Four years ago, I was asked by my favorite professor to work for my undergraduate department at my alma mater in place of their awesome program assistant while she was on an extended maternity leave. I have a whole bunch of stories about my favorite student experiences and the crazy bus commute to come, but today I’ll tell you a little about the job itself.
Program assistants fulfill a number of roles, from academic planner to receptionist to office manager. Not to mention a sort of personal assistant to the department chair. They do almost everything that needs to be done other than the actual teaching of classes. The regular program assistant did her absolute best to prepare me ahead of time for what everything would be like, and I don’t know what I would have done if she hadn’t. I’m not sure how she manages it all herself, but somehow she does. If I had the power, I’d double her salary for the work she does.
Our department chair John, while wonderful, was experiencing his first days of being chair at the same time that I was a new program assistant. We would regularly ask each other questions neither of us had answers to. He had a vision for an academic world with no letter grades and no faculty offices. He often came away from meetings frustrated when higher ups like the dean would laugh and tell him he was crazy. I did my best to support him, but I was busy playing catch up with phone calls, ordering equipment, and dealing with student problems. We were a constantly frazzled team, but we managed to keep our heads above water. The building was still standing at the end of the year. That’s something, right?
I had the unique experience of working behind the scenes every day with professors whose classes I took years ago. It was very entertaining sometimes to take meeting minutes while they bicker about things. I saw different sides of people I’d looked up to since I was 19, some positive, others not so much. Being shouted at and condescended to by one particular faculty member who I previously respected wasn’t my favorite day. Most of the time, it was a joy to be part of this group of eccentric characters who cared about the students and advocated for resources for them.
In addition to being interim program assistant, I was asked to assist an old friend in adjunct-teaching a series of game design classes at night for both fall and spring semesters. I had applied for the job myself, and my old professor told me that turning me down was one of the hardest emails he had ever had to write. I didn’t have a graduate degree, which was required by the college. That professor did recommend my assistance to my friend who got the job, as it was his first teaching experience. We had worked in a team as undergrads, and we agreed to take on teaching the classes together. I’ll write about that experience (the good and the bad) more in depth in a later post.
Between these two positions, I was on campus between ten and fourteen hours a day for the better part of the academic year. I will always be thankful to that favorite professor for making those opportunities available to me. I learned a LOT.