The Women in Housing series is a month-long project featuring the voices, stories, and experiences of women who currently or formerly work in housing and residence life. Today's post was written by Hollie Chessman.
“Congratulations! You are the new graduate assistant for Terrace Hall!”
Little did I know how much those words would change the course of my life and career. I moved into my 1950s building in the summer of 1999 where I met the hall director, Kenyon Bonner, and the staff of 10 resident advisors. My initiation into housing started. The first time I realized I was no longer in campus recreation was when I uttered the “d-word” at an RA training session. An audible gasp went up from the audience, and I was dumbfounded, “What?! What did I say?!” A few RAs turned in their seats to let me know, “A dorm is where you sleep. A residence hall is where you live.”
My adventure in housing had begun. There were awesome bonding late night conversations with RAs and residents and some unfortunate late night duty calls regarding intoxicated students. I loved my time in Terrace Hall. I learned a lot about myself while managing people, crisis response, and the joy that comes from getting to know your residents and RAs.
When job hunting season began it was natural that I looked in residence life. I applied to just about every school that had an opening on the east coast – and one university in New Orleans. Wouldn’t you know, I got the job in New Orleans as an area director?! It was an opportunity to run a 12 story freshman building with a staff of 22 resident advisors, two assistant resident directors, and 12 desk service coordinators.
I should have known I was a tad over my head when I walked back to my hall during area director training with some of the university police officers. We were making idle chit-chat, and I asked the question, “When is last call?” (At my old school the bars let out at 2:00 am, so I used to do extra rounds to keep an extra set of eyes in the hall). The officers stopped, looked at me, and laughed. They said, “Honey, this is New Orleans. There is no such thing as last call in New Orleans.”
And so there wasn’t and there never was.
That was just a small part of what I learned during my time as an area director. When I reflect back on that time, I should have listened to my inner voice much more frequently. I think as women, we do not want to always trust that voice inside ourselves, but mine was saying, “It’s time to go. Look for something else.” Frankly, after a year of handling mounds of student conduct, staffing issues, late night duty calls, malfunctioning elevators and fire alarms – I was burned out. I was tired.
However, I didn’t know what I would do next. It’s hard to leave free housing, a meal plan, and utilities. So I stayed. I silenced that inner voice and kept going for another two years.
Those two years came at a cost. I compromised my mental and emotional health by not listening to what my heart was telling me. I was not the best areadDirector I could be for my staff or residents. I was not only short-changing myself, but the students I had been excited to serve. My well-being was compromised.
I don’t think my story is unique. A few years later (after I left housing for awhile and going back as an associate director of residence life), I saw the same thing with my resident directors. I had a few heart to hearts with RDs who hit the limit. Their inner voices were telling them to find their passion, and housing no longer fit the bill. Luckily, I could draw upon my own experiences and talk about what was next. The free housing, meal plan, and utilities were not really free -- because it was coming at the cost of their well-being and at a cost to their students and co-workers.
My advice is to listen to your inner voice. It speaks to you for a reason. If it’s telling you that you love housing – stay in the field! Love the variety, the students, the energy! If it’s telling you that you’re only doing housing because Mom and Dad’s basement is a less appealing alternative – think about the costs associated with staying. Are they worth it? To you? Your colleagues? Your students?
Hollie Chessman is a 15 year student affairs veteran with 10 of those in housing and residence life. She recently completed her PhD with her research focused on student affairs professionals and their well-being. She is completing her post-doc at the American Council on Education, and will be job searching this spring. She will be listening to her inner voice.