I recently closed my buildings after my very first year as a professional staff member in residence life. This year was a very eye-opening experience filled with ups, downs, twists, turns, defeats and triumphs. I learned about myself personally and professionally. I gained knowledge about who I am as a supervisor as well as my role as a supervisee. I would like to recount for you my first year and the lessons I learned.
Have a plan, but don’t be incredibly attached to it. My very first day as a Residence Hall Director (a Saturday) was hectic. Not only did I miss Resident Assistant Training, My first day of work was the day my building opened. I was in a new town, seeing new faces, and meeting the people that would call me “boss” for at least the next 8 months. I had no clue what I was doing, so needless to say, I spent a huge part of the day reading the RHD manual and trying to figure out policies and procedures. Luckily, I was in a situation where there was another professional transitioning out of this building to another, so he was there doing most of the check-ins. The following Monday, I was officially the head honcho in this building. That evening I held my first staff meeting. I had 8 faces staring at me to be a leader. As I was coming up with requirements for programming, bulletin boards, and weekly reports, I was met with a good amount of pushback. There were the usual “that’s not the way we did this last year” comments, but there were also a decent amount of “that’s not what we were told during training” remarks. Needless to say, I had a lot of catching up to do.
Many of the dreams I had for my first position included having the perfect staff, being incredibly developmental with them from the start, and having the type of relationship with all of my staff members where they would spend entire afternoons in my office. That did not happen. While my staff was pretty good, I didn’t get the chance to be incredibly developmental with them. I was playing catch-up from day one, and I am just now getting to the point where I am feeling like I am constantly above water. Sometimes my staff would come by, but it was mostly for business-related things instead of just to hang out, which was what I really wanted. My plans for this last year changed dramatically, but that did not stop me from having a successful year.
Make friends outside of your department. This one is strictly a sanity maneuver. And also, I didn’t really learn this in my first position. I figured it out in grad school, and decided to apply to my first position. Working in ResLife, it is really easy to just hang out and associate with other people in your department; you all work together, and in most cases, a good portion of ResLife people live on campus, so it is easy to get together after work. In grad school, I made a conscious effort to make friends with students in my cohort who did not have assistantships in ResLife. While I spent a good amount of time with the other ResLife grads and became good friends with them, a lot of times, we talked about work. Having friends outside of the department allowed me to have a complete break from work, and that notion still applies today.
While I love spending time with my co-workers outside of the office, having a colleague in another department is helpful. It gives me a chance to get off campus, explore the area, and talk about something other than who has had the worst duty calls.
Find something to love. Many times, the first job after grad school is not the dream position. Grads are looking for a job at an institution with relatively good fit that pays actual money, vs. a minimal stipend. Because of this, first jobs can often end up being not the greatest experience. This was not the case for me, but I have talked to many people for whom this was true. If this is the case in your first, or any position, find something to love, anyway. This will keep you from going insane, regretting the experience altogether, or thinking that student affairs is not for you.
Find something to improve on. On a similar note as above, if you the absolute perfect position, find one way to either improve the position (if you can), or a way to challenge and improve yourself as a professional. There are many ways to do this, from getting involved in regional and national organizations, to trying to advise a student organization, teach a class, or even taking a class. Find some way to add to your professional experience outside of having the “perfect” position.
Ask questions! I think one of the things I found most helpful in my first position was the fact I am not afraid to ask questions. If there was anything that I was not 100% sure about, I would be on the phone with my supervisor asking him questions and getting clarification. My entire student staff had been at the school longer than I had, and three of the eight were in their third year as an RA, so they were also a good source of information.
Own up to mistakes. This goes hand in hand with the previous piece of advice. Even when asking questions, I thought I was clear on certain processes, and ended up doing them completely incorrectly. These mistakes (one I am thinking of in particular) made me look incompetent to my staff members, and my coworkers. All I could do was apologize and fix it. And I also made them all cookies.
The first position is a whirlwind. For me, it was another step into this “real world” I have been warned about since grade school. It was an exciting, nerve-wracking, stressful and fun year that I wouldn’t trade for anything. As you head into your first position, your 7th, or simply continue in the position that you are in, remember that your position is what you make of it.