Co-authored by Rose Piacente, SUNY Oneonta & Ashley Robinson, University of Connecticut
As the spring semester began and many of us emerged from the wreckage and stresses of January. The Student Affairs blogosphere buzzed with conversation about the high-stress, and constant work-filled days of training and opening. January (and more so August), for many in Residence Life consists of very little social life, less sleep, and lots of dining hall food. Our experience and anecdotal information suggest that professionals and student staff work 7 days a week for a 3-4 week period, typically averaging around 12-16 hours a day of training, building prep, opening, and, arts and crafts.
Residence Life is a functional area grounded in wellness, self-care, recognition, and life balance. So, what is it about opening and training that throws all that out the window? We have the ability to affect real change in student staff training models to better support the experience of our student employees. As we move into a planning period for the next school year, the questions that follow offer a starting point to critically examining your own department’s training practices.
Is training congruent with departmental values?
Our ethical and professional standards are focused on students’ holistic learning and wellness. The CAS Standards for Housing and Residential Life Programs state that we must help students to facilitate “development of balanced lifestyles embracing wellness” (page 7). The ACUHO-I Standards & Ethical Principles remind us to “create and maintain a community living environment in which optimal learning and personal development can take place” (page 19). Our student staff – though they may be in paid positions – are still students. We must critically examine whether 12-hour workdays, 7 day work weeks, lengthy to-do lists, and a training model that demands undivided attention and energy is conducive to “optimal learning” or a “balanced lifestyle embracing wellness.” Student staff frequently complain of exhaustion, fatigue, anxiety, and stress as a result of training. To pile on work and responsibilities while attempting to teach students about time management, prioritization, self-care, and wellness is to talk out of both sides of our mouths. We need to review the outcomes, intentions, and impact of the program through your departmental and institutional mission and vision. If we aren’t practicing what we preach, it’s time to reconsider the message sent by these high-visibility programs that are the first formal introduction to our departments for most students.
What is the purpose of the training program?
Knowing the destination can inform the journey. Clear objectives are imperative to deciding the structure and learning that will work for your institution’s training program. Sometimes, we can overlook or automatically assume that some training institutions are necessary, because “that’s just the way things have always been done.”
Additional training beyond formal sessions, including in-hall time, floor decorating, and preparation for spirit activities can become a black hole of training time. These efforts still require energy and time from staff, and it’s important to consider the time spent within the overall training structure. Without allowing sufficient time to complete these activities, staff often sacrifice sleep and wellness.
Does the training structure meet your objectives? Are there other ways to meet these objectives?
When looking at training structure it is important to look at what is necessary content and skills. Options such as online pre-trainings, in-service trainings, or RA classes can teach our staff what they need to know and save pre-opening training time for the most direct and necessary topics and activities. Decentralizing the RA training program requires careful consideration of which topics are crucial during the pre-opening training. These topics can be taught using self-guided online modules, and can be reserved for the first weeks or months of the year in follow-up training sessions.
What logistics are necessary to consider when contemplating changing program structure?
Making significant adjustments to a training program will inevitably require changes to the culture of the department, and consideration of specific logistics. When thinking about the changes that we have proposed here, you should consider the following:
- Who are the stakeholders involved in this conversation?
- What are the current contract dates for RA employment? What is the process to change the contract?
- How will the structure and schedule of the training be altered? Is extending the training schedule necessary or are other educational options viable?
- How far in advance is the budget for RA training set? If costs must be adjusted, what is the process?
- What new programs or processes should be created to adjust or supplement a traditional training model? Who will be responsible for overseeing these programs?
Assessment and asking the questions are the only ways to affect change in our processes. Is doing things the way they have always been done actually working? Are we asking too much of our student staff? Maybe the most important thing we can remember is the old adage we always tell our staff : “Remember, you’re a student first, and a Resident Assistant second.”