ResEdChat Ep 51: Jennifer Watley on Maximizing the HigherEd Graduate Student Experience

This week, Dustin chats with current Roompact blogger Jennifer about her experience as a higher ed graduate student balancing working on campus and her studies. She shares reflections on her journey so far, what she is looking forward to, and some advice on how best to support grad students.


  • Jennifer Watley, Assistant Hall Director, The Ohio State University

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Dustin Ramsdell:
So we are here with the first in the series of blog team interviews for this season of bloggers that we have here at Roompact. So it’s always nice to help folks get to know them a little bit better. They may be, folks are getting to know them through their writing, but these will be more casual, fun conversations to talk more about the bloggers themselves, the things that they care about and all that. So excited to kick that series off here with our conversation with Jennifer, if you want to introduce yourself briefly and your professional background, and what you’re up to right now.

Jennifer Watley:
Great. Thank you for having me. I didn’t realize I was the first person so far, so that’s really exciting. Also nerve wracking, but still really exciting. So my name is Jennifer Watley. I’m currently an assistant hall director at the Ohio State University. I also work as a graduate teaching associate for leadership programs here at the campus. That’s a new position that I’ve taken on. I started at the beginning of the month of September, so it’s been a journey combining two assistantships while being a graduate student.
A little bit about my background, I graduated from Bowling Green State University with my Bachelor’s of Science in Human Development and Family Studies. There I honestly did a little bit of everything except Res Life, which is really ironic because now I’m a hall director. But I did a little bit of everything. I was an ambassador for my college. I was a part of the President’s Leadership Academy, which is a scholarship program dedicated to creating leaders on campus. I worked as an orientation for two years, mainly because Covid hit before our first year of getting to do that. I worked as a minority student mentor and team leader for a program called Smart, which is super fun. That program is close to my heart, but I can talk about that later. So yeah, that’s just a little bit about me.

Dustin Ramsdell:
Awesome. Yeah, I guess it is kind of funny. Usually if you don’t get into Res Life usually it just doesn’t happen because it’s just I guess the nature of the thing. But it’s good I guess if you pursued it or were open to it because it’s a great generalist position, especially coming into a new institution, but then starting to kind of click in other things where it’s like, “Oh, this does resonate more on where I maybe want to go professionally.” But you’ll get such a comprehensive or immersive understanding of an institution working in Res Life. But so you talked a little bit about the things that you’ve done in undergrad and are doing now, but I guess the true question that many people, because it’s one of those careers that you sort of discover, what made you pursue a career in higher education?

Jennifer Watley:
So I mean, I feel like the answer that pretty much everyone, well, not everyone, but a lot of people give is that their experience in undergrad is what led them to it. And that is my case too. But I feel like I have very specific situations where I was like, “Oh, I’m about to pursue this.” For one, I recall when I was an orientation leader, the grad for my orientation, her name was Lauren Freyley. I know she just recently got married, but I don’t know her new last name. But I just thought she was the coolest person on the planet. I was 19 or 20 years old and there was just this wonderful person that was teaching us how to be orientation leaders, but she was so herself and I also realized that she didn’t seem that far apart in age from us, and I just remembered her saying that she was getting her master’s in something and that was why she was here.
And I was like, “What is it that she does?” So I remember there was a time after work that I approached her and I was like, “Hey, so I know you’re getting your master’s degree. What are you getting your master’s in and can you tell me about it?” And that was when she gave me the rundown on how, just to be honest, you could go get your master’s in higher ed and honestly you wouldn’t have to pay for it. And I really didn’t know if I wanted to go to grad school or not at that point. I am a person that I really do honestly love school. I love education. So I thought about it, I always considered it, but I was like, “In what?” I have no clue. And then on top of that, with my leadership program, my scholarship covered my tuition. So that was a once in a lifetime thing and it doesn’t necessarily carry over to a graduate degree type of thing.
So I was like, “This could be my chance. And that sounds really interesting.” And aligned with what I was trying to do at the time, which human development and family studies is in the College of Education. And when I first went to college, I initially was an education major. I wanted to do adolescent to young adult English education. But then I realized I don’t think I quite want to be a teacher, but I knew that I wanted to work with students and I wanted to work with people and I wanted to work with older students, which is why I wanted to work with high school students back then. I definitely didn’t want to work with younger students. I don’t know, kids just make me feel awkward. I don’t know why.
But yeah, so it was really a culmination of experiences for me because when I was a first year at Bowling Green, I was not involved at all. The limit of my involvement was the requirements for my scholarship program, which was fine. It was still great. I was still somewhat engaged. I had people that I could go to. I had mentors, which was also great. But with that, my mentor in the scholarship program, my advisor, Dr. Jacob Clemons, he would always in our one-on-ones. And he would encourage me like, “You should try some other things. You should try to join a club or you should try to apply for this job.” And I just really didn’t have that much belief in myself to do those things.
I was one of those people that my parents told me to focus on school my whole life, so I didn’t really work through college. Oh gosh, did you hear that? I don’t know. But yeah, so I just didn’t really believe in myself, but the people around me continued to encourage me until I finally took the risk and then I was like, “Oh my gosh, I’m capable of doing things.” And when I realized that that was the work that the people around me did to get me to where I am now, I was like, “I would totally love to do that for other people as well.” So that’s how I ended up here.

Dustin Ramsdell:
Yeah, I mean I appreciate you kind of sharing the full story there. I think just knowing any of those little nudges that you got from advisors and other folks or just looking up to role models and things like that, how important those are, they were to you and are to so many other people and can be really impactful and everything.
And just as I’ve settled into a career in higher education, one, just the diversity of opportunities, whether it’s working on campuses or with them, and just obviously so many different parts of working on a campus, but that it is that idea for people who feel like they’re just not finding the right fit. And well, “I know I want to work in education, but maybe not in the K through 12 system.” Or even being in human development and those sort of things. It’s kind of applying a social work sort of point of view, but into the college environment in the sense of the needs of these students who living away potentially from home for the first time, or even for adult learners who just have a lot of obligations that you’re trying to juggle while they’re trying to efficiently expedite themselves towards whatever sort of gainful employment and careers they’re looking for and stuff.
It’s like, “Yeah, it’s going to take a village.” And definitely each person is going to need different things. So yeah, I think it’s just one of those things where people can kind of stumble their way into it where it’s just like, “Oh my gosh, yeah, I was involved on campus and I guess I kind of want to keep this going. This is a really meaningful and great environment to be in.” But when you start to be immersed in it’s just like, “Oh, it is just this, just in a different environment.” So I’m glad that you found it and that you are pursuing it and everything. It’s great. And I think obviously there’s two points of what we’re talking about here, obviously sort of the academic side and also the working side. So I think just as things are sort of salient or as it’s relevant, feel free to hop between the two.
But I intentionally left a lot of these questions vague that I wanted to ask of this. One of it’s been about 10 years since I was a grad student, very different world. And I think it’s a hard life. It’s one that has a lot of demands and everything much like a lot of the learners of today who are working while they’re pursuing their studies and everything. But you’re kind of, I’d say more so all in of getting the assistantship and sort of taking the classes and working on campus, all that to be said. What do you think people might misunderstand about being a grad student today in particular?

Jennifer Watley:
When I think about this question, I really think that it varies so much. I can only speak to my experience and even my graduate program because I think that higher education graduate programs are so different from so many other graduate programs. And before getting into a program or everything that I do now, I did a lot of research trying to prepare myself for being in graduate school. And pretty much everything that I came across said, “You will not have a social life just let go of your friends now because it’s over.” And I don’t know, it’s just that things would be really intense. And that’s not to say that the work that I do is not rigorous. It certainly is. And sometimes I even think I have a skewed perspective on even that because of how much I enjoy the type of coursework that we do.
I like to do research, I really enjoy reading, and those were things that I had a lot of practice with in my undergraduate major versus in higher education. We get so many different people from different majors that they might not have that kind of experience before they come into the graduate program. But I would say my biggest misconception, at least coming into the program was that I just wouldn’t be capable of the level of work that was about to be placed on me. And that also there was no way that I would be able to focus on or that have fun with anything that wasn’t academics related or work related. I was really afraid of that, especially as somebody that I didn’t work in Res Life before, and people have these feelings about Res Life. Obviously it’s a hard work life balance to try to strike and there’s going to be a lot of different factors that impact that.
But I think my experience has been that first off, I was certainly capable of the work, and that’s not me trying to toot my own horn or anything, but like I said, I really honestly just enjoy class a lot. I really love how discussion-based it is. I love that I’ve been able to run into so many different theoretical frameworks and just familiarize myself with that and speak with so many fantastic faculty members, even though they still kind of scare me to this day. Because faculty, they could be intimidating, at least to me because I’m like, “Oh my gosh, you write books about this stuff that we’re studying.” But at the end of the day, I realize that they’re there to help and guide us. But yeah, I think the big misconception is that you can’t have any growth or fun outside of your academics. And that really was not the case for me.
I honestly feel like I’m more on crunch time this year in my second year than I was in my first year. It was a learning curve of course, but I did a lot last year. I grew a lot on a personal level. I was able to go outside of the campus and find things that I liked to do in the city, which is great. I love the city of Columbus now, which I didn’t think I would like it as much as I like it. And I also got to travel. I went to go to two K-pop concerts last year in different states. So you can still do things that are outside of school, and I don’t think it’s healthy to put that expectation on yourself that you can’t do anything else besides school. That just wouldn’t work for me. And that’s even as a person that likes school, so.

Dustin Ramsdell:
The things that are sort of ringing in my head is one, yeah, it’s going to be very particular to the person. People make these sweeping generalizations and stuff. And I think there’s certainly a difference for people who the educational environment, being in a classroom comes more intuitive or that sort of thing. And then if you went straight through from undergrad to grad school, that makes a difference.
And then even just, I think there’s a fundamental difference where maybe the perception from outside is just like, “Oh, graduate school is harder, so it’s going to be less free time.” And all those sort of things. But I think people are choosing to focus in on an area even more particular in graduate school. It just all connects more. Typically people are either working a full-time job and taking a program in their off hours or like you’re working on campus, it’s also symbiotic and feeding each other. But then it’s also just a genuine area that you’re really interested and excited to learn about versus undergrad, for good reason there’s so much more sort of breadth that you’re encountering, and typically you’re juggling more courses at once and everything.
So my takeaway is, and I would absolutely agree with this, is that it’s not as hard as you think it’s going to be, and it’s also hard in a different way than you think it’s going to be. It’s definitely that idea of typically it’s two years, it’s going to fly by and there just isn’t enough time to soak up these last potentially few years of being a student, I don’t know. So things like that. And I feel like we could take the whole episode to dig in with that premise of it’s not as hard as you think it’s going to be, and it’s hard in a different way than you think it’s going to be. Because yeah, it’s a very, in and of itself, a very transitory time for a lot of people because they might not ever pursue a doctorate.
So it’s like, “Yeah, you’re not going to be a student like this again and have all the perks and benefits and insulation of just immersing yourself in the educational environment.” I don’t want to hit too much in the sore spot, but I appreciate you. To end on a positive note is that it’s kind of a point of inspiration or motivation for people is that idea that you were chosen for a reason. Once you set foot on campus in your graduate program on that, it’s like you’re going to be able to swing it and you’re going to be able to cut it. We believe that everyone here is going to be successful, and it’s because you don’t know anything yet. It’s just who you are, your values. It’s like you’re coming here to learn. We’re not expecting you to be an expert already.
Some people are going to come in maybe with little different levels of expertise, like you said, it could be like they worked in different areas of campus or took some gap years or whatever else. So I think those are some really great takeaways and to hopefully keep the advice and the tips and tricks and things coming here. Any advice that you would have for professionals working with graduate students? And again, that can be sort of academic dynamics or the way that you have to balance things and everything like that. So just any advice that you’ve had in your experience of just some positive relationships you’ve had as a graduate student?

Jennifer Watley:
I could be wrong here, but I feel as though people that have, because everyone’s experience is so different with assistantships and what kind of supervisor they may or may not get, and the structure of even whatever department they’re a part of, I have been so blessed to have the best supervisors that you could ever ask for. So I would say what made that great for me was just open communication, authenticity, and good onboarding. I think onboarding is probably the biggest thing, and this is speaking to supervisory professionals because obviously you can work with grad students in a different way without being their supervisor, but that’s just the first thing that comes to my mind. For me, I really need to see what I’m doing tangibly and have this … we actually talked about this in my class today. It’s one thing to have an upfront orientation onboarding where it’s like, “This is what our department is, these are your tasks, this is how it’s done.”
But then there also needs to be a continuous integration of what you learned at the orientation and to continue your onboarding throughout your time, within your role. And for me, I don’t know if it’s just me, but I feel like honestly work has been more difficult for me than class. And so I felt like I needed more help with the onboarding than I did adjusting to classes. That might be different for other people. I didn’t really feel the need for assistance with adjusting to classes, but especially with me being a person that I was never an RA. I never worked in Res Life. The extent of my experience with Res Life is that the program that I mentioned, SMART, was technically underneath Res Life at Bowling Green. So we would sometimes go to Res Life meetings and we would sometimes interact with RAs. It was because we would at times work out at the residence halls, but it wasn’t really a big thing for us.
So I was not familiar with so much of the residence life context. I remember on the first day of Res Life training for me, we talked about the idea of calling up, and that was just a common thing. Everybody knew what they were talking about. And I was like, “I’m just going to be so a thousand percent honest with you. I have no idea what that means.” And everybody was like, “Oh, it means this.” And I was like, “Okay.” And I was like, “I’m sorry, I never worked in Res Life.” And they were like, “Oh, it’s fine, but what did you do?” And I was like, “Everything but this.”
But I think because of that, I bring an interesting perspective to Res Life. I worked in so many different things and I have learned a lot from my first year. And it’s actually really crazy to look back thinking about what I do now and how I carry myself now, and the kind of belief that I have in myself to be an assistant hall director now compared to then, because I was like, “I wasn’t even an RA. And I’m supposed to kind of tell an RA how to do their job.”
Which is really not even the way that I see it now because still, I think this is really important to recognize RAs are really on the front line. Sure, they call us in for major backup when it requires it, but they’re so on the front line, and I still respect their opinion and the way that they do things so much. I think that’s also a really important part of this job, is listening to what they have to say and listening to what they need so that we can best support them. But with that said, because I had never had that experience, I was kind of like, “I don’t even know if I can really do this.” But it turns out I can and it’s going well, and I’m really glad that I had the opportunity to do it. I’ve picked up so many skills. So I would say, just to circle back to the three things that I listed, open communication, authenticity, and I guess you could say good and thorough onboarding, continuous onboarding, would make for a better experience for all graduate students.

Dustin Ramsdell:
Yeah, I mean, it’s so great that that’s advice that can apply to anybody. It’s not just like, “Oh, this is what’s good for supporting a Res Life grad.” Or something. And I think it’s that idea of the assistantship is as much of a learning opportunity as the classes. And yeah, I’m sure there’s a lot of folks in a similar boat as you, that school is the easy part. And I think keeping a mindset as a staff member that don’t make too many assumptions and be very empathetic to what your grad students may know or not know and how their needs might change over time or any of those sort of things.
So I think the communication can’t even be sort of meta in the sense of just sort of being like, “How’s everything balancing out for you? Do you need more from me? Do you need something different from me?” It could be like, “Oh yeah, you were completely new to Res Life and Res Life at OSU, and OSU.” And so, all right, we’re a year in, let’s make some adjustments and see how best I can continue to serve you and make sure that this is not just a employer-employee relationship. It’s sort of giving you learning and growth in addition to your classes and everything. So something I want to make a point to ask, we’ll ask of everybody, all the bloggers on the team this season, what attracted you to writing for Roompact?

Jennifer Watley:
I honestly still can’t believe that I’m here because it was so random. I didn’t know what Roompact was. Again, not being much of a Res Life person before working here at OSU, but there was another assistant hall director that every once in a while she would throw in our GroupMe group chat, different opportunities there were available for people to take advantage of. Like, “Oh, if you’re interested, this closes on this day.” And also, I’m not a person that keeps up with GroupMe too much, so this makes it even crazier to me. But I just so happened to see the posting for Roompact. She put it in there and I just clicked on it and it was talking about how you could be writing for this. Sorry, my brain’s all over the place because I’m trying to wrap my head around it.
But for me, I grew up writing every day, and for the most part it was creative writing. But I would say my stronger suit is more journalistic or academic writing, even though I love creative writing. And there have been times growing up that I thought, “Oh, I might want to pursue a English degree,” or, “I might want to pursue a journalism degree.” Or whatnot. But either way, throughout my childhood and even now in my adulthood, I have always been super interested in media, communications, writing, creativity. I grew up constantly getting different cameras for Christmas and then filming videos, editing videos, and just writing scripts. Anything that was creative that that was basically what my childhood was. And I always wanted a way to connect my two loves for education and anything that had to do with media or writing and creative things, I wanted to find a way to integrate those. But I just kept it. I wasn’t finding so many opportunities for it, or it kind of seems like a lot of times when I mention that people see them as two totally different worlds.
They’re not always, especially these days and especially after the pandemic, but I just wasn’t really seeing the opportunities for that. But this kind of seemed like it would be that. And I was also doing my practicum in the qualitative research lab here at the time, so I was doing a lot of reading of a lot of different qualitative research and working with a lot of social media oriented things. So I thought that it would just tie together really well and give me some good experience, some good writing experience, good research experience, all of those types of things. And I just decided to go for it. And now here I am. So I mean, it’s super exciting because I get to write for, my writing is actually being read by people and I’m actually getting paid to write, which is some writer’s dream to ever get paid to write. So I think it’s really cool, and that’s how I came across the opportunity.

Dustin Ramsdell:
Yeah, I love it. I love the happenstance and just, I don’t know, just the universe compelling you towards an opportunity. And yeah, I mean it’s always been for me, that idea of you kind start working in stages where it’s like, “Yeah, I’ve written my whole life. Maybe it’s just for me or just for school and stuff.” And then reaching this threshold where it can be like, “Okay, this is the start of being able to get paid for writing.” You may not always, there’s sometimes where it’s like, “Oh, this would just be really great exposure. I’ll do that.” But it’s at least on principles, “I have started to get paid for this and it’s because I’m good at it.” And that’s sort of a confidence booster. And certainly for what you’re saying too, it’s like two things.
One, you have the luxury of all the stuff that you’re consuming. You can almost help yourself by connecting dots. But then you’re also being generous in the sense of, “I want to share this. I could just be doing this writing for myself, but I want to give back to other folks and share this knowledge and everything.” So it’s like being of service and then, like you said, people reading it and engaging with it.
It’s always been super helpful for me having these kind of opportunities to put yourself out there and distinguish yourself and people start to sort of know you for the things that you care about and the things that you’re writing about and everything. So yeah. Super awesome. So glad that you just took the plunge, took the leap of faith and getting into all this stuff here. So we’ll wrap up though. Obviously you’ve got a wide, vast future ahead of you as you’re finishing up your program and all that. And certainly okay, if you don’t have everything figured out yet, but just anything, maybe even just for finishing out your program or whatever comes to mind, what are you looking forward to in your work and/or program?

Jennifer Watley:
I thought about this question a lot beforehand because I don’t even know if I have an answer that sounds so fancy or anything because right now I’m just looking forward to graduation. Mostly because I don’t know precisely what it is that I want to do upon graduating. This is pretty much job search time for a second years and familiarizing yourself with the field and how to go about that. Or even if you are looking to leave the field, seeing what you have learned here and what you can bring to other spaces, which I also think is very important. Obviously we want to keep people in our field, but also we have so many skills and so much knowledge that would be so helpful in other fields to help make the world overall, not just campuses, a better place. So I’ve been considering that, but because I’m a person that I feel like with every journey that I go on, I’m kind of looking forward to the next step of, “Okay, what am I trying to get to next?”
So with undergrad, eventually when I figured out that I wanted to come here, this was my next step. So I was doing everything that I could to make sure I got into a graduate program and I graduated early so that I could focus on my graduate application process. But kind of like you mentioned before, with grad school, it’s only two years, so it’s way less time than when you’re in undergrad and you use the whole four years and you come to the end of the four years and you might have more of an idea of what you want to do afterwards. So honestly, I don’t know. I’m looking forward to graduating because I did go straight into grad school from undergrad. So I’m just excited to be done, even though I am a person that I consider continuing my studies, who knows, we’ll see in the future.
But I’m excited to just go into the professional world, period. And like I said, I love being a student, but I just want to be able to also really dedicate myself professionally. And I think that’s a lot of what I’m working on right now in this last year. That’s why I’m in the two assistantships doing different types of things and getting a feel for what I like and things of that nature. So I think I’m just looking forward to graduating and going into the professional world, no matter where that is, whether it’s at OSU, at another school, in higher ed, outside of higher ed. That’s what I’m looking forward to.

Dustin Ramsdell:
Yes, very well said. It is an exciting time, and I think even for folks who love school, it’s nice to have a break. And then even for me, I’d say I’m definitely on the spectrum of enjoying a classroom environment. It’s like I took a break for a while and then I’ve started to dabble in certificate programs. So it is a little bit more organized. You get a credential at the end or just other things like that, so you can scratch the itch. But yeah, it’s great to have your time be your own and put all the things that you’ve been learning and doing into action, and certainly grateful for you taking the time, sharing all that you did, being part of the blog team, and super excited to see what comes next for you for sure. So ways to connect with the work that you’ve been doing for Roompact and everything. And yeah, again, just thank you so much for your time.

Jennifer Watley:
Thank you.

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Roompact’s ResEdChat podcast is a platform to showcase people doing great work and talk about hot topics in residence life and college student housing. If you have a topic idea for an episode, let us know!

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