This is a guest post from Mary C. Jordan (@marycsjordan), Coordinator for Academic Residential Programs, University of Florida.
In a recent meeting with my mentor, I discussed some of the challenges of the last few months of this second year in my first post-Master’s job. Some of my new professional energy has burnt out, and my job isn’t regularly providing me with new challenges in the organic way it seemed to last year. The vast majority of the time I love and feel fulfilled by my work, but lately there have been more days than I am happy to admit that I’ve felt I was just going through the motions.
One of the action items that came out of this discussion was a year-long professional development project that would involve me talking with one remarkable woman in housing each month. Both to deepen the professional development experience, and to share widely the wisdom of these women, we decided I would also write about these conversations.
“Why don’t you start with Alma Sealine?” my mentor suggested.
I managed to catch myself before I responded with a skeptical comment about how much I doubted the president of ACUHO-I would like to talk with me, but I couldn’t help looking across the table a little sideway.
He was undeterred: “I’ll send you Alma’s contact information this afternoon,” he continued. “I’m sure she’ll be delighted to talk with you.”
And to my surprise, she was. She even worked with me to create a time for our conversation before her departure for the ACUHO-I South-African Housing Training Institute. Between a meeting with her campus’s senior student affairs officer and an ACUHO-I teleconference, Alma spent 30 minutes sharing with me her thoughts on balance, leadership, giving back, and always growing as a housing professional.
The first true defining experience of Alma’s career came in her first year of graduate school. She reflects that her undergraduate alma mater was relatively conservative—in fact, “You couldn’t say dance, but you could say ‘foot function,’”—so she experienced something of a culture shock as the GA for the Collins Learning Center at Indiana University, home for a much more “crunchy and “beatnick” group of students.
Alma loved working with these students as well as her RA staff, which included diverse group of students who “got along wonderfully.” Most notably, Alma remembers a gender-neutral RA who wore an American flag as a skirt held up by suspenders. She couldn’t say enough positive things about her work, the people she met, and her graduate school experience. Alma said that this experience was really what propelled her passion for housing and her career-long interest in multiculturalism and diversity.
During our conversation, Alma reflected on two major challenges of her early career. In her first job after graduate school, Alma supervised 15 RAs, and in the first year she lost 13 of them.
“I learned that its OK to have high expectations, but it doesn’t have to be ‘my way or the high way,’” she said. Alma also noted that some of her staff members from that first year are people with whom she is still in contact.
She also learned a lot about mental illness through supervision, and that “it’s not always personal.” Alma believes the supervision experiences she had early in her career have been invaluable. Now, supervising full-time staff, she says she realizes that building relationships and understanding where people are coming from is one of the most important aspects of a strong supervisory relationship.
“Sometimes you can’t do what you want to do until you understand the culture. I wouldn’t trade any of those lessons.”
We also discussed the all-important work-life balance issue. Alma says this is a lesson she continues to try to learn. One thing that impressed me very much was Alma’s willingness to take time to make the right decision. She noted that most decisions aren’t as urgent as we may make them out to be.
“Giving a decision some time usually won’t hurt anyone,” she said, noting that there are true emergencies in her work from time to time, and that there is a need for timely decision-making in those situations.
Alma also achieves balance by giving her staff real trust to do the job she hired them to do.
“I am very fortunate to be surrounded by staff who take their jobs very seriously and do great work. If I get in their way, it only hurts. Staff want to be empowered, not micromanaged.”
She said that although mistakes happen, they can always be talked about and bounced back from, while micromanagement will never breed an empowered and competent staff member.
“Sometimes I’ve learned this in hard ways. But I value team.”
Alma also finds balance and motivation through giving back. When we spoke, she was just wrapping up the season as a volunteer basketball coach for 2nd and 3rd graders.
“These are future college students. What kinds of things do I want to say to them or role model for them? This keeps me going,” she said.
While Alma is motivated by her day to day work, she also said that much of her drive comes from her time away from the job – going to church, volunteering, spending time outdoors and with family.
“I also find motivation with my nieces and nephews. I think about what kind of things I want them to learn and understand, and how I want to make them feel valued,” she said.
Finally, I asked Alma if there was something she wishes someone had told her at the beginning of her career, or if there was any advice she had for a new professional.
“The first thing I would say is that you don’t have to know everything right away. This is a journey, and you are always learning something—through your job experience or learning outside of your job description. Enjoy the journey.”
She closed by saying, “it’s all about relationships” whether they are with your campus’s judicial office, those who respond to a mental health crisis, the board of trustees, or your vice president. “You really do catch more bees with honey than vinegar. Create the network you need to do the best job possible. “