Jen’s Declassified School Survival Guide For First Year Assistant Hall Directors

So you were a student leader, huh? You did everything in college. In fact, it’s likely that you were so involved on your undergraduate campus that there wasn’t a page on the university’s website that your face wasn’t plastered on. It might still be there to this day. You were a stellar student. You were probably an even better student leader. You always went above and beyond. And somehow, you found out that all of those supervisors that you had over the years were going to school for this kind of thing. Some of them even had permanent jobs at the university. Shocking, right? 

After several rounds of interviews, you somehow end up here: you’re entering your first year as both a graduate student and an assistant hall director. This can be a daunting time. Professional word of mouth tells the story that balancing work, school, and play as a grad is nearly impossible. Even more so when working residence life. Yet all three of those things are very important for your success, not just academically or professionally, but personally as well. 

Whether you have previous experience in residence life as an RA or you’re embarking on your housing journey for the first time, these are my tips for first-year assistant hall directors as a grad going into my second year of the role. 

Communicate with Your Supervisor

You need to establish an open channel of communication between you and your supervisor. There needs to be an understanding of not only what’s expected of you, but what you expect of them. That’s right – this may very well be a controversial opinion – but I believe that the supervisor and supervisee relationship should go both ways. 

Of course, you should have respect for your supervisor, but it is imperative to your development as both a professional and a person to ensure that you remain intentional about your needs in the position. Perhaps managing the ledger isn’t on the list of tasks required of you as a graduate assistant, but you want that experience for your future endeavors. How can you make that happen? Make your goals known.

Campus communities can be tumultuous environments at times, but they will become your workplace. Communicate with your supervisor in order to make that a more comfortable experience. You’ll want to know that you are supported. You’re also a student, which is arguably your main priority. Be open with your supervisor about mentally taxing assignments and overwhelming workloads. It won’t hurt to ask for help. Even better, spend some time reflecting on what help you need to help your supervisor better support you.

If you’re having trouble conceptualizing how to go about an intentional conversation like this one, prepare for it! Sit down with a pen and paper (or complete this digitally), and ask yourself the following questions: 

  1. What are my goals within this position? What do I want to take away from my time in this role? 
  2. What are the things that I need from my supervisor to feel supported? 
  3. What are things that make me uncomfortable in a workplace? 

While your answer to these questions may clash with your supervisor’s from time to time, it is important to keep The Three C’s in mind: collaboration, communication, and compromise.

Set Up a Schedule

We were all asked prioritization and time management questions in our interviews. Likely, we were also asked how we manage our time. I can envision the overachiever in you maintaining a perfectly color-coded planner as I type this. That’s all fine and good. 

This tip is specific to those of us who procrastinate sometimes. It also incorporates a new element of your life: being on call. Welcome to hall director-dom. The on-call system is bound to work differently on a case-by-case basis; we all work at different universities. However you can account for the time you spend on call in your regimented schedule, please do so. 

Being on call can be hectic. Formulate a plan regarding your assignments and less pressing professional tasks in a way that revolves around the chaos. The twenty-page paper should be done well in advance to the time that you’ll be placed into the eye of the storm. Fifteen pages out of twenty is okay, too. Even five. Try your best not to wait until the last possible minute. Be strategic about the arrangement of your work responsibilities and school assignments. 

Your schedule should not only consist of the basics, either. Class times, paraprofessional meetings, and staff meetings are all very important, of course. But when will you do your homework? When will you eat? When will you play? Plan it all out to the best of your ability. For many of us, carving out the time for occupational and academic duties is second nature. But many of us forget to feed and take care of ourselves along the way. This can lead to burn out. No calendar is perfect. In fact, your plans will inevitably be uprooted by the paraprofessional staff member conflict meeting that was unplanned but must happen for the sake of the work environment and comfort of the team. Go in with a plan, but remain flexible.

You Need a Community, Too

You need friends. Do not embark upon this journey friendlessly. I know that you’re attached to that friend group that you made while you were an orientation leader back in undergrad. But Person A is an accountant now and Person B is pursuing medical school in another state. Meanwhile, you’re back to living on a college campus again. It’s time to open up. 

This can be tough. I feel as though there is a common misconception about SA professionals. That we’re all outgoing extroverts who can connect with just about anyone. I see you, introverts. I see you people who are on the quieter side. You likely ended up here by expanding your horizons in previous years. Your journey will likely push you to do this again to a certain degree. The AHD expedition is a unique experience. There’s a high probability that you just graduated. In other words, you were in the shoes of your students not too long ago. This is the case for many HESA graduate assistants. 

However, AHDs return to campus life. We walk amongst our students. We may eat amongst them. We may do our laundry beside them. I once had a student approach me while I filled the singularly available drier with my ridiculously damp load of clothing in order to tell me she intended to use that same drier. Her clothes weren’t even finished washing yet. But that’s beside the point.

The point is that you’re a graduate student whose entire course of study has a focal point on the students that you live and breathe around on a daily basis. They might often mistake you for an undergrad yourself. You know what your role on campus is. Most of the students around you won’t. That’s why it’s important to connect with other people who understand your experience. 

Find community with other AHDs. You won’t regret it. And find community with the rest of your cohort. Find community within the cohort above your own if feasible. Find community with your faculty members. They understand your experience more than you may know.

Ask Questions

You’re new around here, and even if you are returning to the same campus from your undergrad, you are in a whole new world as an AHD. You should be able to ask questions. Of course, problem-solving skills are extremely important. More on that later. It’s okay to misunderstand things or ask for assistance. You don’t know what you don’t know. Your department likely has a method of providing you with resources and examples of frequently asked questions. You’ll want to review them to the best of your ability. However, there will always be room for more questions. 

Don’t limit yourself on your questions, either. Expand outside of questions revolving around your particular work duties. Learn from the people around you. What other experiences have they had? What opportunities for professional development are there? A plethora of knowledge is at your fingertips when you work at a university.

This is pretty self-explanatory. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Both the good and the “bad.”

Believe in Yourself

This is where problem-solving comes in. One of the biggest challenges in transitioning into this role is believing that you are qualified to be there in the first place. Remember that you’re here for a reason. You are more than capable and worthy of respect. 

In your courses, you will inevitably discuss your opinions and thoughts on the happenings in the field. You’ll do a lot of uncovering “the university’s” actions and decisions. In my introductory course, we were challenged with that language. We were students, but we were also professionals. People who worked for the university. “You are the university now.” I remember her saying. The words rang loud and clear. 

For those who aren’t far in age from the residents in their buildings, this can be particularly difficult. You will grow in this area with experience. One of my biggest takeaways from working in Res Life thus far has been a sense of self-efficacy. In situations when I once asked questions (still a very important and valid element of this learning process) I suddenly did the digging on my own. I knew where to find the answers. I knew the steps of the process. I was problem-solving. I believed in my ability to get the job done. 

There will always be situations where calling up and asking questions is necessary. That’s what having a team is all about. But other situations become more intuitive over time. The first meeting with your residents in this position might seem daunting. However, I can assure you that when you reach the umpteenth roommate conflict, you’ll know exactly what to do. 

So take a breather. Relax, and enjoy the ride. Being a grad is a learning process. And I promise that you can make it out on the other side. 

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