NASPA Member Spotlight: Sara Boatman

Tune in each month as we feather individual and institutional members. Our members will share their experiences in the field, and their personal and professional accomplishments. Is there a NASPA school or individual member who you think deserves some time in the spotlight? Email us at membership@naspa.org!

We’re back after a brief hiatus and ready to start 2018 off with our first membership spotlight this year!  This month’s spotlight is Emeritus Affiliate, Dr. Sara BoatmanSara Boatman, Ph.D. is Professor Emerita of Communication and retired Vice President for Student Life and Campus Community at Nebraska Wesleyan University. She taught for 50 years and served in administrative positions for 34 years. She served as NASPA’s Small College Coordinator and was named a Pillar of the Profession. She consulted, published and presented extensively on communication, student affairs and leadership. She and her late husband, Tom Boatman, have recently published Successful Supervision: Essays from Experienced Supervisors, available at Amazon and Barnes & Noble.com.

Read on and learn more about her continued work within higher education and student affairs, her perspective on how the university has changed and grown in opportunities, and her unlikely convertion to student affairs!


Tell us more about yourself! What brought you to the Cornhusker State and how did you get started in your career in student affairs?

I’m a native Nebraskan and have lived in Lincoln since I graduated from college. I wanted to be a teacher from the time I was five. After several years of full-time teaching I took a program advisor position which I thought I would keep until a teaching position became available. After about two weeks I realized that I had a teaching position—it just wasn’t in a classroom! From that point on I was a student affairs convert, always framing my work from a teaching perspective.

How has your experience in student affairs, academia, as well as a writer contributed to your personal growth in the profession? 

I have been professionally blessed to have been able to combine student affairs work and classroom teaching throughout my career. I have been a student affairs administrator for 30 years and a full-time teacher for 12 years. I also always taught at least one class every year that I worked in student affairs. I know that my teaching experience helped me be a better student affairs professional because it caused me to more clearly understand students’ academic lives and how they are influenced by life beyond the classroom. Also, my student affairs work helped me become a better teacher because it highlighted in complex ways students and their needs. I also believe that my work as a writer and presenter helped me to be more reflective and to learn so many things that were useful in my career. I am an inveterate learner, and these experiences were all great gifts for my professional development

You’ve retired – why are you still actively involved in professional associations? 

My work was so much of who I was for over 40 years and I never want to completely lose touch with it.

Having worked on the academic and administrative side must have been exciting. What are some challenges that have shaped your professionally and or personally? 

I was challenged to make fairy significant cultural shifts as I moved between student affairs and academics—there is a difference! I was comfortable in both worlds, which was a gift.

What traits do you need to be successful in this field?

As student affairs professionals, we need to be passionate about students—no matter where we find ourselves in the bureaucracy. We need to have a strong work ethic—student affairs is hard work! We need to have courage and patience, because our jobs require these qualities every day. We need to have confidence in who we are and what we do. We need to have optimism and never forget that we are shaping the future through our students.

Why were you so good at your job? 

Not everyone thought I was so good at my job!  Honest self-assessment and humility are important characteristics for any professional, and of course good professionals learn from their mistakes through the reflective process and commitment to change. I believe any success I had was because I have talent for hiring great staff. We always had wonderful teams because we all believed passionately in what we were doing and my staff always used their skills in magnificent ways. I—as they—worked very hard and always deeply loved the work we were doing.

The student affairs profession is constantly changing. What are some key issues in our profession that you saw evolve for the better? What still needs to change? 

We have embraced leadership development both for students and for staff. Our work in this area has resulted in thousands of engaged, civil, transformative agents of social change. We have learned about, embraced and championed diversity and have helped our campuses become more inclusive and our students become better equipped to demand equality for those on our campuses and in our communities.

While we have identified the alarming increase in our students’ mental health issues and have expanded services to them, there is more work to do here. Also, we have continued to address issues of safety in new ways, attempting to harness our frustration at how we can make our communities places where all feel secure. We must continue with energy and vigor in this area. Finally, as students change and as higher education models change, so must the work of student affairs. Flexibility, creativity and courage are paramount.

How do you see yourself continuing to be an engaged member of the student affairs community?

I have many former staff and students scattered throughout the country. It is such fun to hear from them and to talk shop about their challenges and triumphs. Through them, I can have a sense of vicarious involvement in student affairs.

Tell us about your book

My late husband, Tom Boatman, was a bank executive, and between the two of us we had more than 70 years of supervisory experience. We wrote Successful Supervision as a series of essays offering practical suggestions and hands-on advice especially for beginning supervisors and those supervising beginning supervisors.

Fill in the blank: "Oh, here comes Sara. She's a real ___________."  She’s a real optimist. I take lots of grief at always looking on the bright side. However, this is the way I’m wired. I recently read The Book of Joy which describes a week of dialogue between his holiness, the Dalai Lama,  and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. I shook my head in agreement through every page, and I recommend it highly. We have a choice: we can look at the world positively or look at it negatively. I happen to believe that positive is better.

How has the university changed for the better in terms of serving students and engaging them outside of their academic requirements?

We have linked more closely with the university’s academic programs. Institutional emphasis on enrollment management has facilitated this connection. We are seeing more organizational structures that connect academic and student affairs, and while we may mourn the passing of stand-alone student affairs units, fiscal realities are powerful, and if student affairs professionals are skilled and creative these connections can work. As student engagement assumes strength on our campuses, there are rich opportunities for student affairs to contribute. 

What has been one of the most memorable or rewarding moments of your career in student affairs?

When I became Vice President at Nebraska Wesleyan the campus had lost its residential focus. Very few students lived on campus, and there was a general lack of energy and connection to the institution beyond students’ academic programs. I worked with a talented Associate Vice President and so many other colleagues to lead campus-wide processes involving students, faculty, staff and our Board to reinvent our residential campus. We built new residential facilities, created all sorts of engaging academic and social spaces throughout the campus, developed many new programs, and devised policy including a three-year residency requirement. The result of these multi-year processes was a more vibrant campus with increased student engagement and satisfaction. I’ll always be proud of this experience.