What surprised me most as a new professional… February 6th, 2008
Hello again all. I’ve been a very bad blogger lately, going over a month since my last post. It’s been quite a month, and I may be sharing more about that in a future entry. However, tonight I want to explore one of the topics I laid out in my first post way back in December. In advance of campus days, which I’m sure our prospective students are anxiously awaiting, I wanted to share some thoughts about what has surprised me most in my first “real job.”
Since August, I have been making my first foray into the world of full-time professional work. I am working as a live-in Complex Director for University Housing at the University of Oregon. I was hired in late August and started August 31st, 5 days before our student staff training. Needless to say, I was a late hire with a steep learning curve. Following the hectic period from the beginning of staff training until after Halloween, I was able to settle in a little bit and take some time to reflect on some of the things that had (and continue to) surprised me most as a new professional.
The very first topic that comes to mind is the sheer volume and variety of information I deal with on a daily basis. I may be talking with a parent one minute and to our facilities supervisor the next. I probably average about 50-60 email contacts and 10-15 phone contacts on a normal day, in addition to the 15 hours of regular meetings each week. Factoring in conduct meetings, which are another 5-10 hours a week, and the other “stuff” that comes up in the course of a day, and one can quickly get to a point where things are overwhelming. During the really busy times, I sometimes get the feeling that I’m just hanging on, but overall I’ve learned to manage things pretty well, and I’ve definitely gotten better at it as I’ve become more familiar with the job.
The other thing about time management, especially in a live in position, is that situations happen at inconvenient times. I may be humming through my day when I get a call that a student has broken their arm and is headed to the hospital, or that a student is having mental health issues, or that some other concern has come up that wasn’t even on my radar screen five minutes prior. This means that I stop what I am doing, make the appropriate notifications, figure out what information remains to be gathered, and work with other staff to develop a plan of action. The end result of this from a time-management standpoint is that I have to be ok with leaving something unfinished or with working on a number of projects at once. The ability to multitask and a high degree of comfort with ambiguity are key skills a student affairs professional must possess. Because you will definitely need both skills.
If there was any area where I felt the CSSA program didn’t prepare me enough for life in the field, that area is definitely dealing with student mental health issues. In the profession, mental health issues were a “back-burner” concern for many years, but over the last 5 or so years, concern over the mental health of our students has really leapt to the forefront of our professional dialogue. From my experience through the first (almost) 6 months on the job, I can testify to the prevalence of mental health concerns for on-campus residents at the University of Oregon, and it’s my understanding that this is emblematic of a larger national trend.
With a population of 3500 students living in the residence halls here, I would estimate that, on average, we respond to 2-3 very serious and 2-3 moderately serious situations each week involving students with mental health concerns. That’s roughly 50 students per term (housing-wide), not even counting those with serious substance abuse concerns, who require some or much follow-up on a mental health situation. While our campus counseling center is a great resource with talented and helpful colleagues, Complex Directors often act as the gatekeepers and first responders supporting our student staff members (RA’s) in these situations. Our system is such that we refer most unfolding situations to our Public Safety staff, who determine whether to summon medical or other attention. Our real challenge is in following up with troubled students “after the fact.” I could definitely use more background in mental health issues in order to feel confident that I am doing my best for these students.
Having said all that, I also want to make clear that I love my job. It’s the most challenging and most rewarding thing I’ve ever done, and I can say with confidence that my CSSA experience led me here and that I’m in the exact place I want to be, doing exactly what I want to be doing. I can also say with confidence that this job isn’t for everyone and that when the time comes I will probably be ready to move on. However, if you’re reading this (and especially if you made it all the way to the end), you probably have some connection to student affairs, and you probably tell people that your work in student affairs is the most challenging and rewarding thing you’ve ever done. Think about it: that’s a pretty amazing thing to tell yourself when you wake up in the morning.
Good luck to everyone at Campus Days!