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 Natalie Reckard.
Today was one of our resident assistant selection interview days and I am reminded of how I have taken an untraditional route into housing and residence life. We ask the candidates questions and then it becomes the part of the interview where they ask us questions. More often than not, two of the more common questions are, “How did you find yourself in residence life?” Or, “Why do you continue to work in housing and residence life?” I usually pause because I feel like a sheep in wolf’s clothing when I say, “I became involved in housing and residence life in graduate school; I was never an RA.” I think people assume that if you work in housing and residence life, you must have started at the bottom and worked in it your whole life. The truth is I never wanted to work in residence life during my undergraduate career. I went to a small all women’s school and to be an RA meant that you had to live by yourself, which completely makes sense looking at it from the other side. My codependent self could not imagine not living with a roommate. I am just too extroverted to thrive living like that.
When I arrived at graduate school, I was really intrigued by the group of housing and residence life graduate residence directors. They were always together and the new group of first-year housing and residence life graduate residence directors had an instant group of best friends, even though they arrived on campus the same time I did. There was a definite divide between the housing and residence life graduate assistants and those who did not have housing and residence life positions. During my second year of graduate school, I moved into a residence director position, although it was at an off-campus apartment complex. It was a program for students who were conditionally accepted to the university. I participated in the on-campus training for residence directors, but since I had very little residence life experience I had no idea what to expect.
That year was a learning experience and even though we completed the time old residence life tradition of “Behind Closed Doors”, I felt like I was building the plane while flying it. I experienced everything from snow closures, apartment flooding, drug and alcohol use. I also had students who were not going to successfully transfer to Clemson because they were focused on things other than their grades. I had a resident get pregnant and then another try to poison their roommate. Regardless of the experience, it confirmed that I wanted to stay in housing and residence life, and I only looked at those positions at The Placement Exchange (TPE) that spring.
During the TPE newcomers’ session, the speaker was from Kennesaw State University (KSU). He passed out job descriptions for entry-level residence life positions at KSU. I had heard of the institution before, but considering how close it was to home for me, I thought to myself, “I’m not going to apply there.” I still accepted the job description to be polite but stuffed it in my binder. For whatever serendipitous reason, I applied for that entry-level position and have been at KSU ever since.
One thing that I did not fully comprehend on my campus visits or in any of my conversations with the staff was the concept that our private foundation set up a LLC that ran the housing side at KSU. This meant that I did not have to worry about maintenance, assignments or anything related to the operational side of the house. To an entry level professional, this sounds wonderful to solely focus on the student development and relationship building pieces to the role. I have been lucky and thankful that at each place in my professional growth, the department has changed in such a way that I have been able to advance without leaving KSU.
I do wonder though if I have created a skill-set deficit for myself because I did not professionally grow up needing to know assignments or facility aspects of the work. I hope that my lack of knowledge for those pieces is not going to eventually hinder my career advancement. I do not think that is will be an issue for me, if I select to stay in Georgia as the state is outsourcing much of the building management and construction to private companies and developers.
I also wonder if my entry into residence life and housing by the way of the residence life side is going to hinder my ability to advance, considering when I attend conferences and look around the room at other professionals, it is an arena dominated by men who have come from the business or operational side. The male dominance of this functional area is felt so much that in our region, the female chief housing officers have created a smaller organization (WOHO) to support fellow women who are in this role back on their campus.
I continue to stay in housing and residence life and know that this is my functional area for my career because no day is ever the same. I can go from working on a student crisis, to discussing the potential functionality of a common space, to meeting with our departmental student leaders, all in the time frame of eight hours. I do not think any other functional area I would get this much variety and have my brain stimulated in a variety of different ways. When I was at Clemson, we had an assignment where we had to interview a student affairs professional on campus who was toward the end of their career. I selected one of the vice presidents who oversaw housing and residence life as part of her portfolio. She started her career in residence life and I asked her the question of why she chose the field and why she stayed in it for so long. She gave very similar answers to the ones I gave above. I wonder if she knew how much impact she had on a budding professional in the moment.
Natalie Reckard is the Associate Director of Residential Living at Kennesaw State University in Kennesaw, Georgia. She is also a doctoral student at the University of Georgia and plans to graduate in December 2017. She also enjoys running, reading and being a foster mom to the variety of dogs and cats that come through her door.
The Women in Housing series is sponsored by Adirondack Solutions.