Editor's Note: Often in Higher Ed, We talk about work/life balance and the implications of work on family life — but rarely do we gain insight about the role of family in making career decisions. In Jan. 2018, Paul Redfern uprooted his family and moved more than 400 miles to Canton, NY to take a role as Vice President for University Communications for St. Lawrence University. Here’s how he navigated the journey on the home front.
When I was asked to write a piece about my personal experience accepting a new job as a Vice President, I had my reservations. I have written a number of pieces in the past few years, but they were all focused on the professional side. No one had ever asked me to write about my family. Would colleagues even care about my own personal story? Something about the topic intrigued me. I had not seen content like this shared with the community before and thought I had something positive to offer to the conversation and to our profession, especially at a time when the communications and marketing function are more regularly being added to the senior leadership team and reporting to the President.
Here’s the often-overlooked story of what taking the next step in your career can mean for those you love.
My oldest asked me a question that I was not prepared to answer and had not thought about how I would answer ahead of time. “Dad, what is so great about being a Vice President?”
I was preparing for the Gettysburg College Communications and Marketing holiday party which my wife and I hosted annually at our home. On this cold Thursday afternoon in mid-December, I received a phone call that would change not only my life but also significantly impact my entire family. It was the President of St. Lawrence University offering me the chance to move to Canton, NY and serve on his senior staff as the Vice President for University Communications.
This was a professional goal of mine and, in many ways, a dream job. I thought I was prepared to uproot my family and life and move seven hours north to a place that was 30 miles to Canada. In reality, this decision was one of the hardest things I have ever done.
At the time of our move, my wife and I had been married for 13 years. We met and had both worked at Gettysburg College for our entire adult lives. We have three beautiful children, ages 11, eight, and three who had made friends and loved their school communities. We had been talking about me making this type of move for several years, but the reality of the decision to say “yes” was both daunting and exciting.
After accepting the job and working out a plan for the announcement that worked for both Gettysburg and St. Lawrence, we needed to tell our children. This relatively simple task proved harder than I thought. We decided that the three-year-old didn’t need to know until it was closer to happening but that we owed the older two a complete conversation. Tears flowed when they realized that they would be leaving their friends and school that they loved. My oldest asked me a question that I was not prepared to answer and had not thought about how I would answer ahead of time.
“Dad, what is so great about being a Vice President?”
If I had to do it over again, I would be more thoughtful ahead of time and provide an answer for my children that was not based on the professional rationale but on why it will be great for our family. Eventually, an answer which compared my new job to building with Legos connected with him. We framed the move as a new adventure for all of us — new career opportunities for myself and my wife, new activities and experiences for the kids, and, most importantly to my daughter, getting a new backpack to start at her new school.
I made two visits to St. Lawrence and Canton, NY, during the interview process. Due to family circumstances, my wife wasn’t able to join me for either visit. I wouldn’t recommend this strategy to others. We were going to be in a position to decide about moving our family, and she was going to have to do it sight unseen. We used Facetime during my second visit so that she could at least get a taste of the town.
Navigating the Transition
My start date at St. Lawrence was January 30. My wife and I quickly decided that we would live apart until June to give the kids a chance to finish the school year, and if our house sold before then, we would reevaluate. Living apart from my family for five months was challenging and stressful. I missed birthdays, concerts, sporting events, and elementary school graduation for our oldest. It put incredible stress on my wife, who thankfully had the support of her nearby parents as well as many friends.
This time apart allowed me to dive in at work. I was able to stay late at the office, attend events on campus, and get to get to know the community without worrying about being home for dinner with our family or helping with transportation for the kids’ evening activities. On my youngest’s 4th birthday, he got to have a group of student leaders sing ‘Happy Birthday’ with me thanks to FaceTime. I traveled home about every three weeks, and called when I could. My wife would send me a picture of the kids’ weekly schedule so I would know when they’d be home in the evenings. While this separation is not something I wish to repeat, I think it made the overall transition for the family easier in the long run as each of us we were able to focus on immediate needs.
My wife’s first real first impression of St. Lawrence was going to be after driving a U-Haul for seven hours to help me move in late January. To say I was nervous as we pulled into town would be an understatement. She thought the campus was beautiful and the house we were going to live in temporarily would work well. We passed a bagel shop which made her smile. As we unpacked the UHaul, we quickly learned that we needed better gloves, but we were both excited about this new adventure.
Living in a new town had its share of ups and downs during the first year. Walking into events as a 40-year-old and not knowing a single individual was not easy. A few months after the move, one of our children didn’t want to invite anyone over for a birthday party because they didn’t think they had any friends, which broke our hearts. We were ecstatic if someone invited us to their house for dinner or asked us to hang out. But friendships are not built overnight. Finding our community took a little bit of time for both the adults and kids in our house. But we have all made our way and found people we connected with.
The St. Lawrence and Canton communities made it easier. They have been incredible during the past 18 months. I was impressed with the friendliness and caring that the University and town displayed during the interview process, and once I arrived, I realized that it was not a front. It is part of the ethos and woven into the fabric of the North Country. Perhaps it is surviving the cold winters together, but I have never lived in a place quite like it. I am fortunate to have found a dream job that I love in a community that my family and I have equally enjoyed. Thankfully, we both love the area and are enjoying every minute of North Country living.