When you consider the mission of many Residence Life programs, you’ll notice a fairly consistent commitment to offer students with an enriching experience that promotes a safe, secure environment, embraces diversity, and offers a variety of opportunities to learn beyond the walls of a traditional classroom. While some of these goals can easily be accomplished through well-established rules, clear communication, and passive media, really achieving all of these goals requires active efforts and creative methods. As Residence Life departments grow, there are changes and developments in the means through which the department provides that well-rounded college experience. Recently, there’s been a real shift in some areas to move away from traditional programming efforts, favoring community building in its stead. Community Building undoubtedly holds an important role in the overall experience of residential students, but does community building achieve all of the goals of Residence Life missions similar to that above?
Community Building is necessary to achieve a safe, secure atmosphere in the residence halls. Resident Assistants have a large responsibility to open communication with their residents. From the beginning they establish and communicate rules to avoid chaos and help establish the safe and secure community. They lead ice breakers and provide social opportunities that promote a sense of belonging to further connect the residence hall community. They make themselves available and build rapport so that rules are easier to enforce and to promote trust. Surely, there are many advantages to creating community and a clear link to some of the missions above. But should the emphasis on community then negate the importance of formalized programs that clearly identify learning objectives?
A well-designed program can allow for both the furthering of community as well as the realization of specific learning outcomes. Programs can specifically target areas like roommate conflicts within the guise of a Roommate Game Show or enhance safety and security through RAD or a Active Shooter Training. Diversity can be celebrated through diversity films, presentations, exposure to diverse foods, etc., which are all formalized programs that better illustrate diversity than a couple of “We are all pieces of the puzzle” type posters in the halls. Linking with Career Services or tutoring can help students transition into college or out into the real worlds far better than a night of Call of Duty in the lounge. So why are so many Residence Hall programs moving away from formalized programming?
I’ve heard the argument that Resident Assistants (RAs) aren’t experts on programming or that they already have a lot of responsibilities; thus RAs are asked to focus their energies on Community Building, leaving programming up to someone else or no one at all. I’m not trying to be unsympathetic to the schedule or skill set of the RAs, but I think that a formalized programming model with specific learning objectives can assist the RAs in accomplishing both goals at once. A formalized programming model need not require the RA to create the programs from scratch to meet the learning objectives. Rather, the RAs could be encouraged to attend programs with their residents that meet the varying learning outcomes. In doing so, they’re building community with their residents, supporting the events of other departments or staff members, and ensuring that their residents are getting a wide experience that isn’t limited by the interests/skills of the RA.
Clearly, I favor formalized programs. But I may not have heard all the reasons why other professionals are leaning away from them. Please feel free to enlighten me.
Devon Purington is a Residence Life Coordinator at Penn State University-Hazleton.