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  • Writer's pictureDJ Hardwick

Navigating Professionalism

As I venture deeper into my experience in higher education and student affairs administration, I find myself continuously reflecting on the concept of professionalism. My reflections are profoundly influenced by my prior involvement with the Future Business Leaders of America (FBLA) organization. Through FBLA, I frequently found myself in meetings with government officials, business leaders, and elected representatives—individuals deeply entrenched in systems with rigid professionalism standards. These standards, often rooted in ideals of white supremacy and exclusion, presented a narrow view of what it means to be "professional." The years spent navigating these strict norms have ingrained in me a sense of professionalism that, upon reflection, I recognize as both unrealistic and problematic, revealing standards that are not only hard to escape but also inherently flawed.


Personal Definition vs. Profession's Definition

Personally, professionalism has always been synonymous with a certain aesthetic and behavioral standard—suits, polished shoes, and a formal way of communicating. This perspective, however, has been challenged as I learn more about equity and the profession of student affairs, where the emphasis often shifts towards inclusivity, accessibility, and the ability to foster an environment conducive to growth for all students. The profession advocates for a broader understanding of professionalism, one that values emotional intelligence, cultural competency, and the ability to engage authentically with students and colleagues.

This broader understanding both aligns with and deviates from my personal definition. While I appreciate the importance of presentation and communication, I recognize that these aspects can manifest in varied forms, not limited to the traditional norms I was accustomed to. The tension arises as I grapple with reconciling these differences, especially when realizing that the standards I was taught may inadvertently perpetuate exclusionary practices.


Subscribing to and Challenging Professionalism Standards

As an emerging professional, I am committed to adopting standards of professionalism that foster inclusivity and authenticity. This means valuing diversity in communication styles, attire, and professional conduct, recognizing that these variations contribute to a richer, more engaging learning environment. I am keen on challenging the norms that enforce a singular view of professionalism—those that implicitly favor heteronormative, cisgender, and Eurocentric standards.

My challenge to traditional notions of professionalism has been through advocacy for policy flexibility, recognizing and celebrating diverse cultural expressions, and promoting language that respects all gender identities. In practice, this has involved organizing workshops on being an LGBTQ+ student advocate, encouraging the inclusion of pronouns in email signatures and name tags, and supporting events that celebrate diversity as professionally acceptable.


Authenticity in Professional Spaces

Being authentic in my work environment has been a crucial goal of mine for years. Yet, authenticity can only thrive in spaces that actively dismantle the barriers erected by traditional professionalism standards. For me to encourage authenticity, the work environment must also embrace diversity in its truest form—acknowledging and valuing the unique backgrounds, experiences, and expressions of each individual.

Creating such an environment involves ongoing reflection, dialogue, and policy adjustments to ensure that all members can show up as their whole selves, without fear of retribution or marginalization. It means building a community where differences are not just tolerated but celebrated as essential components of a vibrant and effective student affairs practice.



As I continue to navigate the complexities of professionalism within student affairs, I am committed to engaging in conversations that challenge the status quo, advocating for practices that honor the diverse tapestry of student we serve. It's a journey of unlearning and relearning—a process that is both challenging and immensely rewarding. By fostering an environment of inclusivity, respect, and authenticity, I can not only redefine professionalism but also enrich the educational experience for all students.

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