If you’re like me and work at a school with fewer than 2,500 undergraduate students – then the contents of this blog post are going to be too real. However, even if you work at the largest of large institutions, some of these gripes might ring true. So here are three of the biggest struggles of working for a small college recreation department.
When I stepped into this position in the fall of 2013 there seemed to be a lengthy history of tempestuous meetings between various bodies on campus competing for field, court and room space. If you have a small student population, chances are you have an equally small number of usable spaces. You may find yourself fighting tooth and nail for these spaces between your school’s athletic department, conference and events department, and academic departments. The best advice I could give you is to meet early on in the semester with these key stakeholders once you know your scheduling needs to lay everything on the table.
When I meet with these departments here at Drew University, right off the bat we laid out ground rules to make sure we work together to best serve our populations. Priority is given to anyone who is using a space for a credit-bearing purpose. Then, we all agree to logically put our personal feelings aside — we all love our students and think they’re the most important people on campus, obviously — and make consolations that work for everyone involved. Swallowing your pride now and establishing a new relationship paradigm between yourself and other departments will set the stage for future consolations from all parties as you agree to be team players. Everyone I’ve worked with since we started having these meetings have commented on how different things used to be and how easy and stress free the process has become.
When you are starting with a student population of 2,500 you’re obviously going to have a small intramural participation. But, then when your NCAA coaches make a decree that their players can’t participate in any intramural sports the entire year — 25 percent of Drew’s student body — your campus is over 60 percent female and female intramural population is lacking already, and much of the campus has a general distaste for the dreaded s-word “sports,” you have to get creative and do what I described in my 2016 NIRSA Region 1 presentation: “Think Outside the Ball.”
We all have the same objective of attaining the NIRSA values of leadership, sustainable communities, health and wellbeing, equity, diversity, inclusion, service, and global perspective. Most of these values can be attained through intramural sport participation, but with decreasing intramural participation, you have to get creative. On a rigorous academically focused campus with a top-10 theatre program, I tried to provide students with more things they were interested in. I’ve hosted pub trivia and karaoke nights in our campus pub to reach out to campus populations that traditionally wouldn’t participate in intramural sports. I have physically met students where they are by driving around in a campus golf cart playing Cash Cab — while advertising our other upcoming events — and Intramurals Anywhere — my take on the comedy group Improv Everywhere. I head into our cafeteria or library and play small, quick card or board games with smaller groups of students. I am working toward those same NIRSA values, but took a different approach from the traditional intramural sports model.
The final and arguably most difficult struggle of working in a small college rec department is the amount of professional staff you have to work toward those NIRSA values. When you’re working with only one or two professional staff members, you have to get creative with the resources provided to you. And arguably the best resource we all have is eager, hard-working students. Here at Drew I’ve created special student manager roles for each of our major areas: intramural sports, club sports and fitness classes. These have a dual purpose: to help out with tasks that need to get done that I don’t have enough time in a day for and, even more importantly, to provide leadership experiences that our students can use to advertise themselves to their future employers. I have also partnered with other nearby universities to utilize interns from their relevant academic programs like The College of St. Elizabeth’s Food and Nutrition program and Fairleigh-Dickinson University’s Sports Administration program.
Overcoming these and other struggles can be done with creativity and awareness of the resources around you. And if you’re still struggling with these and other issues you should join the Community and Small College Community of Practice to ask for advice and learn from other like-sized institutions.