On June 5, 2014 at 2:40 pm, I received a phone call that would change my life. The caller left a voicemail, short and simple, asking if I would call her back to discuss a job I had interviewed for two weeks prior. After calling her back and accepting the job on the spot, I danced around my small room, jumping up and down and squealing with delight that I had accepted what I referred to as “my dream job”. I texted and called everyone in my family and my close friends, several of whom were also going through the Student Affairs job search. My family cheered me on and congratulated me on accepting a job so soon after graduating with my Masters. My friends offered to take me for a drink as a celebration and updated me on their job searches. Even the mailman seemed to have a special grin for me. It was impossible to wipe the smile from my face, and by the end of the day, my cheeks hurt and my face seemed to be permanently red from all of the excitement.
Since September 13, 2014, it has been much harder for me to smile. Every day is a struggle and nights are often filled with constant tossing. When I wake up, the first thing I think of is almost always my students. Did anything happen last night? Are they okay? What do they need from me today? While brushing my teeth, I look at my calendar and think through the students I will be interacting with. How can I support them? How can I show them how much I care?
I was recently attending NASPA when a young man sat down next to me at a session. He introduced himself and stuck out his hand. I shook it and introduced myself, calmly stating my name and institution. The pleasant smile on his face was quickly replaced by shock, as his eyes traveled to my name badge, as if he needed physical proof. He looked at me and said “Oh, you all have had quite a year.” I nodded in agreement, and said something polite but in defense of my institution. He wasn’t the first person to respond that way, and my response had become a bit rehearsed at that point. He slowly shook his head and said, “I don’t know what I would do if that was me”. My voice dropped to a whisper as the session began and I gave him this quick advice, “You look to your colleagues for support, you provide guidance and comfort for students, you take walks to clear your head, and you just have to remember that it isn’t about you, and eventually, the camera crews will leave, and you will be left to pick up the pieces.”
If you watch the news, you know about my school too. You know about the beautiful young woman who was taken from us. You know about the shocking article that left us feeling shaken and violated. And now you know about the young man who was assaulted by an officer outside of a bar. You know about my school. Everyone does.
But what some people may not know is what it is like to watch it all happen from the inside. I have watched students deteriorate. I have watched faculty and staff become shells. I have watched a community be tested again and again. I have listened to countless people say this is the worst year we have ever had and ask the question “When will it stop?” I have sat speechless in a room while I watched too many students cry, scared and confused about the university they joined only two months before. I have felt helpless, and hollow, and weak.
What some people also may not know is what happens when the news crews leave; what happens when your institution is no longer trending on Twitter and Facebook; what happens when life keeps going.
You watch students mature and turn into adults. You watch your colleagues grow closer together and lean more on each other. You watch professors lead active discussion about the issues on campus. You watch yourself slowly evolve into a product of the culture and the challenges of that culture. Your skin grows a bit thicker, and your love of your community is no longer giddiness at accepting a job, but becomes a deep appreciation for a group that rallies together and fights for each other. Each day becomes a little easier, and while it may be hard to smile sometimes, all I have to do is take one look at my students, and I know it is all worth it.