As I have mentioned Monday June 6th marked the 5th anniversary of my graduation from Brock University.
I was a rez kid. I lived in residence all four years of university. In part because I hated public transit and feared I would get lost or never make it to class and part because I loved the environment and the people.
I have always been a bit of a keener and overachiever; a natural-born leader. When I started at Brock I read everything I could about the school. I was the person others went to when they had a question about anything related to life at Brock. I blame that partially on the fact that I like to learn and partially on the fact that I was underage my first year, while the rest of my floor wasn’t and I really didn’t have anything better to do. I was also the person that looked after everyone else. I was known as “Mommy Sarah” to many people my first year because despite being the youngest person on my floor, I was the person that looked after everyone.
In third year I put my extensive knowledge, excitement for residence and care taking skills to use when I was hired as part of the Residence Life Staff. I was the Don (that’s what we called RA’s) of the Wetherald Wabbits Court in Village (also known as court 8, I believe the Wetherald Wolverines now).
I was part of the Village South Staff, a team of 7, usually. Our staff was what we occasionally called the land of the misfit toys. I was myself was a late hire. Village was originally split into South, North and West, but some staff movements shrunk it to North and West. Village South started with a team of six, then grew to a team of seven, with only four of the original six. Our staff ended up being Carly (Head Resident), Charlotte (4), Mike (7), Myself (8), Rachel/Meghan (9), Breanne (10) and Carlo (11) and the ghost of Brian (Don Designate) who was moved to another building.
Life in Village is a unique experience. The buildings, as I was told, were originally built as temporary housing, that wasn’t supposed to last more than a decade. Village was built in 3 stages, Courts 1-6, then 7-9 and then 10-12. South was built from Court 4 (the original village) Courts 7, 8 and 9 (the middle) and Courts 10 and 11 (the newest).
I remember the day I moved in, my Mom looked around my apartment, house 807, and turned to me and said “Are you sure about this?” She said this because the handle on my oven was nearly falling off (I think it was attached with duct tape), a couple of cupboard doors were loose and knobs were missing from my kitchen drawers. I had lived in the newest residence the previous year, a beautiful residence that had just been built and never lived in.
The accommodations in village might have been a bit more worn down, but the house wasn’t what mattered to me. I was going to be a Don. I was going to have a court of 75 students, well 74 (other than myself), ended up being 73 actually as one of my houses never did get a 5th person.
I loved my court, I loved my job. I didn’t necessarily always feel in sync with the staff aspect of my job (the meetings, team building etc) because I was a late addition to staff. I did though love my students and doing things for them.
I was so excited to be a Don, I spent so much time preparing. I made headbands for each of my students. They were cut, sewn (so that they didn’t fray) and decorated by hand. I also created a quilted flag/banner for my court. It was hand drawn and glitter glued. (I must note all the sewing was done by my grandma, I am useless with a needle/sewing machine). I made personalized door boards for each of my students. I even built a website for the court ( I wish Facebook groups/pages had been more popular/in existence then) so that my students could stay up to date and have access to quick links they would need throughout the year. I also put some time into perfectly decorating and laying out my courts community bulletin board. And most importantly I created a House Information sheet for each house to fill out so I could learn about my court and create a court contact list.
I was so prepared for my students, when they arrived I was a bouncing bundle of energy (typical of any Don). I knew all of my students names and ages (so I was prepared for under aged drinking) and I was quick to put the names with the faces and the houses they lived in.
Village was typically a difficult residence. It often had the most problems and discipline issues and I had heard a lot of horror stories from Dons and even students about Village. Dons who though their courts were evil and students who wished their Dons would do more. I was determined to make sure neither of those things happened to me.
I made an effort to get to know my students. I spent the entire first months sitting outside at nights talking to my students. I kept my door and blinds open as much as possible and created an open door policy. My students responded well to both. I remember the first week when we had to do rounds, one of my co-workers came into my court and looked at me and asked me “How did you make your students so afraid of you?”. The question made me laugh, but I understood it. My co-worker’s court was really challenging, creative several discipline issues in the first several days and my court appeared nearly angelic in comparison. My court wasn’t afraid of me though. I had done two things that I really think helped me with my court. I’d spent every night outside talking to them, but I did something also that I think was more important. Residence had specific rules and guiding principles. At my very first court meeting I told my students to read the book and I told them that if they had any issue with the rules or questions about them, they had a week to find me and we’d talk about them. The first week that I spent out in my court talking to my students they took my up on my offer and a number of them asked me about rules, questioning their validity. Some of the rules were hard for students to agree with (i.e. no beer bottles allowed, but coolers are allowed), but after talking with my students they could understand and respect the rule, though not necessarily agreeing with it.
After that week of talking about the rules my students knew what the rules were and what my expectations were for students behaviour. My students knew that I wasn’t writing them up to be mean, or because I was on a ‘power trip’. Most of them knew that I liked and respected them as individuals, but that certain behaviour had to be addressed. There was occasionally some negative response, but for the most part, when my students broke a rule, they were good about it. They didn’t yell or argue me, instead they tried to sweet talk me out of it and then calmly accepted what I had to do. For the most part though, my students tried to avoid break the rules, at least in plain sight.
My court was a great mix of people. I had 8 houses of guys and 7 houses of girls (I was happy to have more guys than girls, I can handle guys better for some reason). They were interesting people. They were kind, thoughtful, respectful (mostly) and overall a lot of fun. The back wall of my court was a set of three houses of guys. There were a couple of guys that on occasion gave me some grief, but for the most part that back wall was my favourite group of houses. The guys who lived in those houses had an overwhelming amount of personality. They were funny, charming and always respectful and accommodating. They are the guys who would default to charm, when they were caught outside with open alcohol, or underage with alcohol. While most Don’s got attitude when they were dumping beer, I got hugs from my boys.
It wasn’t just that back wall though that I loved, it was all of my houses. I had a second year student named Adam who I took an ethics class with. We had heated debates on a number of occasions. He was a hardcore George Bush loving right-winger, and I was pretty well the opposite. I had a girl named Kristy who was so outgoing and energetic, who played volleyball with my rec league team. I had a house of five girls, often six (a friend of one of the girls who didn’t actually live in my court) who often found themselves facing some kind of problem , typically an ambulance requiring problem. I had a house of five boys who were a constantly source of entertainment. One guy tried to convince security that his beer was orange juice (he was under age) and tried to convince me that he had nothing to do with the pylon I watched him carry into my court. And his house was the lucky recipient of a set off fire extinguisher through an open window in their kitchen. Oddly enough this guy joined me on security the next year, I couldn’t have been more proud.
I had a student named Iiljas, who was probably the sweetest, softest spoken guy in my court. He had a brother who would visit my court too. They were the nicest guys.
There was also my loudest most outspoken Wabbit, Andrew, my Bermudian student. He was always a source of entertainment. He was also the most social person in my court. He was a lot of fun, but on occasion if I wanted to get anything done, I had to turn him away.
Lastly I will mention Matt, he was my “Wabbit of the Year” when all was said and done. He was my most involved student and by far my most entertaining, he was a drama student, inspiring comic and a proud Scotsman. He was not along my student, but he became a great friend. He was someone I talked to often and shared interests with. He is someone I still try to keep in touch with every now and then.
Third year was a challenge, I was a student and I was a Don and I was facing the most difficult year of my life personally. On October 16th 2004 I lost my Grandpa to Lung Cancer, after a brief three to four month battle. I had to go home for a week to be with my family to help them through this difficult time and to have my opportunity to say goodbye and heal in my own way. My students, my staff, the larger staff and the security staff were unbelievable. When I sent my students an email letting them know that I was going to be away and why, I received several messages of support from my students and offers of assistance and condolence when they saw me. A big fear for any Don is that when they aren’t there, their students will go nuts and break every rule in the book, the whole while the cat’s away the mice will play logic. I had someone look after my court while I was away and I was happy to heard when I came back that my students were as awesome for her as they always were for me.
My students were so kind and understanding and helped me a lot through this difficult time. They made an extra effort to make sure I didn’t have things to deal with. Beyond my students, the RLS staff was great to me as well. I received support from a number of unexpected sources and most importantly from my staff. My staff was there to listen, and there to sit in silence when I wasn’t ready to talk. They were always there to distract me or make me laugh, or just to console me when I needed it. I was also lucky because I was close with many of the members of our student security team. The teams who knew me the best would always stop by to chat and give me hugs.
The people I met during my third year as a Don were the kindest, most inspiring individuals. All of the people I met that year made an impact on me as an individual and I am honoured to say a couple of them are still very good friends of mine, who will likely be in my life for the long haul.
That year by far was the hardest year of my life. I experience the worst loss that I have had to this point in my life. I could have gone to a very dark place that year, but because of my job and the people I had around me, the worst year of my life, was also one of the best.
Being a Don is a lot of hard work. Long hours, lots of meetings, lots of paperwork, programming, counselling, etc., but I loved it. I felt like I made a difference for my students and the people I worked with.
While I may look back at that year with sadness for the loss of my Grandpa, I will also look back at that year with a lot of laughs and smiles. I had so much fun that year, through all the problems and the pain. That year taught me a lot about myself and my personal strength.
I am so thankful for that year that I had as a Don. That job and those people gave me an escape from my personal reality and gave me something positive to remember from that year.
I may have lost my grandpa, who I was extremely close with, but I gained my best friend Matt, who was part of the student security who always checked in on me, a number of other friends and an immense amount of stories and memories that will forever be with me.