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 Biama Charles.
To be women in housing means we "slay all day." Slay, not like Beyoncé does on a daily basis, but slay the expectations that our male counterparts and others outside housing intentionally or ignorantly put on us as professional staff members. My story is unique in that I not only have to "slay" the expectations of what it means to be a woman in housing but also what it means to be a Caribbean American, mid-level practitioner, who is constantly mistaken for a student because I "look young."
I was a lucky one. While many students around me didn’t know what they wanted to do with their lives at the age of 19, my undergraduate experiences at SUNY College at Old Westbury reassured me that Student Affairs was the path I needed to commit to. At SUNY College at Old Westbury, I was afforded the opportunity to work for and have access to confidential files in offices that previous students before me had been denied permission. Then again, I was not like most students. I managed 20 credits during any given semester, held two on campus jobs at a time, while making sure that my hard work ethic and integrity spoke for me in everything I pursued around campus. Of all the positions I held at “Old West,” none was more rewarding than my time spent as a Resident Assistant (RA). For three and a half years, I had the opportunity to discover just how distinctive I had the potential to be.
While most other Resident Assistants hated night duty, I looked forward to it as an opportunity to bond with students. My favorite part of any given week day was doing office hours where residents could come chat with me in the Resident Assistant office. Though many of today’s RAs cringe at the idea of having to speak with students for more than 5 minutes, I eagerly and consistently created opportunities to connect on a deeper level with my residents, for hours at a time. These experiences, in addition, to the professional development my then VPSA, Dr. ML Langlie gave me by encouraging me to apply for the NASPA Undergraduate Fellows Progam [NUFP], set me on the straight path to learn my purpose while following my passion.
Over the years, I came to terms with the fact that the distinction I worked so hard to create for myself during undergrad was almost impossible to recreate as a rising black woman in housing. I learned that it no longer mattered to people that I was student centered and had many creative ideas that could increase student satisfaction and retention but that I was instead expected to hush my mouth, do as told and play a role. If I was never cognizant before, becoming a professional in higher education made it quite clear that I was a woman and black. The audacity of me to be both!
Though I was still working hard and with integrity, I began second guessing every job granted to me because of how little progress I was making in reference to my peers who didn’t look like me in those positions. My distinction turned into a constant internal validation of my self-worth: “Am I being considered for this position because they need to fill a diversity quota? Am I here to become the savior for the 5% of students of color at this PWI? How much of my experience REALLY matters when I am considered for a phone or on campus interview?” I made it a point to no longer assume that though I sit on the same committees and get invited to the same meetings, that other people at the table will view or respect me as a professional since I can “still pass as a student.” I eventually came to realize that there could be no days off when it comes to me wearing my badge, that has my title, etched in the clearest 12 pt Times New Roman font; I try to be as transparent as I can with folks. Additionally, I have learned that in settings where others who don’t look like me can simply state their name and position as a form of introduction without people questioning their right to be in that position, that I must go the extra few steps and share that though I’m from New York City, I am not from Brooklyn, that though I identify as West Indian that I am not Jamaican and most important that I earned my Masters degree from a well-respected AAU institution. Rather than be upset that I constantly have to "slay" the perceptions of others both in and outside housing by over clarifying and over introducing my role because I am a black woman, I have learned to embrace my uniqueness. They won’t catch me going to meetings unprepared, arriving late and leaving with others to hustle out at 4:59pm. They will find me supporting all students at their late night events despite my own exhaustion, coming up with new ideas to push the mission and vision of the institution forward while listening more than I speak, remaining mindful that when I do speak it must be slow and soft in pitch, as to not be perceived as “angry” when trying to add to a discussion.
I am finally at a point in life where I feel comfortable embracing my distinction as a black, West Indian woman in Student Affairs. The awareness I have gained while working in different facets of campus housing since 2009 has transcended to what I continue to do now as an Associate Director of Residential Life & Housing at a College I love! Guess it’s safe to say, "I SLAY."
Unashamed to use her life as a teaching mechanism, Biama Charles embraces her passion for character building and life coaching by serving college students. Biama is the Associate Director of Residential Life & Housing at Hartwick College in Otsego County, New York. She thrives on having 1:1 conversations with students, going to Broadway shows, traveling, reading self-help books, watching cute puppy videos and Netflix Original series, as well as spending time at home in NYC with her family, godchildren and friends.
The Women in Housing series is sponsored by Adirondack Solutions.