Residence Hall Coordinator
Educational Leadership & Policy, May 2020
Every morning I wake up to gorgeous views that sit just outside my windows of the residence hall building on the San Diego State University campus in California. But I didn’t become a Residence Hall Coordinator on a stunning, major college campus by chance. It took courage, hard work, and more; it took stepping away from personally and professionally comfortable spaces again and again. My first step to the here and now was when I decided to get an undergraduate degree in educational psychology at the University of Illinois, Springfield. I’d grown up in Chicago but choosing to get a college degree as a first-generation college student on a campus away from home wasn’t easy. It was a choice that set me on my current path of continually getting outside my comfort zone and of pursuing transformative change.
My second transformative choice was leaving my home state and coming to Salt Lake City, UT for graduate school. As a gay, black man, I wasn’t sure what to expect. During my program interview, Dr. Sharon Aiken-Wisniewski helped me see the development and growth potential I had as a student and as a professional. Being away from home gave me the personal space to explore my identity. I started doing new things like hiking, going to new kinds of restaurants, trying new styles of dress, and different clubs. I began to surround myself with similar people, those with black queer identities. I was pushing against societal expectations of how masculinity is defined and experienced. Sometimes it was scary to be so far away from home and all the people I’d known my whole life, but it also gave me the freedom to find a more authentic version of myself. I eventually met my partner, who is from Provo, UT.
During my time in the program, I was also transforming as a student and as a professional. I entered the program focused on maintaining my A-grade record. I was shocked when Sharon gave me my first non-A grade. I was like, “What is this?!” When I asked Sharon about it, she told me to quit focusing on grades and focus on the content, collaborations and being engaged. Once the process of learning became my focus, the grades followed. Sharon helped me realize that I could choose to chase grades or choose an education. I chose an education, and the grades and the degree naturally followed.
I also lived in and was involved with student housing while at the U. In fact, I was the only one in my cohort that lived on campus. I’ve found that students often need help understanding that graduate school is supposed to be challenging. So, I shared the advice I got from Sharon about focusing on content, collaborations, and engagement with the other students in housing. As an undergraduate I had the chance to do an out-of-state internship with ACUHO-I (the Association of College and University Housing Officers -International). I see a tendency to go for something in state because it is convenient and comfortable, but it doesn’t foster the same kind of growth. One of the awesome things about ELP’s program is that it lets students select their own internships. In graduate school, I had an internship with the Dean of Students Office, which allowed me to pursue and building on my passion for student judicial processes. I caution students to think carefully about what internships they choose, go for well-rounded experiences and not comfortable ones.
Right after graduation, Covid hit. It shot my plans down, and I had to take time off because everything shut down. It was hard on me not to be working. Looking back, I wish I would’ve used that time for more reflection and exploration of future goals. Still, I was lucky to find something even before the economy had bounced back entirely. Now I work with first-year students, enjoy free meals, free housing, and a place to do my laundry! I supervise 10 student leaders and have well over 550 students in my housing unit. Working in housing is both fun and challenging. This field takes collaboration with departments across campus; housing includes programming, conduct/student accountability, and holistic approaches to help students develop skills outside of the classroom. It’s more complex than people think. I have to be on my feet while also navigating lots of ambiguity. I am regularly pushed outside of my comfort zone. Another aspect is thinking strategically and about how to retain students in the long term. I aid the university in implementing and carrying out its 5-year plan; housing is a key part of that future.
Living with students also brings certain moral responsibilities and obligations. I use my training and life experiences to help my students and not just enforce policies. One time while living in student housing in undergrad, I violated a conduct policy. The person I saw for the violation made me feel terrible. He made me feel bad about being a man, about being a black man especially, and as if I was nothing but my most recent mistake. I create something entirely different for my students. I ensure that any student’s conduct violation is a constructive experience that helps them grow and learn, not an experience that destroys their confidence and sense of self-worth. In housing, you have a responsibility to guide and inspire young people.
As a housing professional, I get to watch my students develop from grade-obsessed undergrads to professional graduates! I advise students to go for opportunities that stretch them personally, educationally, and professionally. Pursuing and accepting collateral experiences is a great way to stay on a chosen career path while also expanding your skillset.
I came to grad school to do something new and unfamiliar. I didn’t know during my interview or on my first day how transformational it would be. The program made me a well-rounded professional. Being in a new space gave me the confidence to push myself academically and personally. Ultimately, I learned to embrace things about myself that I had tried to ignore. I’m currently doing a master’s certificate in counseling. Eventually, I’d like to become a dean of students. Being in the program gave me the educational space to explore what I wanted to do for a living and the impact I wanted to have on others. It was a truly transformational experience, and now that’s something I provide to the students in my care.