Campus residence life struggles for a reason

This article is a bit of a different approach from what I usually write about. Normally, I write about a policy or political action that I have strong feelings about, and dissect it. In this article, I will be writing about an office on campus, the current issues this office is having, and potential remedies for the issues. I speak of reslife, or residence life — a department most on campus are quite familiar with, but one that little appear to have contact with. In recent years, I fear that reslife has veered away from the needs of the students, and has instead begun to follow an agenda that fits only the department.

For the sake of full disclosure and transparency, it is important to state that I have served as a resident assistant. This article is not meant to be a critique of any individual of the department, or the students that diligently serve as staff members. I hold the students in reslife in the highest regard, and my criticisms are not of the students, rather the policy and administrative actions.

My first, largest issue is the treatment of students by the administration. The first prime example of this is the stipend that students are given is far lower than stipends given by Minnesota State University Moorhead and North Dakota State University. One of the main attractions to being an RA is having part of your college bills paid for. Unfortunately, when the stipend barely covers the cost of rooming, the draw diminishes. Couple this to the extreme expectations that reslife has for how RAs must operate and “create” an environment, it is of little surprise few RAs choose to continue their contract with reslife. Every year, multiple student staff members leave reslife before the contract ends. One of the main reasons for such abrupt departures from the department is the absurd standard that reslife has to create “community.” This results in programming for various events, attempting to force students to “buddy up,” and waste valuable time and money in the pursuit of forcing an idea that can not be forced, rather cultivated and allowed to grow naturally. I recognize that for new students, creating a sense of community can be a good thing, however this approach does not work with returning students. Returning students understand the routine of college, often times have formed friendships, yet reslife still treats returning students like first years, which is an insulting idea.

My second issue deals with reslife being rather aloof and far retracted from the needs of the students. An example of this was the “happy cobber” methodology that reslife has adopted. This is to create the “best” college rooming experience for students. In training, student staff deal with sexual identity, mild social justice issues, and programming ideas. Very little actually deals with maintaining the health of students or looking for signs of mental illness. Almost no training goes into what one of the main duties of being an RA is, being a resource. As RAs, students are mandated reporters of sexual assault, suicide, and self harm. However, with the responsibility, many students are unprepared for if the actual issue arises. I have had to dealt with various situations, both as an RA and as a friend (thankfully, none with any of the mandated report topics), that have required me to console my colleagues and fellow students. Yet how I helped was not given to me by the training of being an RA, in fact, had I not dealt with difficult situations in my earlier years, I would have been ill-equipped to deal with these issues.

I still believe reslife can be a useful resource for students. As the main providers of a feeling of home for students away from home, reslife serves a crucial purpose. This is all the more the reason that the recent treatment of student staff by reslife is so disappointing. I believe there are two ways that reslife can change for the better. First, letting go of the “happy cobber” ideal. Instead of trying to force students to be happy and create relationships, simply act as a space in which these actions can take place. Worry more about the health of the students, and the long term prosperity will follow. The second change is treat the student staff more like staff. My greatest concern remains the disparity in communication between the student staff and administration. While is is all well and grand to have ideas on how to help students, at the end of the day the administration has very limited contact with students. There is no survey in the world that can replace the first hand experience that the student staff has to offer. Couple this to chastising RAs that do not meet certain quotas for programming, and you have a very valid reason why so many students leave reslife, and more do not wish to join. To all members of reslife reading this article, I implore you to think upon what I wrote. I believe reslife can be a force for good, but that cannot happen without reflection on what is not working. This department can do great things, but only if people are willing to change with the needs of the students.  

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