Bridging the Divide: A Call to Action

In a post on Inside Higher Ed earlier this week, author Russell Olwell discussed the importance of faculty mentoring for undergraduates. This rang close to home as I think back on my career as an undergraduate; the faculty that I had in my first year helped me hone my skills as a writer and taught me how to think critically; skills incredibly necessary for an undergraduate student in the program in which I was entering.

Yet, the post also had me reflect on the work I do now as a student affairs educator. I work in Housing & Residence Life at Virginia Tech and our department is constantly thinking of ways to bridge the divide between student affairs and academic affairs (literally divided by the Drill Field) by bringing faculty to the residence halls. Virginia Tech is home to two residential colleges (Residential College at West Ambler Johnston and the Honors Residential Commons at East Ambler Johnston) where tenure track faculty live in the residence halls and interact with students in numerous ways outside the classroom. Programs like these (living learning programs) are essential to bridging that divide and strengthening undergraduate education.

In addition to my work in Housing & Residence Life, I also work with our Fraternity & Sorority Life office due to my position overseeing our on campus fraternities and sororities. In this capacity, I often think of how to bring faculty mentors into the fraternity and sorority life community. While residential programs across the country move towards greater and greater faculty-student interaction, it is essential for other functional areas within student affairs (e.g. fraternity and sorority life, leadership programs, identity centers, etc) to bring in faculty to provide more and more opportunities for faculty and undergraduate students to connect and build relationships.

The work of bridging the divide cannot be left to residence life programs. While the majority of students on a traditional residential campus pass through the residence halls, many students do not find community within those halls. Thus, other student affairs functional areas need to rethink their work (as residential programs still need to do too) to bring in more faculty, helping to bridge that divide.

Changing Mindset

When I tell folks that I work with or interact with that I work with fraternities and sororities, their first question is almost always “are you affiliated?” to which my response is “no.” This short exchange is always comical to me as the reactions to my answer range from surprised to shocked. And to be honest, I am surprised that I keep being assigned to this type of work when I do not have any affiliation.

Yet, this past weekend I was afforded the opportunity to facilitate at a weekend retreat for the interfraternal community that I work with in my first professional position. I was anxious heading into the weekend, as my knowledge of fraternities and sororities is limited even though I have worked with the community on two campuses.

The weekend was draining. As an introvert, it is hard to have to be on in facilitator mode for 12 hours each day. Yet, it was a weekend that I felt started to change my mindset. Most of my concerns and hesitations in working with the interfraternal community centers on my lack of affiliation and lack of knowledge of the community. Yet this weekend illuminated how I can do good work with this community and help those students develop into more impactful leaders.

The weekend retreat utilizes Peter Block’s book, Community: The Structure of Belonging, as a way to engage the students in conversations on creating change within their community. It is a text that is not about fraternities and sororities, nor higher education. But it contains valuable lessons for leaders in organizations, whether undergraduate students or elected officials. Facilitating those discussions was a positive experience and saw me engaging with students who are thinking critically about their experience in their fraternity/sorority. They were receptive to my probing and reflective questions. They left those discussions thinking differently about their experience and the role they play in creating a more positive interfraternal experience.

Having engaged in this experience, I am now seeing my ability to educate these students, in spite of my lack of affiliation. My skills in facilitating and educating are transferable to this setting. While I cannot relate to their experience in a fraternity/sorority, I can make them think critically and evaluate what role they have in creating positive change. I had to rely more on the students I was learning with to share their stories in a different way than if I had an affiliation. Facilitating this leadership retreat was mindset changing, as I started to see the impact I can make.

I will never be fully comfortable in a fraternity/sorority setting, but this weekend was what I needed to begin to make me feel more comfortable in the role I play in educating these students.

I’m Home

It’s been a few months since my last post… since graduating in May 2016 with my Masters of Science in Student Affairs in Higher Education I enjoyed a few months off and then began my job as a Residential Learning Coordinator at Virginia Tech. It has been a whirlwind summer and I cannot believe October is in just over 24 hours.

The adjustment to being a new professional has been as expected; challenging, rewarding, stressful, and full of surprises. Having been in school for 18 consecutive years, my first fall without having to go to class, prepare for homework, and worry about the next test has been surprisingly stressful.

I was born and raised in the Midwest; the longest I lived somewhere outside of the rust belt was in Seattle for two and a half months in the summer of 2015. Now, living in the Southeast I am out of my comfort zone adjusting to life as a professional. Overall, it has been positive but there were numerous times when I would ask myself “Can I do this?” or “Why was I hired?” There were even nights when I would think that I was not worthy to be working full time; that I had missed some important lesson in graduate school. Luckily I kept going, mostly hiding my stress and self-doubt from my colleagues, because now I am starting to get it. The sense of self-doubt and fraudulent being is not anything new; anyone adjusting to a new role or new area is bound to experience this ‘impostor syndrome’ that is so often discussed in higher education. I too felt it as I transition(ed) here to VT and Blacksburg.

However, this week was the first week since moving down here that I haven’t felt the self-doubt or worried about the mountains of work. Part of that is we are finishing week six of the semester, but another part is that I have started to connect with friends back home and colleagues here and begun to develop a support system. As cliche as it is, that sense of support and camaraderie has been a world of difference as far as my conception of my role as a professional. Now that I feel this sense of support and camaraderie I can worry less about navigating two offices (I am a dual report to Housing & Residence Life and Fraternity & Sorority Life) or the mountains of emails I wake up to everyday. Instead, I can put my head down and get to work knowing that when I do mess up I have folks who can support me and laugh off the mistake.

I’m finally home.