8 Mistakes to Avoid During the Housing & Residence Life Move-In Process

September 9, 2015

Residence Life Mistakes

August has come and gone with an incredible amount of hard work from my staff for which I am extremely grateful. This has inspired me to think of some of the lessons that I have learned (the hard way!) over the past 20+ years of being a part of and managing the move-in process for new and returning students. While this isn’t an exhaustive list, I feel the following are eight of the most important Mistakes to Avoid During the Housing & Residence Life Move-In Process:

    1. DON’T FEED YOUR STAFF – Move-in is a very busy and stressful time. Unfortunately, we can forget about doing the simple things we need to do like eating (remember Maslow?) If you are going to require your staff to be there all day for move-in, you need to feed them. Or at the very least give them ample time to go and take care of themselves. Rotate shifts with your staff if need be. Keep in mind that orientation-type meals may have long lines and may not be the best option for staff who need to be in and out quickly. For move-in days here in which I need my entire staff working, I will either have food delivered or shop for groceries (i.e., sandwich fixings, fried chicken, salad ingredients, etc.) so that they can make they own plate and spend some time relaxing with one another. Remember to consider those with food allergies and / or other nutritional considerations (i.e., vegetarian, religious, diet / wellness, etc.) because pizza, wings, burgers, and hot dogs are easy and convenient, but not always universally appreciated.
    2. ARGUING WITH PARENTS – While you may be right with your argument and holding your ground, this is one fight that you are not going to win in the end. Parents are very quick to email and / or call the VP and / or the president of the institution, and students are eager to complain on social media. In many cases, some people just cannot be appeased so you’re better off having handled a situation in a respectful and “win-win” manner rather than adding fuel to the fire. I also recommend reading Eight Strategies for Communicating with Challenging Parents I wrote for The Student Affairs Collective.
    3. HAVING STUDENT STAFF MANAGE IRATE PARENTS – Handling irate parents is never fun nor is it something we look forward to. However, doing so should always be managed by a full-time professional staffer and not a student resident assistant. That’s why we’re paid professionals. Professional staffers also have more leeway when it comes to making decisions and coming up which options (or holding the line) that student staffers cannot. Furthermore, this can be an emotionally traumatic experience for a student employee, which will inevitably set a negative tone with them for the rest of the year.
    4. NOT PREPARING FOR CONTINGENCIES – Not to sound like a post-apocalyptic “prepper,” but problems will happen so you need to prepare for the worst. Know your placements, know your vacancies, and know how to make switches if needed. Not only can unexpected maintenance issues arise, but simple occupancy mistakes can also necessitate moving students (i.e., mixing genders in a single gender room / floor by accident). Do you have cleaning staff on site? What do you do if a key does not work? Is there a plan if the fire alarm goes off? Granted, you can’t think of every little scenario that could happen, but remember problems that have occurred in the past, and create a plan to handles those types of situations. Your staff will also appreciate this rather than having to scramble to find answers.
    5. NOT DRESSING COMFORTABLY – August is always hot no matter where you are in the country. A dress code is important, but you need to consider what is appropriate during a warm move-in. We are usually equipped with a new department t-shirt or polo, which is usually comfortable enough. But if these aren’t provided, consider relaxing the dress code to accommodate your staffers who will inevitably be moving carts, running errands, and walking the floors to meet and greet parents and students.
    6. MAKING PROMISES YOU CANNOT KEEP – We all want to be helpful and provide a memorable move-in experience for our students and their families. However, as I always tell my staff, if you don’t know something, ask! Don’t make it up just to get rid of someone or make yourself look like a hero! Never promise something that you cannot deliver on. Not only does this make the team look bad, but also the institution as a whole. Plus it can start a rocky relationship from day one, which will inevitably resurface again and again throughout the year. As an example, if there is a cleaning complaint and you say someone will be there within the hour to touch it up, someone BETTER be there within the hour. Likewise, if you state that a new mattress can be supplied within the week, you BETTER have a new mattress there within seven days. Not only does this apply to facilities issues, but even relationship building and student development practices (e.g., “I can help you find clubs to get involved with!”; “Come to dinner with us tonight…I’ll be by at 5pm to get you!”)
    7. LOSING YOUR COOL – August can be the most stressful time of the year for most of us. Case in point, when August 1st rolls around I always tell my wife, “I’ll see you in September!” (Residence Life spouses are saints by the way!) Managing training, resources, facilities, and the anticipation of increasing nasty parental involvement and student complaints is enough to create more than a few sleepless nights for Residence Life professionals. However, you need to be able to successfully manage that stress and not lose your cool during the move-in process. As the leader, you must be the role model as the cool and collected professional in charge. Granted, this is not easy; I myself have become angry in years past and wish I could have a few “re-do’s” with a few situations. But as a result I have become more self-aware after having more practice under stressful circumstances. Losing your cool in front of fellow colleagues, staff, students, and / or parents is certainly embarrassing, and can even cost you your job. Sometimes you simply need a few minutes to yourself to breathe and clear your head. It’s alright to ask for help and delegate authority to another colleague so you can take a break for a few moments. I often hear Student Affairs professionals talk about self-care, but rarely practice it. ResLifers particularly wear a “badge of courage” when it comes to managing work and trading war stories. Unfortunately, this doesn’t bode well for business as we can constantly be on edge and are more prone to lose our cool.
    8. NOT THANKING YOUR STAFF – I have heard various managers use the phrase, “Hard work in itself should be thanks enough!” which I think is simply arrogant. People appreciate being acknowledged for working hard. I strongly believe that I am nothing without the dedication and support of my employees. As a servant leader, I do my best to thank my staff not only at the end of the move-in process, but every morning and throughout the day as well. I try to see various “above-and-beyond” moments that staffers provide and point them out to them expressing my gratitude. And to be honest, making them feel good also makes me feel good! That’s something we all can benefit from holistically.

What are some other mistakes to avoid during the move-in process? Please share below in the comment section or tweet me at @studentlifeguru.

Conference Hacks: Tricks for Saving Time & Money

March 16, 2015

Conference Hacks

Attending conferences is quite the expense and is easily seen as a luxury by many decision-makers at our prospective colleges and universities. After attending the most recent ACPA Convention, I kept a track of various tricks that I myself employed to save time and money during my stay.

1. HOTEL FLOOR PLACEMENT – Every time I stay at a hotel, I ask the front desk staff to do their best to place me on the lowest floor. If possible, I have them place me on a floor that doesn’t require the use of the elevator to get to where I need to go. This saves a lot of time waiting for the elevator, which can be tiresome especially when you are on a schedule to get to and from place to place. Getting a room near stairs in which you only have to go up or down one or two floors can save you a lot of time (and help you burn some calories in the process!)

2. GROCERY SHOPPING –  Having access to inexpensive and convenient food can be nearly impossible depending on the location of your conference. Many of the hotels and convention centers have a monopoly on the food market with expensive kiosks, franchises, or in-house restaurants. A small part of my soul died when I paid $3.00 for a can of Diet Coke at the Tampa Convention Center! I do my best to get around some of this by packing non-perishable snacks and other food items that will fit in my luggage (i.e., dried fruit, granola bars, candy, etc.)

Additionally, I do my best to make my way to a local grocery store and stock up on items that I can store in the hotel minifridge and / or buy a small Styrofoam cooler I can pack with ice from the hotel machine. Buying simple breakfast (i.e., yogurt, oatmeal, bagels) and lunch foods (i.e., lunch meat, fruits, salad components) can literally save you hundreds of dollars from eating every meal at the hotel or convention center. Granted, you may have to get dinner on your own, but over the course of a multi-day stay, this strategy will help you save money. I got away with eating Chobani yogurt, granola, and a banana for breakfast for three days at the ACPA convention, which probably saved me at least $45.00 or so.

3. TWITTER CROWDSOURCING – Twitter is a great resource to use to connect with colleagues to enhance your conference experience. Use the designated conference hashtag to connect with other conference attendees to share taxi rides, meet up for dinner, and even attend social events together (e.g., “Anyone interested in going to the hockey game tonight with me? #ACPA15.”) This is especially helpful if you are the only person from your institution and don’t want to be alone. Additionally, you can use Twitter to hook up with others at the conference to share work-related resources and collaborate on projects together.

4. PARKING & TRANSPORTATION – Scope out transportation and parking options prior to your leaving home. Using public transportation to and from the hotel can save you a lot of money because taxi service will be expensive if you are on a budget. Check out the bus or rail lines online for the city you are traveling to figure out the cost and timing of getting around. If driving your own, find the public parking decks close to the hotel ahead of time so you can be strategic in parking with a much cheaper option than using hotel valet or their in-house parking.

5. BAGGAGE – On a few occasions, I have packed flat, prepaid postage boxes in the bottom of my suitcase to pack with items to be sent home. Typically the airline will charge the basic bag fee for up to 50 lbs., but will whack you $100 or more for weight over that. If you know you are going to be receiving awards, books, tchotchkes from the trade show, handouts, and other weight-inducing items, it will definitely be cheaper to pack them in a box and send it. Normally you can leave the box at the hotel’s front desk, and they’ll make sure it gets picked up.

What are some other “conference hacks” that you have used to save time and money when attending regional and national conferences? Please share your thoughts below in the comments section and / or via Twitter by mentioning @studentlifeguru in your tweet. 



Overcoming Mobbing: A Recovery Guide for Workplace Aggression and Bullying (Book Review)

January 20, 2015

Overcoming Mobbing

It is my contention that the workplace should be a place of collegiality, integrity, and respect. Unfortunately, as long as there are differences in agendas, opinions, personalities, and power there will always be conflicts at work. Some of these conflicts can become downright nasty and end up costing individuals their jobs, and more insidious, their health, well-being, and subsequently, the welfare of their families.

I came across a great resource when doing some research on workplace bullying that I thought would be helpful for Student Affairs professionals. Overcoming Mobbing: A Recovery Guide for Workplace Aggression and Bullying (2014: Oxford University Press) by Maureen Duffy and Len Sperry is a must read for those professionals dealing with or attempting to prevent organizational bullying. Duffy and Sperry define “mobbing” as “a destructive social process in which individuals, groups, or organizations target a person for ridicule, humiliation, and removal from the workplace.” Mobbing is different than bullying in that it occurs en mass involving multiple workers, administrators, and managers willing to participate in unethical communication that is both written and verbal. Bullying, on the other hand, occurs when one individual, such as a supervisor alone, targets an employee.

The process of ganging up includes such behaviors as the following: workplace conflict, people taking sides, unethical communication, other aggressive and abusive acts, involvement of management or administration, elimination of the target from the workplace, and post-elimination unethical communication. Mobbing is caused by a mix of individual, group, and organizational dynamics. An example of mobbing in Student Affairs can include colleagues ganging up on someone who is in line for promotion to a senior position in their department because those individuals do not want that person to assume that role. Tactics they use include spreading false information about their performance, befriending executive decision-makers and giving inaccurate and negative reports of that person, and purposely not inviting them to informal department meetings outside of normal work hours. As a result, they do not receive the promotion, begin to come under undue scrutiny from supervisors, and ultimately leave the institution because of the abuse.

Given the highly bureaucratic and politically-charged nature of higher education institutions, it only stands to reason that mobbing can and does occur within colleges and universities. Overcoming Mobbing: A Recovery Guide for Workplace Aggression and Bullying is a great primer that administrators in Student Affairs departments can use to facilitate discussion on how to create and nurture a “mobbing-free” environment. While it is unreasonable to think that colleges and universities are the bastions of collegiality and civility, we as Student Affairs administrators should ultimately work toward that goal, particularly as we serve as role models to our students.

What are some strategies that you feel should be used in order to create a “mobbing-free” workplace in Student Affairs?

The Things We Dread: Evaluations (Guest post by Sinclair P. Ceasar)

December 29, 2014

Staff Evaluations

You both sit down to the table for a chat. Well, it’s more formal than a chat. Your employee looks at you with wide eyes. At present, they are more attentive than they are at staff meetings, and you feel pressure to say everything with a smile – even if the information is negative at times. Why do we have to go through this? Aren’t they self-aware enough to know how they’re doing at their own job? You refocus your attention on the mid-year evaluation before you and begin.

Evaluations Can Be an Ordeal

Many of us are gearing up for mid-year evaluations with our supervisors, our staff members, and ourselves. We tell ourselves we won’t get lost in the rubrics and number valuations, but at some point we trip up during the evaluation process especially when we appraise our own employees. For me, most the anxiety around assessing my staff stems from me not wanting to hurt feelings or turn staff off from the work they do. At the end of the day, I’ve hired competent individuals who work to improve the lives of students. Alas, those same individuals are imperfect and need coaching, mentoring, and feedback.

Feedback with a Purpose

At some point in my career, I decided to view one-on-one meetings as opportunities for improvement and relationship building, rather than just simple check-ins with my staff. Reframing my meetings changed my line of questioning. I became more interested in the life of my employees outside of work. I wanted to know about how their interpersonal relationships were with their teammates. And I questioned their thought processes when reviewing situations they’d dealt with since our last meeting. I wanted to affirm their decision making skills and let them know where they could improve as well. Jack Welch, former CEO of General Electric said to “make every meeting an appraisal.” Sure, I could have a staff that dreads criticism each time they enter my office. Or, I could have a team that values my perspectives because they know my intentions are to build and strengthen instead of belittle and weaken.

By the time we reach evaluation season, my staff is knowledgeable about their progress and areas of growth. The formal appraisal meeting becomes a space to exclusively converse about what they need to do to take their positions to the next level. We focus on actionable steps and end the meeting with goals and deadlines. The result: we have an account of their progress, written steps to better performance, and an entire evaluation packet to help me keep them accountable throughout the next half of the semester.

Putting it All Together

Here are 3 ways you can kick up your staff evaluations and make them less scary and more meaningful:

1. Show them how what they do matters – One section of my evaluation focused on interpersonal relationships. This section contained phrases like: staff member effectively communicates with others and staff member updates supervisor in a timely fashion. On the surface, these could seem like basic outcomes to measure, but I went beyond simply saying how well my employee did in those areas, and I came prepared with examples for each line of feedback I wrote. I also had an overall explanation of why we evaluated employees on interpersonal relationships in the first place and how it connected with our departmental goals. You want to know why your boss wants you to do something, and your staff wants to know the importantance and impact of their jobs.

2. Nothing should be a surprise- Your mid-year evaluations may be anxiety filled no matter what you do, but none of the feedback you provide should blindside your staff. Do yourself a favor and take 5-10 minutes during each one-on-one meeting to provide an informal appraisal. It will make your mid-year evaluation run smoothly, and you and your staff member will be on the same page.

3. Make the numbers work for you – We used a numbering system at one of my institutions in the way that “1” meant you were weak in an area and “5” meant you excelled. Once, I told my staff that no one would get above a “3” because they were all new, and it wasn’t realistic to have an exceptional staff member at that point. This was a huge mistake. I received backlash from staff members who felt this wasn’t fair and expressed how they excelled in some areas. Word to the wise: make sure the number system make sense, is objective, and is used fairly.

I’m curious to know what your best practices are.

Does your staff find evaluations to be refreshing and helpful? What changes have you made to your process in the past years? What are some challenges you face as a supervisor when it comes to appraising your staff? Please feel free to comment below.

Sinclair P. Ceasar has six years of experience with Residence Life, New Student Orientation, First Year Programming, and Service Learning. He is currently an Assistant Director of Residence Life at Mount St. Mary’s University in Maryland, and enjoys dancing, running 5K’s, and being a foodie in his leisure time. Follow him on twitter @sceasar1020.

* Graphic courtesy of Sigurd Decroos

Surviving Political Game-Playing in Student Affairs

November 5, 2014

Political Game-Playing in Student Affairs

The culture of working in higher education is fraught with conflict, varied personalities, and institution-wide politics. Navigating the political waters of a college or university can be a daunting and, oftentimes, frustrating process. While working in Student Affairs can be a very rewarding experience, it can also be very challenging. Although we’re all in the business of educating students, there are always competing priorities, limited resources, and personal agendas, which creates a chessboard of politics throughout each of our institutions.

When I use the term “game-playing,” I mean it in the negative sense in which individuals use the political landscape of the institution (most times unethically) to further their own agenda to the detriment of others. This is much different than being politically savvy and knowing how to develop relationships and collaborate with others in order to accomplish the goals of your department.

Here are a few examples to better illustrate political game-playing:

  • Unnecessarily carbon copying someone’s supervisor on an email to stir the waters to potentially get them in hot water
  • Planting student “spies” to dig up dirt and  tattletale back
  • Purposely befriending someone’s supervisor on a personal level in order to “conveniently” drop criticisms about that person
  • Sending anonymous communications to the president’s office with untrue allegations about a staffer’s conduct

Despite these type of dynamics, there are many strategies you can use to stay above negative political game-playing, particularly within Student Affairs.

Surround Yourself with Positive Allies – Misery loves company. Negativity and naysayers will certainly bring you down so spend your time with as many positive colleagues as possible. Befriend and partner with those who further the mission and vision of the institution rather than those who attempt to control, demotivate, and sabotage.

Concentrate on Your Students & the Work – Political game-playing takes a lot of time and energy so keep your efforts focused on the primary reason for your being there: the students. Concentrate on developing and educating the students you serve rather than getting involved with needless drama. While doing well can definitely attract undue criticism from jealous colleagues, you can always be confident that you are doing your job and contributing to solutions and not problems.

Don’t Fight Battles That Aren’t Yours to Fight – One of the easiest ways to avoid political game-playing is by only concerning yourself with those projects and tasks that are directly under your purview. Getting involved in issues that simply do not pertain to you opens up the door for undue criticism and potentially making yourself into a political target. The majority of us in Student Affairs do not have tenure so we cannot do and say as we please without potential political consequences. Please understand that I am not dismissing your need to become involved in those issues related to social justice, particularly in regards to the health, safety, and well-being of our students.

Stay Away from Troublemakers – Similar to surrounding yourself with positive allies, keep clear of those individuals who are known to cause trouble and do not seem to have many positive allies of their own. These folks are easy to spot: arguing simply for argument’s sake, lying, pawning work onto others, spreading rumors, and sabotaging projects. As they say, you are the company you keep so spending time with troublemakers can mark you as one yourself.

Don’t Squabble for Kudos – Over the years I have seen many colleagues become nasty people and attempt to stab each other in the back in order to get a pat on the back from the higher up’s. Clambering for kudos always seems to lead to trouble. There’s nothing wrong with being humble and enjoying your accomplishments privately; nobody likes the “teacher’s pet.” Granted, we all want to be recognized for our hard work, but don’t let personal pride become a source of unneeded conflict.

Don’t Compromise Your Values – Most importantly, don’t EVER compromise your values. A majority of the time, political game-playing is going to be unethical, offensive, disgraceful, and in some cases, simply illegal. If you find yourself in a position in which you are often finding yourself having to question directives because of  unethical or illegal practices, seek advice from your human resource department or even an attorney. In a worse case scenario, find another place to work. Yes, I know this is easier said than done, but you want to position yourself at a place that upholds its own mission, vision, values, and fosters your professional integrity.

Being a Servant Leader within Student Affairs

March 31, 2014


Last night I had the opportunity to spend time at the ACPA awards reception with a former student who is now an accomplished colleague and a close friend. Opportunities like this inspire me and make me further appreciate the joys of being a Student Affairs professional.

At the convention we heard from both Kohl Crecelius and Erik Qualman about making a positive impact upon others and leaving a legacy. That is the heart of what it means to be a Student Affairs professional and a servant leader. We all have the opportunity to impact people in many life-changing ways. I, like most of you, want to serve others by enabling them to be stronger, more prepared, and to be able to thrive both personally and professionally. Furthermore, I want to influence others to be servant leaders.

Use the time at the convention to connect with others and found how they serve their employees, their institution, their students, and their communities. What are new and innovative ways they are serving others? In kind, share your own successes and even your frustrations and gain some feedback on how you can do better (and more!)

As you explore your own journey as a Student Affairs professional and servant leader, please let me know how I can help you. I am always willing to listen, lend advice, and collaborate.

ACPA Convention Professional Development Scavenger Hunt

March 23, 2014

ACPA Professional Development

The upcoming ACPA Convention allows each of us to connect and learn from one another in very impactful ways. Each of us can create our own customized convention experience, but sometimes this can be haphazard and without little or any thought behind how we determine what to do while there. I would like to suggest that you follow a professional development “scavenger hunt” to get the most out of your convention experience. By following this scavenger hunt, you will be able have some concrete goals going into the convention that can further develop your career rather than simply catching up with old friends and attending interesting sessions.

1. Attend a technology-related session and jot down ideas of how you can incorporate session lessons into your department.

2. Meet a new colleague from a different region of the country and make plans to check in on each other throughout the year via phone, email, or social media.

3. Attend a session in an area or topic unrelated to your department and attempt to collaborate with colleagues from that area when you return to campus related to the information you learned.

4. Lend some help by signing up to volunteer for one of various functional areas throughout the convention.

5. Go to a Commission meeting and plan to participate regularly in their activities and discussions throughout the year.

6. Purchase a book from the available publisher on the convention floor and share its content when returning to campus.

7. Meet a younger colleague and offer to mentor them with your experience.

8. Tweet from a session to share its content with your followers and those who are not at the convention.

9. Talk to at least one of the session presenters and offer to collaborate on a project together.

10. Take random brainstorming notes to prepare for presenting a session for next year’s convention.

Good luck with the professional development scavenger hunt. Enjoy your convention experience!


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