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 Lisa Weston.
I have a rather healthy self-esteem. And although it needs stroking on occasion, it has been a steady partner as I try new things, share brash ideas, meet new people, and encounter the world. Words of affirmation from others has helped me confirm that the confidence my self-esteem provides seems appropriate.
When I first decided that a career in housing was my path, the students I worked with each day affirmed that the impact I was making on them was noteworthy. My self-esteem inflated a little more as I clearly had the wisdom needed to teach them how to grow and develop. Even when I would have a rough conduct meeting with a student who I was sure hated me, that student would return to my office weeks later and thank me for challenging them and allowing them a second chance to find their authentic self.
While not all students appreciated the guiding hand I so wisely provided them, I heard enough affirmation to keep my self-esteem at a healthy level. The student staff team who decorates your office with love notes about how you are the best boss ever or the homesick student who thanks you for helping them connect with new friends do a lot to affirm that you are making an impact.
My first few years as a hall director, I felt like I had so much to teach them. I tried to be their counselor, advisor, support, and personal in loco parentis. I knew I was important to many of the students I worked with.
As I have learned more about what I have to give to students, my perspective has changed. What can I say to a student whose father just died? How do I counsel a student who does not have a safe home to return to when the semester is over? What can I do to help a student see that they may have a substance abuse problem and need to seek help? Although there are things to say and ways to support a student in any situation, perhaps all my wisdom does have a limitation. Dare I believe that I’m just not that important?
When I moved into a mid-level role during the past year, my own importance and self-esteem took a hit. I knew it was coming. I tried to prepare. The students who kept my self-esteem high with their praise and thanks were no longer in my office every day. I was no longer on the front lines making a difference in the lives of students. I look for ways to interact with students and embrace any opportunity I have to connect with them. But I am no longer the support or counselor for them that I used to naturally be. This is okay. Because I really am not that important. I do not need their affirmation to know I am making a difference.
We are doing some of our best work when students do not even know we exist. That does not mean we are irrelevant or do not play a crucial role in their experience. It does mean that the work I do does not need to be affirmed by love notes from students.
I have spent close to 40 hours in the last two weeks working on various forms of communication to students about our room sign up process for next year. My time pales in comparison to those who actually worked with the software to set it up and get it ready. Most students will never think about who created this beautiful color coded flow chart that makes their decision making easier or the person who anticipated the questions they might have and put them into a frequently asked questions website or the person who created an easy-to-follow guide for this stressful and complicated process.
Even if they do, I will not know.
What I will know is that there will be fewer frustrated students walking through our office doors. The process will go more smoothly than years past. We will have less students in tears because they did not get their first choice. But none of them are going to thank me. Not one student is going to say, “You made a big impact on my experience.” And I am okay with that.
My work now is not full of student interactions. My work now is full of projects and initiatives that help make the student experience better. They will never know how hard I work to make a difference in their college experience. After all, my work is about them and not about me. I am not that important. My self-esteem will get used to it.
Lisa Weston is a student services coordinator in the Office of Residence Life at the University of Wisconsin – La Crosse. Having a sarcastic and playful nature has helped her find the humor in our work during her nine years of housing experience. She enjoys asking big questions and creative problem solving.