Reflections from year one in the middle

I hope you had a restful Labor Day weekend! #SAMid is back with this insightful post from Renee P. Dowdy. Leading from the middle looks and feels different than other positions. Thank you, Renee for sharing your story!

On August 19th, 2015 I marked year one in my first mid-level role as the Assistant Director of Student Staffing and Training at Marquette University. I returned to residence life from a role in association management and was itching to be back in the day-to-day problem solving, planning, and challenges that I love about this functional area. One of my greatest joys in the job is the work of developing and coaching staff. As I sat in RA training, watching months of planning flash before me, some of my most important lessons stood out.

When leading from the middle, one of your most important jobs is to give context. Tough decisions are made and entry level professionals develop their own perception and lessons from these observations. My role as a supervisor is to help provide a deeper understanding of the how and why behind these moments. It isn’t just about managing the now, but helping to prepare others for the hard decisions and stakes they may face later in their career. I want to protect our staff from unnecessary worries, but I also want them to be prepared for the very real challenges that are part of the job.

In that vein, what I say and do carries different weight. When I was a hall director, I had my 17 staff members who looked to me for guidance and support. Now there are 128 RAs, 225 desk receptionists, and 13 RHDs and grads who look at my words, behaviors, and choices as a barometer for professionalism. This may seem obvious, but the realization that I could have greater and broader influence at first overwhelmed me. I didn’t want to say anything wrong and the task of avoiding an error or mistake was mentally taxing. Now, further in, I’ve made mistakes and I’ve also maximized my influence. I’ve been able to own and apologize for mistakes, which is also a demonstration of leadership. But I’ve also been able to reach students and staff in some incredible ways. Which leads me to…

Share what you care deeply about. It will be contagious. People want to be surrounded by others who are not only invested but who offer something to get excited about, interested in, or adds new depth to their work. This year, I focused on basics of effective training methods and facilitation skills. I worked on this across all realms of my work and saw in August the impact this focus offered. After an incredible presentation by a team of RHDs, another staff member turned to me and said, “You made this happen.” I never expected that impact to be noticed but it made me so proud. At mid-level you are stretched in many directions. I knew to take our training to the next level, I needed to extend my knowledge and equip staff members with this knowledge and confidence to be an extension of my vision. And it was a success. Allowing others to be a partner in my work and to build their skills while at it was one of my smartest decisions in year one.

Many lessons lay ahead for me, but I can look at year one with pride. I took some chances and exercised great forethought to where I wanted to take our team and who I wanted to be to allow that to happen. Mid-level demands an ongoing focus on the details and the bigger picture. But most important within and between those aspects is the work of developing others. Looking forward to year two and the work and learning that awaits.

Renee P. Dowdy

Renee Piquette Dowdy is the Assistant Director of Student Staffing and Training at Marquette University in Milwaukee, WI. Her work has taken her to Fort Collins, CO as part of Synergos, AMC, the University of Chicago, and Bowling Green State University. She lives in Milwaukee with her husband, Gavin, and Goldendoodle puppy, Maxwell. Outside of work, When not training and selecting staff, Renee enjoys yoga with a recent fitness certification, barre fitness classes, hiking, and home remodeling projects. Find out more from Renee by following her on Twitter (@reneepdowdy) or on her blog,

Change your view of the fishbowl


In student affairs there is a lot of messaging around being watched. From our first days of RA training to our interviews for mid and upper level positions we are constantly being told that “people are watching you.” We expect our staffs and ourselves to constantly be on, to always serve as role models, to never make a misstep. Or, if you do, don’t ever do it publicly. This is exhausting. I remember being a senior in college sitting in RA training and absolutely panicking during these speeches lectures. “Am I ready for this? What would happen if I stumbled? Would I lose my job that I really, really needed to help pay for school and that I really, really wanted because I saw myself as someone with something to offer students and my university?” #AMDG!

Yesterday was our all college retreat. It was an invigorating day. When the president of the university makes time to come speak to you (we’re one of the smallest colleges on campus) that’s a big deal and speaks volumes about who and what she values. When the new Dean stands up and says, “We move forward together or we sink together” that’s a great gut check.

I had to check myself.

I’ve gotten in my own way because I have been seeing myself and my career from inside the fishbowl, rather than outside it. I have let the messaging about executive presence and role modeling and blah blah turn into noise instead of what it is- good advice.

Yesterday I arrived extra early so I had time to get settled, finish my coffee, and check-in to the event without rushing. (I am not a morning person.) Yesterday I wore a skirt and a jacket. I felt and looked great. Turns out, these were good decisions as the Dean saw me walk in and I got to spend a few minutes chatting with him. Now, I didn’t do these things to falsely create an interaction with the dean- it just happened. But, it happened because I was here and ready to go. It happened because I chose to put myself in a good light. That will only help me.

One of my many goals for the 2015-2016 year is to see myself and my career as outside the fishbowl. Instead of thinking of it as pressure, I am flipping the script and seeing it as opportunity. People are watching. Always. We make mental notes about each other. That sounds sneaky and sometimes it is (that’s another post). But, it’s true. People remember. I am going to work smarter to let them catch me doing something well. I am choosing to see the fishbowl as an opportunity to shine.

We need to change the messaging about our roles in higher education. We need to encourage and teach our students, colleagues, and ourselves to see the fishbowl as a chance to show people what you’re capable of. I remember my brother said to me once that if you’re prepared, the test can be fun. The same can be true of work. Prepare (whatever that looks like for you). Then when the “test” comes, you’re ready. It shouldn’t be about fear. It’s a gift.

Truthfully, most of us are more ready than we give ourselves credit for. Shine and swim on, friends!

(Fishbowl Image from:

Losing Trust: From staff support to helicopter parenting

This post was written for the Student Affairs Collective blog series #SAEvolve. You can check it (and all kinds of other great stuff) out here: The Student Affairs Collective

We knew the parental tide was coming. And now it’s here.

My career in higher education began in 1999 when I took my first job as a residence life coordinator (RLC) at a small, private college in the Mid-West. At 24 years old, I supervised a staff of 11, six buildings housing 300+ students and allocated the budgets for each one. The majority of that money came from students and their parents. At the time, I didn’t bat an eye at the level of responsibility I was given. No one else did either. I was given an extraordinary amount of autonomy and much was expected of me. Looking back on it now, I am struck by two things. One, I am stunned that this level of responsibility was entrusted to someone so young and inexperienced. And two, I cannot believe that students and their parents shelled out so much money to the institution and then walked away to let the staff do our jobs. That’s how it was then.

In my three years as a RLC, I had one conversation with a parent. It was opening day, my first year. A father gently pulled me aside and introduced himself. His daughter was living on the first floor of the building. She was blind and deaf in one ear. He wanted to explain to me that she had an aide. He introduced me to his daughter and her aide and explained what her role was. The aide had a key to the room, helped the student dress, navigate the dining hall, attended classes with her, etc. etc. He also asked me what my staff and I were going to do to meet her needs. I am sure I stumbled through my answer and feebly assured him that we would do our best to be helpful. I never heard from or saw him again until move-out day.

My second position in higher education was as an Assistant Director of Student Activities. At that institution the VPSA successfully lobbied for a quadruple increase in the student activity fee; my programming staff and I were given 50% of that to establish campus traditions and late night programming. The increased monies allowed us to improve the weekend campus culture.The only parent contact I had was in the form of thank you notes.

I have worked as an academic advisor for almost four years. I get to work with compassionate, smart, hard-working students who aspire to be nurses. For the most part, I enjoy my work. I get to help people. However, there are times when my work is challenging because I have to interact with parents. I have had more parent interaction in the last four years than in all of my previous years combined. In that time I have been:

  • verbally abused by an angry parent (to the point where he hung up on me and then called a week later to apologize);
  • participated in countless meetings with incoming students and their parents;
  • had parents go over my head questioning my decisions (and really it wasn’t my decision, it was someone else’s & I relayed the message).

I actually like talking to parents because on many levels I can relate. In just eight short years my oldest son will go off to college and I will be where they are. I know how much I love my sons and how hard it will be when they leave our nest. On a very basic level, I get it. Parents love their children and want what is best for them. What I don’t get is the short-sighted nature of some of these parents. By fixing things for their children, they have taught them that they cannot be trusted and they have taught their children that campus professionals also cannot be trusted. The disrespect with which parents have spoken to me (and my colleagues) is astounding to me. Their willingness to go right for the jugular- calling the Dean, President, or Board of Trustees, all of which happened this year in our College- has been perpetuated by our profession’s obsession with appearances, our need for tuition dollars, and our willingness to cater to consumer satisfaction.

When hope and fear collide, one of the first and best current student “trends” books, was published in 1998. Parent centers and parent programming started cropping up in the early 2000s. Big questions, worthy dreams by Sharon Daloz Parks was published in 2000 as was Howe and Strauss’ seminal piece on millennials, Millennials rising. Millennials go to college was published eight years ago. We knew this onslaught of helicopter parenting and over involved decision-making was coming.

I knew that I would have to deal with parents eventually. But I underestimated the coming storm and now I find myself wondering how I got here? I recognize that for the most part, it is only about 20% of the population that makes 80% of the work. But, wow! Some of those interactions are exhausting.

I fear this post will make me sound old or worse, jaded. I don’t see myself as either of those. I do feel myself getting frustrated though because I am unprepared to deal with parents, especially angry ones, and there is no sign of this current flood abating anytime soon. While I recognize that my experience doesn’t represent everyone’s, twitter conversations and venting sessions with colleagues tell me one thing:

I am not alone.