Your First Year Working in Residential Life

It’s one of the most sought-after roles in student affairs: Residential Education Coordinator.

Most student affairs professionals will tell you that their journey began in housing, and that many of the important things they learned about being a professional in the field came from their years working in residential education. But what many fail to mention is that the first year of working in residential education can be the most challenging time of someone’s life.  

The first year of working in residential education means reframing almost everything you might know about student affairs.

While most student affairs programs use “theory to practice” as a guiding principle for doing student affairs work, there is no real theory that can prepare someone for their first year working in residential education. There is usually very little guidance that someone can give in regards to what the role entails and it is very rare that you will given all the tools you need in your first year to be fully prepared for the role.

 If anything, the most salient idea would be to always expect the unexpected.

Being a residential educator means actively working to not only understand your style as a student affairs professional, but what you need to be successful in that role. You will be challenged to learn and navigate your campus climate as well as the needs of both your team members (students and non-students), all while learning what it means for you to be a live-in professional.

The job and the responsibility is much bigger than what it is often given credit for and will take up a great deal of space both in your personal and professional life.

One of the greatest challenges in the first year of being a residential educator?

Being vocal about the needs you have as a first-year professional. One of the most common topics that come up in conversations around being a first-year residential educator is imposter syndrome. For many, being a new professional can be challenging, because your decisions are often questioned. This can lead you to question your knowledge and your career decisions. What we often fail to understand is that there is a huge learning curve when taking on a new professional role and the first year will always be the most challenging.

I often liken the first year of working in residential education to being like the first year of any graduate program. The first year is always the hardest because you are expected to know the things you often don’t know. Balancing newly-learned protocols with the needs of the community can present a challenge that many aren’t prepared for when taking on the position.

Others might say that the hardest part of being a first-year residential educator is being on-call, but I don’t believe that actually holding the phone is as difficult to manage as the emotional and physical wear effects of being on-call are. From documentation to your method of response, from irregular sleep schedules to not being able to put your work down, being on-call can wear you down, especially if you’re carrying a heavy workload in your regular day-time office hours.

Some advice for those who are in their first year of residential education:

  • Remember that this is your first year and you will make mistakes. Regardless of the size of your mistake, be upfront and honest with your supervisor about what you need to feel supported and grow.
  • Be mindful about what projects and opportunities you take on in your first year. Burnout is common after the first few years in residential education because of the demands of the job.
  • Balance your on-call days with mental health days. If you are able to attain comp time or vacation days in your role, work with your team to make sure you use them.
  • Find a therapist. Your mental health matters and you will need someone to talk to about the things you see, hear, and experience in your position.
  • Take moments to learn from your student staff. Many of them will tell you everything you need to know, sometimes without you even asking.
  • Make space to bond with other professional staff on your campus. Many of them are looking for opportunities to help shape your experience and would love to work directly with you on projects and programs.
  • Learn to create boundaries both in regards to the staff you work with and the students you work for. Folks may sometimes see you more as a friend than a colleague, and this can create tension in the work you do if the lines of communication are blurred.
  • Find other colleagues in your department or from other universities who can be your sounding board for when times get difficult.
  • Check-in with yourself often. Center the things you need and never forget that you are one person doing multiple things for multiple people.
  • Most importantly, HAVE FUN and make time for fun.

While working in residential life can be a huge responsibility, one of the best things about the job that many seem to forget about is the impact you’ll have on the students you serve. Students — both on the job and off — will look to you as a leader, and will learn from your challenges and successes along with you. Although your first year can be daunting, remember that you have people in your corner. Ask those who are on your team for support, and remember that your first year is more about learning the ins and outs of residential education than about being perfect. Your first year can also be the most fun — it’s a chance for you to create the type of community and experience that you’ve been dreaming of.

Being a residential educator can be tough, but remember that everything you learn in your first year will only make the years to come that much better. Allow yourself time to be the best professional you can be and always remember that it is okay to say, “I don’t know, but I can definitely learn.”

Always do your best and remember: even those above you were once first-year professionals.

Jonathan Higgins

About the author: Dr. Jonathan P. Higgins is a speaker, writer, and activist with over 10 years of student affairs experience. Their work focuses on race & identity and ways to better support marginalized students while eradicating oppression. Follow them on Twitter: @DoctorJonPaul. Learn how we can help get your students involved.

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