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5 Ways to Survive a Toxic Work Environment for Student Success Professionals

My journey as a student success professional began ten years ago during a graduate assistantship where I worked with college students returning from academic probation and academic suspension. I was pursuing a Master of Education in Counseling with plans of becoming a therapist for children. The assistantship inspired me to pursue a career in higher education and continue helping students succeed academically, professionally, and personally.

Fast forward to today, and I’ve worked at a four-year public institution, a for-profit institution, a two-year institution, and a four-year private institution. I’ve provided holistic support to traditional students, non-traditional students, legacy students, first-generation students, domestic students, and DACA students. I’ve served as an Academic Counselor, a Career Services Specialist, a Professional Academic Advisor, an Advising & Retention Specialist, and a Director of Advising. It has truly been a rewarding journey for me – personally and professionally.

While I'm grateful for the opportunities each institution afforded me, I know how mentally and emotionally draining a toxic work environment can be. I was doing my best to thrive amid dysfunction like many of my peers. Then one day, I realized that I was just surviving the dysfunction - we all were.

On May 28th of this year, I resigned from my position as a Director of Advising, and I’ve spent the past two months building my own business to pursue my passions of writing and helping others. I thought long and hard about my decision to leave because I love the students, but ultimately, I decided to choose myself.

At the time, I didn’t realize that I was a part of what is being called The Great Resignation. As I read the stories of others with similar experiences, I thought about the student success professionals who are still doing their best to thrive in a toxic work culture – many being my former co-workers. I know they are making it work, and I want to offer the following five tips for those who need them. Regardless of your department, if you can relate – this piece is for you.

1. Challenge Yourself

Challenge yourself to learn and grow personally and professionally by assisting with or taking on projects if the department has limited resources (i.e., people). If you see a co-worker in need, offer assistance if you can help. This is called teamwork, and you never know when you may need a helping hand.

In my experience as a student success professional, the personal growth was practicing how to listen for understanding (helpful in our personal and professional lives), and the professional growth was learning new technologies and creating new processes.

2. Connect with Co-workers for Support

Whether you have three people or ten people in your department, try your best to step outside your comfort zone and connect with another person who understands what you do and why you do it. Having someone there to talk through the challenges and celebrate the successes really makes a difference. I am an introvert and feel a bit socially awkward at times. However, I can honestly say that I have made some genuine connections with co-workers at each institution.

In my experience as a student success professional, having someone validate that I wasn’t imagining the dysfunction and working together to get through it was the push that I needed to keep going.

3. Communicate Your Challenges

Communication is key with any relationship, so consider talking with your direct supervisor about factors at work that are hurting you mentally and emotionally. Starting that dialogue may encourage your supervisor to reassess expectations or work with you on ways to manage and meet those expectations. In some cases, the expectations may be unrealistic (trust me, I know), and your supervisor may be willing to advocate for your entire team by talking with their supervisor and collaborating with other departments.

In my experience as a student success professional, having a supportive supervisor who advocates for the team and the students helped me make it through the tough days when I was feeling stressed and overwhelmed.

4. Create Boundaries for Yourself

Going above and beyond your job description is typical for a student success professional, and that's Okay. What's not Okay is when doing so causes you mental and emotional distress. The same way you are Okay going above and beyond, be Okay setting boundaries regarding requests from members of your team and people in other departments. You can help, but their preferred deadline may not be possible given your workload.

In my experience as a student success professional, not everyone understood what it meant to have a Professional Advising Model, and some people didn't respect it. So, there were times when it was beneficial for myself and others to communicate, educate, and collaborate.

5. Choose Yourself

For many student success professionals, going above and beyond for your students, your team, and the institution comes easy because you love what you do and want to see your students succeed. But, at what cost? Not being able to pursue other opportunities within the institution because it's outside of your job description.? Experiencing anxiety because you have numbers to hit at the end of the month.? Being overlooked because the quantity of student meetings is valued over quality.? Experiencing mental, emotional, and physical distress due to unrealistic expectations and a lack of support from leadership.? At some point, please know that it is okay to choose yourself. In some cases, this may look like implementing project time each day, scheduling meetings on certain days of the week, taking PTO for mental health days each month, or seeing a therapist. And, if all of the above fails, it may mean resigning.

In my experience as a student success professional, there have been times when I’ve suffered in silence. There were times when I communicated my challenges and stayed in an unhealthy environment because I had a sense of loyalty to my students, my supervisor, and my team. Then, I realized that while I’m choosing everyone else, everyone is not choosing me. Students transfer, supervisors leave, and co-workers are steady applying for new positions hoping that the grass is greener on the other side. And, that’s Okay. The decision to leave my students and my team was hard, but it was the best decision for my family and me. Now I’m in a better space mentally and emotionally, which allows me to be present for my husband and my son. I will always identify as a student success professional and will continue to support and advocate for students. I'll also continue to encourage others to put themselves first because I know if you don’t, nobody else will.

To my fellow student success professionals, have you ever experienced a toxic work environment? What are you doing to survive? I’d love to hear your tips!


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