New Beginnings

Linda Varvel, Co-Director for On-Campus Programs, Women in Science and Engineer at The University of Iowa

August 23, 2017

Happy New Year! Okay, I know it isn’t January. However, if you’re anything like me and have worked in student affairs for any length of time, you live your life on the academic calendar, and less on the monthly calendar. For me, August represents a new year, with new students, and new beginnings. I look forward to August of each year because it is a great time to set professional goals and make changes for the months ahead. This August also represents the one year anniversary of a big “new beginning” I experienced last year and I am excited to embark on year two of my “new beginning.”

When I made the decision to pursue student affairs as a career, I never considered any career path outside of student housing. I “grew up” in hall council and my campus housing association, I was a Resident Assistant, and had two ACUHO-I housing internships as an undergrad. Housing was (and still is) in my blood. I worked in housing as both a graduate student and a professional for eleven years. I ran residence halls, advised student housing orgs, and implemented living-learning community programming.

It wasn’t in my plan to leave housing for another area of student affairs. I remember as a young professional a mentor saying to me, “You will be a lifer;” they were certain I would work in housing for the entirety of my career. My personality was suited to the late nights, high intensity student needs, and the overwhelming to-do lists – a perfect fit for my strong administrative skills, energy, and creativity. However, on the first day of classes for the fall semester in August 2016, I began a new role as the Women in Science and Engineering Co-Director for On Campus Programs at the University of Iowa.

It was a new beginning I had longed for, and it finally happened. However, it was a new beginning that looked much different than anything I had imagined when day dreaming about my next position in student affairs.

About three years into my role as a Residence Education Coordinator at Iowa, I was bored and ready to take on more. I did my job really well, but it felt effortless and, among those effortless actions each day, began to feel robotic. The opportunity to move-up within my department was limited, and I knew I would need to reevaluate my career goals. We liked Iowa. My husband Jacob had a great job that he loved, and had no plans to move.

I needed to figure out where else I might fit, *gasp*, outside of housing at my current institution. When you’re in a situation like this, you’re forced to be creative. You have to think outside the box—about the kinds of jobs you want to do and the kinds of jobs you are qualified to do. When you like where you live, you’ve laid down roots, and it’s not just you anymore, it creates a variety of factors that impact your professional life. And single professionals, listen to me: This is not just about having a partner and children. When you have lived somewhere for a while, you’ve made friends, and you’ve invested time and energy into your community, it can become just as challenging to make a decision to leave. It forces you to think about how to achieve career goals without compromising priorities and values.

So, what did I do? I applied for 44 non-housing jobs. Yup, I said it. Let me say it again so it sinks in a bit. I applied for 44 jobs at the University of Iowa. I wrote 44 stinking cover letters, and tweaked and submitted my resume 44 times.

I am not a patient person. I like having a plan and waiting for the right job to open was not my ideal scenario. However, last summer a unique role with Iowa’s Women in Science and Engineering program opened. The original role had been split into two part time positions with one focusing on recruitment and outreach and another focusing on on-campus programming. The job would co-direct a program to increase retention of women in fields where they are a minority, namely science, technology, math, and engineering.  

I was intrigued.

Could our family swing me in a part time gig financially? Did I want to work on the academic side of things? Could I do the requirements of this role on a part time basis? What would that be like? And what would I do with my free time when I wasn’t working? Would I stay home with our kids? Even with so many questions in my head, I decided to throw caution to the wind and apply. This position would be a promotion in classification and I would have the opportunity to run a program with a level of autonomy I hadn’t experienced in my housing role. It seemed silly not to give it a shot. Turns out, they liked me. I was offered the role as the Women in Science and Engineering Co-Director for On Campus Programs. I negotiated a 60% time role so I could have three even 8 hour work days each week.

I was thrilled to receive this job offer. But you know what? I immediately worried about what people would think. I worried about what my housing mentors and colleagues would say about me leaving housing for a role in academics (even if it was a student affairs-y role). I also worried about what other professional women, specifically, would think about me staying home with my kids two days a week. I had never really imagined myself a stay-at-home mom type. I admired the moms who did stay home, but I wasn’t sure I could or wanted to do that for myself. I worried that other women would look at my time on campus three days each week and judge my professionalism. I worried that stay-at-home moms would judge me for not staying home every day of the week with my kids. Would I be able to excel in my new role with only three days on campus? I had no answers to any of those worries or questions.

But I said yes anyway.

The timing of the offer resulted in my first day of my new position occurring on the first day of fall semester classes. It was the change I needed, at a time when I needed it the most. It was a very happy new year.

To say things are different since starting last August would be an understatement. My life is drastically different in a variety of ways since moving into my new role. I’ve taken time to reflect on my 11 year career with student housing, reevaluate professional and personal goals, and make changes in my life that I wouldn’t have if this new beginning hadn’t occurred.

Here are a few lessons I’ve learned:

My professionalism and worth as an employee is defined by no one else but me

I was SO worried about what people would think about my transition to a part-time role. I was certain people would think less of me professionally if I was only on campus three days each week. How could I possibly execute the same level of work as my peers in full-time positions? There is truth in this fear. There is no way I can keep up with the quantity of work an employee can output in 40 hours each week. But, let’s be honest with ourselves: being in the office 40 hours a week does not necessarily equate to 40 hours of valuable work output. Am I right or am I right?

As I adjusted to a more limited work week, I have realized that I am the only person who can define my professionalism and worth as an employee. My focus on achievement and success has to be laser sharp now that I only have three days on campus each week. I have to hold myself accountable to keeping my to-do list active, and my calendar full. I have to take advantage of each minute of my work day. I have found that, as I continue to evolve our program in my new role, people are often impressed with the amount I manage to accomplish in three days on any given week. I also realized that my new boss (and her superiors) see worth in me because they trust my ability to execute great work in my limited time.

Being a stay at home mom is both awesome and awful

This is straight up honesty, here. As I mentioned, I never fancied myself a woman who would stay home with my kids full time.

Having the opportunity to stay home two days a week with my sweeties has been a blessing (most of the time). My previous position required late nights, programming after office hours, and weekend events. Now I spend two days a week at home, and have minimal nighttime and weekend commitments. I take my kids to the library weekly. It felt exhilarating to make a decision on a random Thursday for an impromptu zoo day. When my son was diagnosed with a speech delay, we were able to schedule his weekly speech appointment on one of my weekly days off. I’ve cried happy tears more than once thinking about how the flexibility in making those appointments work for our family would have never been there in my previous position and now I was able to be there for him 100%.

BUT, let’s be real. Kids are annoying: they disobey, whine, and throw fits. They also lack in their ability to have grown-up conversations. There are days when I watch the clock, willing it to be 5:20pm when I know Jacob will pull in the driveway. In those moments, all I want is to talk to an adult, and also escape to my room for a minute of quiet! The days are long, but the years are short. Every day we are home together has ups and downs. But that’s ok.

Being employed on a part time appointment is both arduous and awesome

I love staying home two days a week. I work every other day; a day off, and a day on. We have “activity” days on Tuesday and on Thursday we stay close to home and I work on some household duties while the kids play together or do activities. This has revolutionized our weekends. Instead of having a long list of chores and errands to get done on Saturday or Sunday, I am able to lessen that list by being intentional on Tuesday and Thursdays. I love that we go into the weekend with laundry done, a clean bathroom, and meals planned.

Being part time doesn’t come without sacrifices, both positive and negative. I’ve found myself saying “no” more often on campus. I can’t take on as much committee work or engage with professional development opportunities in the way I could when I worked full time. It was hard to come to terms with this. I am a “yes” woman. If you need a committee member or something done on a project, just ask Linda! Except, I can’t be a “yes” woman anymore. I am learning to be a, “Let me evaluate my work load and get back to you” woman. There is a part of me that knows this is how we should always operate, but the other “yes women” out there know what I’m talking about here. Being home two days a week has also created challenges in meeting scheduling. It can be hard to schedule a meeting when I am unavailable two days a week, and everyone else has busy schedules.

Housing isn’t the be-all, end-all student affairs niche (you’re not locked into one area of student affairs)

I think we tend to gravitate toward what we know, and sometimes get stuck there, while isolating ourselves from other great opportunities. Housing is/was my student affairs niche. I have friends who have always been advisors, or friends who have always worked in student activities. The idea of moving away from those comfort zone areas can be scary.

What I’ve realized over the last year is that we are not locked into one area of student affairs. A great benefit of this field is that the skills we gain on a daily basis are very transferrable. As professionals, we can be very appealing to campus partners as an employee because of all the ways we can apply our skills and abilities in a variety of positions on campus. There are definitely things I miss about working in housing, but there are also unexpected benefits to working in a new area of campus. In my housing role I knew and worked with SO many students. In my current role, I am more administrative and visionary, which has pulled me away from direct contact with students. However, the student connections I do have are deeper and more developed. I encourage you to be open-minded about where your career might take you. If someone had told me I’d take a part-time position as the Director of a student support program working on the academic side, I would have laughed. And yet, here I am and it feels like a perfect fit.

The decisions colleagues make for them and their family are none of your business

When I made the transition to my new role, everyone had an opinion. Some raved about how great it was going to be, and how the role was the perfect fit for my professional skillset. Others were shocked that I was dropping down to part time and questioned whether the decision would impact me professionally. I heard from friends that others had strong opinions about my decision and some of these judgements and gossip were what led to the anxiety I felt about accepting the role. But you know what? It is no one’s business but my own about why we made this change, whether it will or won’t work for us, and if the position will impact my career.

I think that, especially as women, we listen to so many little voices in our head about the right way and the wrong way to do everything. The messaging is SO conflicting. Shortly after beginning in my new role, it was clear to me that we had made the best possible decision for our family. I also saw so many positive changes in myself and our home life. I was happier, less stressed, slept better at night, feel exhilarated at work, and see a new burst of creativity that I had felt slip away. People can say what they want about others, but only WE know what is best for us.

There is nothing wrong with being unavailable to work on your day off

We all KNOW we shouldn’t work when we are home, but it is really hard to become comfortable with practicing this habit in real life. Working in university housing can really mess with a person’s ability to draw a line between work time and personal life. When you live where you work, it can be very easy to run to the office in the evening to finish that undone project. It is also an expectation that you have a presence at evening and weekend programming. When I transitioned into my new role I was not only figuring out what it meant to work 8am-5pm, but I was also figuring out what it meant to do that three days a week, instead of five.

I began questioning whether it was a good idea for me to keep up on email on my days off. I worried if people would feel I let them down if I left 48 hours pass before I responded to an email. But bless my supervisor. From day one she encouraged me to draw lines. She empowered me to be clear with colleagues on campus that I would not be available on my days off. She told me that if she wanted me to be working on Tuesday and Thursday, she would pay me to do that.

I was skeptical. But guess what? I don’t respond to email on my days off (confession: I DO sometimes read it…I’m human!). I don’t (typically) work on projects from home. And during my annual performance review my boss raved about my ability to stay committed and focused on my tasks, and execute at a high level. No one thinks less of me because I don’t stop doing a puzzle with my kids to check my inbox. And do you know why? Because there is nothing wrong with being present in the moment, which might result in being unavailable to work on your day off.

Saying goodbye can be really good, even if it is unexpected

Like I’ve said before, I didn’t plan to leave housing. And, who knows, I might be back. However, saying goodbye to something that I didn’t expect to say goodbye to has been a catalyst for one of the best “new beginnings” I could have hoped for when I was dreaming up my dream job during my search. I still miss people I worked with. I also have moments where I hear about challenges my old teammates are facing and I feel the same passionate empathy I felt when I worked with them. There are times when those same colleagues share victories and successes and I still feel just as much pride for the good work they are doing as I did when I was their teammate. But, as much as my time in housing has shaped who I am as a professional today, saying goodbye to that part of my life in Iowa was a good thing.

In conclusion, a lesson I’ve learned is new beginnings can be a good thing. As I look ahead to the 2017-2018 academic year, it is hard to believe this year of a “new beginning” is over. I can’t believe I’ve been living this new life for 12 months. I’m thankful the pieces fell together, and my husband was right when he comforted me after all of those rejections. There WAS a better job out there for me. There was a bigger plan. Today, I think about all of the women who might be yearning for a change or who could be embarking on a new professional journey like I did. I see you. I get it. Hang in there. Just remember, it’s August. And August means a new year for new challenges, new adventures, and new goals. Happy New Year friends!

Linda Varvel is the Co-Director for On-Campus Programs in the Women in Science and Engineering, Outreach Admissions Scholarships and Inclusion Services at The University of Iowa. She has over twelve years of experience within the field, much of which has been in a variety of residence life capacities.  Linda is a proud wife and mother of two beautiful children.

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