At the Summit, but it’s not all downhill from here

By Ryan Manning — I feel slightly obliged (and excited) to start this post off with the usual New Year’s pleasantry. Welcome to 2012 everyone! I hope, two weeks in to the new year, that we haven’t given up on our resolutions just yet. I for one have essentially cut refined sugar out of my diet, it’s been intense, but I’m sort of loving it. I’ve also taken up some painting, nothing of Monet quality, but I like having a new hobby.

But now, back to my job…

The first two weeks of January within Resident Life here on campus can be summed up in two words: Retreat Season. From what I can tell, nearly every division within the department takes a half or full day to get together early in the semester (and in the summer too) to renew relationships and get energized for the coming semester. Also, on Wednesday, the entire department spent the day at our winter retreat known as “Summit” (in reference to the top of a mountain to signify the halfway point of the year, not the fancy meeting of high-ranking officials. I clarify because my life’s ambition is to attend a summit meeting, so you can imagine how my hopes were dashed at the realization that this was not that kind of summit.).

As the only member of the department with experience at a Jesuit institution, the word “retreat” brings to mind a lot of  images of guided reflection, goal setting, team-builders and camping-like conditions. So, you probably can understand that when I learned that we weren’t going to a cabin, and we wouldn’t need to remember  to wear closed-toed shoes for ropes course activities, or anything like that, I was a little confused.

My first retreat of the year, for the professional staff working in the South Campus residence halls, took place in a swanky conference room in the Journalism building on campus, followed by a trip down to DC for a guided tour of the U.S. Capitol building. The day’s activities didn’t necessarily focus on reflection,  like I was expecting, but instead were centered on the topic of decision-making and leadership. In our jobs, we are all forced to make tough decisions that may be unpopular with the people they impact, or we may need to compromise our personal goals and values to meet the best interests of those whom we need to serve. We were able to talk to professionals with a wide array of experiences, from the National Mall to McKeldin Mall (the mall on the Maryland Campus, which flanks a number of academic and student affairs-related buildings. It got me really energized to get back to work and feel confident in the decisions I’d be making in my job.

Summit had a similar format, but with 5 times as many staff members from across Resident Life. Instead of meeting with a panel of experts, we had the choice of 4 sessions, all related to the shifting landscape of higher education: with college being so expensive, is it still a good investment? I attended a session with the Director of Undergraduate Admissions about how out student demographics will be changing drastically over the next few years. The afternoon consisted of a ton of loosely structured social activities, from Bingo to board games to a bake-off all designed to help the staff relax in preparation for a grueling semester, and for us to building stronger social connections.

Coming into these retreats, I sort of questioned how exactly these could qualify as “retreats” in the student affairs sense. To prove my point to myself, I looked up retreat in the dictionary, and the first words I saw were “a place for retirement, sanctuary.”  So, I may have been sort of off base thinking that some good old Jesuit reflection would be the best way to get focused on the spring (though I certainly do a lot of that on my on, especially with my new artistic hobbies). Instead of looking at goal-setting and planning, which we already do so much of, we were able to focus on one of the most important reasons why I come to work every day: we love our co-workers and we can consistently feel supported by them.

And that’s when I sort of understood why we called it “Summit.” To get down the mountain, you have to go downhill, and if you’re anything like me, walking downhill probably means tripping and falling a good chunk of the way. Even if I set a goal for myself to not fall, no amount of planning will probably make that happen (just like no amount of planning can keep something unexpected at work from getting the best of you sometimes). Sometimes, it’s more important to make sure you have someone to help you stand back up one you’re down than it is to think about how you can’t let yourself fall.

So, the next time you’re planning a meeting to talk about next steps or your vision for the future with whatever team you consider yourself a part of, ask yourself: “maybe we should just go bowling or something instead.”

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