State University’s Higher Education and Student Affairs program before later getting a doctorate in educational research and policy analysis from North Carolina State University.
The educator has a unique mix of teaching and administrative experience, which has informed her views on higher education. She has been a teaching and research assistant at North Carolina State University, a faculty member at the University of North Carolina’s Honors College and Department of Educational Leadership, and a program director and clinical assistant professor in Boston University’s Higher Education Program. Ardoin is currently a tenure-track assistant professor at Appalachian State University, where she is focused on student affairs administration.
She shared how her career path has been highly untraditional and often resulted in an internal struggle. During graduate school, her mentors continually told her that her career path was leading her to a vice president position, which was at odds with her interest in being a practitioner. While she eventually fully embraced being a professor over an administrator, she still had to find the right institutions for her work. Ardoin said she had to find the schools that valued her experiences as a first-generation student, approved of her state-school education and understood her desire to publish books over scholarly articles. She advised that when higher education professionals think about their career paths, they should focus on the environments and positions they flourish in, while still challenging themselves to be life-long learners.
Ardoin spoke about a variety of subjects that directly impact Ohio University and how faculty and staff can successfully influence both students and the professionals who support them. “Sonja has a unique blend of research interests and experiences that speak very directly to the work we’re doing at Ohio University, both in the Division of Student Affairs and across campus,” said Jason Pina, the vice president for Student Affairs. [Her] commitment to influencing change by measuring and reporting successes and pitfalls in higher education challenges the way we look at the work we do. She applauded our efforts to use data to inform retention strategies of first generation and Appalachian students and gave us some valuable suggestions to continue to improve our efforts in this work,” said Jason Pina, the vice president for Student Affairs.
Nicole Lovins, the assistant director of design for Student Affairs Communication and Marketing, attended Ardoin’s session on first-generation student success. As a first-generation student herself, Lovins was very taken by the presenter’s ideas about challenging colleges and universities to be ready to work with students who might not be familiar with the higher education system instead of expecting all students to be college-ready. Lovins plans to continue learning about the subject so she can incorporate best practices into her work.
Ardoin discussed how mentorship helped change her career trajectory from being a high school teacher to being a higher education professional. “As an undergraduate student I guess I knew people worked at colleges, but I never thought I could work at a college,” Ardoin said. There are many stereotypes and constructed barriers that often get in the way of pursuing higher education careers depending on one’s background.
Breaking down institutional barriers remained a theme throughout Ardoin’s presentations. At her “Shaping Your Professional Career” session, Ardoin discussed some of the barriers she faced and how she responded to them. “Sometimes we create barriers to our own career success,” Ardoin said, then challenged attendees to think about the ways they might be hindering their careers. Ardoin also encouraged attendees to ask themselves, “Am I on the pathway to getting where I want to be, or do I need to recalibrate?” and suggested taking steps toward work-life balance and designating time to reflect on their career paths.
Overall, the Division of Student Affairs was pleased with the attendance and outcomes of Ardon’s presentations. Pina concluded, “I am so thankful for our University and Patton College colleagues for helping to design and host such a wonderful three-day event.