Few people will dispute that college student housing administration requires a varied skill set and demands that the professional juggle multiple tasks. However, most people would also agree that the majority of duties are usually confined to the area of housing administration, offering very little time to venture outside specified duties of the position.
The same cannot be said for student housing officers at community colleges, where student housing remains a relatively new addition to student affairs and student life. Many responsibilities may be similar, but given the smaller-sized operation, the frequency in which the chief housing officer (CHO) is expected to exercise the duties becomes less. The chief housing officer at a community college is expected to provide leadership for the unit, but will also be involved in many day-to-day activities typically associated with the roles of hall director, residence life professional, and coordinator for leadership development.
The chief housing officer is also expected to move beyond student housing, sometimes venturing into other areas of college administration, as well as making a greater contribution to the academic focus of the institution, typically teaching one or two courses in a particular field/s of expertise.
Why the interest in student housing at community colleges?
Student housing at community colleges remains a recent development, and even today, many institutions have stayed away from this area of student development typically reserved for universities and other four-year institutions. Whether it is additional cost to the student, the institution concern for student judicial issues, or an institutional desire to distance itself from this facet of student life, building student residences and creating a student residential community for two or perhaps three years continues to be a discussion on many community college campuses.
Some two-year institutions have ventured into the housing field, either by themselves or in collaboration with a private partner. New residences are emerging at many community colleges and officials are exploring the possibility and potential of residence-style communities on campus. Depending on the college’s extension into their county or beyond, residences are being constructed to provide accommodations for students involved in various programs. A related issue is the desire of many community colleges to provide a more diverse college experience for its students and therefore, residences offer opportunities to globalize the campus by attracting more international students involved in language programs or desiring a different college experience.
At Cochise College, student residences and the residential experience have been part of the institutional fabric since the College opened its doors in 1964. Built primarily to house athletes from various teams as well as specialized programs such as Aviation and Aviation Technology, residences are also, given its proximity to the border, attracting students from Mexico involved in English as a Second Language, as well as students from other countries looking to study in the United States for a brief period.
From specialist to generalist
As the student housing and residential education profession evolved, more specialization emerged, along with greater preparation for various positions within the ranks of the housing field. Facilities specialists, budget administrators, residence life staff, technical/data administrators, and chief housing officers have all seen positions expand as the profession has grown out of the shadows of student services and academic support roles at most colleges and universities to take a more prominent and valued place as part of the institutional mission.
However, the size of most residence operations at community colleges makes the likelihood of a chief housing officer occupying a specific role on a campus seem remote. Most housing officers are expected to take on other duties, of an academic or administrative nature, to complete their portfolio. Most housing officers at community colleges relish such expanded duties as they can involve themselves in other facets of college life. The increased visibility has added benefits to the student housing officer and the operation in general, as other faculty and staff on campus becomes exposed to student housing and the breadth of its educational influence.
For example, at Cochise College, the Director of Housing and Student Life is responsible for all aspects of student housing on campus, family housing, as well as summer guest accommodations. In addition, the Director oversees the student union building as well as being advisor to student government. The swimming pool and the gym/weight room areas also become the responsibility of the Director during the summer months when fewer students are on campus as well as a reduced number of staff on 12-month contracts.
Other duties as assigned
One area providing opportunities for growth among housing professionals at community colleges is classroom instruction. Depending on specific areas of expertise, housing officials will often be invited to teach a course or two and take on a visible, academic role at the institution. Students are able to see the housing professional away for his/her administrative and judicial roles commonly associated with student housing and into a more pedagogical focus. Housing staff also gain a greater appreciation for student issues and a more academic milieu can be developed in residence to support students’ efforts in the classroom.
At Cochise College, the Director of Housing and Student Life has been involved in classroom instruction since arriving on campus. Initially invited to teach College Personal Development courses as a mid-semester “fill-in”, the Director continued by teaching courses in Management, and has now developed and taught courses in Leadership Education. Courses are open to any student occupying or interested in a leadership role on campus and are required for Student Government Association officers and Resident Assistants. A Student Programming Activities course has also been developed recently and made available to student leaders to assist in making the student organization experience more productive and positive.
Director in the classroom
The opportunity to interact with students in a classroom setting can be a very positive aspect of the community college experience for a housing professional. To assist students in achieving academic goals and reaching career objectives is one of the fundamental responsibilities as educators at any postsecondary institution. Class preparations, assignments, corrections, grades, etc. put housing professionals in touch with the fundamental purpose of a college education.
Having housing professionals as instructors allows for certain sensitivities to student issues not known to most instructors. For example, if a student is going through a personal crisis, the housing professional/instructor may be acutely aware and prepared to make allowances, so the student can deal with the personal problem without adversely affecting grades or course outcomes. Equally important is class attendance and the reasons, legitimate or otherwise, a student may not be attending class on a regular basis. Factors within the residential environment may be influencing student success in the classroom and the housing professional/instructor may be positioned to address such issues.
The housing professional/instructor may also provide some familiarity as the person has been in contact with students, was present during move in and orientation periods, and is more recognizable for students among faces who are far less known.
Support staff in residence
One area often minimized regarding community colleges and the residential experience is the support staff available to the chief housing officer. At most larger operations, the housing professional would normally be surrounded by other qualified individuals with a myriad of complementary experiences in student housing, residence life, and student affairs. Whether housing administration, budget management, residence education, or student judicial affairs, a housing operation is provided human resources that will ensure a smooth operation and contribute to a beneficial residential experience for students.
Unfortunately, within community college housing operations, with the degree of specialization of most housing professionals, is the issue of full time versus part time status. Many housing support staff at community colleges, as with the chief housing officer, is shared among various areas of college life. The most popular “second profession” appears to be athletics, but some housing professional support staff may also be involved as instructors, student government advisors, or other areas of student services. Added visibility has its benefits for the unit, but not having full time, dedicated staff means projects do not get initiated or completed in a timely fashion, are not completed as thoroughly given the scope of professional experience of the staff member, or may be outsourced because of the level of expertise of the personnel.
The advantages/benefits of a lack of specialization within the housing staff at a community college can be viewed from many perspectives and may provide an aspiring or even established professional with opportunities not available in an environment where everyone has well-defined job descriptions and little deviation from assigned responsibilities.
For a new housing professional, the generalist role may open possibilities not available in a larger operation. The housing officer can involve him/herself in various administrative aspects of the operation including distributing and receiving residence applications, doing room assignments, becoming involved in the check-in and check-out processes, and understanding the administrative ebbs and flows of a student housing administrative year. Even though the operation may be smaller and the volume of administrative duties not as great, the housing professional becomes exposed to all administrative facets, learns to appreciate the challenges of each area as well as looks for ways to improve. S/he can also dedicate time to residential programming, either indirectly through advising of the resident assistants, or directly, through supervision of the RA’s. The housing professional can also become closely involved in budget administration, and even though the dollars may not be as great, the areas of expenditure may be just as diverse and complex. Marketing and external relations are other areas that require attention and, regardless of the involvement in the other areas, communication also becomes an important facet of the work.
For a seasoned housing professional, taking on varied duties typically found in community college student housing may reinvigorate a career and call attention to skills forgotten or used too infrequently. The more general duties allow the housing professional an opportunity to leave an imprint on an entire operation. The seasoned housing professional can literally make a difference, and in some areas, a significant change, in various facets of the housing operation and revive interest in areas of housing administration or residential education that have stayed dormant for many years. Getting reacquainted with all areas of student housing can be a real stimulus to a career and can keep professionals’ on-going interest in the field.
Given the size of the residential environment, the impact on the lives of students can be even greater, as any change, small or large, can sway a small residence community positively more so than a larger setting. Changes brought about will be felt more readily and the authority of the housing professional can be more direct and profound than in bigger operations. As well, fewer layers of administrators are apt to dilute the decisions of the chief housing officer. Therefore, rather than lose influence, a housing professional at a community college may actually have even greater sway.
The one area common to both new and seasoned professionals that is available at a community college is the opportunity to get into or return to the classroom. For housing professionals drawn to teaching, the community college setting provides ample opportunities to rekindle interests in academia and classroom pedagogy. Housing professionals can focus on a specialized or general field of study and help students on their journey to learning. Housing professionals can get involved in course preparations, be reintroduced to various methods of classroom instruction, bring forward innovative approaches to classroom assessment, and help shape the learning environment for students. The experience can be very rewarding and a real complement to the day to day activities of a housing officer.
Being given opportunities to demonstrate strengths in areas beyond housing can do much for one’s professional aspirations, whether one chooses to remain in housing and residence life, student affairs, or beyond the administrative areas commonly associated with student housing. For a housing professional in a community college operation, to delve into all facets of residence management can do much for career development. Experiences not available in larger operations can be gained and skills that could become extremely useful in the future can be developed. Coincidently, any housing professional looking to “spread” themselves in other areas of student affairs can gain opportunities in a community college environment, with such experiences becoming beneficial at the present institution if opportunities for advancement are presented in the future or in another college setting.
Finally, such visibility, influence, and work at a community college will not go unnoticed by an immediate supervisor and, just as importantly, by the senior administration of the college. Unlike large institutions where individual efforts hardly garner attention by anyone other than colleagues and perhaps an immediate supervisor, the “stars” and “rising stars” of an community college organization are given multiple opportunities “to shine” and, provided the individual has the necessary academic credentials and desire to influence institutional direction, opportunities abound for senior administrative positions at community colleges.
Having a diverse portfolio across the campus does have drawbacks. Clearly the focus of one’s time and energy cannot be dedicated to a specific area, and therefore, housing professionals are often challenged to be as effective as possible. Housing officers find themselves repeatedly frustrated because a project cannot always be brought to satisfactory completion because of divided interests across the housing department or the campus.
Some housing officials fear the role of CHO and the influence on campus may be diminished when spread across many constituencies. The concern stems from a lack of visible results, because of divided time across several areas, and the inability to influence that a housing professional might have in a larger operation. The concern may be one of personality as much as position and any housing director at a community college, regardless of the breadth of his/her portfolio, can have significant control on the lives of students living in their residential community.
Many housing officers perceive the diversified portfolio of student housing at community colleges to offer little opportunity for career advancement. Housing officers see the only clear path to opening doors in the profession is through experiences in larger and larger housing operations available only at four-year institutions.
Finally, some housing professionals are genuinely concerned by the classroom environment and fear teaching on a regular basis. Course preparations, assignments, grading, etc., while these tasks may hold some appeal, can become daunting responsibilities that intimidate and cause many housing personnel to shy away from the small college environment. Skills gained and the confidence that comes from years working in student residential settings do not always transfer easily to the classroom, and many housing professionals prefer the “comforts” of a particular area/s of expertise rather than venturing into the unknowns of the classroom.
How to thrive in such an environment
Attitude and approach will go a long way in helping individuals thrive in the community college student residential setting. A job description will set the parameters of the position, but doing beyond the core duties and responsibilities will get an individual noticed in the community college environment. While colleagues and others in the profession may advocate setting limitations professionally to keep the proper balance of personal life and career, to thrive in the community college setting requires moving beyond professional boundaries so one gets noticed and recognized. If a supervisor is looking for someone to work on a special project requested by a vice president of the institution, getting involved in the initiative may be most beneficial, so experiences can be gained and information gathered that might become useful in the future. Beyond simply “scoring points” with a boss or a vice president, the project may provide much learning and be a useful resume builder and career enhancer for future opportunities at the institution or beyond.
Although mentioned previously, the opportunity to move into the classroom on a regular basis can also benefit a career, particular if opportunities become available beyond student services. A broad skill/experience set, in all facets of the college student life, can only benefit in the future. Gaining an appreciation for the faculty perspective will give credibility in this important component of college life. Faculty members appreciate other college officials with experience in the classroom and an understanding of the challenges faced by the instructional side of the community college organization. Faculty members will be more patient with colleagues ascending to more senior administrative positions within the college. Plus, through committee work and department meetings, a kinship will be developed with fellow instructors as well as a broadened professional network beyond student housing. Such outreach can become fairly useful in the short term and into the future. Seeking out faculty members for assistance in classroom endeavors can also be viewed positively. Most instructors are glad to assist and much respect can be gained if help is sought. Again, once moved into the academic arena, volunteering for various instructional committees, within an individual department or beyond, will be viewed positively by academic colleagues, plus will help to learn more about the inner workings of academia at a community college and the effective functioning of the instructional “machine”.
Any housing professional will see multiple opportunities to get involved beyond the basic parameters of the job description, and many “eyes” will be watching to determine whether the housing officer chooses to expand his/her horizons, learn more about the college, and become an asset to the institution rather than just another employee. Such potential opportunities can help the housing professional gain valuable experiences and open doors that would normally not be available at larger institutions.
Many housing professionals see the larger operations of universities and other four-year institutions as the only pathway to a successful career in the field. Working in larger and larger housing operations with greater and greater responsibilities is seen by many professionals as the only “sure fire” way to advance in the profession. Smaller housing operations, at four or two year institutions, are not seen as providing the requisite experiences to assist an aspiring housing professional in gaining the necessary experiences required for career advancement.
As more and more two-year institutions move to student housing as a way of reducing the strain on larger colleges and universities, but just as importantly, as an opportunity to provide a comparable college experience to students unable to afford four-year schools, more professional openings will be created for housing officials to immerse themselves in two-year operations and gain experiences not before available.
Housing administration, residence life, budget administration, other areas of student affairs, or other facets of college life are available to housing professionals prepared to embrace the possibilities of the community college setting and gain valuable experiences, both within and beyond housing, and build a resume with duties and responsibilities that are rarely afforded to a housing officer at a four-year institution. In addition, teaching opportunities abound at the community college level and the housing professional who enjoys the classroom and its sense of professional fulfillment, can see their thirst quenched with meaningful pedagogical experiences with students.
The community college setting is not the “dead end” perceived by many housing professionals who might not even be considering the smaller housing operations as legitimate avenues for professional development. However, some adjustments are expected, as are changes in attitudes. No longer is “silo thinking” acceptable at a community college, as a very cooperative working relationship is expected among housing professionals, other units within student affairs, as well as other administrative areas of the college. A cooperative working relationship aimed at helping students succeed permeates the work done by everyone at the community college and the housing staff is expected to provide assistance in student development and not worry about protecting “turf” or self interests. In the community college environment, the focus in clearly on the student and support should be provided to maneuver through the initial stage of a student’s academic journey.
If a housing professional is looking to make an impact on a residence operation, to “leave a mark” within any of several facets of college student housing, then the community college housing operation should be examined carefully as a legitimate avenue to achieve this professional goal. If a housing officer is interested in seeing how the student residential experience can be a positive complement to an array of student services within a community college setting, then the community college can be the suitable professional environment. If the housing officer hopes to gain experiences beyond student housing and still play a significant role in student development, then the community college setting can be the proper learning environment for achieving such a career goal. If the housing professional is interested in exploring other facets of institutional administration as a way of creating career advancement possibilities, then the community college setting can provide such opportunities. Finally, if a housing professional has always longed to reenter the classroom and influence student development through strong instructional practices, then the community college can be the proper career path.
The community college residential environment remains a relatively new phenomenon in college housing. While few housing professionals have yet to venture into this new arena for fear of doing damage professionally to careers, multiple opportunities are available to housing officers wishing to expand the skill set, both within housing and beyond, and develop a range of experiences that can serve well, whether housing officers remain in the profession, move to other areas of student affairs, or tackle the responsibilities of more senior administrative positions. A positive attitude, openness to professional possibilities, and a genuine interest in influencing both the living and learning environments for students will be assets that will serve any housing professional well as they live their dreams at the community college.
Submitted by Michel Ouellette, Director of Housing and Student Life, Cochise College