Kerry’s Journey in Higher Education

I never thought I would be accepted into college and find it incredibly ironic that I have made my career out of working at a college; I have worked 15 years in Student Affairs now and am currently the Associate Director of Housing.  Growing up, I struggled to pass classes and despite the efforts I made, the after class programs and hours of studying, I continued to fail tests and do poorly on papers. I never flunked out of moving ahead a grade, but was very worried that no college would accept me. I was accepted to a small university, which at the time I was very excited, but soon learned it was not a good fit for me. While leaving and going through the application process again frightened me, I had a mentor that helped me to realize that the end result of a degree could be achieved at any college or university. I completed one academic year and took some time off and transferred to a school better suited for me. Having grown up in large cities, I was more comfortable living and going to school in a larger city.

I grew up in Minnesota, moved to Texas when I was 11 and eventually transferred to college in New York City. I received my B.A. in Theatre at SUNY Purchase College. I had been very involved as an Orientation Leader, Peer Mentor, Commuter Student Programs and ran our college’s theater. Before entering my last semester in college, I received a scholarship to go abroad to Moscow to live and work in an orphanage. This changed my perspective and my life. Instead of seeing my goal as an entertainer, my goal became to serve others. Once I graduated, I was offered a job in Student Activities at SUNY Purchase. This was supportive and with the mentors I had, I was propelled to go to graduate school.

I moved to a small city in Michigan for graduate school, which opened my eyes to how parts of the US seemed very stuck in the past. It drew me to a passion for diversity and essentially doing what I could to be a voice for those who do not, or feel they don’t, have a voice. While in graduate school, I worked abroad in New Zealand helping to design an orientation program for University of Auckland’s international student population.

After graduate school, I started working in Residence Life, as it was a good starting point and a position that allows you to work with all college students. Within my years as a Hall Director, I brought a variety of diversity training programs (NCBI and Stop the Hate) on the universities and developed a Bias Incident Response Team for two universities I worked at. As I grew in my roles and as a profession, some of my passions and goals transitioned and shifted. I started working more with student leaders to work with those in transition as well as overall leadership development. I co-created a Hmong Living Learning Community with one of my RAs who had a deep passion for her Hmong heritage.

My time focused on diversity and inclusion has helped to give me a great confidence. Being able to create and develop programs and procedures for supporting students, faculty and staff has been incredibly life giving. Having mentors that believed in me and supported me through this journey is irreplaceable. It has allowed me to embrace a variety of domestic and international experiences that I would not have otherwise had the opportunity to take part.

One of the most transformative experiences were serving as a staff leader of mostly international students on a Civil Rights Pilgrimage from WI to the south. I learned a great deal about our national heritage that I thought I had already known. The second experience was being a staff member on a Semester at Sea voyage and traveling to the Mediterranean with 700 students, faculty and staff from around the world. Experiencing culture and life together in a community with little social media and cell service. We were able to interact in ways that built an incredibly rich and deep community.  

During my 6th year as a Hall Director, I helped to develop and teach a leadership seminar with Student Activities. I brought this course with me to two more universities and continued to develop this course for the population it served. Through this, my passion for StrengthsFinder and positive psychology grew.

Four years ago, I became a certified Strengths facilitator and from there have lead large team trainings to retreats to 1-1 coaching. Being able to involve Strengths coaching and training into my work and as a consultant has saved me through the tougher times in my career.

I have left three positions in my career due to gender-based discrimination. In the last decade, I have been put down and emotionally abused by a supervisor, a peer and employees, which has had me seriously question if I should continue to work in Higher Education. It has been invaluable for me to have some trusted colleagues and supports in my life that can listen and also draw me away from my work. I have needed to develop healthier ways to separate myself from my work. This is always easier said than done, as separation is not just a physical thing, but also an emotional thing. As a women leader who has been told I am not good enough or smart enough because of my gender, I want to work all the harder to prove just how competent I am. This, however, was not the healthier choice. The healthier choice for me has been to say I am good enough as I am. I can and do accomplish my workload in the period I am paid for, for the most part, and should not elect to work longer hours, etc., to prove a point to any of my colleagues. However, I certainly have an understanding and awareness of the seasons of the year that I do need to put in extra time. At the heart of it all, my focus is to remain on being there for students, setting a good example and mentorship to those around me.

It has been hard to navigate these transitions, to put some of these hurts aside and focus on career goals and ambitions while living in the pain of how being in this career has affected me. It always seems easier to focus on the negative! Even though the negative is more infrequent than the positives. Having navigated and been the first responder to countless student suicide attempts, been the ear for a multitude of individuals reporting sexual assaults and a variety of other life/safety experiences like bomb threats, buildings on fire, etc. My tipping point for seeing my need for external support through counseling was the emotional abuse I experienced at work that made me feel worthless. We all need supports. We all need an inner voice that tells us it is not our fault and that we are good enough. You are all good enough!

 

Kerry Day is the Associate Director for Housing at the University of Portland and can be reached via email at dayk@up.edu

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