Middle of Somewhere: 5 Ways to Stay Connected as a Middle Manager

We’ve all heard the adage, “The higher up you climb, the less student interaction you get.” I remember hearing this for the first time in grad school during a seminar my program hosted. Our VPSA walked us through a typical day, which consisted of approximately eleventy billion meetings, strategic planning, lots of emails, caucusing with other professionals at his level, and “If I’m lucky, I’ll have a quick conversation with our student office assistant.”

My naive grad school brain was floored. How could someone in such a position of power and decision-making have so little contact with the very people who would be impacted by such decisions? Why did the people with the least amount of [perceived] power (i.e. grad students such as myself) serve as advisors, supervisors, hearing officers, mentors, and more? I remember promising to myself that as I moved up, I would maintain regular contact with students at my institution.

Well, that is much easier said than done. I have recently transitioned from entry to mid-level management. This means I no longer supervise student leaders, I don’t have a front desk with a ton of student traffic feet from my office door, I don’t advise a hall council, I’m not expected to attend late night programming, I haven’t yet had a judicial case, and I work in a central office. Therefore, between administrative work, answering emails, having one-on-ones with with RDs, and running committees, it is entirely possible to go throughout the day and never see a student.

I was reminded of my grad school experience as I was transitioning into my new role and I was determined to not be an out-of-touch administrator, especially during my first year while I am still figuring out student culture. Even though the desire was there, the means were not as clear. I couldn’t just show up in classes or sit down to lunch with random students without being viewed as a creeper. I didn’t have the same responsibilities and expectations, and now I was living off-camus. This meant I usually left around 5pm and enjoyed cooking dinner, blogging, and catching up with Netflix. So how was I going to stay connected? For me, it was all about being intentional.

Duty Walks with RAs

Since I started my position the same day our grads did, I missed two weeks of RD training. I hadn’t had the chance to really walk our facilities or be on floors due to the blur of RA training and opening. I knew that if a major facility issue happened while I was on-call, I was going to struggle to envision the problem or quirks of our communities. Therefore, I’ve been doing the first set of rounds within one community per week since the start of school. This has not only helped me understand the unique needs of our community, but also connect with our incredible staff of Resident Advisors, as well as students we encounter while on our walks. There have also been a few challenging staffing situations in our department, so members of our Leadership Team are sometimes given the narrative of the bad guy, so I like to think of duty walks as a miniature goodwill tour as well.

Grad Assistant 1-on-1s

One of the very first things I did at the start of the year was send an invitation to all 13 of our Assistant Resident Directors and offer to set-up a lunch or chat over coffee. Nearly all of them took me up on my offer and I’ve been meeting with one or two ARDs per week. This has been absolutely amazing. Our department is fairly large (nearly 40 when everyone is present) so it is easy to lose connection with our graduate students in the haze of meetings and agendas. I’ve learned about their coursework, path into student affairs, side hobbies, how their staffs are doing, how they are transitioning to the field, or what their job searches may look like in a few months. These conversations have been mutually beneficial. I’ve received feedback that many grads appreciate someone in my role reaching out to them, getting to know them better, and also sharing pieces of my own journey.

Advising Opportunities 

When our chapter of NRHH needed a co-advisor, I jumped at the opportunity. Yes, this meant several more meetings and nighttime programs on my docket, but getting the chance to have direct contact with amazing student leaders was something I could not pass up. These student leaders represent the top 1% of all residence hall students on our campus so they are driven, organized, motivated, and genuinely invested in living out the organization’s values. I meet with the executive board every other week, do my best to attend general board meetings twice a month, and I plan to support my team as they put on monthly programs on campus. More time? Sure. Worth it? Absolutely.

Staff Meetings and Trainings 

I’ve offered up my love of presenting and facilitating staff development workshops to a few of the RA teams and I’ve been booked to present Strengths to an RA staff next week. This smaller, more focused opportunity not only helps me get more face time with our student leaders, but also takes some pressure off of the RD and ARD as they don’t have to facilitate the activity. I hope the RAs will enjoy learning more about their Strengths and how its impacts their leadership styles, and if it goes well, I hope to be invited to more staff meetings throughout campus.

Social Media Outlets

While the other options I’ve listed do require physical presence, engaging with students via social media can be done from the comfort of my home, usually while wearing sweatpants. I’m a firm believer in the phrase “lurking is learning,” so even if I’m not having conversations with students online, just scrolling through Instagram or searching for key phrases on Twitter gives me a jumpstart on understanding student culture. Also, for all of its shortcomings, Yik Yak has also served as a useful tool for me to see what is going through the heads of our student body, or even community members who are within a certain radius of campus. Yes, there are horrible things going on through the app (which is another post for another day), but I’ve also learned a great deal about classes, study habits, party culture, and transitional issues of students through the posts, upvotes, and comments.

In order to do my job well, I need to make decisions based on student needs and not just my perceptions of those needs. This can’t happen if I’m holed up in my office, huddled over my email, or constantly in meetings. Even if it means using some of my nighttime or weekend hours, its worth it in the end. I didn’t get into this field to work a typical 9-5 schedule, so sometimes those non-traditional hours make the 9-5 a heck of a lot easier.

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