“The Power of Being Different” by Valerie Bruce

I’ve always been a bit non-traditional and up until recently, it didn’t always sit well with me. As a teenager, I was always trying to blend in with my peers and I didn’t always appreciate the importance of being my original self. I would be listening to Alanis Morissette when everyone else was listening to Britney Spears. I loved dance when all of my other friends loved soccer. It began to feel as though I never quite fit in. However, when it came time to choose an undergraduate program and school, I finally decided to break away from those around me.

I had developed a huge passion for the arts and involved myself in all things live production early on in high school, so applying to theatre school programs seemed like the perfect fit. This decision limited my options of schools to apply to, but I quickly had my heart set on attending Ryerson University, right in the heart of downtown Toronto. I can still remember my mom telling me to “not get my hopes up” as the program was quite competitive, only accepting 50 students in the production side that year. I diminished that conversation quickly saying” Whatever happens, happens” to calm her down but really in my head thinking “This is the only option for me!” Thankfully, I was right, and received an acceptance to the program. Most of my peers thought I was crazy to attend school in downtown Toronto. I grew up in a small town where practically everyone knows your name, and my high school graduating class consisted of less than a hundred people. The majority of students attend post-secondary institutions within a one hour radius of home. The idea of being in the heart of a major Canadian city with the options of live performance, transit, nightlife, and a mass population of people felt like a one-eighty. Choosing a program with limited, unstable and unclear job prospectives, made most people ask me what my back-up plan was.

Attending Ryerson was one of the best choices I have made in my life thus far. I finally felt like I fit in with my classmates. We all had similar goals, dreams, and interests and finally people understood the passion I held for the arts. For once, I didn’t feel different.

In my senior years, I got a job working in the student housing office as a student reception staff member and continued that role until graduation. This role included administrative and customer service tasks within our office and exposure to the assignments portion of a residence operation. A few months after graduating in 2009, I was offered the full time supervisory position of my former student job as the Communication and Residence Service Desk Facilitator. This position includes overseeing the communication and customer service portfolio within our operation, supervising two student staff teams and managing off-campus housing. Similar to how many RA’s start their professional careers as Residence Life Managers (similar to Hall Directors); I took on a similar starting point on the administrative end.

In my first year I felt like there was a huge learning curve. Lacking the experience of being an RA in my student years meant there was a whole side of student housing I didn’t know. Colleagues would throw around terms and theories I hadn’t heard of and I sometimes felt confused and discouraged that everyone was talking a different language than me.

I decided to find ways to not only “learn the language” as it were, but also put my name out there for people to know who I was, what my job entailed and how I could contribute to the field. I enrolled in a Student Affairs and Services Certificate program, looked for ways to get further involved on campus, including joining a committee to help plan  a  conference (the 2011 Canadian Association of College and University Student Services annual conference) that Ryerson was hosting, put my name forward for the role of Membership Engagement Director with the Ontario Association of College and University Housing Officers (OACUHO) and tried to take any opportunity I could to meet more and more colleagues in the field of student affairs.

What I learned through each of these endeavours is that I brought different skills, ideas and knowledge to the table. : My background in theatre production and my day-to-day job skills – such as project management, organizational behavior, customer service and public relations – stood out from those of others’ around the tables, which helped me provide a different perspective.]

Continually, my mentors have said that being different and entering my career path the way I did is powerful. Until recently, I didn’t understand that power. Now I’m at a point of trying to decide if I should continue on the path of being different or if I should begin to work on those skills that I may be lacking.  Should I complete a Masters of Higher Education or Student Affairs or a Masters of Business Administration? If at some point I want to be a manager of a department, will lacking the experience in programming and student development in the traditional sense within residence life be a deciding factor against some of my colleagues? This is a question I have yet to discover the answer to.

I believe we are all unique in our own way, and we encourage our students to celebrate those differences as well. In terms of looking at career paths, are there ways we can engage and provide opportunities for those students who are not in the traditional beginnings of their student affairs career paths?

Perhaps you have a front desk student staff member or an office receptionist who would make a great residence life professional. Inform those student staff members about the careers available to them in student affairs, introduce them to your colleagues, supply them with professional development opportunities that are traditionally reserved for RAs and Student Council leaders. If they express interest in or demonstrate aptitude for a career in student affairs, be the one to reach out a hand.

Once I opened my eyes to the possibilities that being different held, I embraced my life path and feel as though I walk taller, straighter and more proud being in my own shoes and not trying to fit in to someone else’s.

Valerie Bruce, Communication and Residence Service Desk Facilitator, Ryerson University

Connect with me at: @v_bruce

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