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 Liz Steinborn-Gourley.
As a freshly-minted hall director, I was ready to tackle student conduct head-on. I had a brain full of student development theory and a determination to hear out the stories of each of my residents. I also had a burning desire to show my colleagues that I knew what I was doing.
I heard my first case involving alcohol and discovered that my student was going through a breakup. I assigned counseling for tools to cope with stress that didn’t involve alcohol and placed her on our first-offense warning status.
When I shared that with my colleagues, I was told to look at the ceiling where it said the word “gullible." They told me that obviously this student knew I was a sap and was going to let her go with few consequences so she must have made up the story. I needed to toughen up or I was never going to manage my residential community. Students were going to lie to get out of trouble; I should demand the truth and call them out.
I began to dread conduct with every fiber of my being. I hated talking with students about their behavior because I was told to focus solely on the infraction, and not on the student. When I was direct and abrupt, students shut down and glared at me through the hearing. My empathy was a liability but my tough façade was ferociously resisted.
After that first awful year, I set out to make a change. I researched conduct hearings, and reached out to my grad school colleagues about their conduct hearings. I was not in the role of gavel-banging judge. I was a student developer, a supporter, a resource. While I will inevitably meet with students who define truth differently than I, my commitment is to give them the space to tell it.
In my current role, I have a specific set of guidelines in place for adjudicating conduct. The policies are clear and well-defined. With that knowledge, I am able to be warm and supportive to the residents I meet. We speak about their infraction, only after I hear about how classes, their roommate relationships, and their extracurricular activities are going.
I recently met with a student who came in furious that he’d been documented. I reviewed the incident report and he scowled and protested the entire time. The cranky conduct officer in me wanted to snap back and demand he calm down (when does that work?!). Instead, I answered his questions calmly and gently asked him questions. Eventually, he revealed that his partner was away from school for medical reasons and he was worried about her. I put a hold on the conduct discussion and we focused on resources on campus for her return and his posture became more relaxed, his fists loosened, and by the end of our discussion, he accepted responsibility for his actions.
Kindness and empathy are not a weakness. By showing a student that they are cared for and that I am a resource, I earn their trust. Conduct is a beautiful opportunity for individual student development. Every person has a story looking to be told.
Liz Steinborn-Gourley is the Student Success Coordinator and Conduct Officer at Minnesota State University Mankato. She has dabbled in a little bit of this and a little bit of that when it comes to student affairs, but keeps finding her way back to the residential communities. She is currently thrilled to live off campus with her husband, son, and terrible beastie. In her spare time, she reads about feminism, knits, and grows food.