Welcome back! The school year has started, so I’m resuming my weekly-ish blog posts. Looking forward to sharing lots of interesting things now that I’m tenured. Woot!
Heads up–today’s post isn’t about my current life as a professor, but how I got started in higher education. Slightly different than my usual posts, but this is where my origin story begins 🙂
My career began in student affairs, specifically university housing. I was a peer mentor, and then RA, at the University of Michigan. I followed that up at Arizona State to study higher and postsecondary education–where I was a graduate hall director in Manzanita Hall. Then I got my first full-time residence life position at a small, private, liberal arts college–Grinnell College. I later went to work for the Department of Residence at Iowa State University before leaving the field completely and moving to the other side of the house–as a professor.
My student affairs peeps know that it generates a lot of paper memories. I have cards, affirmations, notes, papers, from training, meetings, teambuilding sessions, you name it. And while I’ve slowly gotten rid of most things, I’ve kept a few folders of notes/handouts that meant a lot to me. I came across one of these folders last week.
As I shared above, I have “both sides of the house” experience. I was a student affairs professional and now I’m a tenured professor (not within a student affairs or higher education program). And while both are challenging in their own ways, my hardest day as a faculty member doesn’t come close to my medium days as a housing administrator. In fact, sometimes I’m amused by the issues that upset faculty. There is nothing in the functionality of my job that will ever be a true emergency. Nothing.
The same is not true for student affairs professionals.
In January 2005, I was in my second year as a Residence Life Coordinator at Grinnell College. The semester was starting soon, but I was back on campus watching a basketball game with my supervisor and the college president (small schools are like that). The president then got a message a student had died in a car accident (it was winter in Iowa) and gave the same to my supervisor. She showed me the name on a slip of paper: James Ewins. Then she asked if I knew who that was. It took a moment to register. Yes, I knew who that was. He was on my student staff.
JR had this incredibly infectious energy that was all positivity, all the time. But not in a way that made you feel like you needed to be positive–he just exuded this sense that things would be ok. He was a particularly strong leader in our group and we all loved him.
Student death is a hard, and sad, reality of working on college campuses. Students were returning to campus that day and we decided that I would hold an emergency meeting with the staff and tell them that JR had died. So I gathered everyone in my apartment and told them their friend, our friend, had died. For some, it was the first person close to them that had died. I don’t remember much from that evening.
None of my grad school classes prepared me for that. They didn’t prepare me for the weeks that followed, as the campus moved on but the rest of us did not. They didn’t prepare me for helping his parents pack his room. They certainly didn’t prepare me for giving one of his on-campus eulogies. Or for his father to pull me aside and give me a bottle of wine (JR had asked his parents to buy me a bottle of wine as a birthday present–the bottle was destroyed in the car crash–his dad wanted him to replace it for me) while telling me how he punched out a fellow prison employee for telling him that “JR was in a better place now.” JR and his family were extremely religious but felt like all of us did–that JR’s place should still be with us. I will be forever grateful for Grinnell College chartering a bus so that we could drive to his funeral and be safe.
All of this came flooded back because I found the JR folder–with the cards, notes, pictures. I held on to it because I didn’t want to forget. But you can never let this go. It stays with you. It informed how I relate and approach students.
There are certain professor things I’m fastidious about–others, not so much. How can I be, when I was confronted early in my higher education career with the fact that life is fleeting?
I generally have a reason for these posts–but to be honest, I am not sure what I want you to take away from this one. The pandemic has definitely changed some of my feelings about the start of the school year–but I also know there’s a new group of students who are excited about what the future holds for them. I left student affairs because the demands of the job shifted into areas that were not my strengths. But I credit my time in student affairs with making me the type of professor I am today.
Take care of yourselves out there. See you next week.