[Recent grad Andrew McGeehan was kind enough to write a piece about his recent adjustments for us.]
It has been about 3 months since I walked across the stage at Key Arena and graduated from SU with my MA in Student Development Administration. About half of those three months were spent jobless, applying for every job that came my way, and engaging in more phone interviews than I thought possible. The second half of those three months has been spent at my new home, in my new institution, in my new role. I’ve been working at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst as a Residence Director for about six weeks now. It’s a short amount of time, but a lot of things have happened and a lot has changed. I wanted to share some of my thoughts and things I have learned with fellow SDA-ers, particularly those of you who will soon be graduating and moving into the “real world.”
1. After graduating from SU, you can’t escape your Jesuit heritage!
The transition from part-time work at a small, private, Jesuit institution to full-time work at a public institution with the 5th largest residential population in the country has been jarring to say the least. I went from a 13 person senior staff to a 75 person senior staff. From around 50 RAs to almost 400. There isn’t talk of reflection. No one has uttered the word “holistic.” I didn’t realize how much my Jesuit education had influenced me and my values until I didn’t have it any longer. In looking for guidance, I turned to the Queen of all things Jesuit, Erin Swezey. I wrote to her about the lack of Jesuit-ness at UMass and her response brought me some hope. She wrote, “As the Jesuits say….You must be the pioneer and bring reflection and holistic development to the frontier!! Hang in there.” Not only does her answer rhyme, it’s also correct. Instead of lamenting an absence of Jesuit thoughts and ideas, I need to take those values and adapt them to a new institution.
I tried it out last week at my RA staff meeting. We had just completed the activity “Touch someone who…” where we got to give each other some well-needed, well-deserved affirmation. I hadn’t initially intended to reflect afterwards, but Erin’s words rang in my ears, and I said to the staff, “How did that make you feel? Take a moment and reflect on your feelings and then let’s name them.” I was met with blank stares and confusion. I enjoyed the silence as everyone contemplated my request. The first comment was “I liked that way more than I thought I would.” Once we started, others began sharing. It was a little rough, but a good start. As the year progresses, I am going to be actively looking for more ways to incorporate reflection into one on ones and staff meetings. I am realizing that it doesn’t come as naturally to students who haven’t encountered these ideas before or had the space created for them to engage in it. It will be a great learning opportunity and professional challenge for me to figure out how I can best bring Jesuit ideals to a large public university.
2. I really didn’t know it all as a graduate assistant.
During a dinner with some other RDs on campus, we started talking about how the grads in the department really think that they know everything and that they are really running the show. We were all laughing and then someone stopped and said, “Wait, that’s probably exactly how we all were in grad school too.” It was an accurate statement. As an Assistant Residence Director, I thought I knew exactly what was going on and everything that went into the RD’s job. Now that I am an RD, I can completely see the occasional frustration with the know-it-all grad student. It was a great moment of clarity and levity for me. As a full-time professional, there are different levels of understanding that you gain and different perspectives. Not to mention that the stakes are higher, as well as the level of responsibility, and the level of professionalism required.
3. The more you move up in higher education, the more crucial it becomes to navigate an institution’s political system
Politics and “playing the game” are a part of any job, and higher ed is no exception. I’ve learned that with each level you move up, there are more eyes on you and they are being more critical. There have been discussions in my area of campus that centered on departmental perceptions of different senior staff. My supervisor has cautioned me against being associated with people who have a “bad” reputation. I’ve also been advised to be careful who I share information with and who I consider a “friend,” as opposed to a “colleague.”
As someone who is generally pretty bad at this politics game, this has been a struggle for me as I’ve transitioned to being full-time. UMass has a very unique residence education program, in that we have a lot of people who have been RDs for 10-15+ years. As an entering new professional, I am one of the youngest people in my entire department. The Assistant Residence Directors on campus are closer in age to me than my full-time colleagues. This presents an interesting conundrum for me—age-wise, I am closer to the ARDs, but my peer group is the RDs (many of which, since they are a little older, have partners, children, etc). That has made it a bit of a struggle for me to develop solid friendships here that don’t have an additional challenge of power and position differentials.
It has been great to find community with the four other new RDs, most of which are around my age. We have banded together and it is nice to be able to discuss UMass’ quirks and challenges and opportunities with people who are also new and experiencing it for the first time.
Being that I’m working on reclaiming my Jesuit-ness and Jesuits love to do things in threes, I’ll stop there. But rest assured that there are many more lessons that I (and all the current SDA-ers, soon enough!) have learned and will continue to learn in this first year as a new professional. It has been a wild ride so far, often difficult, often fun, and often filled with puzzled looks and naïve questions. I’m excited to see what else I will discover about myself and the profession as my first year at UMass continues on.