A mother of all trades

By Zoe Roberts/Arizona Sonora News

She lives on the vibrant and bustling campus of the University of Arizona. She strolls through the streets lined with robust palm trees, just to watch students get from place to place and bask in the warm desert sun.

She does it all: she fills the role of a handywoman, an organizational professional and a matronly figure. She manages a house full of women; popping popcorn for study nights and fixing the faulty printer. She fields a variety of random and individual questions from aspiring students (“Why is the coffee machine broken?” or “Will you help me fix the printer?” or “I am locked out of my room, will you help me?”) She maintains order in her household and doles out support and friendship to those who need it.

She works for one of the sororities on campus, although passersby would never know her position. Oregon native Wendi Highland does not live the life of an average 57-year-old woman—she is employed as a sorority house director, or as some in the sorority world may say, a “house mom.”

Highland resides in a sprawling white stucco villa with a rusty orange Spanish tile roof that sits atop a lush green lawn. The home has a grandiose, wood-carved door adorned with iron Greek letters labeling the house for all to see. The mansion belongs to Alpha Phi, one of many sorority organizations integrated into the campus since 1926. thirty-two women live in the house; they share pride in their core value of sisterhood and their commitment to loyalty to each other and to those around them. These values are original to the Alpha Phi organization, which drafted and has upheld from the day it was founded in 1872.

Even though she isn’t—or rather, wasn’t—a “sister” herself, Highland plays an integral role in maintaining the wellbeing of the organization as a “motherly figure that makes sure everything’s running smoothly,” says Jordan Voth, the current president of the University of Arizona Alpha Phi chapter. 

Highland’s story begins with a young life among 11 siblings in the Pacific Northwest. “I had a big family growing up, and then I got married at 19 to a guy in the Air Force. We had two kids together and divorced, and I was a single parent pretty much for 27 years,” Highland says. She went back to college in ‘96 and never graduated from high school, but has since earned two Master’s degrees. 

Highland did not participate in Greek Life during her time in college. Her current career endeavor wasn’t meant as a way for her to relive the days she could have missed, but rather, to embark on a new adventure. “I have to remind people that I am not ‘Greek.’ I knew it existed, but I didn’t have the love for it that I have now, because I appreciate it so much more,” Highland explains with passion in her voice.

Her unconventional educational path had little influence on her perceptions of Greek Life. She felt indifferent about sororities, simply because they were not something she would have considered being a part of at a different time in her life. “I think it’s what keeps me here sometimes: It is a job that is beneficial to society as a whole and to the university,” Highland says. “I like it, so I have no reason to go anywhere. I could go back into the [traditional] workforce but I have no desire. Greek Life is amazing.”

One day this fall, Highland sat on a plush chair in her small, cozy apartment on the first floor of the sorority house, with candles that rendered the aroma of fall surrounding us. We faced one another as she delved into all of her past work endeavors: from working as an operations manager with Walmart just after finishing school, to working with The Good Samaritan Society, a nonprofit that provides senior care in Las Cruces, NM. “I just quit and started looking for another job and I became a house mom,” Highland explains. She stumbled upon the job when simply looking to see what was out there online.

“I liked the idea of not paying rent and stuff like that,” says Highland, shrugging her shoulders and curling her lips, revealing a gleaming grin. “And my kids have already moved out of the house, so I was like, ‘Hmm, I’m up for an adventure’.”

Highland was really unsure about the job during the first year. The job description was both unfathomable and demanding yet highly social and requiring both skill and care. “I started, and I just fell in love with the environment… It’s kind of fun, how it ties all those things that I liked about working in the corporate sphere together.” She enjoys staying active and social, while problem-solving and doing organizational work. “I love the work, and I get that [here],” she explains.

Highland’s house director experience is broad and extensive—she has resided in several different sorority houses with a variety of organizations. She started out at Stephen F. Austin University in Austin, TX, where she assisted the Delta Zeta sorority for four years. After that, she moved to San Diego to work with the Pi Beta Phi sorority at San Diego State University for three years. Highland was then contacted personally by the Alpha Phi sorority at the University of Arizona, and recruited to join their organization and live with their members. 

“It’s interesting, because you know that for our job position there’s not even a work order associated with the Department of Labor,” says Highland. “It’s such a small niche in the market, so it’s kind of interesting. It’s really mostly for women my age, [and generally] they don’t know about it unless we tell them what I do.”

Defining what a house mom does is a challenge—just like a true mother, there are intricate levels of versatility that carry a so-called house mom from day to day. From having to handle emergencies to keeping a good temperament and sense of humor, but also being able to perform CPR. The job description for a house mom calls for a multifaceted person who can manage all the maintenance requirements for the sorority house, attend social events and functions and keep records for the sorority.

Beyond a checklist of attributes and skills necessary for the position, there is something else needed to thrive in a sorority environment. “The most important part of being a house mom is providing a welcoming vibe, providing the little things and going above and beyond to make sure the girls are comfortable,” says Highland. A keen sense of motherhood and yet a strong sense of maintaining boundaries are two other attributes that Highland strives to uphold in her position. “I’m kind of a mama bear,” Highland warmly expresses, “I just try to be a supporter.” Ultimately, in her own words, she has the instinct to help the women of Alpha Phi find their way, yet she considers herself the “fun aunt.”

“Wendi’s always going above and beyond, making us brownies and cookies. She’s like a total mom figure,” says Voth. Regardless of the parental relationships Highland builds with the sorority women living in her house, she always maintains the approach of “staying in her place and letting the girls come to (her).” 

“It’s not that it’s a professional relationship, but it’s not like we hang out and I [ask her to] ‘tell me about your life,’ because she’s so much older than me,” explains Voth. “I know a decent amount of stuff about her. But nothing like really personal.” Highland is known for the best advice she gives to the sorority women in her house: ‘Call your mother.’ “I try to keep a boundary because these are other people’s kids, they have a mom or dad,” Highland says. 

Although Highland provides raving reviews about her current job, that which glitters is not always gold. “I don’t [or rather, can’t] have alcohol or men staying at my house,” Highland plainly states, unbothered and borderline amused. “I still date, but my life doesn’t really include that. I am very guarded, I just don’t have guys showing up at my house,” she describes.

Her lifestyle is one that many would hesitate to take head-on. “I have to be mindful, 10 months out of the year are not mine,” she says. But rather, they belong to the sisters in her watch, she said, as she continues with a laugh. “I even had a friend say she was ‘tired of living like a nun.’” In retrospect, these downsides only influence Highland to a small degree. “I don’t feel like I’m losing out on anything,” Highland concludes.

Motherhood—both literal and figurative, as in Highland’s case—harnesses a great influence on women everywhere. Serving Alpha Phi at the University of Arizona has notably had a big impact on Highland’s life since she dove into the quirky position.

“It isn’t always about me,” she says, “it keeps me challenged as far as a job goes. I am always learning something new and that’s the professional side, but sometimes I run into situations that cause self-improvement as a person.” For her, the job provides a plethora of small life lessons. “I find that I am more organized and that it is easier to let certain things go because you get used to randomness,” Highland describes, as thoughts of reflection swirled through her head. These lessons are not only inspired by her day to day, but also the social environment and the 24-7 duty she feels toward the women in her house.

“I have also learned a lot more about plumbing and painting than I want to know,” Highland notes, slyly and with a giggle.

Wendi Highland serving homemade cookies to a few of the members of Alpha Phi in Tucson. Photo by Zoe Roberts.
Wendi Highland serving homemade cookies to a few of the members of Alpha Phi in Tucson. Photo by Zoe Roberts.

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