We all make decisions in the course of a career where we like to work, usually after we gain some experiences. One of the attractions of higher education to me as a young professional was the mobility of being able to live and work in different areas of the country. I even looked at Australia.
Another attraction was the size of institutions you could work at. I have my favorite region of the United States and I also have my favorite size of college/university. That size is a student enrollment of 10,000 or less. Looking back at my own education if I could do it over again I would have picked a university of 10,000 or under to attend.
I think there is something personal about a school where you can take a teacher more than once. There is something about recognizing people, even if you don’t know their names. And there is something about working in one of these settings too.
Working at a smaller institution of higher education means a greater opportunity for a diversity of roles. My experience at larger schools, 20,000 or larger, has been more of a structured environment. These institutions have to be more formally organized as a result of their size. A village runs in a different manner than a metropolis.
The chance to meet, to collaborate and create is greater, in my opinion, at a smaller school. You have a chance to be involved in a wider range of activities and functions. You also have a greater opportunity to meet people from the administration. At my first job out of college I was able to play basketball at noon with the president of Alfred State. I don’t think that would have happened at Penn State.
I really appreciated having the chance to see the president outside of his role at the college, especially as a young professional. His personal values came through on and off the court. It was an informal interaction I got to be privy to. It happened with other faculty and staff at other small institutions too.
Serving on committees, being involved in activities where other opportunities to interact and learn can take place is a great advantage. Working with a director of student activities for homecoming taught me about the school and large events. Working with campus police for escort services made me more aware of campus safety concerns. Academic endeavors in the residence halls gave the opportunity with faculty. The counseling center seemed to have a better relationship with residence life at the smaller schools I have been at. We collaborated on residents longer.
The majority of large institutions are in large towns or cities. Smaller schools are often in smaller communities, which give you additional experiences that wouldn’t exist at a large institution. Being involved in a community teaches you lessons outside your immediate job experience.
Private vs. Public
Unless you are going to work for Harvard, Yale, BYU, Notre Dame or Baylor private universities/colleges tend to be small to medium size institutions. There is quite a difference between state institutions and private ones. I firmly believe the customer service is better at the private schools. It has to be. They are asking for people to spend a considerable amount of money to attend over state universities. This kind of customer service is an important lesson to learn. Private schools also know their market. They have to. The do not have the luxury of having the state bail them out. Their survival depends on their ability to understand their role and compete in the market place.
I have had the opportunity to work at several private schools and the experience has helped me see things in a different light than just student development administration. I would have learned a similar lesson in the state systems but I think the private sector accelerated the learning. Along with customer service I learned a better understanding of what it means to be an auxiliary service. We have a job obligation to make money for our institution. While it is not student development, it is a function of a self-supporting department.
At a private school the emphasis on this happening is much greater. You have to make money to survive (and the staff has to make money to keep their jobs). You have to make money to renovate, and I would say that private schools are much more aware of the conditions of their halls than state schools. You have to make money to build. And finally you have to make money to program. The more money you make by running an efficient housing system the more money you have for staff training, educational and social programs.
I attended a program entitled “Why are We Hiring Counselors to be Our Future Administrators?” at an AIMHO conference. First, I have a counseling degree so I see a value in it. I also think as you move up the residence life and housing command chain you become more of an administrator that deals with the financial side of the house. The program made sense to me since I was an assistant director at the time and was starting to deal and be responsible for budgets.
I started taking business classes to get a better hold of the concepts. I probably would not have been exposed to that kind of money management at a large school for a number of years later. I also think I could have been overwhelmed at a large school because of the added complexity of a larger system. At a smaller, private school they seemed more manageable. Most people that stay in the field aspire to become head of a department; a department head has to have an understanding of how to manage a budget.
It is all About the Students
When I was in college for the second time (after dropping out) I still didn’t know what I wanted to do. I became a resident assistant and found out a lot about myself that first year. It was enlightening to find out what I thought my standards were and then have to apply them. With some changes I thought I did a pretty good job and my supervisors at least thought I was passable. I really liked the field so I decided to go for the Master’s and commit to the profession. I liked being part of a team and I liked trying to lead a team effectively as a hall director.
I went up the normal chain of command from hall director to area coordinator to assistant director. Before becoming a director of housing and residence life I had made up my mind I liked smaller schools. One of the reasons was I liked the interaction with students. As I got older that interaction isn’t on the same level as I was younger or as easy but a smaller institution still allows me to have greater interaction with students.
A number of people I have respected and worked with seem to have the same attitude. Students keep you young. There is certain energy around college age students and a real positive outlook. I feel I have more chances to interact with students AND get to know them. I am terrible about remembering names but I can usually remember someone is having a challenge with an English class, or someone is playing for the intramural championship, or someone just broke-up and I can ask them how things are going. We all like to know someone remembers what we shared with them.
I like still having an opportunity to go bowling with the hall directors and resident assistants. There might even be a friendly bet on who is going to win, “Old and Bad” or “Young and Confident”. It gives me a chance to ask them how was training, or what we need to cover better in training. How they think we are doing supporting them. If students are positive, resident assistants are the batteries. They have the power and energy to change a culture if taught how to use their leadership skills. It would be much harder for me to have that connection at a larger institution.
I am also involved first hand in discipline and I really believe that can be the greatest impact in learning we have in residence life. Hearing residents tell me what they feel is fair and just. How their situation was handled. What they think should be an appropriate sanction helps me learn. Every once in a while I actually can make a difference if I listen, think and process what is an appropriate avenue to pursue. I don’t think the director of housing and residence life at a 30,000 enrollment university gets that “direct” chance very often.
I don’t know if I have the talent to run a housing and residence life department at a large school. It definitely takes a certain organization thought process. You have to be politically correct more often than I aspire to; I am not boasting about that it is just a fact. You have to be in a lot more meetings, which the majority I don’t enjoy. Having the personal contact of a small school fits my lifestyle and me. When you are in a good organization and you contribute something it feels positive. I like knowing that I am part of a team that I know the other players’ names and they know mine. I liked playing basketball with the president and having the opportunity to get to know him when I was a hall director.
Submitted by Bill Currier, Tarleton State University