April 14, 2009

Conference ‘eye-opening’ for housing director

by Christi Mathis

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- Southern Illinois University Carbondale’s director of University Housing has returned from a trip abroad with a lot of new ideas.

Julie Payne Kirchmeier was among 88 participants from all over the world attending the recent Association of College and University Housing Officers-International Global Housing Summit in Hong Kong. The five-day conference, the first ACUHO-I event of its kind, was a “very intense” time of sharing, networking and learning to think in new and different ways, according to Kirchmeier.

“It was very eye-opening. We connected with one another and it allowed us to have in-depth conversations and learn to think beyond what we know to be true for our own campuses,” Kirchmeier said. “It was extremely valuable to help round out our perspective on what it means to house students. We also learned things that will enable us to better serve our international students.”

Kirchmeier, who earned her master’s degree in educational administration and a bachelor’s degree in genetics at Texas A & M-College Station, came to SIUC as director of University Housing in December 2006.

She previously spent eight years at the University of Southern Indiana at Evansville, including more than five years as director of residence life and housing. Her experience also includes time as assistant director for residence life and residence life hall director at Lamar University in Beaumont, Texas.

“We found many differences but also many similarities,” Kirchmeier said. Participants discussed working effectively with parents, concerns about students being able to afford completing college, assisting students in withstanding pressures they face -- whether as high achievers or those who struggle, helping instill some type of motivating factor in students, and various other problems.

While Kirchmeier said she and some of the others came to the meeting with a decidedly Western perspective, everyone left as better-rounded people. They worked together to discover, identify problems, brainstorm solutions, map potential and create action agendas in keeping with the goal of assuring every university student on campus receives an integrated international experience.

Kirchmeier and the other participants, all affiliated with university housing, also toured residence halls at the City University of Hong Kong and Hong Kong Polytechnic University. She said it’s not uncommon for three people to share a small room barely large enough for three beds and desks carrels. The window typically holds a card-operated air conditioner that charges students for the time they use it. The visitors discovered some mainland Chinese higher learning institutions don’t necessarily consider heat and hot water basic necessities. And yet, the desire to learn and better oneself through higher education overcomes hardships, she noted.

“The graciousness of our hosts in Hong Kong really stands out in my mind,” Kirchmeier said. “We enjoyed a lot of collaboration and interaction under the direction of the learning catalyst, Jon Hockman, an experienced executive coaching facilitator.”

They discussed China’s emphasis on higher education in recent years, evidenced by the fact that in 2004 there were 13 million higher education students, while in 2008 there were 26 million. They discussed research into global student housing trends.

“It was truly a frame-breaker,” Kirchmeier said. “We make a lot of assumptions as western institutions that we need to stop making. We need to learn to unlearn and to never stop asking questions.”

Rather than taking a “problem-solution” approach that sometimes results in getting stuck in the past, this summit used the appreciative inquiry technique, Kirchmeier said. Essentially, participants looked at what is best in student housing, intensely focused on that and brainstormed on how to incorporate the best that’s available.

“These informal discussions can be invaluable,” Kirchmeier said. “We gained a much broader perspective about university housing, how housing programs are run and how we can better meet the needs of students -- local and international. So many different ‘light bulb moments’ went off in those few days.”

In months to come, Kirchmeier said she and the staff at University Housing will convert some of those “a-ha” moments into action in their corner of the world.