Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Sitting back and listening...

I'm currently visiting my family in Austria. The other day we were hanging out with our neighbors; I didn't talk much...just sat back and watched. And the more I listened the more I felt like an outsider. I used to be really close with them - I used to be able to have a conversation with them. Now I just sit and listen because saying anything just isn't worth it.

Nevertheless I didn't manage to make it through the evening without at least one snide remark about my job. One of them commented on the "babysitting of college students" in the US. Okay, so granted - I struggle with the customer-service approach that we're sometimes forced to adopt in Student Affairs, but I believe in the general idea of Student Affairs. It's not "babysitting" students - we try to educate them, support them during their time at college but also challenge them to learn and grow.
I sometimes wonder what retention rates in Austria were like if we had something like Student Affairs. Retention isn't really a concern here - after all, universities are mostly funded by the government (with a few student fees but nothing really significant), so who cares how many students make it through the first few exams. Okay, so maybe college isn't for everyone - but there are more students who could make it through college if they just had a little extra support.
And then what about the "challenges" we try to provide for our students? I watch my Austrian friends and I see them now, after they've left college, slowly discovering what they believe and what they think - moving toward self-authorship. And yes, I still have a lot of learning and growing to do but college definitely pushed me, at least got me to start thinking. And yes, I was one of those students who attended programs and had conversations about diversity and multiculturalism and education and all those other fabulous topics - and not all students do - but isn't it worth it even if we just educate a few of them?

What drives me insane is that I don't even think they'd listen - like really listen (meaning "being open to a different opinion") - if I tried to explain it. They're so stuck in their own ways, stuck in the belief that their college experience was all that and they aren't even willing to see the worth of a different way of approaching education - or maybe learning something outside of the classroom - shocking thought, huh?
But I'd just be talking to myself. So I sit back and I listen and I smile, even though my blood boils and I feel like they're questioning my whole existence.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

I want to tell you you're beautiful...

This isn't going to be a very long entry because I really need to go to bed (I have a meeting in 4 hours), but I wanted to share a few things with all of you:

1) Don't get too used to me posting on a daily basis. I wish I had time and the energy to write every night, but I know once the craziness of second semester hits me (and you know there'll be craziness...hopefully craziness in a positive sense though), I'll get distracted again and will forget about this blog. I hope though I'll be a little more consistent in my posting...wouldn't that be nice?

2) Thanks to everyone who commented on my last few blogs. It's just nice to know that a) people are reading my blog and are interested in my experiences and b) that even though I don't know who you are and you don't know who I am, I have some support out there.

3) I still don't know what to say when people ask me how I am. I feel like saying, "I'm fine" would be a lie but when I say, "I'm okay," I get these weird looks. And maybe I am fine...I don't even know.

4) On a happier note, I've successfully managed to complete distract myself and stop myself from thinking about what has happened by throwing myself head over heels into my newest project, this Invisible Children Challenge. My RA and I sat down today and did some serious brainstorming and then immediately went into the action phase. We now have an updated Web site and a Facebook group. We've created an e-mail address, so that both of us can have access to this e-mail and answer questions or use it to contact people. We've also started sending out e-mails - to Residence Life staff members, students who expressed interest in Invisible Children after seeing the Invisible Children clip during the Tunnel of Oppression, and students who signed-up at showings in various halls. All together, I e-mailed probably about 200 people today.
My biggest worries right now are finding a location that works for the event and getting funding.
My goal is to get at least 20 teams and to raise at least $2,000. Both of those goals should be feasible; yes, I even think we should be able to do much better than that. But I wanted to set low goals, so that we could accomplish them - both my RA and I are reaching our goals "too easily" won't be a problem because we'll immediately come up with even higher goals for us. But I wouldn't want us to get discouraged because we weren't even able to reach our initial goal. Does that make sense?

5) I just realized that in two days I'll be (probably around this early morning hour) starting my trip back home to Austria. This just seems so surreal to me. I haven't packed or even really thought about it yet. I can't believe it's coming up so soon!!!

6) I've gotten an unusual amount of phone calls today - mostly from staff members. And whenever my phone would ring (I have discovered this Web site where you can turn any mp3 music file into a can even pick which part of the song you want), I heard JP sing, "I want to tell you you're beautiful and kiss you, so you can't say a thing." No wonder I had a better day. That just has to make you smile! ;)

Monday, December 15, 2008

I felt alive again...

I've discovered a new band I'm greatly enjoying...Copeland. You should check them out (I'm listening to them right now...specifically their album You Are My Sunshine...what a cute title of an album).

Today was another strange day, so I think it's time for some more therapeutic writing...LoL.
I don't think the magnitude of what had happened really hit me until last night - I'd been so busy running around, making sure everyone was okay - and then I spent all day Sunday reading and pretending nothing had happened. And finally, Sunday night, I allowed myself to think - I wrote the past blog entry - and then it hit me.

Today has just been a blur. I couldn't fall asleep last night; then I couldn't wake up this morning. I finally got up because I knew I had a meeting that morning. I dragged myself out of bed. I spent some time in the office - having a hard time concentrating on anything. I had written a to-do list the night before and tried to go through it, but every once in a while I'd just catch myself staring at the screen not doing anything.
I met a friend of the family, who was helping move the belongings of the student out of his room.
I entered the room; I had only been there once - to document the resident for underage drinking. He had given my two RAs and me a hard time for documenting the situation. It had not been a fun interaction.
They say you shouldn't talk bad about the dead, but does that mean you can't say the truth? I'm sure he was a great guy - I just didn't have many positive interactions with him. He didn't want to meet with me for an academic advising appointment, ignored my e-mails; he stood me up twice for meetings we had set up; we finally met and it was actually a pretty good meeting. He told me about some of the struggles he'd been facing that semester and we talked about ways he could get these things under control. I thought there was hope....
That was a month ago.

After getting the family friend all set up to start packing and moving belongings, I went back to my office to continue doing some work. I still had a hard time concentrating. I listened to music - it allowed me to block out other thoughts. I love just letting music fill you up inside until you hear nothing in your head but the song.

A student stopped by; a close friend of the student who had died. She was a mess. She had tried to take a final that morning and just hadn't been able to do it. I talked to her; I tried to help her figure out what her options were. I didn't know what to do or say to make her feel better; I felt horrible. But finally, there was that reaction that I had been waiting for. Someone was missing him; his death had affected someone. It wasn't that I wanted one of my students to be distraught, but I needed to know that his life had positively affected someone; he was being missed.

I had a meeting in the central office in the early afternoon. I listened to music as I was walking over there. I didn't want to enter the building; I was scared to run into anyone. What would they say? What should I say?

I walked up the stairs, took a deep breath and entered the hallway. I walked as fast as I could. Of course I couldn't help but see some staff members; I said hi quickly and looked down.

Later that afternoon was this holiday gathering in the office. I felt like I should stick around. Colleagues already think I'm anti-social. I waited for the gathering to start - playing around on one of the computers in the office. Then, one of my RAs started texting me - a very welcome distraction. She had heard from our favorite band (yes, We The should know that by now...haha) and they'd suggested a date for a concert next semester. Yay!!! We could finally start the planning stages of our event. And the date they suggested was perfect - the only weekend I could actually do that month. Finally something was working out....

The gathering started. I felt like people were looking at me funny; or did I just feel that way? Some asked how I was doing and I responded quickly. Did they ask because they really care? Or did they just want to be in on the gossip? Was it one of those Student Affairs-y things to do or was it really heartfelt? It's not like I usually talk to any of those colleagues about how I really truly feel. They see me as this anti-social workaholic - they make fun of my obsessions and the things I truly care about without realizing how much this is hurting my feelings and how it's just forcing me to further crawl into my shell - so why would they now care?
And could I have answered truthfully in that setting?

And how do you answer the question, "How are you doing?" when you don't even know how you are doing. I feel like I've been sleepwalking for the past 24 hours.

I went to have dinner with a friend in the next city. It was nice to get away from campus, but I couldn't really stop thinking about everything. At first, I didn't say anything. I didn't want this to be the only topic. But then I couldn't not say anything; so I did but then intentionally stopped the conversation again very quickly.

I got back and decided to hang out with one of my RAs to start planning for our Invisible Children project for next semester. We talked about this and that, went on Facebook and looked at various people's profiles, checked out band web sites, read blogs and watched a funny YouTube video - and for the first time all day I wasn't thinking about what had happend; for the first time all day I felt alive again.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

...and words are all that we've become

I think it's time for some therapeutic blogging. ;)

It's 12:42 am and I'm not the least tired - probably because I slept until 10 am and then took a nap from 4-6:30 pm. My sleeping schedule's been really messed up lately.

But let's start from the beginning....

It all started last Sunday. I was hanging out in my apartment pretending to do work but really just playing around on my laptop. I decided to check the blog of my favorite band (if you want to check it out, go to and saw that one of the band members had decided to leave the band. I couldn't even believe it at first - well, let's be honest, I didn't WANT to believe it. I called my friend and fellow We The Living fan and we talked and analyzed (and overanalyzed...haha...we tend to do that with everything) and then we did what I always do when I'm upset or very emotional (I also do this when I'm really really happy) - we went and had ice cream. After some delicious vanilla ice cream with chocolate syrup and rainbow sprinkles, I still didn't really know what to think.

We're also trying to organize this campus-wide Invisible Children Challenge, a fundraising competition that will end with a huge Benefits Concerts (to find out more about Invisible Children, go to And of course we'd love to have We The Living perform at the Benefits Concerts - along with some student groups - but it's been a challenge to get in touch with them to set up a date for the show (well, I guess now they have other things on their mind). I'm just getting more and more worried. This is supposed to be a huge deal but I don't know whether or not I'll be able to get enough funding - and who knows how successful we'll be at recruiting teams. We got a long list of students who were interested...but that was a month ago now and if we don't contact them with any details soon, I'm afraid we'll lose their interest. AHHHHH!!!!

So the week wasn't off to a good start and it didn't get any better. One of my students had been caught by the police trying to break into a car (not sure what he was thinking...hmm, was he thinking?!?!). Because other cars had been broken into that weekend, the police got a search warrant for the students' residence hall room. They came over and when they went into the room, they didn't find anything that had been stolen from those cars but they did find some alcohol and marihuana. Not good! I can't say for sure what will happen, but I wouldn't be surprised if this student was suspended. I talked to him after the police left; not a fun conversation!

We also had a very messy and frustrating incident of plagarism in my class. It's a very long and complicated try and sum it up: my RA, who is also a TA for my leadership course, noticed that two students' introductions to papers were very similar/basically the same. The students are roommates but are in different sections of the leadership course.
Instead of telling me what she had noticed (as she should have done), the RA decided to take matters into her own hands and talked to the students because she wanted to "protect" them. She then told me about all this later - too late for me to see the papers (they hadn't been turned in yet as official final papers yet but had just been uploaded to this electronic portfolio thing that we use) and too late for me to think about what our best course of action would be PRIOR to bringing this to the students' attention. Well, from there on things just got messier and messier. I've been trying to work with the other instructor, who hasn't very helpful. When I called him to try and explain that I didn't think we had enough evidence to send this on to the department (here, the academic departments deal with cases of academic integrity), he gave me a lecture on how this student should be facing some serious consequences. When I asked him to send me the students' papers, he didn't. So basically I was dealing with all this on my own, even though it was the student in his class who had copied the paper ("my" student hadn't been aware of any of this). Of course, this whole thing also turned into a roommate conflict and, not surprisingly, I got a phone call from a parent.
And the whole time I kept thinking about why my RA hadn't told me about this incident right away? Was it because, like so many students here, she didn't see academic integrity as that "serious" of a violation? Because I know she would tell me if a student was drinking underage or smoking marihuana. Where does this notion of wanting to "protect" students come from? I mean, I'm not here to get students in trouble. Yes, I tend to be a little stricter maybe than some other staff members, but I always try to fair and I always try to do what I think is best for the student. Sometimes that may mean having to face serious consequences for making a seriously bad choice; but I don't do that to hurt the student; on the contrary, I do that because I believe they need to learn from their mistakes.
I realize that many students will see me as the "bad guy"...but my own RAs???

And then it was Saturday morning. I heard the phone in my office ring (my apartment and office are connected), but I don't usually pick up my office phone on the weekends (I do check the messages but not always right away). A little later (I hadn't checked the voicemail yet), I got a text from one of my RAs informing me that she heard a rumor that one of our residents in the hall died in a car accident. I asked her to find out the students' name if she could. I also went and checked my voicemail to see if it was something related. It was. It was the mother of another residents - a friend of that student - who just wanted to inform me about what had happened as well as ask what her son's options were in regards to postponing some of his finals if he needed to.
I went into work mode. I called the mother back. Then, I called my supervisor to inform her about what had happened, so she could start the process of informing everyone at the University who needed to know about this. I shared all the details I knew with our Associate Director, so she could inform the Dean of Students. We talked about the best way of informing the hall - sadly, the student had not been very connected to the hall community, so I didn't anticipate much of a response from the hall. There were three students whom he knew from high school - one had already been home (his mother was the one who called me), the other two had left for home that morning. I checked the students' Facebook to see who else he was friends with - but out of a hall of 280 residents, he was only Facebook friends with four other students.
I called an emergency staff meeting. I informed the staff. They seemed shocked and didn't really know what to say - but there wasn't much of a reaction. After all, none of them had really known the resident. I, as his academic adviser, probably knew him best - and I hadn't had many interactions with him.
The staff really wanted to inform the hall community though. Apparently our Housekeeping staff had found out and had started spreading rumors about what had happened. Some students had gotten text messages from friends letting them know what had happened. While we were still debating about what would be the best way to inform everyone (the staff thought an e-mail would be too impersonal), the fire alarm went off. What incredible timing!
We evacuated the building - and while I was standing out in the cold, I decided to call our Associate Director again to run some of my thoughts by her. In the end, I decided to hold a very brief all-hall meeting as soon as the fire department would let us back into the building. So we pulled all students into the Lobby. I got up on a chair and let students know what had occurred. I explained that I would be available all day if anyone wanted to talk; I also offered to call a counselor if anyone would like to talk to a counselor. I got a lot of blank stares; it was dead silent in the room; but other than that, there again didn't seem to be much of a reaction.
I asked the staff to be around as much as possible, but also wanted them not to forget about their own finals coming up and prepare for those.
After the brief meeting, I walked through the corridors to see if anyone wanted to talk. Most doors were shut and students were preparing for finals. I checked in with the resident's RA; he was doing alright. He had checked in with the residents in his corridor and said they all seemed to be doing okay. We also checked in with the other students, who were friends with him on Facebook, but they all seemed to be okay.

I hung around the hall for the rest of the day. Whenever someone knocked on my office door, I jumped up, bolted across the living room to get to the office, ripped open the door - just to find another student with an unimportant advising question.
I kept busy. I listened to music loudly.

A few people called me to check in. But these phone calls annoyed me more than anything. They all asked how I was doing and when I said I was okay, they didn't seem to believe me. But the truth was that I was okay. I felt numb. This whole thing seemed - and still seems - very surreal to me. But I couldn't even figure out for myself how I was feeling, so how could I ever explain it to a colleague?

I took a nap Saturday late afternoon/early evening, then stayed up half the night; finally went to bed just to get up early and finish some staff presents for our End of Semester Celebration. I was running late Sunday morning (we were going to lunch as a staff) and then, of course, our Director called me because he had talked to a family friend and we needed to set up arrangements to have the students' belongings picked up.

I went to lunch with my staff and we talked and laughed - and the topic of the car accident never came up.

I spent the rest of the day procrastinating - I read, I took a nap, I responded to some e-mail, I watched TV and I listened to music. I just didn't feel like doing anything. Then, a colleague stopped by to check on me - which was really sweet. :o)

And then I had the usual Sunday-night panic of realizing that I didn't get any of the things done that I wanted to accomplish this weekend. So I attempted to do work but didn't get very far. And finally I decided to write in this blog.

This has really been the first time I allowed myself to slow down and think about all that's happened over the past few days. To think and to feel! And I'm not so sure anymore if I'm okay. I didn't know the resident very well - I didn't have a close connection with him or anything. But why didn't I? Should I have reached out to him more? This whole thing was an accident, so yes, I couldn't have changed anything. Or could I? Was there alcohol involved in the accident? I knew he had an alcohol problem and was trying to deal with it; he said he was seeing someone and was getting help. But maybe I could have talked to him more about that - made sure he was actually doing better.
And how sad that he had barely any connections to the community. We pride ourselves in the close-knight community that we've built in our hall and here is a student, who was not part of that community. Was that because he didn't want to be or because we didn't try hard enough to draw him out?

How can my students feel so little about the death of someone, who was a member of their community? Someone who was living right down the hall from them? What does that say about us as a community?