As I walk into the residence hall where I’ll be living for the next year or so while working in my new role as a resident director, I spot a large green banner above the elevator that reads, “Portland State University, Your Home Away From Home.”
Because of the way I grew up, for me, being away from “home” has always felt more like home than actually being home. As a first-generation student, home—and family—had always been place that is both strange and comforting; there, I feasted on my mother’s savory Chinese cooking but, there, I also had to be on constant translating duty: I thought in English, my strongest language, and struggled to communicate with my mother in what little Chinese I have left over. There, I spent time playing board games with my sister during the sparse number of nights we’re together in the same room; in the same breath, this is where we’ve shouted foul words at each other over matters both trivial and large.
When I first moved into a residence hall as a first-year student, my room became a sacred space. It was the first time I had a place I could call my own: I could configure my furniture the way I like, decorate my bed and walls and organize my desk the way I like, and come and go with relative autonomy. I could eat when I was hungry and buy my own food. I shared my room with a great woman who, like me, was also a first-generation student. My dorm became my first home away from home that I could make my own.
I became a resident adviser during my third year at university. This was thrilling because I became a person who could shape that homely space for others, like me, who needed and cherished that sense of home away from home, that self-authorship in creating our own comfort and sense of belonging organically, out of who we are, without holding back.
Though I’ve only spoken as “home” as a literal, physical space so far, I also believe that it’s so an emotional, mental, and social space. I was at home among my staff member as a resident adviser, and I was at home sitting in my floor’s longue with my residents. I feel at home when I can be 100% myself without inhibition.
As I’m moving into my new role as a professional staff member in residential life, I have continually asked myself the question in the title of this post: how do you build yourself a home in a new place? Many of us who work in student affairs are familiar with inclusive communities, ideas of belonging, and we often work towards building a “home” away from home for our students—but where is our homes?
I mean this in both a literal and a figurative sense. Over the past week, I had to be strategic about building my literal new home in an cozy apartment in downtown Portland—this meant adjusting to the noise of an urban environment, organizing my new office (!), getting used to a new desk and sleeping on a new bed with new, pretty sheets—and, a delight of mine, filling a new bookshelf! The spaces we occupy as our “home base,” the places we come back to time and time again to recharge and center ourselves, are pivotal to cultivating our sense of self and belonging. It’s a crucial area for self-expression that shouldn’t be ignored; I think it should actually be a process that should be enjoyed. The spaces you work in, and live in and exist in, crucially reflect and affect how you feel.
As you’re reading this, whether at home or at work, perhaps ask yourself: how do I create my own “home” away from home? Wherever I am, how do I make sure I’m comfortable both physically, emotionally, and mentally? Do you like listening to music while you work, or do you prefer a silent space? When you get home, what is the first thing you do– do you kick off your shoes and change immediately, or do you put some water on the stove for a cup of tea? Whatever you do, make sure that your home is you, through and through.