When you become a Chief Housing Officer (“CHO”) for the first time, you discover that there is a lot you already know, and that there is still a lot to learn. I have been asked to share some reflections about what the first year as a CHO is like. I hope the following insights and suggestions are helpful to those aspiring to become a Director of Housing and Residence Life, or to those who have recently made this transition.
“What you know, you know.”
It is no accident that you are in a position to lead a complex organization like campus housing. You have spent years getting ready for this moment, whether by design or because you have been doing something you love to do. You have worked hard to understand how the different pieces all come together to promote a positive experience for student residents and the staff you work with. You have the basics down cold and have likely spent considerable time understanding the interdependent nature of the enterprise; how all parts of the department have to work together for your program to be successful. You have developed expertise in your principal focus area(s) and have a generalist’s knowledge “of all things housing.” Hopefully, you have also taken advantage of opportunities to be involved in regional and/or national and/or international professional organizations related to campus housing specifically, and to student affairs generally.
You have a solid foundation, with significant experience to call upon, and are ready for the next challenge!
“Oh my gosh!”
So now you are the CHO, ready to lead your program to great things. You are confident, and so are the people who hired you, that you will get the job done, and then some. You believe that everyone in your program (and hopefully all members of the campus community) want to accomplish the same things and that, together, you will be successful. This is going to be great! Then one day you realize that perhaps everything is not as perfect as you assumed it would be. You are confused because, after all, you are an enlightened Director, one who understands the mission and has articulated it clearly. You soon become familiar with the “Yeah But” Club. You know who I mean… the staff member(s) who, in response to what you believe is an inspired suggestion, responds unhesitatingly with “yeah, but…”. Your balloon is burst and you can be heard muttering to yourself or to no one in particular that you thought it would be different. You thought “they” would be better, and you start thinking that you would be better, too.
“Welcome to Pronoun Hell”
As you start to beat yourself up about why you can’t get others to “get it”, and begin wondering whether taking this job was a good move, you experience one of those “aha!” moments. You realize that the “they” you and your colleagues used to talk about is now… YOU! In a useless attempt at defiance, you become a card-carrying member of the Yeah But Club yourself… ‘yeah,’ you say to yourself, ‘ but that’s not fair!’ Maybe not, but what is fair? This realization helps you understand that it isn’t you that others are reacting to, but the role you are in. In this sense it’s not personal (even if it sometimes feels that way), it’s business. What a relief! You recall that you have been referred to in the third person before to little ill effect, so you should be able to handle it now, right? Ah, here’s the rub…
“It’s lonely at the top.”
The one thing that your experience didn’t prepare you for is what it will be like to be the leader of your program, the big kahuna, el primo, the big cheese, the great and powerful Oz! CHO’s keep that little surprise to themselves, holding to the notion that this bit of benign hazing is good for you. The new CHO quickly realizes that, unlike the world of Assistant and Associate Directors, there is no one to defer to. Gone are the days of “I’ll need to check with The Director and get back to you”. Similarly, you realize that there is no one you can talk to within the department. There is no peer group in the department any more that you can vent to or with. Your role turns this behavior into venting at, and that just won’t do. The option of seeking out sounding boards in other student affairs directors is tempting, but to whom can you turn? Unless they come from a housing background themselves, no one is going to understand the complexities of your operation as well as you, so the likelihood of meaningful help is remote. Besides, you want to make sure that no one thinks “the new kid can’t handle it”. Chances are you won’t be able to keep from blurting out a few things to your boss, but you force yourself to control the urge! The reality is, for better or worse, you will keep your own counsel more than ever before. In a sense of irony, you come to appreciate the times your own directors kept issues to themselves and didn’t worry you unnecessarily.
“You are not alone!”
Keeping everything to yourself is one option, but I don’t recommend it. In fact, I think it is the worst thing you can do. You are not the only person to become a new CHO. You are preceded by a group of extraordinarily talented and caring individuals who, like you, chose to assume a leadership role. I have never met one yet who isn’t willing to share some thoughts or wisdom gleaned from experience at the helm. Sometimes, one will suggest a solution to you that worked under similar circumstances. Others will lead you to your own solutions by asking thought provoking questions. They are a wonderful support group and they don’t mind sharing. If you don’t know other CHOs yet, meet some. Call some up on the phone, visit them on their own campuses, and build a network of colleagues in whatever professional associations you join. Better yet, be active in your organizations! Present programs at conferences and attend programs yourself. Make use of CHO roundtables, and breaks and dinners at conferences to seek out other CHOs and pick their brains a bit. Attend workshops for CHOs that are sponsored, for example, by ACUHO-I.
Accept the inevitable and know that the first year is the toughest. You will be stretched in ways you can predict, and in some ways you can’t. Trust your instincts and believe in yourself. Don’t be afraid to seek advice. And remember, others want you to be successful, too!
Submitted by Eddie Hull, Dean of Residence Life and Executive Director of Housing, Duke University