My mom retired from Calvin College this week after 16 years of service and it seems appropriate to acknowledge what I learned about my career, family and life in general on this Mother’s Day week and her first weekend as a “retiree”. While I began my own career in higher education before she did, I learned some of my greatest lessons about being a professional woman and a working mother from her.
Working at a college was her second career. She began working for a hardware distributor in 1979 in their accounts payable department and after 20 years of service was laid off. She considered returning to finish her undergraduate degree at the time, but decided to lean on her years of experience for her next chapter. After taking a few months off to refocus, she found her way to financial services at Calvin College. While waiting the months she did was not easy on our family, as mom’s paycheck was the steady one then, Mom was unfettered handling the ambiguity and uncertainty with grace and a silent strength. When I found similar spaces in my own career – the elimination of my academic unit or a dramatic change in direction for my institution – I was able to reflect back on how she handled that time, and countless others, and find strength and resolve knowing that I was not the first to face change and that one could persevere through what at one moment seemed frightening, but in the next be a space for freedom and opportunity.
Once she transitioned to her work in higher education, I witnessed her creating her niche within the institution. My mom did not share the same faith as many of her colleagues, and at a faith-based institution, sometimes this can be difficult. However, she made a home there for her career. There are those that might wonder how you build a home (or niche) in a support role, but she leveraged her years of experience and knowledge of systems to her benefit. She learned the programs and operational procedures better than anyone and worked to create order out of chaos for those who did not understand those programs or procedures. In her last few months, she worked diligently to teach others that which she had created to make an easy transition for her Calvin family. This too is a lesson I learned from her time in higher education. That one creates a home away from home in ones career by focusing on one’s strengths. I too have put this principle to test in my own professional life… leaning on my skills of creating order from chaos for students in advising or when looking at policies and procedures that do not meet due process (that order from chaos thing… it runs in the family).
Now, at the end of her chapter in higher education, my children and I were invited to attend her retirement open house. While I did not know many of her colleagues, I did hear how they talked about her and the hole she was leaving behind. It was clear that although she managed the money, she had built relationships and deep friendships across all units on campus. Faculty came to state that they would miss her cheerful demeanor. Student affairs staff noted how they had to create a new system with someone new and were uncertain/nervous about what that uncertainty would bring. Student employees came and thanked her for her mentorship and for always respecting their needs as students. This is evidence of treating others fairly and with empathy and how this created a space for opening hearts and minds even in her role as support staff.
It really was not until her retirement party and the coinciding of Mother’s Day this year that I really recognized how much I have learned from her as a professional and working mother. There are many sacrifices to be made in these roles, but she has always handled it with grace and strength; creating order out of chaos; and treating others fairly and with empathy. The fact that I now work as an #ombuds where these skills are tantamount further relates how much of an impact her approach to life, and work, has impacted not only others at her institution, but to her children at home. As a mother myself, I only hope that I can model similar behaviors that my own children will take into their own careers and lives, as well as have the impact on students and colleagues as she has had.
P.S. Happy Mother’s Day to my mom (Ruthanne Snyder) and all the other moms making it happen in higher education!