by James Silay
Associate Director for Greek Life, Case Western Reserve University
Commission Chief of Staff
As a student affairs professional, I always thought about what it would be like to return to my undergraduate alma mater, Case Western Reserve University (CWRU). CWRU had a profound impact on my personal and professional career as it gave me the support, encouragement, and experience necessary to pursue higher education and student affairs as a career. In December 2021, I was fortunate enough to return to CWRU as the Associate Director of Greek Life. In the nine months since, I have learned a lot about myself, the university, and returning to the place that I once knew so well. I hope to share some of the lessons I learned to help others transition to working at their own alma maters.
Lesson #1: You Will NOT Know How Everything Works
As a student I was highly involved and had the privilege to interact with many professional staff members at CWRU. Even though I was knowledgeable of some internal processes I did not know how to use the various systems. I found that sometimes individuals took for granted my knowledge of the institution and assumed I knew more than I did. Therefore, I had to make connections with other colleagues to learn how to use different systems to complete my job. In addition, there were times that I overcompensated my experience and made assumptions on how something worked. In those moments, I had to humble myself and acknowledge when I was wrong and ask students or staff for help to better understand a process or procedure. Whether someone makes an incorrect assumption, or you overcompensate with your knowledge, it is important to ask for help so that you can quickly learn the correct way of doing something.
Lesson #2: Make New Connections
In returning to a familiar place, I was excited to reconnect with undergraduate mentors that were now becoming colleagues. While it was fun to be able to visit with them, I also had to remember that I needed to make additional connections with the other colleagues in those same offices or completely unfamiliar offices as well. I used the pre-existing relationships to help me identify who it would be more helpful to engage with during my onboarding period and who I could gradually make connections with as my time continued to progress. Also, I found myself volunteering for different opportunities so that I could become familiar with different areas of the institution and thus make new connections.
Lesson #3: Reintroduce Yourself to the Area
As a student I was focused on everything that took place on campus or immediately surrounding the area. I never really explored what Cleveland had to offer. Now that I am a permanent resident, I have enjoyed taking advantage of the unique neighborhoods and offerings that Cleveland provides. Trying new restaurants, joining different running clubs or recreational sports leagues, visiting museums and festivals, and exploring the ever-expanding brewery scene, I have been busy getting reacquainted with my new home and making new friends. While exploring has helped me personally, I have found that it has also helped me encourage students to make more of their time in Cleveland by being able to provide them with recommendations when they say they are bored.
Lesson #4: You are a Source of Institutional Memory
The COVID pandemic has stalled some annual traditions from happening in most places and CWRU is no exception. Greek Games, the annual friendly competition between our fraternities and sororities, had been on pause since the spring of 2019. When the 2022 Greek Games were being planned and only a few current students saw or participated in Greek Games, I was able to provide much needed context on how to participate and what events some chapters have taken more seriously. While I acknowledge that a lot can change in eight years, providing some institutional memory was helpful in reintroducing a fun tradition. However, sometimes having institutional memory can cause some hurdles to overcome. At times I have found myself referring to the way things used to be rather than embracing the current ways. When this happened, I had to remind myself that my work is not about my experience, rather I need to use it as a reference point. I can share some of my experience, but I need to listen to what the students are saying, provide some feedback, and help everyone move forward together.
Lesson #5: No Place is Perfect
Returning to my alma mater, I had countless memories come back to me as I walked across campus and started getting more comfortable in my role. These memories reminded me of this “perfect” place that challenged me to think beyond the possible and become the individual I am today. Now, as a staff member, I have been able to see behind the curtain and understand that the place I thought was perfect has room to grow, as do all institutions. Looking behind the curtain has provided me a valuable opportunity to think back on my perspective as a student and more critically provide insight on the future of the institution and advocate on behalf of today’s students. I can use what I see now to reflect on my time as a student and make more informed choices today, so that students can have an even better experience than I had.
Overall, I am glad that I returned to CWRU as a staff member. For others contemplating a similar return and if the stars align, take the leap. Enjoy the memories of your undergraduate experience and be open to the new challenges and opportunities that returning will provide.
About the Author
James Silay is the current Associate Director of Greek Life at Case Western Reserve University. He also currently serves the Commission for Student Involvement as the Chief of Staff and has been a part of the commission leadership team for many years. James resides in Cleveland, Ohio which is the traditional homeland of the Lenape (Delaware), Shawnee, Wyandot Miami, Ottawa, Potawatomi, and other Great Lakes tribes (Chippewa, Kickapoo, Wea, Piankishaw, and Kaskaskia). Case Western Reserve University and the greater Cleveland area occupy land officially ceded by 1100 chiefs and warriors signing the Treaty of Greenville in 1795.