A Recipe for Remaining Optimistic

December 13, 2021
  • Professional Well-Being
  • Self-Care
lantern with a red candle burning sits next to a pile of illuminated electric Christmas lights

"Field Notes" is an occasional Connect column covering practical and philosophical issues facing admissions and registrar professionals. The columns are authored by various AACRAO members. If you have an idea for a column and would like to contribute, please send an email to the editor at connect@aacrao.org.

By Julia Pomerenk, University Registrar and AVP for Student Services and Enrollment Management, University of Oregon

In the way that we may depend on someone to always bring the deviled eggs for a potluck, my colleagues have come to rely on me to bring the optimism. It’s a dish that I find delicious, too. Developed over 35 years of learning from our work together and refined during the pandemic, my recipe works for me and may work for you. 

Be kind. Be kind. Be kind.

I start with kindness. I keep kindness central in my life and my work. I claim kindness daily, reciting to myself the words from Mary Oliver’s poem “Why I Wake Early” as I pour my morning coffee: “Watch, now, how I start the day/in happiness, in kindness.”

Rest. 

Staying positive takes energy, and energy needs to be renewed. My colleague Nikki reminds me that “Rest is revolutionary.” Nikki’s radical advice echoes the suggestion that my mom would make to me on Sunday afternoons: “Why don’t you take a nap?.” 

I also take trips to the Oregon coast once a month. I am pulled there to take a break watching the waves and seeing the ocean absorb them all. The Pacific Ocean is larger than any of its big waves and much more significant than any of my troubles. The ocean’s ebb and flow help balance me. 

Weekends, even away from the waves, can be when we give ourselves some needed space. My colleague Cori holds one weekend day free of any scheduled commitments. Michael, another colleague, marks one full weekend a month as a rest weekend, without outside activity. During the lock-down days of the pandemic, I leaned into my blank weekends as necessary recharge times after long, hard workdays. At that time, a good weekend was when I did my laundry, walked my dog, and did little else. 

Gather support.

I gather support from bringing colleagues and friends together. I need the recharge from connecting with others to stay positive.

Friends join me for the long weekends at the beach to enjoy agendas filled with tasks easily accomplished, such as breathing in and breathing out. We complete crafts. We put jigsaw puzzles together. Boxed jigsaw puzzles provide a picture to follow and all the needed, interlocking pieces—even if one of the pieces for the squirrel gets chewed by the dog. Sometimes I need puzzles that come in boxes instead of the work puzzles that push me to think outside the box. 

Colleagues who have become friends gather as a book group once a month. We invite women new to our university to join us, offering a first social circle in their new surroundings. I knew our circle sustained us when Mahnaz asked how best to support a friend recently diagnosed with breast cancer, and three women around the table shared their stories as breast cancer survivors.

Gathering as the Lunch Bunch each Friday, three colleagues and I get to recharge with work best friends. We began to meet during the pandemic when we were among the few working on campus. We talk about what fascinates us and what frustrates us. Now we know more about what we love to eat and what we love about our work. We’ve introduced each other to home-baked hamentaschen and Hildegard of Bingen’s cookies of joy. 

Notice Others.

Stepping into a new leadership position some years ago, I met with each person in my new office to hear their stories of our work and ask what they needed from me. Mary’s response remains what I remember most: “I want you to notice me.” Mary worked at our front counter, and likely interacted and impacted more students than anyone else in our office. I walk through my office each day in response to Mary’s request: “I want you to notice me.” 

Imagine if we greeted each other with this connection: “I am here,” mirrored by “I see you.” In Zoom meetings, we see each other in our separate settings. Pulling the personal elements forward from our backgrounds helps bring our fuller selves into our work. When a math professor puts a teddy bear on his bookcase, he’s happy to talk about the teddy bear. When an administrator places a plaque with Bob Marley’s lyrics on the wall behind her, she’s encouraging us to hum along and lean into the assurance that “every little thing is gonna be alright.” 

Noticing others helps create and maintain community. Though it could seem to take time away from critical updates or other (more) meaningful work, I start weekly staff meetings with a connecting question. From Jim, we learned about the best local trails for hiking. Martin and Jen directed us to the brightest neighborhoods for holiday lights. I found out that my excess craft supplies were just what Laura’s daughter needed for her second-grade students. The knitters found each other. 

Ask for Help

Among AACRAO colleagues, we award badges of honor to colleagues who have implemented new student information systems. As a lasting lesson from my implementation story, I learned to beware of my pride and stubbornness. Pride and stubbornness can take you far. Pride and stubbornness took me way past a point where I needed to ask for help. 

Following repeated failed requests for more staffing resources, I saw no way forward. I called the Ombudsman. (Normally, I was a consulting resource for the Ombudsman.) The Ombudsman was as surprised as I was that I was the one coming for help. After listening to my story, she nudged me to step past my pride and stubbornness to state that I would fail without help. I sent the SOS. I got the needed help--and the knowledge that humble honesty is a necessary cost when pride and stubbornness have been overspent. 

Misunderstandings about help can be more comical and still instructive. As an adult leader for a group of students studying abroad in Cuba, I wanted some assistance stepping down from an unstable bleacher at the end of a local theatre production. I reached out my hand to Dave, one of the young men in our traveling group. He looked at me and said, “Oh, I don’t need any help.” I laughed and said, “I need your help.” He was happy to offer his hand once I clarified that I was asking for his help. As leaders, we can ask more clearly for the help we need from those who report to us, especially as we navigate uncertain conditions.

Create a Place for Grace

We coordinate complicated processes with aplomb in our daily work, often behind the scenes. Once a year, many of us coordinate commencement events out in the open and often on stage. Using our experience seeing and solving problems before anyone else sees them, we draft lists and add any idiosyncratic things that (almost) went wrong in the past. Did the swimming pool manager remember not to drain the pool into the field used for the outdoor reception? Did the caterer order enough sugar so that the lemonade is sufficiently sweet? Did I stack enough diploma covers on stage?

One May, I did not. I ran out of diploma covers, on stage, with students still processing, as the provost read their names for their photographed moments, and the president shook their hand and gave them their diploma cover—or would have done if I had stacked enough covers. No amount of sugar could sweeten my lemonade during that post-event reception. 

By the next morning, I had a plan: send an apology letter and a diploma cover to each of the disappointed students. I drafted the letter and sent it with my plan to the provost. He suggested that I sweeten the sending with a gift certificate to the bookstore. The mailing was sent by noon. Whew. 

That afternoon, the vice president for development caught me in the hall and reported that the president had shared my apology letter with the leadership team earlier that day. Then he said: “You wrote a great letter.” Whew.

When I saw the president’s assistant later that day, I remarked about everyone’s kindness, to choose to compliment my recovery and not reinforce my error. She replied: “This is a place for grace.” Wow.

I want to create a place for grace. May we do our work well, employing the grace developed through knowledge and experience. May we recover well, when needed, embracing the grace that comes through kindness