questions by James A. Baumann
There are few people whose career path follows a straight line. Personal
plans, professional opportunities, economic realities, and many more factors
can affect where someone ends up in their professional life. The field of
student affairs and campus housing is no different. In this issue we speak with a number of people who started
their careers in campus housing but now find themselves working for companies
that serve the campus housing market in a variety of ways. Joining the
conversation are Wimer Alberto (GradGuard), Paul Brown (Roompact), Cate
Morrison (eRezLife Software), Chad Elliott (eRezLife Software), Terri Gray
(CORT), Jason Gross (Adirondack Solutions), Allen Chouinard (Southwest
Contract), and Ann Morgenstern (StarRez).
They discuss their different paths, transferable skills, what they miss,
and much more. It seems that you may be able to take the individual out of campus housing, but you can't always take the campus housing out of the individual. The responses have been edited for length and clarity.
Talking Stick: Describe your experiences working on
campuses before making the jump to the corporate world.
Paul Brown: I worked in residence life and student
affairs for nearly 20 years before starting work at a private company. I had never even thought of leaving the field
until I was finishing my Ph.D. in higher education. As I neared the end of my
time, however, I found myself wanting different things. Pursuing a faculty role would have required
me to go on the tenure track and probably relocate to an area I didn’t want to
live in. Going back into administration would have required me to make
lifestyle sacrifices. Given my passions for and research in technology, it’s
what led me to work for a software company, Roompact.
Jason Gross: By all accounts, I was on a path to work
in student affairs for my entire career. During my undergraduate and graduate
years, I was fortunate to have a great dean of students who got me involved in
campus government and student affairs. I began as an RA, was promoted to an undergraduate
RD, and then stayed on as a graduate RD while working on my MBA. So, after
eight years of living at college, I walked out with two undergraduate degrees,
a master’s degree, and a wealth of firsthand experience in the art of putting
out fires – literal and figurative – that other people started. Throughout my
time in student affairs, I had the opportunity to work with different service
providers (food, furniture, laundry, technology), and it was always in the back
of my head as a pivot career if and when I decided to leave the field.
Cate Morrison: I started my career in residence life
as an RHA member and have worked as an RA, hall director, area coordinator, RHA
advisor, and associate director at the University of British Columbia. I was fortunate
to work with an incredibly talented, educated, and thoughtful group of
colleagues at UBC who fundamentally influenced my perspective and the way I
view student affairs and the student experience.
Wimer Alberto: I was fortunate to experiment in
various functional areas prior to transitioning to a student affairs-aligned
role. I served as a resident director at Utica College and Binghamton
University for five years. I then served as a senior coordinator for occupancy management
at Arizona State University. I was later promoted to the assistant director for
guest and conference services position. Each of these experiences helped foster
a deeper appreciation for the multifaceted work that residence life and housing
professionals do on a day-to-day basis.
Ann Morgenstern: During my undergrad at Kansas State,
I spent time as an RA and also worked in the housing office. I learned a lot from listening to the
residence life team share stories of their daily life. After undergrad, I
worked as an admissions counselor and traveled nearly every week for the fall
and spring. I returned to the housing world at Ole Miss where I completed
graduate school, worked full time in the housing office, and logged into
StarRez for the first time.
Chad Elliott: Prior to starting at eRezLife, I worked
within residence life for over a decade. I always had a strong interest in
business, and it was during my time at the University of British Columbia
(UBC), Canada’s largest residence life and student housing operation, that I
decided to take my work and life experiences back to school and complete an
MBA. In my final two years while working at UBC, my future business partner and
I built and piloted a fully cloud-based software solution to help my colleagues
manage their various residence life communities. Little did I know at the time
that the challenge we were addressing was something many schools were also
experiencing across North America.
Allen Chouinard: My experiences in campus housing and
residence life run the gamut from being a student employee when I was a desk
receptionist and RA, to then being a graduate student apartment manager and
facilities manager, to finally being a full-time professional at a number of
schools where I worked in several areas of housing, with facilities becoming my
major area of focus. It was 22 years of fun at five different institutions.
Terri Gray: My work in student affairs and
particularly campus housing was a second career for me. I realized I was on the
wrong path, so I gave up a lucrative career and went back to grad school full
time. One of the biggest lessons I learned working in higher ed is how
important everyone’s voice is. I remained in higher ed until 2001 when one of
the suppliers we worked with offered me a position out of Atlanta to help build
their higher education market. It was an opportunity to live somewhere other
than California for the first time as well.
TS: Were there classes or other previous experiences you
had (work, hobbies, passion projects, etc.) that hinted you could end up doing
what you are doing now? Or were you exposed to this possibility via your work
Elliott: A bit of both. I’m not sure if anyone grows
up knowing that they want to be an entrepreneur. My entrepreneurial spirit was
fueled during my MBA, while also providing the perfect opportunity to
collaborate and create business and marketing plans. My newly acquired business
knowledge – combined with my intimate residence life knowledge, experience, and
professional network – provided everything I needed to incorporate and launch
Brown: I also had always been somewhat
entrepreneurial in my work. Through blogging, presenting, and speaking, I found
that I could pursue passions independently. I was lucky to have many
supervisors and mentors who nurtured and supported this for me. In fact, many
of the positions I held in residence life were often created specifically for
me. That’s also what happened when I went to work at Roompact. It was an
opportunity to leverage my education and research interests in a way that still
connected me to higher education.
Morrison: Never in my wildest dreams did I think that
I would be working for a software company, as that was not where I have any
education or experience. Being a campus school administrator of eRezLife
fundamentally influenced how I approach my role there. Being in the shoes of
our community members allows me to relate and better understand their
experience. On a personal level, I can empathize with the experience of being
pulled in many directions and having to deal with tough situations on a daily
basis, while still needing to collect information that confirms the validity of
Alberto: I was fortunate to work at organizations –
and work for supervisors – that entrusted me with increased responsibilities
that helped me gain the administrative, social, and political acumen that
eventually set me up for success in my current role. One of my goals in the
early chapters of my career was to have a holistic understanding of the work
that residence life and housing professionals do. This was imperative when the
opportunity to transition to a university relations role at GradGuard materialized.
Morgenstern: I tell people my career path in student
housing started in first grade. My older sister was an RA, and anything she
did, I was her shadow. Somehow, copying my older sister turned into a career
and eventually led me to StarRez. My undergrad is in advertising and marketing,
so I spent a lot of time writing, designing, and presenting. These are skills I
still use every day.
Gross: When I was an undergraduate, out of a class of
less than 400, the dean of students knew everyone by name and really did all he
could to make everyone feel like a member of the community. For me, that meant
a lot and opened my eyes to what a career in student affairs could possibly be.
Like most young adults, I only saw one side of the story and thought,
“Seriously, I get to stay at college forever?
Sign me up!” Ultimately, I realized that entwining yourself in the lives
of others is not a recipe for work/life balance and made the decision to step
Chouinard: I'm not sure there is anything in life
that leads one to become a residence hall furniture provider, but events along
the way probably shaped my thoughts about the crucial role that facilities
management plays. So as I think about my move from working on a campus to
working with many facilities directors on many campuses, I can say that I went
from impacting the lives of thousands of students on one campus to impacting
the lives of tens of thousands of students on many campuses over the course of
Gross: A successful career in student housing allows
one to develop the skills of thinking on your feet, doing more with less,
organizing chaos, and working the room. Thankfully, that skillset translates to
almost any career and provides almost instant credibility when talking with
colleagues who are still in the field.
Gray: Ditto to what Jason said. Also I got a lot out
of our staff retreats and training, especially learning about myself, my
emotional intelligence, how I make decisions, etc. so that we better understood
what each of our strengths were and how we could better work together.
Morgenstern: I agree that the experiences from
several years in housing are part of my daily work. When I give a demo, I use examples and
stories from personal experience. Years of working with students gives you
endless content. It also helps to recognize how those working on a campus are
feeling different times of the year. I completely understand just how chaotic
August can be, how quiet the middle of December feels, and how long it takes to
go through 800 room-change requests in May.
Elliott: To be honest, I regularly draw from the
culmination of everything during my time in residence life. I’m truly grateful
for the skills and experiences gained from living and working within such
vibrant and diverse communities and teams: communication and collaboration,
critical thinking and problem solving, active listening and empathy,
negotiating and compromising, and team building and leadership. To me, residence
life provided an environment to learn, make mistakes, and better prepare for
what the world may bring.
Alberto: University relations work is about
relationships: two organizations coming together to address a problem or need
that neither organization would be best suited to address on their own. In many
ways, these relationships resemble the work that I did at Arizona State. Each
campus partnership is unique. Similar to the conference role, it is our
responsibility to make, build, and fortify a long-term relationship with the
department while also making sure that our partners see themselves as active
stakeholders in the process.
Brown: Residence life professionals are often the
Swiss Army knives of the university. You need to draw on an incredibly diverse
skillset which makes you easily adaptable to a lot of different work
experiences. Underpinning all of this, I
think my exposure to general leadership development and the cultivation of a
set of ethics and values has guided me in everything I do now.
Morrison: I draw upon my experiences on a daily
basis. Whether it’s hosting roundtable discussions or contributing to
conferences, committees, or working groups, the ability to connect and relate
to experiences makes a huge difference. The context of my previous experience
combined with the exposure to the experiences of so many colleagues allows me
to see trends, address issues, and create resources that support our community
and provide thought leadership to the industry.
Chouinard: I find myself drawing on the facilities
planning skills, whether I'm reviewing with our partners the aspects of our
products and trying to help them decide which ones will best meet their
students’ needs or as I'm planning deliveries and installations with other
partners. My goals are to help all of our partners improve the student
experiences on their campuses. Each campus and each campus partner has unique student
needs and cultures that they deal with every day, and my role is to help them
meet those needs.
Morrison: This question is very difficult to answer!
At my job now I’m able to continue to experience many of the aspects of
residence life that I found fulfilling. That said, there has been a period of
adjustment as the experience looks very different as a corporate member. There
is a different level of excitement and energy when you step onto a campus, or
have the opportunity to see a staff member have a breakthrough with a student,
or find success with a new and innovative program. I miss that energy; however, I am fortunate
to experience that through the stories of our community members.
Chouinard: I'd say the midnight calls about a pipe
leak or a power outage is the one aspect of my on-campus roles that I miss the
most. NOT! Really there are two things I miss: the student interaction and
energy you got when dealing with students every day.
Brown: I agree that the collegiality and culture of
higher education is one of the things that motivates me and gives me purpose.
It’s not that you can’t get this outside of a college or university setting,
but I do think it is more rare. By staying connected and getting involved in
professional associations, by presenting and writing for publication, and by
working with professionals from across the world in my daily work, I have been
able to stay connected to this work.
Elliott: I’d probably say I miss the training and
mentoring of young student leaders and watching them grow into confident
individuals who will make a positive difference. I also miss the day-to-day
interactions with my residence life network, but let’s be honest, I know for
certain that I don’t miss being on call 24/7 and carrying a duty phone. I originally
wrote “pager'” but realized I may be dating myself.
Gross: As I say in my demonstrations, I’m
living the best of both worlds right now. I get to live vicariously through my
colleagues’ experiences, but without the Zero Dark Thirty
emergencies. By its very nature, student affairs is a collegial occupation, and
I was always fortunate to work with great students, grads, and professionals.
Gray: I, too, have the best of both worlds and can’t
imagine working with anyone but those on college campuses. While I still get to
see – and sometimes work with – students on campus at various events, I really
miss the amazing student staff we had. They were incredible.
Alberto: I miss being able to leverage the broader
communal problem-solving culture that, in my eyes, embodies the residence life
and housing ethos. This isn’t to say that we don’t have access to those same
relationships now. However, part of the reason that residence life and housing
departments choose to partner with specific vendors is that their vendor of
preference provides a good or service that is somehow unique or proprietary.
Morgenstern: There is a feeling when you’re on a
college campus that cannot be replicated. It’s watching parents say goodbye at
the start of the year. And watching the same parents wonder how their child
accumulated so much stuff by move-out. It’s hearing laughter and conversation
as you walk down a hall. It’s watching students succeed and meet lifelong
friends. When I walk on a campus, I still feel it and dearly miss it. But, like
others, one ring of a duty phone quickly breaks the nostalgia.
James A. Baumann is editor of Talking Stick.