Just Let Them Try

When I was a new residence life professional at the University of Guelph in the early 1990s I remember my colleagues and I spending so much time together, learning how to do our jobs together, hanging out at the pub together. We were full of energy and ideas — we argued and cried and supported each other and laughed a lot…a lot. There were some really good and “crazy” ideas thrown out and we got excited about some of them and took them to our superiors. Most of the time we were not supported and I know this was because the folks in charge were being cautious and trying to ensure that they accounted for every eventuality or did not want to commit resources to things that were not tested and proven. I don’t even remember most of the things that we pitched. I don’t remember them because we never got the chance to try them.

I left Guelph and went to grad school in Bowling Green Ohio and had an assistantship in the Dean of Students office. At one point in this role I was asked to organize an ice breaker for 12 preregistration events in the summer that would be attended by 300 students each. We did a few things as part of this ice breaker including the now overused bingo game where you find someone in the room to sign a box on your bingo card that applies to them…you know…”from out of state”, “has blonde hair”, “likes pizza”. On the bingo card for this event I included “has a tattoo”. This was in 1994 and the Dean of Students said “there are not going to be any high school students coming to our preregistration event who have tattoos!!!” This was obviously not a high risk venture so he did not forbid me from including this on the sheet but we did make a bet. I don’t remember the wager but he said there will be no one with tattoos….at least not at every single one of the 12 events. I had spent the last three years living in a residence hall with students and I was sure that there would be folks with tattoos among our new students. At the end of each ice breaker I would tell the group of 300 that I had a bet going with the Dean of Students and I would ask for a show of hands of anyone who had a tattoo. I won. At all 12 events there were at least 5 of the 300 who admitted to having a tattoo.

I know that there is nothing innovative about the activity described above but I tell this story because it reminds me that our younger, newer staff are closer to the students and to the changes in student culture than are many of us in senior roles. We have much to teach them based on our years of experience, but they have much to teach us from their experience. They have not let the ravages of time dull their enthusiasm for the new, the innovative, the creative, and the “crazy” ideas that occur to them. We have an amazing team of energetic, innovative staff in student affairs at Ryerson inspired by the leadership and role modeling of John Austin their Executive Director. It is John’s job and my job to encourage, support, inspire, green-light, and celebrate their experiments. Some will work, some will not — but that is okay. I have learned over the last few years that trying things that seem “crazy” just because they popped into your head or were born out of a casual joking conversation with colleagues can open all kinds of doors and teach you lessons that you would not have learned otherwise.

I have often said to my team that an organization can sometimes take on the personality of its leader, so it is no surprise that the culture at Ryerson has allowed such innovation. This is a culture that has been modeled and encouraged by our President. It is a culture that has supported things like the #RyersonSA hashtag and blog, some of the award winning RU Student Life projects, RU Therapy Dogs, Access TMP, #14DaysDry, Dissertation BootCamp, Student Employment Learning Outcomes, and my own In Their Shoes Project. This is also a culture that has given life to an idea like #RoadToCACUSS. As I said, it is my job to say:”Okay”, “Sure”, “Why Not”, “I love it”, “Let’s Try”, “So Cool”, etc. in response to the things that staff pitch.

In fact not only do I say “okay give it a try” but I often end up thinking “I wish I could do that too” or “If only I was a new professional again and had that kind of energy”. I can’t spend a week on the road with 5 staff (I am not sure I would truly want to) but I am going to head out with them on the first part of the first leg of their journey for a few hours. I want to show my support, bring some more attention to their Road to CACUSS project (they were all amazingly supportive of my In Their Shoes Project), and selfishly revisit a time in my life as a young professional when hanging out with my coworkers 24/7 learning, debating, imagining, and laughing was a favourite time in my career that helped shape who I am today.

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