For any student living in the residence halls who has ever sat through a cringe-worthy “diversity training” or was spoken to condescendingly about the importance of “acceptance,” things may look a little different around Western.
Students living on campus this year can expect different and decidedly more intentional interactions with their residence hall community than in years past, explained Ronna J. Biggs, coordinator for Programming and Leadership Development through Residence Life.
The implementation of the new Residence Educational Model will allow resident advisors to provide a more personal guided learning process for students living in the dorms in an effort to “increase their ability and commitment to creating a socially just community by learning about social systems and the interconnectedness of those around them,” Biggs wrote in an e-mail.
The new Residence Educational Model, just beginning its first year on campus, is inspired by a curricular program put together by the University of Delaware, associate director of Residence Life John Purdie explained.
According to Purdie, in the Delaware model several myths underlying the assumptions of residence programming models were identified, particularly that putting on educational programs directly translates to student learning.
“Between 3,400 and 4,000 programs were put on last year through the residence halls on this campus and yet we didn't have any evidence of what students were really learning and we knew that attendance was low,” Purdie said.
While attending a national conference on “living-learning” programs last fall, Purdie said he saw a presentation by the University of Delaware on their curricular model and sensed that a programming shift in the residence halls on Western's campus might also make a positive difference in student learning outcomes.
One of the most important steps was clarifying the university residences educational priority, Purdie said.
“Delaware had one educational priority...we had eight that we were trying to program around,” he explained. “However Delaware isn't as focused on community and we wanted to enhance and build our strength in that.”
According to Purdie, in developing a new educational priority Residence Life held a series of open forums with faculty and staff last spring, met with the Residence Hall Association (RHA), examined the General University Requirements (GURS), mission statements and strategic plan of the institution and looked at several sources on learning outcomes in higher education.
“We were guided by this question—what should students learn from living in the residence halls?” Purdie said. “In other words, given what the institution is going to teach, what are the residence halls uniquely qualified to teach?”
In the end, the priority of “developing responsible adults in a socially just community” was decided upon and is now reflected in the University Residences & University Dining Services mission statement.
Under the new ResEd Model that educational priority looks at three key areas of student development that Residence Life is calling “me, you, and community.”
Programming in these specific areas is meant to foster self-awareness and goal setting, explore social identities, communication skills and relating to others, and the ability to build socially just communities, Biggs explained.
“Rather than choosing a handful of topical areas around which the staff should coordinate events, we're making a shift to focus on the individual, [his or her] relationships to others, and [his or her] role in the larger community,” she said.
Biggs described the new model as being more personally and relationally based, making it beneficial to any student.
In the Fairhaven dorms the three areas of focus have developed as three responsibilities said Lindsay Jarratt, resident director of the Fairhaven residence halls, Responsibility to self, responsibility to community, and responsibility to enacting change.
As Jarratt explained, each section of responsibility will be approached with two or three different lesson plans, each running about a week long. For the section on developing responsibility to self, each RA will make time to sit down individually with each student to outline the student's goals and plans for the year; developing responsibility to community will focus on roommate agreements, informational bulletin boards, regular stack meetings and the development of a stack charter, and responsibility to enacting change will focus on education around sustainability and social justice, Jarratt said.
Jarratt explained that the last section on enacting change will build in some of the more common educational programs that were traditionally seen in the dorms, such as interactive presentations put on through campus offices like Prevention and Wellness Services.
“We felt that it was important to actually show students change being enacted if we expected them to enact change themselves,” Jarratt said. She described the program goals as striving to help students define social justice, conceptualize privilege and power playing out on campus and in the dorms and learn about their own assumptions around social identities.
A large focus in the Fairhaven dorms will be on sustainability, including collaborations with the campus Office of Sustainability, eco-reps in hall councils and a winter quarter competition for energy reduction in the dorms, Jarratt said.
“The methods we were using weren't getting the results we wanted,” Jarratt explained. She said she sees the new model offering more accountability to students with its emphasis on intentional guidelines and consistent messages.
“Before, student RAs spent so much time developing programming that they spent less time educating and facilitating conversations with students,” Jarratt said.
That point is certainly echoed by Johanna Brown, a second-year RA in the Fairhaven residence halls.
“I spent a lot of time talking with resident directors last year about how programming wasn't working well because we were spending so much time trying to connect and plan events with other groups,” Brown said.
“It's easier to show that you care by talking to people instead of sitting in your room alone planning an educational event,” she explained.
Brown said the new model has allowed her to connect more easily to students as an RA.
“I think you trust anyone you know better and we already have a stronger bond this year,” she said. “I feel less preachy, like I can just point them in the right direction and it's actually allowing students to be more connected to campus.”
Brown said that instead of bribing students to stay in the residence halls for low-attendance educational programming, now, she has the flexibility to learn their needs and then direct them to more hands on involvement with campus programs, such as the Ethnic Student Center conference or the LGBTA Ice Cream Social.
It's important to keep in mind that this model is very new and only in its first transitioning year, Purdie said.
“It took the University of Delaware ten years to develop their curricular model,” he said.
Purdie said he urges students to talk to their RAs, resident directors, or contact Residence Life with their thoughts on the model.
Biggs said she hopes that students will ask questions of their RAs and resident directors with the expectation that they can now connect on a more individual basis and in a much more meaningful way.
“The RA and RD staff are a tremendously talented group of people who sincerely care about student success, are passionate about creating positive and inclusive communities,” she said. “And they are excellent resources for any student.”