One of the most salient traits I have noticed about working in a residence hall is that every year brings with it a unique set of problems. Last year, for example, my common area kitchen was constantly trashed. No amount of signage, threats, or interventions helped. Yet, our public laundry room was always immaculate. This year, our laundry room is a mess while the common area kitchen is often pristine. Bizarre? Yes, but that seems to be the way it works.
Another issue that arose during the start of this year was an unexpected wave of indoor smoking. I was shocked by this because… it’s 2012, right? Yet, it was this year’s biggest issue in my building and I received numerous complaints from students and their parents about the smell of cigarette smoke infiltrating rooms and lingering in the hallways.
The problem with indoor smoking in residence halls is that it is extremely difficult to identify when someone is in their room with their door closed. By the time the smell reaches the hallway, the deed has been done and locating the room where it is coming from is a challenge. I told students to call Campus Police if they smelled any smoke indoors, but more often than not by the time they would arrive all they encountered was a faint haze.
We needed a creative solution.
At the end of the first semester, while brainstorming, one of my staff members and I came to the realization that the best way to go about finding a solution was to approach the situation from a peer impact lens. We decided to create a survey that asked residents 1) whether or not they support the idea of people smoking indoors and why, 2) how peers’ decisions to smoke indoors impacts them directly. We promised to publish the results and reassured everyone that their responses would be anonymous.
Within three days, we had almost 60 responses. The answers were mostly dichotomized between those residents who were deeply upset by people smoking inside and those residents who confessed that they smoke inside because of convenience. The end product of the survey was tangible evidence that indoor smoking hurts and bothers many residents for numerous reasons and that students who perpetuate it do so for unconvincing reasons.
My staff member and I assembled the survey responses into a printed booklet and distributed it to the students in our building. This generated many discussions about the impact of indoor smoking and since then there has been a dramatic reduction in the instances of it happening. I have not received one complaint about it this entire semester.
The lesson that I took away from this situation is that sometimes students legitimately have no idea how their behavior affects others in the community, and will make damaging choices as a result. This survey project gave students being most affected by these choices a voice to express their experiences. At the same time, it gave the smokers insight into how much their behavior was hurting others. The resulting decrease makes me think that community respect was the motivating factor.
This approach is certainly not applicable to all conduct issues, but for a problem that was negatively impacting a lot of people, it worked wonderfully.
Adam J. Ortiz is a House Director at Hampshire College.