“What do you want to be when you grow up?” Teachers, parents, and relatives ask this question of us through our early lives. It is a well-intentioned question to instill goals, develop a long-term vision or maybe just to get a chuckle out of our cuteness. How many of us answered proudly and confidently, “I want to be a Director of Residence Life and Housing.”? Unless our parents were actually a director, probably none of us.
Most of us had an epiphany sometime during college and caught the housing bug. Epiphany probably is too glowing a term. More than likely it was the “what the heck am I going to do after college” panic. A frantic phone call in February of your senior year to the person who saw something in you to hire you as an RA. The fateful feedback of, “you’ve been a great RA…you seem to enjoy it and are committed to it…ever heard of Student Affairs?” (Thank you Bill McCartney.)
Now its eight years later. A year of grad school pouring over student development theory. A Master’s thesis that gets pulled out once in a while and reviewed with satisfaction. Seven years of living in the halls as a Resident Director at three different institutions of varying sizes and philosophies, and relatives still not understanding what it is you do for a living. All the while saying, “Someday, when I’m the Director…..”
Then it happens. You end up in a position where you are the sole full time professional on the residence life side of the house at your institution. Seems like it might be a pretty good thing! A good thing with unforeseen challenges.
Most of those challenges are removed by good organizational skills, streamlining processes and hiring competent graduate and undergraduate staff.
However, the three biggest challenges faced by those of us with a small department are the politics, not becoming stagnant and the lack of a peer group. I am by no means an expert on any of the above, but I can share how I’ve come to make it a rewarding experience.
Every organization has politics that you have to wade through. Its an ugly word and concept but also reality. Common sense often prevails in trying to figure the best approach. Choose your battles wisely and pick ones that you have a decent chance of winning. Some policies and procedures are so ingrained that unless the entire upper administration and board of trustees were to suddenly change, there is just no changing it. Back up your arguments using as much hard data as you can come up with (the EBI/ACUHO-I Benchmarking project has been invaluable in this regard). Put the data in language they understand and use their own arguments and justifications as your ally by countering them point by point. Also, have your compromise plan in mind. Strive for the whole package but understand you probably won’t get that. You need to find the win-win scenario and be satisfied with the outcome.
One of the drawbacks to not having a large professional staff to interact with is that your ideas could get stale pretty quickly. Just because it has always worked in one particular way does not mean that it is the only way. Without that professional banter, it gets difficult to be creative. This is where the web has become invaluable. There are a number of listservs specifically for housing professionals as well as broader ones encompassing all of student affairs.
The lack of a peer group I think is a universal concern for anyone who is at the director level. As a RD there were always other RDs who were going through the same things. It was easy to vent because they understood. As the only director of residence life at an institution the peer group is different. You find people who you trust that you can be open with, but unless they have a background in residence life it is hard for them to understand.
This is where ACUHO-I and the regional organizations are a godsend. Every year at the annual conferences I get reenergized and validated that what I went through in the past year was not that unusual. At those meetings is where the network begins and where you find that peer group who you can call or email at any time to reclaim your sanity. The administrative structure at the other colleges might be really different than yours, but the frustrations and successes are shared. I can honestly say that without NEACUHO and ACUHO-I (and MACUHO prior to coming to NY), I would have left this career path a long time ago. Finding those professional connections that then turn into personal friendships is the biggest safety net you can provide yourself.
So, whether you are a new Director, a seasoned Director, or someone who is on the path to get there, it is a wonderful journey. Take each day as a gift and remember the good stuff. We can all remember the names of the challenging students, but it is the ones who stay out of trouble who we need to think of. The “good” students are the reason we try so hard to put someone on the right track even when they fight you the whole way, and for most of us, the reason why we stay with it.
Just as in those early years when dreaming of being a director helped to see past the bizarre decisions made by someone in the upper tier, there is a new way of getting through the day. “Someday, when I’m the Dean of Students…….”
Submitted by Gary Bice, Jr., Director of Residence Life, Mount Saint Mary College (NY)