Reflections on 17 Years in Student Life Leadership

It is
not the role
of only the faculty to
teach; rather it is the role
of everyone on campus to
create environments that
facilitate learning.

Dr. Elizabeth WallaceDr. Elizabeth Wallace

By Dr. Elizabeth A. Wallace, assessment specialist, Tarleton State University TX

Recently I was offered a new position that uses my gifts in a more strategic way with increased impact. Having accepted this new role and begun my work, I felt compelled to reflect on my years in the campus housing and residence life area of student affairs.

Working in higher education has imbued my life with learning and meaning. Having earned two degrees in business, I had planned to join the corporate world. But fate had a higher calling for me. While working on my graduate degree, I was offered a job in housing and residence life, which set me on a course I would follow for the next 17.5 years.

Students are our hope

The student population varied greatly from the corporate population that I had mentally prepared to join. I quickly began making connections between my current work and that of the broad business world; many concepts such as quality, collaboration/teamwork and values/ethics applied to both worlds.

Students turned out to be the ideal population for me because they bring such great hope, passion and drive to their world. Students are energetic, whether for teaching, research or public service—and their energy, drive and passion are contagious.

The longer I work with college students, the more I am convinced that trends come and go, but working with students on universal principles such as respect, life-time learning and honesty remain unchanged.

I count myself fortunate to have spent my life’s work with this population. They will shape our future world, so it is both an honor and a responsibility to help them to become the best they can be, so they can help to make a better world.

Learning happens everywhere

Upon my initial introduction to my work, I did not fully grasp the magnitude of learning. Innocently, I thought students learned in the classroom and something else happened to them during the rest of their time on campus.

I believed in a compartmentalized environment where learning took place in one setting but did not influence the rest of a student’s life. I was wrong, and I quickly learned how wrong!

Learning happens everywhere, in the residence hall room at 2:00 a.m., surrounded by friends who are willing to “speak the truth in love” about a topic or relationship. Learning happens in the dining hall sharing a meal. Learning happens at the athletic event when friends gather to support their team, dressed in school colors and bonding for life.

Learning happens when meeting with a professional staff member who asks about life, family and dreams. And learning happens along the campus sidewalk going to and from classes or events.

Today I look back and smile at my initial innocence and give thanks for the revelation I have found. Students may not always remember the physics pop quiz where they scored a 75, but they will always remember painting themselves purple, green or gold and cheering until they lost their voice, along with five of their best friends.

They may not always remember the concept of elasticity from economics class, but for a lifetime they will remember a conversation over a meal in the dining hall about politics or relationships or careers that changed their life. Learning happens everywhere.

It is not the role of only the faculty to teach; rather it is the role of everyone on campus to create environments that facilitate learning.

The physical plant worker has an opportunity to teach in helping a student to understand how to turn the heating unit from cool to warm. The librarian teaches the skill of life-long learning while equipping a student to conduct research. And the residence life staff member teaches a student by navigating a conflict situation, providing mediation skills that can positively impact a life!

I am an educator

Because learning happens everywhere, I felt obligated to create an environment where learning could occur within the residential system. It never even occurred to me—until 15 years into my work—that one might consider the campus housing aspect as simply managing bed spaces.

I perceived the residential system as a huge learning environment ripe with application from the classroom. A student could apply what she or he learned in political science to the residential governing system. Planning a major event incorporated learning from marketing, psychology/ sociology and finance. Navigating a hiring process allowed students to prepare themselves for their careers.

To me, all elements of the college environment—dining hall, student center, residence hall or classroom—are places to learn. I have since learned that not all share that belief, but I think my vision will prevail.

 ‘Without vision, the people perish’

Vision is crucial. While previously employed at a university, I often heard the phrase, “Without vision, the people perish.” There I witnessed the launching of a presidential vision that projected the priorities and goals for the university’s next 10 years, plus the formulation of an action plan and the day-to-day operations of aligning with the bold plan.

Being a part of such an undertaking infused the whole culture with passion, purpose and a focus that allowed every person to find a role in fulfilling the vision. Having worked in such an environment, I know first hand that without vision, the people may not literally perish but their spirit certainly will.

Without vision there is little passion; and even if passion exists, it is focused on the individual, not on the collective good of the organization. When each person pursues her or his own agenda, silos are common, because there is no vision to pull the disparate entities together to channel their giftedness.

Every organization faces challenges, but those that have a vision are able to scale the barriers and call everyone to a higher purpose. Vision and leadership are essential components for a thriving organization that truly serves the students.

Alongside vision for the organization, I discovered it is essential to be grounded in my belief system. My faith provides me the centering needed when organizational restructuring occurs, when bad things happen and when circumstances require big decisions. It has helped me to determine my alignment with the organization and use as a decision filter. Through these years, my faith has grown and continues to support my belief in the universal principles of love, respect and growth.

Growing leaders

I have learned that regardless of how good I felt about my work, there is always someone standing in the wings to take my place. How this is perceived reflects the differences in culture between organizations.

If the person in the wings is viewed as a threat and untrustworthy, the culture will be one of suspicion and deceit, an unhealthy place to work.

But if the leader recognizes that part of the job is to create more leaders, the result is more potential leaders being taken under wing for mentorship, more opportunities for growth and development, and a culture that is more positive, affirming, empowering and collaborative.

In this environment, interpersonal conflict is reduced because everyone’s contribution is valued and there are no “favorites” to be navigated. Rather, each person is making an intentional contribution to the greater good, which creates a healthy and thriving organization—a place where others want to work.

Ultimately, people matter. Every person should feel that she or he is worthy of meaningful work and of the leader’s attention. Work relationships can last a lifetime and form the community in which we thrive and learn who we really are.

Happiness is a choice

When all is said and done, the biggest thing I have learned is that one can choose to be happy or unhappy at work. Bad things do happen; there will be grieving and stress. However, as a species we have the gift of free will and the ability to choose our response.

We can spend our days focused on the negatives—such as lack of vision from administrators, red tape in the payroll process, or lack of communication from leadership.

Or we can awaken each day being thankful to work with a student population, the great hope of tomorrow.

I choose the later. I hope you do too.

Reach the author at

Wallace, Elizabeth A. (2013, February). IN HER OWN WORDS:Reflections on 17 Years in Student Life Leadership. Women in Higher Education, 22(2), 23-24.

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