I am going to keep it real with y’all. Your first year as a president is tough. The meetings, events, endless conversations, watching your back 24/7, and learning your new environment is a doozy. Now add a global pandemic, systemic racism, and dwindling budgets to the mix and that is a recipe for cruel and unusual punishment.
You are the new kid on the block. The Board is excited to welcome you, and you have a bit of a honeymoon period where every person greets you with a smile (even if they don’t mean it), and all are absolutely delighted to have you on campus. But you start asking questions about budgets, operations, policies, and the like. You learn the “way it’s always been done,” and what is considered past practice mostly operated by the “root guards” and they double-dog dare you to challenge them. You make an internal decision to not challenge at that time, because that’s not the hill you want to die on today. It’s all about strategy and patience. It’s okay to lose the battle if you want to win the war. Build relationships and keep it moving.
You attend your first meeting with all of the other presidents in the system and quickly learn there is a culture amongst them as well. One that doesn’t suit your style, but you manage, because it’s not about you. It’s about your college. You gravitate towards those that are willing to show kindness and offer good vibes. Those that let you know what to expect, who’s who among the presidents, and the ones protecting their fiefdoms.
But this is what makes the presidency exciting. You never know what will happen from one day to the next. One day you check your email and you see an invitation to travel to Washington, D.C. to speak about your passion—for me that’s student parents. The next day, you are dealing with an active shooter situation and a campus lockdown while sitting in a meeting with your vice presidents (true story).
Then another day you find yourself closing your college to all in-person services, moving everything online while glued to CNN and social media trying to understand what the heck is going on. Just last month you were traveling internationally, recruiting students, attending conferences, and meeting with employees. And now you find yourself struggling to answer questions that you don’t have the answers to.
You take heat from all sides. There are folks upset that you closed the college, because after all, COVID-19 is just an exaggerated form of the flu virus. Let’s not forget the fact that the first confirmed case of COVID-19 in the country was treated at the hospital in walking distance from your college. The questions come faster than the speed of light, not from the community or employees, but as you talk to yourself. What am I doing? How did this happen? How did we get here? When will it all end?
It’s not long that you realize there is no end in sight. You have to press forward and lead the best way you can with the information in front of you. With your team in tow, you begin making decisions on classes, operations, food service, graduation, housing, budgets, contracts, PPE gear, and parking (don’t get me started on this one). But every decision that is made has an impact on the budget and you have to choose between bringing in additional revenue versus ensuring the health and safety of the students, faculty, and staff at the college. Since life is irreplaceable, you choose the latter believing you made the right decision.
According to Psychology Today the average person makes 35,000 decisions per day. “Assuming that most people spend around seven hours per day sleeping…that makes roughly 2,000 decisions per hour or one decision every two seconds.” Wow! Now add that to the decisions you have to make in your first year as a president coupled with a global pandemic and that equals a healthy dose of mental exhaustion.
Look at the bright side. You no longer have to worry about the commute to work, battling traffic, and eating the same version of baked chicken at the multitude of galas you attended prior to the pandemic. Instead of deciding which shoes work with your suit, they are now traded for a comfy pair of socks, athletic stretch pants, and a semi-professional shirt (this was the early days of the stay home orders). Now, you say the heck with the button-down shirt, and you find a college branded t-shirt and call it a day.
Zoom, Google Meets, Facetime, and Microsoft Teams are getting old. You grow tired of people telling you that you’re muted or being forced to use the raised hand function as if we have reverted back to Kindergarten. Online shopping becomes addictive, buying shoes and purses with the hope that one day, you will step out and wear them when things go back to "normal." In one working day with a calendar full of meetings, you play video games with your eight year old son (after his Zoom meeting with his teacher), you have tea time with the almost two-year old, and you help your teenager solve life’s boy problems all while running a college. Give me a break!
Then just when you have plugged all of the holes in the ship and we are sailing a bit smoothly, you hit a wave, and it’s a big one. Another black man is murdered for merely existing. You ask God if this is real. And you get your answer whether you like it or not. You watch the earth shake beneath your feet, and you watch the uprisings begin. You try to make sense of it all and that feels damn near impossible because this is not the first time a black person has been murdered. He could have been your brother, son, husband, father, uncle, grandfather, or cousin. You don’t know him or his family, but you feel their pain as if he is a blood relative. Another black man is killed jogging, and a black woman is killed in her home, forced awake in the dark of the night by overzealous police officers.
You watch with horror the intense debate over the value of a human life. You read the comments in news articles which does nothing to help your psyche, and you break all the rules and cry while on the job, attempting to explain to your white presidential colleagues the pain of living as a black woman trying to be perfect each and every doggone day. And now comes the surge of “allies” and those that are so “woke” they have apparently never been asleep, and know more about systemic racism from the books they’ve read than your lived experiences. But you wonder who they are, why they are here, and if they really mean it. Are they just in the moment or part of the movement? Only time will tell.
But you push through. You take a radical show of support for your college and for Black Lives Matter using your platform. While you are responding to BLM, there are still budget concerns diverting your attention back home, at your campus. No matter how many different ways you put it, the numbers don’t lie. It’s time to make some tough decisions, tougher than the 35,000 you make on a daily basis. It’s not easy to tell your college that some employees will not have a job, when only a couple of weeks before, your husband lost his job due to decreasing budgets. The pandemic hit home for you the same way it has affected millions across the country. Today, the burden is on your shoulders.
Even in the midst of the storm, you pause to reflect. You find the silver lining and you learn to appreciate what is most important. You look at your beautiful children and smile, knowing they love you unconditionally, even when you make mistakes. Your husband is supportive and rubs your feet after a long day, and makes you breakfast, lunch, and dinner to keep your energy going. Pillow talk nowadays is mostly philosophical, building strategies to tackle the next day’s problems, while your children are sound asleep.
When you get on your knees to pray at night you thank God for lighting your path in the midst of the storm because you know that the sun will come up one day soon. When it comes, you will be ready to continue leading your college into the future because you have earned your battle scars and if you can survive a pandemic, you know that you can survive anything that comes your way because you were created for this moment.
The first year is full of surprises but remember “God will never give you more than you can handle.” Buckle your seatbelt because the ride isn’t over. It’s actually just beginning.
"Thy word is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path."