Many Universities are like archipelagos, each department its own little island in the sea that makes up a campus.
It’s a little bit different here at Nipissing. There is one Education Centre – the continental hub of most classes, support services, faculty and administrative offices all in one building. From its Eastern shores you can see the distinctly separate Library, Athletic Centre, and Residence complexes.
I’ve worked in Residence Life since 2012, until I recently took on a role in Student Learning & Transitions at the Education Centre and I have to admit – I’m feeling a bit like a Newfoundlander in Toronto.
In residence, the geographical space means we simply don’t see folks from outside our island community often. We occasionally have meetings at the Education Centre, friends to meet for lunch, forms to drop-off or supplies to pick up. Mail comes in and goes out. We have gaggles of students who travel to the mainland daily and return with tales of adventure. But for the most part we’re self-contained, separate, and small.
Professionalism looks a bit different in residence too because we work in people’s homes. Our offices are under the same roof where students eat, sleep, play and party. We work where they stay when they’re feeling sick or looking for a place to escape and to cry. We work where they fight, fornicate, fall in love, and figure out what they want their life to look like outside their parents’ homes. It takes a different kind of professionalism than you see in the business of the mainland. To the untrained eye it may sometimes look less refined, but those who’ve lived it know it’s just a bit more human.
The concept of “Island Time” applies in a number of ways. Timing has to be more flexible due to the geographical space between us (especially during construction.) There’s also the reality that residence is a 24-hour operation, so it’s normal for staff members to stay up all night solving problems, and may be a bit fuzzy the next day. Things are less rigidly structured, but all the more responsive to the ever-unpredictable demands of the environment.
I used to spend my days at a counter in a lobby, with a near constant stream of students coming and going. I used to see the same 225 people every single day, in and out. My main purpose was to engage with them, make them feel welcome, and help them solve problems. I loved it there, but it’s a very small community without a lot of opportunities for someone like me. It was a difficult decision to pack my things, leave the land I love, and pursue new challenges on the mainland.
Now I work in an office at the Education Centre. Instead of the stream of casual visitors I once had at my counter, students stop in during business hours, mostly by appointment. I see them when they’re clean and dressed and ready to face the world. I see them between classes and on their way to workshops, when they’re engaging with Academia. My scope is narrowed, but the waters are deeper. Students aren’t just passing through anymore – they sit and talk to me. They tell me where they’ve come from and where they’re going. When they’re lost, I get to help them find their way. When their obstacles are great, I get to help them find the tools to overcome. When they need to vent, I get to be their safe harbour.
Thing are more structured here on the mainland. There are more policies and procedures. There are staff from other departments everywhere I look, often collaborating on projects with us. There are so many more moving parts, more people affected by each other’s actions and decisions. There is more built-in accountability.
There is a whole ecosystem of educators here with a common mission. While I was always aware I was part of this system, I now feel embedded in it and inextricably linked. I am challenged to be more effective, to contribute my strengths, to listen and learn with my teammates so we can all better encourage our students and each other to reach our full intellectual and personal potential.
The more we acknowledge our connection and our common purpose, the better we can understand each other’s niche and share our gifts. While it takes a bit more effort and flexibility to connect with the islands from the mainland, the bridges we build and maintain will always serve to enrich the ecology of learning on our campus to the benefit of the community as a whole.