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 Jenny Steiner.
When I started my first professional position post-masters I literally felt like, “You want me, a 24-year-old woman to run the largest/high conduct first year building on campus?!” Clearly, my supervisor, who also is a woman, had more faith in me than I did. So, I did what any person would do -- I faked it until I made it. Were there moments as I began this task where I wasn’t quite sure I was doing it right? Sure, but I knew I had the support of my supervisor and other housing peers. As I spent my time in university housing, it taught me several important, foundational lessons that I will take with me throughout my career in higher education.
One of the first lessons working in housing taught me: it is here that you have a community and network. It is not every person for themselves to run our community. If one community is not successful on campus, we all can feel the impact. Especially at large institutions, we can feel siloed in our work, but it is important to remember we are part of a larger campus community and can call on one another for best practices. I was ever so thankful for that community to support me and help me come into my own within my first year as a hall director. It was within the first month of the school year that I felt I was really starting to hit my stride and it was the cheering from the sidelines that helped me understand my worth as much as my supervisor already had.
The second lesson I learned: Having a background in housing prepares you for all other functional areas in student affairs. I recall sitting in one of my graduate classes with top administrators at my institution each sharing that they believe their start in housing served as the best place to begin their career. When I entered my position, I knew I wanted to be in residence life for at least the next 3-4 years, but wasn’t certain I’d stay in housing. Because higher education allows so many pathways to serve the field, I wanted to make sure to keep my options open.
Knowing I had limited time being a hall director, I strategically spoke with my supervisor about getting the most out of my experience. When my building needed some renovation work done? I asked to sit in the construction meetings every week. When we needed a residence life representative on the bias team? I gladly accepted the charge. Time to recruit new professionals and organize the on campus and the hall director training process? Sign me up. Building these skills proved to be essential for my ability to transition to other functional areas following my life as a hall director. If I had stuck to the minimum job requirements, I’m not certain it would have been as easy for me to look at another job description and say, “Hey, I totally have the potential to do that because of all these transferable skills!”
And although I did my best to go above and beyond my duties, my supervisor always stressed using our comp days. “If you don’t use them you lose them,” she would say. I took that to heart. Working in residence life can be a 24/7 job if you let it. Building in boundaries and getting off campus is not only healthy, it’s essential.
This is the third thing housing taught me: It’s OK to practice self-care and to openly carve out time for it. I mean, if we aren’t, how are we supposed to support our students who need us to be present with them? Creating boundaries with your residents and RAs is important, too. Because guess what? You deserve to have some resemblance of a private life.
Moving into my job after housing, I found myself working in student activities and enrolled full time as a Ph.D. student. The new load didn’t seem daunting because of my work in housing. I knew how to balance my priorities and compartmentalize my work so I could focus on school when at school and work when at work. Yet, I knew that if I wanted to, my student activities work could take up way more than the 45 hours I was averaging per week. I actually started to lose some of my self-care practices and found myself experiencing some physical signs of stress (as I’ve reflected on this with colleagues, I learned of the book Your Body Keeps the Score) and knew I needed to make some changes. I thought about my time as a hall director and how I stayed focused and energized most was through my self-care practices.
It’s been over a year since I had to pause and re-think how I was leading my work-life balance and I can say with confidence that I have once again reached equilibrium. By simply going to bed a little earlier and waking up earlier, I can get in a run before I start my day. Or drink my coffee, soaking up the quiet of an early morning. This is what gets me to do the best work for my students and my university.
As I continue my journey in higher education, I will always be thankful for the foundations of working in housing. It has taught me how to be a strong professional and maintain my personal life. Although I am not currently in housing, my heart remains open to future opportunities to provide exceptional on-campus living for students. Because, after all, my work as a professional is deeply founded in residence life.
Jenny Steiner is a second-year Ph.D. student in Organizational Leadership and Policy Development, Higher Education at the University of Minnesota. She currently works in Student Academic Success Services at UMN teaching academic skills courses and developing academic coaching plans with students. When not at work and school, Jenny enjoys running, musical theater, and exploring the Twin Cities.
The Women in Housing series is sponsored by Adirondack Solutions.