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 Alex Fields.
A high ranking woman in housing caused me to consider leaving student affairs before I even started.
As a graduate student, I had the pleasure of participating in a “speed-networking” event with female identified senior housing officers. I was so excited to have this opportunity to spend time networking with women who I looked up to as the leaders of our field. I fretted over what I would ask in the limited time I had with each woman. Did I need to sound smarter than the other graduate students in the room? How could I stand out from the rest of the crowd? What could I ask that wouldn’t be a waste of their time? I decided I would ask “Who is the future of our field?” I don’t know exactly what I was hoping they would say – but I certainly hoped I could see myself in their answers. I listened intently to each response, taking notes when I could, and felt good about what I asked. I was delighted by the insightful, empowering answers I was receiving. I heard: strong women, engaged, committed servant leaders, individuals who represent non-traditional backgrounds and experiences. Then it happened. One of these women, who I saw as a potential mentor – someone who could teach me how to be a leader in our field – looked at me from head to toe and said “well, someone who clearly takes care of themselves, is polished, and cares about wellness.”
I guess I probably should have mentioned this from the beginning: I’m fat. I have been my entire life – and I’ve consistently struggled with how I view myself, how being fat shouldn’t automatically prevent me from being a successful person but often makes me feel lesser than.
In that moment, every insecurity, every doubt I’ve ever had about my ability to succeed came rushing to the surface. I was absolutely devastated. And then I was terrified. Within a matter of months I was going to be starting a large scale job search for my first professional role in this field, I would be attending The Placement Exchange where I would be under the microscope of multiple institutions and my peers who were competing for the same jobs, and then I would be traveling to schools to interview with them, and hope that I would find a place that felt like home. It suddenly didn’t matter that I was going to be one of the first (other than my twin sister) in my family to earn a Master’s degree, it didn’t matter that I had spent the last three years giving everything I had to the graduate assistantship I had earned, I was convinced that I wasn’t going to find a job – because of something about me that shouldn’t indicate whether or not I could do the work.
I remember, very clearly, thinking “Maybe I should give up.” Call me dramatic, but, as someone who has faced some pretty cruel people in my life, I never in my wildest of dreams would have thought that a fellow woman, who surely has to fight for respect on a regular basis, would be the person who nearly crushed my dreams.
Luckily, I have several incredible women in my corner who helped me overcome my fears and learn how to fight my insecurities – I attended The Placement Exchange after getting fantastic fashion advice from fellow plus size women, my amazing partner traveled with me to New Orleans and helped me feel less nervous each day, and several of the women who I look up to as my “she-roes” in this field cheered me on from afar. And guess what? I got a job – from my top choice. Since arriving here, I’ve gained a mentor in my incredibly strong female supervisor (who you’ve already heard from in this series), I’ve connected with women who I have secretly – or not so secretly – admired via Twitter and Facebook (hint: one of them gave me the opportunity to write this), and I’m learning how to believe that I am so much more than what people assume based on their first glance.
What is the point of me sharing this story? I need to tell you that somewhere, someone is looking up to you, fellow woman in housing. You may have never met her before, but she’s out there. Lift her up. Support her through your actions and words. Show her that there is absolutely a place for us at the table. You never know who we might lose if we don’t do everything we can to support one another – even if she only gets to ask you one single question, in a three minute speed networking meeting.
Alex Fields is a residence hall director at the University of Cincinnati. She completed her master's of social work at the University of Kentucky and her bachelor's of science at the University of Central Florida. Alex strives to exemplify the characteristics of a servant leader in all facets of her life. When she's not a work she loves spending time with her Bluegrass raised boyfriend, making new friends and loving old ones, exploring new places, eating delicious food, and changing the world. Feel free to connect with her on Twitter @alexfieldsUC.