Home sweet job

More than a dozen community directors serve as mentors, facilities managers and educators for thousands of Tar Heels living on campus.

Theresa McKire talks with a student.
Being a community director isn’t for everyone. “It takes a special kind of person,” says Theresa McKire of Old Campus Upper Quad.

When asked to describe his job, Cobb community director Patrick Preudhomme quips: “I’m a glorified camp counselor meets a landlord meets a babysitter meets an educational programmer and an official pizza party planner.”

But what he’d put on a resume would look more like this:

  • Lead educator for 400–1,200 students in the community;
  • Manager for facilities operations, budget, student conduct and crisis situations; and
  • Supervisor and mentor to 20–50 student resident advisers.

Or, as community director Theresa McKire puts it, “I am the full-time professional that makes this place home.” She pointed out the glass bowl on her desk that she keeps stocked with candy for any student who drops in. “It takes a special kind of person to do this job, because we all love them, but you get to go home.”

At Carolina, 17 community directors share residence halls with college students, on duty and off. They live in apartments modified from dorm rooms with their spouses or partners, children and a few dogs. And each morning they take the shortest commute ever, one measured in steps, not miles. Some have even counted how many.

“I live 400 steps from my office,” boasts Maureen Rodgers, who shares her Ram Village apartment with Gemma, a miniature Australian shepherd.

The short commute and free rent may attract staff members to this challenging job, but they stick around for another reason.

“The students, without a doubt. And my staff. That’s why I love my job,” said Derek MacDonald, who lives on the 10th floor of Hinton James in an apartment marked “private.” Ironically, he said he feels closest to students when he has to counsel them for bad conduct. “Those honestly are some of the best conversations I have with students, and it surprises me every time.”

Different paths

Each community director tells a different story of the journey to this career. Rodgers studied to be an artist. MacDonald thought he would be a probation officer. Theresa McKire planned to become a child psychologist. Andrew Castle, a native of South Africa, emigrated to America for college and majored in history.

But while college students themselves, each began to question their original plans and consider a career in higher education.

Rodgers, now a self-assured, smiling woman who bubbles with laughter when she talks, almost dropped out of art school when she was an undergraduate. Homesick, unhappy with her roommates and struggling with college-level courses, Rodgers talked to a housing adviser who changed her life. Not only did the adviser give the tearful Rodgers wise counsel and a box of tissues, she also offered her a job as a resident adviser.

“I don’t know what she saw in me that she encouraged me to become an RA,” Rodgers said, “but when I look back, I guess only somebody gifted in that way would be to be able to see past that initial concern and what’s underlying that to ascertain that I could have the strength to do the job.”

Castle said a friend steered him to the field when he was a graduate student at the University of San Diego. “I had a friend, who was a community director who introduced me to the role,” he said. “So I got kind of interested in the position through that.”

Preudhomme, a rapid-fire speaker bursting with energy, enrolled at UNC–Charlotte to study engineering. “I did that for three years, realized I hated engineering,” he said. “And the time, I was an RA, and I was involved with other organizations on campus and I thought, ‘I would love to do this for a living.’”

MacDonald was also an RA as an undergraduate. A difficult internship in a Michigan probation office and a chance dorm-room conversation led to a change of heart. “My friend Robbie is sitting on the other side of the room and goes, ‘Hey, have you ever thought of doing Jim’s job?’ Jim was our director of housing,” MacDonald recalled. “And I said, ‘You know, I never really thought about that, but I think so.’” MacDonald followed up with his housing director to find out more and now both he and his friend work in higher education.

Res life

Each community director also has a slightly different lifestyle and relationship to the student residents. MacDonald, who hangs out in the HoJo lobby working on his laptop, like any student, often flies under the radar as the adult professional who lives upstairs.

“I always joke with my residents that I try to avoid riding elevators with students because they don’t realize who I am and they end up saying things that I just don’t want to hear,” MacDonald said. “Ignorance is bliss.”

Not many students confuse McKire for an undergraduate because they often see her with her husband, also a University employee, or her 3-year-old son, Jaxon. Also, she happens to be 7 months pregnant. McKire said she looks forward to what she will be able to do during school breaks … until she realizes that her built-in babysitters are also on break.

“Jaxon doesn’t like breaks,” she said. “When the students go home, he keeps asking me, ‘Where are all the friends?’”

Katie Lewis, her partner, and miniature dachshund George live in Alexander, 57 steps from her office in Conner. Off-duty, Lewis likes to run half-marathons and play her sousaphone in the Triangle Pride Band.

“Students hardly ever knock on my apartment door,” Lewis said. “But every time we leave the apartment, there might be a student in the lounge, and George will quickly greet them with kisses galore. They start to get to know George and they get to know me a little bit more.”

Duty calls

Not surprisingly, the least favorite part of the job is handling crisis situations, especially when those crises happen in the middle of the night.

“I guess that’s when you think about how hard life can be and you need to talk to someone and everyone else is asleep,” McKire said.

“Some of the calls that we respond to, we see students experiencing some of the worst situations in their lives,” MacDonald said — failures, disease, injury, mental stress, financial crises, even suicidal thoughts. “As well prepared and trained as we are, it’s still hard.”

Because community directors have such a special job, Preudhomme, another CD at Carolina and two from other campuses started a podcast this fall. On “Duty Calls: Adventures in Res Life,” CDs exchange information, give advice and share housing stories — like Preudhomme’s fire alarm story.

Two Cobb residents unfamiliar with cooking attempted to fry some burgers using two inches of oil in a pan — at 1 a.m. The smoke set off the fire alarm and 300 students in various stages of dress spilled onto the lawn in front of the dorm while firefighters dashed inside.

Since Preudhomme and his wife have a 1½-year-old, they had to grab a backpack with the baby’s stuff and the car keys, so mom and baby could wait out the incident in the heated car. Meanwhile, Preudhomme huddled with his RAs to discuss what happens next steps. Suddenly, one of them recalled that, since it’s after midnight, it’s now the community director’s birthday.

“Hey, everybody, it’s Patrick’s birthday,” they shouted to the shivering, grumbling crowd. Immediately the mood changed.

“All the students started singing ‘Happy Birthday,’” he recalls. “And I’m thinking, ‘Wow, this is so quirky. This is such a neat job.’”