Developing Community in Apartment & Suite-Style Student Housing


While apartment and suite-style student housing may pose certain challenges, there are certain strategies and tactics that will make you more successful when attempting to create community within these environments. However, if you approach programming as an ends to a means (i.e., simply a requirement), the chance that you are going to have an authentic and vibrant community is going to be slim. Community building can occur through intentional and strategic programming and by re-thinking how we actually do programming in the residence halls.

RELATIONSHIP BUILDING IS KEY – This may seem like common sense, but this is one strategy that many housing and residence life staffers fail to accomplish. Putting food out in a lounge, clubhouse, or other common area with little to any interaction with students is a recipe for failure. Pizza, movies, and cookies won’t make a community. I strongly believe in the adage that people don’t care about you until you show that you care about them. I have heard many RA’s complain that no one is coming to their programs, but they can barely tell you the names of their residents, where they come from, what their majors are, and what each of them is passionate about. Why would anyone want to attend your programs if you don’t really know who they are? If their attendance is merely a means to an ends for a programming requirement, your success will be low.

Simple and thoughtful interactions in and of themselves will help to develop relationships and thereby set the stage for community building: asking them to go to eat at the dining hall; get a crew together to go to Walmart or Target with you; putting together an intramural sports team; inviting a few to watch TV or play a video game or board game; etc. Work on small wins throughout the resident population rather than attempting to always expect a bunch of people to come to a centralized location for a program. RA’s should be able to thoughtfully touch the lives of each resident once (at the very least!) per semester.

IT’S NOT ABOUT THE PHYSICAL STRUCTURE – I always take pause when I hear housing and residence life staff blame the lack of community on the type of housing in which their students reside. Just because there are a multitude of online and DVD options for in-home exercise programs, this does not mean that less people are signing up for and going to gyms and recreation centers across the country. Likewise, just because students live in newly constructed suites and apartments, this does not mean that they do not want to be involved with their peers for various educational and social opportunities.

For a ten year period, I was in charge of student apartment housing at two different campuses and was able to create community at both places through hard work, creativity, strategic planning, and perseverance. Granted, not every one was best friends with each other nor did everyone participate, but this is never guaranteed within traditional residence halls either. However, I had success in developing a community in which students respected one another, the facilities, and attended and enjoyed various programming options that were offered.

RE-ADJUST EXPECTATIONS & GOALS / RETHINK NUMBERS – Netflix, smart phones, social media, and tons of online entertainment options for students are here to stay. With that being said, Residence Life staffers should re-adjust their expectations for programming success because we’re competing with a multitude of options for activities. Staff should not expect that every activity or program have tons of attendees present; nor should professional staff push that agenda either because overall it’s mostly unobtainable.

Additionally, Residence Life should not be charged with providing constant entertainment for students. Also, some students will attend programs and others will not no matter what you do. And that’s OK! Unfortunately, we can take this to heart and “stinkin’ thinkin” comes into play with unproductive thoughts (e.g., students don’t want to do anything; the RA didn’t work hard enough; we’ll never be able to build community in these buildings; etc.) Don’t take it personally. Reach as many lives as you can, and celebrate your successes!

FAIL FAST – I have read many articles in which serial entrepreneurs (i.e., business people who have created many different businesses) say, “FAIL FAST!” Basically this means that you should try something, and if it doesn’t work, move on, and try something else. The same goes for programming in the suite and apartment-style housing. If something works, stick with it. If not, move on and try something else. Also, don’t get hung up on the things that didn’t work.

DO AWAY WITH THE 1970 / 80’s PROGRAMMING ARCHETYPE – Gone are the days of dance parties in the “dormitory” rec room with a house mother and / or Dean of Men or Dean of Women present. As the times have changed, so should our programming efforts. However, we drag around old practices and traditions that are largely ineffective. With the emergence of various innovative practices, such as residential curricula and living-learning communities, there is more of a need for Residence Life to tie directly into retention and meaningful student learning outcomes rather than glorified entertainment.

PARTNER WITH OTHERS – ResLifers can be crazy territorial when it comes to developing and implementing programs. I myself, unfortunately, have been like this for the majority of my career. However, over the past few years I have come to find that partnering with other campus departments is definitely a “win-win” when it comes to developing successful activities and programs within suite and apartment-style living (and saves time and resources in the meantime!) I have seen a virtual “arms race” when it comes to program implementation and the competition for the attention of students between such departments as Residence Life, Recreation & Intramurals, Greek Life, Student Activities, and Diversity & Social Justice. Partnering with others allows for the sharing of resources and the ability to market to a broader resident population.

For example, within the one apartment community I managed, my staff partnered with Student Activities for biweekly, large-type events in our clubhouse space. We hosted everything from an open mic coffeehouse, “Stuff-A-Buddy” stuffed animal making activity, make-your-own beta fish bowl (including the fish!), Lucky Bamboo, and other “crafty” type events, with much success.

Furthermore, I created and advised a comprehensive Leadership Living-Learning Community complete with a curricula, budget, and assessment activities. I was even able to advocate for and obtain 40 housing scholarships for the student members of the LLC  group. I developed lectures, workshops, and service learning opportunities with various campus partners, such as the Office of Volunteering & Service Learning (i.e., community volunteer opportunities), Career Services (i.e., networking, resume development), and Veteran Affairs (i.e., leading and supervising people). We worked with a faculty member and even the university president and the VP of Marketing & University Relations spoke to the group on separate occasions. This partnering strategy was successful because all of those campus entities got a “win” with the program and were able to report their work to the community at large and were proud of it. (By the way, I am a Maximizer and Achiever for all you Strengths people!) And yes, this LLC program occurred within an apartment community!

DON’T SET UP YOUR STUDENT STAFF TO FAIL WITH RESTRICTING REQUIREMENTS – Along with the programming archetype and re-adjusting expectations, be mindful of the programming requirements that you place upon your student staffers. This can really make or break their success. We need to remember that RA’s are students as well and have competing priorities. (Plus we have to be very mindful of hours worked and the Affordable Care Act.) This does not mean that we cannot expect excellence from them, but we need to work toward setting them up for more wins than failures. Requiring a tons of programs in which ultimately only a small handful of students are going to attend is counterproductive. Not only will this burn out staff, but residents can feel hassled as well with a constant barrage of marketing.

Here are some tips for changing typical requirements:

  • Allow “passive programs” as part of the requirement (these are easy wins for the RA!)
  • Permit RA’s to work together as much as possible (fun + teamwork = good!)
  • Foster building-wide programs rather than floor or wing-specific; there is a larger chance of more attendees showing up if you are marketing to 500 building residents overall rather than 50. For example, my one previous Senior RA was an avid “Gotham” TV show fan. Instead of forcing her to solely market to her apartment building (96 residents), she was permitted to market to the entire community of 770 residents. By doing this, she had roughly 15 students appear to watch the show, which was a positive attendance given it was a “niche” program; if she would have offered the program to only her building, she wouldn’t have had the same success.
  • Emphasize “relationship-building” as part of the programming requirement so that the RA becomes an actual trusted resource and mentor rather than a glorified “dorm concierge.”
  • Create “unorthodox” options as well, such as online and social media options to interact with, engage, and educate residents (e.g., blogging, webinars, YouTube videos, etc.)
  • Work on small wins throughout the resident population rather than “one off” large-type programs.

ADVERTISE! ADVERTISE! ADVERTISE! – I cannot emphasize this enough! A lonely flyer on a bulletin board isn’t going to cut it. Staff need to be strategic and persistent when it comes to marketing their programs. There are so many resources available now at an RA’s dispense to get the word out there (i.e., social media, email, text, etc.) Friendly reminders the day of can also help. Marketing in and of itself can help to develop community as staff must interact with residents in some shape of form to get the word out there. As much time should be put into marketing the program as the actual event itself.

Check out other tips from my post Why Your Programming Sucks! (And What to Do About It).

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