August: Meet Melodye MacAlpine

It’s hard for me to say exactly when my career in student affairs began.  Officially, I started my grad program in fall of 2000, so I could start counting there.  But my choice to pursue this career was so heavily influenced by my experience as an undergraduate student that I think I need to roll back the clock a bit and start counting in spring of 1994, when I transferred as a sophomore to St. John Fisher College in Rochester, NY.

I didn’t start college with the intention of going into student affairs.  Let’s be honest – most 18 year olds don’t even know that’s an option!  In my case, I didn’t even know until several years after I finished my undergrad degree.  I was trying to find my “path” in life and tried out a few different counseling-related grad programs, but none of them seemed to fit.  When I made a visit to the Career Services office at my alma mater, that’s when the pieces started coming together.  Looking back on my out-of-classroom experiences that I had on campus and how much they impacted me as a student and a member of the campus community, made it obvious that I should pursue this career path.

The great thing about student affairs is that it is continually changing and evolving as a profession.  There are so many directions you can take, that it really is a career that is a good fit for a lot of people.  I spent the early years of my career, including grad school, worried that I wouldn’t be able to find a job because I didn’t have experience in Residence Life – and EVERYONE in student affairs has, at one point or another, worked in Res Life, right?  Not so!  I consider myself a successful student affairs professional, and I have never had to live in a residence hall as part of my compensation package!  I “cut my teeth” in student activities, which led to working with leadership development and first year programs; I dabbled in some work that was focused more on academics – academic coaching, supplemental instruction, even did registrar-type work; and now I work with graduate and professional students, mainly focused in the health professions.  I think that when you start any career, you form a timeline and trajectory in your head – I should be at this level, doing these kinds of things, by this time.  And that can be a comfort to a lot of us – predictability.  But I can honestly say that nothing about my career has been all that predictable, and I can only guess what my next step will be.

This brings me to what was probably the most challenging time in my professional life.  In 2003, my husband and I moved across the country, somewhat on a leap of faith.  He was transferring within his company so had a job waiting for him, but I was only a year out of graduate school with just barely a year of professional experience under my belt.  I had started applying for jobs as soon as we made the decision to move, and was getting some bites – I was even flown out for an interview.  Those jobs didn’t materialize, but I figured it shouldn’t be that hard once we moved if I was already getting interest.  Boy, was I ever wrong!  Little did I know that I had just embarked on what would become a 3 year journey to finding a job in student affairs.  Looking back on it now, I can see some things that I should have done differently.  I was haphazard with my search, applying for anything and everything that looked even remotely doable.  I’m sure I applied for jobs that I wasn’t even close to qualified for, which added to my ever-growing stack of rejection letters.  During the first part of my search I was pregnant; once I had the baby I took a short break from my search to be a first time mom to my beautiful daughter. But I quickly resumed my search because I didn’t feel like I could afford to stop looking.  I have stories about an interview when I was first starting to “expand” and couldn’t zip up my skirt all the way and was worried that it might start unzipping during the interview; I went on another interview when I was about 37 weeks pregnant (talk about an elephant in the room!); and yet another interview when my daughter was just a couple of months old, not sleeping through the night, and was nursing.  I’m not sure how even managed to form coherent sentences by the end of my 5 hour interview process! (Maybe I didn’t, and that would explain why I didn’t get the offer!)  I struggled with seemingly constant rejection, I lost confidence in my abilities, I couldn’t tell if I was making good decisions anymore. But throughout that whole process I was steadfast in my decision to stick with my chosen profession of student affairs.  It ended up paying off – after 3 years of (almost) non-stop searching, I was hired at Pacific University and have been here for almost 8 years. I have conquered my self-doubt, gained new skills, and I learn more every day about how to serve students to the best of my ability.

So, why do I share this story? In some ways it might be selfish – demons live in the dark, right? If I hide my struggles, that means I have something to be ashamed of.  At the time, I was ashamed; every rejection was another tally mark in the failure column.  But in hindsight, I can use it as a measure of my progress – both personally and professionally.  I also share the story to hopefully save some others from equating a challenging job search process with personal failure. Yes, we all need to accept personal responsibility – are we following every job lead, using our networks, can we improve our resumes, are we preparing enough for interviews, etc., but there is no magic formula for guaranteed success in a job search. Many times, it’s who you know or being in the right place at the right time. So my hope is that if someone is reading this and currently going through any type of struggle, job-related or not, I hope she can realize that things can be much clearer on the other side and if she is open to learning through struggle, there are definitely lessons there.

If I can offer a couple of pieces of advice to women who can relate to my story, they would be this:

  1. Find your confidence. This can be pretty easy when we’re feeling good, when life is going our way. But what about those other times? What about when life seems to keep throwing you curve balls and each one is a swing and a miss?  This is when you might need to borrow confidence from others – to find those who believe in you even when you’re having a hard time believing in yourself. Go to them; ask for a pep talk; feed off of their confidence in you until you find your footing again.
  2. Share your story; the good, the bad, and the ugly. We are social creatures and enjoy learning from each other. We want to celebrate during good times and support each other during hard times. Talk to your friends about your challenges and successes.  You could end up creating a new collaborative project, you could learn something new about a colleague, you could discover a new interest or skill, or you could impact another person who can relate to your story and learn something from it.

BIO

Melodye MacAlpine is Director of Graduate & Professional Student Services at Pacific University. She has worked in higher education for over 10 years in areas such as student activities, leadership development, academic coaching, and first year experience.  Melodye is originally from the Buffalo/Niagara Falls area of New York State and has been living in Oregon since 2003.  She  and her husband, Chip, love living in the Pacific Northwest and are happy to be raising their two beautiful daughters here – Abigail and Paige.

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