As a 20-something, the question that comes up quite too often in everyday conversation is, “So what exactly do you DO?”(insert emphasis on the do)
In a success-driven, restless society, an individual’s life worth is defined by what they do, rather than who they are. When we ask someone what they do, it’s actually a more polite way of asking them how they are contributing to society. As I play text tag with old friends from back home and meet new acquaintances in graduate classrooms, this question frequents the onset of conversation. When asked, I nervously giggle and proceed with a signature, “Now let me tell you…’ simply because my job cannot be easily weaved into conversation or explained in a mere few sentences.
Being a Resident Director is probably one of the most intimate and rewarding jobs you can have. You see the absolute best of some college students, and support students in their lowest, most trying moments, all within the space of the residence hall. Resident Directors live where they work. If you were to ask my RAs(I say ‘my’ because I supervise eight of them – all undergraduates with different experience levels, fields of study, involvement, and years) what I do, they would laugh and say, “crisis management.” A Resident Director is never really “off the clock” because when you’re invested, you carry the weight of your residents and RAs. Although we can close our doors to the hustle and bustle of the hall, there is always this nervous tension embedded in our hearts that our phone will buzz, only to find a text or e-mail insinuating crisis.Working specifically with first-year residents, you witness first-hand this ‘butterfly’ stage, where students are finally breaking out of their shells, or shedding everything they’ve been taught and conditioned to believe, think, feel, and expand into the first steps of becoming the person they were created to be.
You challenge your residents to navigate their own conflicts by putting the power in their hands to take ownership of difference, misunderstandings, mistakes, and compromise. You allow them the safe space to come to your office to talk about life curveballs like alcohol and drug experimentation through peer pressure, sexual assault/harassment/violence, family strife, not finding their niche, or simply feeling out of place in being away from home for the first time. You hold back tears when a resident tells you about a loss and feel the pain of the frustration when your RAs feel powerless in not being able to help someone who doesn’t want to help themselves. Yes, we enforce policy. Yes, we do paperwork. But the real root of our jobs is to enable students to see their potential, whether that be the potential to connect themselves to resources, the potential to talk to their roommate about a behavior that’s bothering them, or the potential to recognize that they are much stronger than whatever it is that consumes them.You do all of this while unpacking your own baggage and dealing with your own life’s issues. This is not something that is readily defined or something that can fit within a formulated job description.
I started this work in August, completely clueless as to what I should expect. I didn’t know what I was getting myself into, and there are times where, even with some experience under my belt, I still don’t know. No two days are equally the same. There is no handbook, no description of ‘this is what you should do when X’ happens, solely because each situation presents itself with its own set of challenges. You can’t put working with people into a handbook because each person comes to a space with their own complexities and you can’t treat each person with a cookie-cutter process. From this, I’ve learned some painful and some moving lessons, and for that, I am eternally grateful to God, even though I was initially apprehensive, for putting me into a position where I can continue to touch lives and share my experiences to make the journey a little bit easier for someone else.
A pinch of pain produces a season of growth.
You have to have thick skin
Working in Student Affairs is not for the weak-hearted. As with every job, even amongst all the positives, there are days where you’re like, “What the heck?! Why is this so freakin’ hard?” There are times when you get a phone call in the middle of the night while serving on the duty rotation and you just want to scream/cry/yell because you have an exam the next day and you’ve gotten little to no sleep running all over campus to handle various situations. There are times when you have to calm an irate parent on the phone or have difficult conversations with a student about their behavior which severs your potential for a future bond with that student. I am, admittedly, a very sensitive person by nature. I take everything to heart – curt e-mails, a misunderstanding or miscommuncation, you name it, it probably hurts my poor little feelings. I also struggle with the idea of having firm conversations with students out of fear that they might not like me simply because it’s my job to confront a situation head-on. Truth is, not everyone is going to like you and you have to embrace that. I’ve learned to take the good with the bad, filter the negativity, recharge, and push on because there are other students that need my guidance and a little pushback ‘ain’t never hurt nobody.’
Truth is, not everyone is going to like you and you have to embrace that.
People will surprise you and you will surprise yourself
Drawing from my own experience in feeling out-of-place and having in-depth conversations with residents and RAs about their experiences, I realized that a lot of my residents wanted to talk to about something close to my heart, diversity, but didn’t necessarily know how or feel comfortable starting or facilitating this type of conversation. Last semester I held a “Diversity Cupcakes” event, where I had residents decorate cupcakes with different colored sprinkles/icing based on their answers to a series of questions I asked. “If you are from the West Coast, put blue sprinkles on your cupcake. If you student International Affairs put pink frosting on your cupcake” and some residents inserted, “If you identify as queer put purple frosting on your cupcake.” I then asked the open-ended question, “What is diversity?” to which one resident raised her hand and said, “GW is diversity to me. Before coming here I had never been exposed to people from different backgrounds.” I thought out loud, “Wow, thank you for saying that. I didn’t find that same idea of diversity here because I thought where I came from was ‘diverse,’ but you saying that made me realize that diversity means something different to everyone.” I was surprised at their opennness and willingness when I asked them to trust me in the activity and then move on to another activity where I put papers on the wall labeled “Person A, B, C” etc. and then added description underneath each person like “gay, university President’s son, smoker, surfer” and from these descriptions, they had to pick their ideal roommate. At the end, I asked them to reflect on what they learned. “Well, none of these descriptions really matter as long as my roommate is a good person.” I was stunned.
I created the program to teach, but in reality, the program pushed me to learn.
My RAs have also allowed me to reflect on myself and the way that I supervise. It is a lot of pressure when you lead a group of students and they look to you for answers. In one-on-one meetings with them, I’ve seen them grow in their role as an RA, and even as individuals over the period of time I’ve been blessed to know them. You can’t supervise each person the same and your relationship with each of them will be different. Building a rapport of trust is paramount in this type of relationship. As I watch them grow, I see more often them saying, “I think I got this,” and they become more secure and confident in their abilities. There is no type of pride like when you hear genuine comments from other staff members about your team. There are many times I just look at them and think, “Wow. You are incredible human beings.” They’ve also shown me more grace than you can imagine, as I’ve made a fair share of mistakes in learning the job. They’ve taught me that it’s okay to take breaks and take time for yourself when you haven’t gotten things figured out. You can’t be good for someone else if you’re not good for yourself. It’s important to role model that type of acceptance and understanding .
Everyone is hurting in their own ways
We all come to the table with our own baggage. Often when I have to meet with a resident about something that may seem surface-level, for example, not getting along with their roommate, it seems like an easy fix; however, there is always something more than meets the eye. It’s so easy to judge a person based on poor decisions, but we have NO CLUE what they may have brought with them when they entered the doors of our residence halls. Sometimes they’ll come in to your office to talk about academic struggles when their grades are suffering because they’re dealing with toxic parents at home and work multiple jobs to put themselves through school. You. don’t. know. Refrain from judgement. Seek to understand.
Be gentle because sometimes the most trying situations come from those who are still learning how to navigate their own complexities.
So, when someone asks, “What do you do?” I will still giggle and start, “Well, let me tell you…”