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.

Using Chess Strategy & Tactics in Student Affairs

August 16, 2015


Working in student affairs is fraught with many challenges and opportunities. Being able to successfully maneuver through a busy work environment is a skill that all student affairs professionals need to develop. I have found that playing chess has helped me to think about various strategies and tactics used for the game that I can also use at work. Chess is a wonderful game that I encourage you all to learn and practice.

MANAGING TEMPO – In chess, “tempo” refers to a single move. By alternating turns and making moves, you gain tempo. If you get in a position in which your pieces are under attack, you may have to move backward in order to prevent losing a piece. You lose tempo by continually moving your pieces backward in a defensive position rather than moving forward and setting up an offensive attack. Eventually you do not develop enough pieces to be successful, your opponent squeezes you for space on the chessboard, and starts picking off your pieces one by one.

Sometimes I can find myself and other student affairs colleagues losing tempo when it comes to successfully managing our own projects and schedules throughout the day and year. Create tempo by eliminating distractions as much as possible, which can include avoiding unproductive meetings. If something can be solved with a quick email or phone call, get in that habit of doing that instead. Additionally, manage tempo by reducing extra projects and responsibilities that simply do not add to the goals and mission of your direct work. Not only will this help you in a time-management sense, but will also help you from an emotional standpoint so you are not overstretched.

PLAYING FOR THE END GAME – The goal in chess is to put your opponent’s king in a position in which it is being attacked (“check”) and ultimately cannot make another move (“checkmate”). Having a plan in place from the beginning (and throughout) is more helpful than merely making moves in response to what your opponent does. Having the end in mind (to use a phrase from Covey) helps you think through the process in getting there. You should use this process for strategic planning for the year as well as lifelong career goals. Unfortunately, we can get trapped in the day-to-day tasks of work or constantly putting out proverbial “fires” and neglect long term planning on an ongoing basis. Taking time out of your work week (even if it’s only an hour) to make future plans should be a part of your regular schedule.

MANAGING ALL OF YOUR PIECES – In chess, the queen has the ability to move like every other piece (aside from moving like a knight) so it’s a very versatile tool. However, many new players use the queen to their detriment by using the queen too early and too much. Doing this risks the possibility of being captured and not developing your other pieces; this puts a player in a compromising positional standpoint. Being able to utilize all of your resources and skills is crucial given the scope and complexity of our work. Doing everything yourself or simply delegating important work to just one key person is not a smart strategy. Having one staffer managing everything will burn them out and is counterproductive. Additionally, you are less likely to get more done if you are limiting those who could be more involved. Like chess, use all of your employees to help you accomplish your goals.

Playing and studying chess can help you not only in the game, but in life as well. I highly recommend the following books if you are looking to learn how to play chess or to expand your knowledge if you already play:

Pandolfini’s Ultimate Guide to Chess: Basic to Advanced Strategies with America’s Foremost Chess Instructor by Bruce Pandolfini – Simon & Schuster; 1st edition (September 9, 2003).

Winning Chess Strategies by Yasser Seirawan –  Everyman Chess; Revised Edition edition (May 1, 2005).

Winning Chess Tactics by Yasser Seirawan – Everyman Chess; Revised Edition edition (May 1, 2005).

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. 



ACPA 2015 PechaKucha – There’s Always Another Move: Lessons for Student Affairs Pros from Shackleton

March 6, 2015


On Saturday, March 7, 2015 I presented “There’s Always Another Move: Lessons for Student Affairs Professionals from Shackleton” for the PechaKucha event at the ACPA National Convention in Tampa, FL.


Sir Ernest Shackleton was an Irish-born explorer who, during the first decade of the 1900’s, attempted to reach the South Pole, but did not succeed. After Roald Amundsen finally did so, Shackleton sets his sights on crossing the Antarctic. The Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition eventually became a legendary lesson of great leadership.

To hear more about Shackleton and how lessons from his expedition applies to student affairs professionals, please click HERE to see the video of my presentation. Enjoy!


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

10 Difficult Lessons I Learned in Student Affairs

December 22, 2014

Difficult Lessons in Student Affairs

Having been in Student Affairs for a long time now, I have met many fantastic and inspiring professionals from all over the world. I have learned many wonderful things, which have made me a better higher education professional (and person!) Some of those lessons, however, have been difficult ones and actually have made me an even more dedicated and resolved Student Affairs professional.

Here are the 10 Difficult Lessons I Learned in Student Affairs:

1. Not Everyone Values Student Development – Just like employees in any other industry besides higher education, everyone has different goals and motivations for doing what they do. The same is true for employees in higher education. While it may seem bizarre to a Student Affairs professional that a college professional would not be interested in student development, some see the study and practice of student development as frivolous and not worthy of attention or resources.

2. The Grass Isn’t Always Greener at Other Institutions – Student lifers rank up there with professional athletes that are traded from team to team when it comes to transitioning from one institution to another. Various reasons, include seeking a better salary, more responsibility, or to be closer to family. Some staffers have the impression that the path a new school is lined with gold. What they can come to find out is that their new situation may not be any better than from where they just came. While there are some places that may be better than others, all colleges and universities have problems, which is something to keep in mind when looking for a new place to work.

3. Most Staff Are Not Trained in Leadership & Supervision – I find that many colleagues at other institutions share their frustration with their institution’s leadership. Frustrations range from having supervisors with challenging personalities and those who provide unclear direction to others who are “buddy-buddy” with select employees or who are downright abusive. Unfortunately, most supervisors in all fields never had any formal education or training in supervising people. Many supervisors learn from previous poor role models and can apply behaviors of stereotypical archetypes of leaders they see on TV and in movies (i.e., coach, military officer, entrepreneur, politician, etc.)

4. Most Faculty & Staff Could Care Less about Student Development Theory – Years ago, I once had an engineering professor at a social event ask me what exactly I was learning in my higher education doctoral program. He was actually perplexed that an academic program like this actually existed. While student development theory is only a small part of a higher ed doctoral program, it helps to inform our practice and should be the basis for how we operate. However, most faculty and staff have never heard of Astin, Kuh, Tinto, Pascarella, and / or Terenzini nor put any credence into the study of students’ time at college.

5. For Some, It’s Just For a Paycheck – For most of us, it is our career and our passion. For others, working at a college or university is simply a job. While some of us are inspired and enthusiastic about our careers, others find it an end to a means.

6. Student Affairs is Seen as the “Icing on the Cake” – In particularly  difficult times with a fragile enrollment environment and the increasing costs associated with a college education, student affairs can be viewed as a luxury. When it’s time to make budget cuts, extracurricular activities are an easy target.

7. Professional Development Can Be Seen as a Glorified “Vacation” – One year I was not permitted to attend the ACPA Convention and was told, “You have already been to one of those” as if it was like going to some amusement park. Now granted, I have seen many professional staffers blow off sessions at conferences and go site-seeing in the host city, but for the vast majority of us, off-site professional development opportunities are for continuous improvement, collaboration, education, and networking.

8. Politics Can Supersede Student Development –  In the 15 years I have been a student affairs professional, I have seen university politics that have been antithetical to the spirit of student development or learning (or simple ethics to be honest). I recently read an excellent blog post called The Dirty Secret of Student Affairs by Christian Cho, which specifically speaks to this dynamic. While politics definitely has its place in colleges and universities, they can also be disconcerting for new and eager student affairs professionals.

9. “Cronyism” & Nepotism Is Pervasive – While some may call it networking, others consider it nepotism and cronyism.  Cronyism is the appointment of friends and associates to positions of authority without proper regard to their qualifications. Likewise, nepotism is the practice among those with power or influence of favoring relatives or friends, especially by giving them jobs. A related practice is the pejorative “inbreeding,” in which an institution only hires those that have graduated from there. This can be challenging and frustrating especially for new professionals looking to advance their careers.

10. The Most Logical Decisions Are Not Always Made – Like any bureaucratic organization, colleges and universities have multiple layers of decision-makers with varying degrees of authority. Additionally, those decision-makers come with different agendas, opinions, and experiences from one another. Given those dynamics, the decision-making process can end up having a mind of its own.

The intent behind this post is not to discourage or frighten graduate students nor to kowtow to experienced professionals. Conversely, I hope to inspire new and veteran student affairs staffers to create a better university environment and experience for both employees and students.

Please share some of the difficult lessons you have learned from your time in Student Affairs.