Columbia University Medical Center

Helping Others, On and Off the Clock

“You will not be homeless. I can guarantee it.” That’s how Tanya Kent-James, CUMC’s director of housing, signs many emails. Those on the receiving end appreciate the reassurance—often they are incoming faculty or senior administration uprooting themselves from across the country or world to come to CUMC. Their excitement about their next professional chapter is often tempered by anxiety. They have budgets, large families, or specific geographic preferences; they are afraid they won’t find what they need, when they need it.  Another common reassurance Ms. Kent-James gives is, “We’ve done it before and we’ll do it again.”

Ms. Kent-James, a native New Yorker who has worked in nonprofits for the past 12 years and at CUMC for five, likes helping people and jokes that it’s the only thing she’s good at. It’s what she does at work, where she ensures not just that faculty and students have a home, but that they feel at home. It’s also what she does in her spare time, drawing on her own personal background to lead spiritual workshops for abused women.

As the director of housing for CUMC, she is responsible for managing the upkeep and renovations of 1.1 million square feet of real estate, including seven residential buildings. She says her team of 45 leaves her time to do what she likes most and does best—working one-on-one with people undergoing major life transitions, whether they be faculty or students.

Tanya Kent-James, CUMC's director of housingMs. Kent-James works in a large office in Bard Hall, a space that offers ample evidence of the range of her responsibilities. Atop the stacks of papers and folders on her desk are a flashlight and measuring tape, tools she says anyone who works in facilities needs to have on hand. And if there’s any question about her approach to a demanding role with a high volume of requests, just ask about the red-eyed rubber rat perched on a filing cabinet.

“That’s my stress rat. When my staff hears this,” she says, squeezing the toy until it squeaks, “they know I’m really upset.”  She laughs—the sly laugh of one who never seems truly upset.

Ms. Kent-James may have a lot of responsibilities, but she tries to focus on what she can do and to leave the stresses that she cannot control in the office at the end of the day.

At work, that leads to a gentle and humorous approach when she’s working out the kinks of getting new faculty members to campus and into housing, whether on campus or off, and leading them through the stressful details that can seem overwhelming. She likes to check in with them after they’ve met with a broker, to make sure the chemistry is right, and she sends them apps for navigating the New York City transit system.

“I try to give people the basics that you and I take for granted—to make their transition easy, or at least to streamline the process. Because moving here is difficult. People want to get some help and to feel that they’re not just a number,” she says.

With faculty, who take up a third of her time, work is often wrapped up once the boxes have been unpacked and the furniture arranged; often an invitation to a housewarming arrives in Ms. Kent-James’ mailbox.

With students, however, it’s when the keys are handed off that Ms. Kent-James’ work really begins.  Sometimes, she says, she feels like a mother hen—whether she is overseeing the residential advisors, fielding emails from students with housing issues, taking the occasional call from a parent who wonders why a son or daughter hasn’t called, or checking in with students who seem stressed.

A couple of months into the semester, as academic pressures come to a head, so do demands for Ms. Kent-James’ attention. Students come to her with housing issues, which often mean roommate issues. Although most live well together, tensions can erupt over the normal annoyances of shared living: dishes left in the sink, late-night houseguests, door-slamming. Listening and advising is a large part of her job; she holds 2–3 meetings a week to address such issues (and relieve the students’ underlying anxiety).

“Sometimes people just want to be heard,” says Ms. Kent-James, who works on remediation when necessary and with Public Safety, Wellness, and Health Services for the (rare) serious problem, as when a student is in danger, or a personal issue leads one to take a leave. Ms. Kent-James is there, often in a supportive and empathetic role, through the most trying situations. This is also what she does in her spare time.

Often on weekends and over vacations, she leads spiritual retreats for women who survived abuse through childhood or adulthood. A deeply religious woman, she makes presentations to others about using personal empowerment to rebuild lives. Her most recent speaking engagement, on  “International Women’s Day,” was called “One Night Stand.”

“That got people’s attention!” she says and laughs.  “What I mean is that even in affliction, even in your darkest night of pain, there is hope. How do you stand in the midst of adversity and move forward,” she says, as gospel music plays softly in the background. 

Although the retreats might seem draining when added to a high-stress job and the demands of a family with three children, she says it recharges her.

“Church and my work with women ground me. They keep me humble. They teach me that I’m a piece of flesh here in this world, and hopefully I can make a difference.”  After saying this, she returns to the barrage of emails from students with housing issues and to her plans to meet on Sunday with a faculty member arriving from California, whose welcome packet sits atop a stack of papers at the edge of her desk.