Be the water, not the rock.

By: Christina Ferrari 

This semester I have been interning with Roosevelt University’s Office of Residential Life. It has certainly been a wonderful experience, often in unanticipated ways! While my original projects did not pan out the way I hoped, I know I will be coming away from this experience with some new skills and knowledge. For example, working at a small institution has shown me how important relationship building can be. Navigating those relationships has also been an important lesson I am taking away from the experience. 

Under the supervision of a senior student affairs officer, I have witnessed the art of adaptability in action. In one day, my supervisor might have a staff meeting, meetings with students, projects for the department of residence life, meetings with faculty, phone calls from other administrators, and projects that impact all levels of the institution, followed by a Student Government Association meaning or program that evening. Watching her navigate various areas of the university is exhausting—I can only imagine how she must feel! (Did I mention she has a partner and one year old too?) I have truly valued the relationship she and I have built over the past couple months and it’s been a privilege to learn from her about how she lives out her numerous roles. Our candid conversations are filled with laughs, “aha” moments, and sometimes somber truths. For example, a couple weeks ago she and I were discussing some of my professional goals and I expressed to her my frustration with societal expectations for women. As I embark on my first fulltime position, I think about the goals I have for my life: motherhood, marriage, getting my doctorate, pursing hobbies in dance, theater, and travel, and working as a student affairs administrator. Ambitious, my vision for my future seems daunting. How will it all pan out? Will I have to make choices, sacrifices, and settle? Conversations with women in higher education like my internship supervisor have provided some comfort and inspiration. The “balancing act” of professional career and personal life is never over. I witnessed this first hand when my supervisor had to watch her son and brought him to the office while her husband was in class. With a baby in her lap, one hand on the keyboard, and a phone on her shoulder she smiled and said, “See Christina, we find a way to make it work. Be the water not the rock.”

Be the water, not the rock. This is a phrase she introduced me to the first day in the office, I can’t recall how we ended up discussing it, but she explained how this phrase has become one of her mantras. If you think about a shoreline, a rock on the coast is stationary. It does not move and stands ridged. The water, however, flows and changes and adapts to the winds, tides, and environment that influences it. Over time, the water even begins to slowly shape the rock as its waves wash over again and again. Being dynamic like water means adapting to what is happening around us, and allows us to influence (ever so subtly) those who stubbornly cling to the status quo. Water (unlike a rock) can find its way through the smallest crevice. We too can overcome difficult challenges or anything life may throw at us if we remain open to change and possibilities. Going with the flow is necessary as a mother, life partner, and student affairs professional.

A new department like the Office of Residence Life at a small institution necessitates this ability to adapt…particularly when it comes to institutional politics. The internship class that I am taking concurrently with my practical experience has helped me think about my observations in the larger context of higher education. For good or for ill, university politics is not unique to Roosevelt. Some of my peers and I have talked about the inherent challenges that face us as interns, since we might be exposed to some of the political context but often do not understand the full scope, nature, or history of why things operate in the university the way they do. One of the most pertinent lessons I have learned in my short time with the Office of Residence Life is that university politics do not necessarily need to be nasty or negative in nature. In fact, since this department is relatively new in nature (only in its second year) the staff has the exciting opportunity to define for themselves and others in the institution what their role is and how they work with other offices, departments, and university stakeholders. I have never worked in a new department, but the conversations I have with staff as we determine what key initiatives to develop has offered me insight on the importance of building trust and respect early so others can notice the value our department might offer the larger institution. We talk about becoming the “go to” department for faculty and other student affairs offices. To do so, we must collaborate. I have helped build these partnerships. For example, last month one of the floor communities I work with partnered with the largest student organization, RU Proud, and the hall council to educate students on being LGBTQ allies. 

One of my main projects was working with the RA of the Gender & Diversity Inclusion Theme Community to determine programs that his community might find valuable, and how they could collaborate with other constituents on campus. He coordinated the event and established a relationship between his community and this student organization. We decided to extend the program to the entire residence hall and had an incredible turnout! Small institutions allow for partnerships and collaboration to occur fairly easily, so long as mutually beneficial relationships are formed. 

Another example of this relationship building is my work with the Faculty Fellows program this semester. I have assisted my supervisor in brainstorming with faculty future theme communities for their students and potential courses to enhance the living-learning experience. Several faculty deans seem energized and enthusiastic to partner with our office. Others, unfortunately, are not as open or do not see the value in establishing more intentional communities with academic components. I understand that not everything goes smoothly and that relationship building, partnerships, and collaboration across units takes time and can be challenging. Not everyone we reach out to will share the vision we might have, but that does not mean we should not try. Be the water, not the rock. Flow into uncharted territory, those who are rocks may stay behind but those who choose to also be water can help us make waves and enhance our students’ educational and developmental experience.

Student Affairs - the First Years

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