Developing Community in Apartment & Suite-Style Student Housing

August 21, 2016

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).


Why Your Programming Sucks! (And What To Do About It)

February 10, 2014

sucks_stampCampus programming is part art and part science mixed with some luck. While programming efforts vary from institution to institution, there’s no denying that many veteran student affairs professionals agree that attracting the attention (and attendance) of college students has become increasingly difficult. With the advent of Facebook, Netflix, smart phones, and an ever growing catalog of video games and entertainment options, campus programming can easily be perceived as passé by someone out of the realm of Student Life.

Please understand that I myself am a programming “purist” and wholeheartedly believe that student programming efforts add to the extracurricular personal development of our students. However, programming without a strategic plan can lead to poor results, including a waste of time, resources, and the creation of disillusioned staffers and students alike. Having over 20 years of experience in campus programming, I would like to share some thoughts on why your programming sucks and what to do about it:

1. Your Programming is a Mainly a Means to an End: If your activities are simply there because it’s required of you, you’re probably not putting your heart and soul into program development. This is going to be obvious as you won’t be inspiring your staff or your students into putting forth innovative and quality work. If you don’t want to be there, your students certainly won’t want to be there either (i.e., circular causality). Furthermore, if you are programming simply for programming’s sake without any formal goals or student learning outcomes in mind, there’s a good chance your programming will become stale because there’s nothing to challenge you to push past mediocrity.

Resolve: Whether you’re an RA, hall coordinator, assistant director of student activities, or director of a student affairs department, if you find programming a chore and something you have to do for the paycheck, it’s time to refocus and recharge or simply get out. You can refocus by finding out what colleagues are doing across the country. Suggestions include subscribing to Student Affairs blogs, reading tweets from other college and university departments, participating in webinars, and attending regional and national conferences. Get out of your own department and find other colleagues at your institution who inspire you and achieve great results with their own programs. Additionally, ASK FOR HELP if you find yourself struggling.

2. You Concentrate Solely on Attendance: While numbers are certainly good, they shouldn’t be the sole reason for why you program. Rather than focusing on worthwhile activities that students will appreciate and find worth their time, programmers can easily fall into the trap of offering gimmicks and prizes to attract attendees. Of course pizza, gift cards, and t-shirts are awesome, but don’t create a situation in which students only come to grab the free stuff and bolt.

Resolve: Refer to your department and university’s mission and vision when developing your programs for the semester and year. Determine the purpose behind your programming and plan accordingly. If success is only determined by numbers at your institution, I challenge you to illustrate the student learning outcomes you achieve to your superiors rather than following status quo. It is hard to argue against programs that foster student development and education. (It’s even better if you can do this without spending a lot of money to achieve those results!)

3. Your Marketing is Lacking: Throwing up a few flyers and sending out an email and a tweet isn’t going to cut it. Students are inundated with loads of information and a lackluster advertising effort will go unnoticed. In large part, the bulk of students don’t care about what you’re doing. Furthermore, if they don’t see your message, they can’t make plans to attend.

Resolve: For all intents and purposes, your marketing campaign should be as well planned as the program itself. Try to make the marketing fun as well. A message that sets itself apart from all of the other “noise” of departments hawking their events will have a better chance of getting noticed. Don’t simply use one avenue of marketing, such as only using Facebook, but use all of the tools you have, including social media, email, handwritten personal invites, flyers, announcements at organization meetings, sidewalk chalk, and even guerilla marketing techniques.

4. You’re Trying Too Hard or Not Trying Hard Enough: We’re not going to compete with the likes of Playstation, Netflix, and off-campus parties so don’t try to. You’ll quickly burn yourself out on multiple half-assed programs that little if nobody will attend. On the other hand, if you’re hosting programs that you yourself wouldn’t want to attend, why would you think your students would come? Programming takes creativity, and most importantly, hard work.

Resolve: Sometimes simple can be better. In large part, students want the opportunity to interact with one another and do something fun. If you can add in some education in there, all the better. Yet, you can’t just throw a pizza in the study lounge and expect 100 people to show up. Float some ideas by a bunch of students prior to rolling out a program. You’ll get a quick sense whether or not an idea is decent or not. Also, consider giving some program types a rest while bringing old ones back that haven’t been done in awhile. What’s new is old, and what’s old is new.

Good coordinated and creative programming is challenging, but should be fun for you, your staff, and your students. Spend the time to develop a programming and marketing plan to ensure better success. And if something doesn’t work, get rid of it. Don’t hang onto traditions just because that’s the way it’s always been done. Programming needs to stay fresh, innovative, and fun.

For further information regarding programming, I encourage you to read Developing Activities (Free 650+ Activities Handout) as well as What is Your Programming GPA? (***free handout***)


Creating a “Leadership Kit” Passive Program (***free handout***)

November 14, 2013

Leadership Kit

For many years I have been putting together and distributing small “Leadership Kits” to my employees and various student leaders whose leadership skills I aim to develop further. Recently I gave these to my students in our Leadership Living-Learning Community to help emphasize some of the attributes of being a “servant leader.” Although I themed the kits for servant leadership, you can adopt them to serve your own particular leadership needs.

The kit comes in the form of a Ziploc bag that includes the following inexpensive items that correspond to various aspects of leadership:

  • Snickers Candy – leaders need a sense of humor
  • Dum Dum Lollipops – leaders learn from their mistakes
  • Rubber bands – leaders are flexible
  • Pen / Pencil & Pad (Post-It Notes) – leaders write down good ideas
  • Highlighter – leaders highlight the strengths of their team members
  • Light stick – leaders show the way
  • Glue stick – leaders keep the team together
  • Super Ball – because leaders are super to their team
  • Index cards for the leadership quote(s) and item explanation

Outside of the symbolic representation of the items, the kit also serves as a small resource supply bag that students and employees can use from a practical standpoint to accomplish such tasks as homework and other school and job-related projects. The kits can be used for staff welcome back gifts, primers for team discussions, marketing efforts for an upcoming leadership activity, and even as a simple passive activity / program for your students.

You can create your own “Leadership Kit, by downloading this free, ready-made leadership kit label template in order to print out the leadership cards and quotes you will need to assemble your own kits. These can be printed on Avery labels (Template #5163) and adhered to index cards or you can simply print them on paper and cut them out.

Enjoy and please share with the handout with your colleagues!


What is Your Programming GPA? (***free handout***)

February 6, 2013

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Planning and attending programs and activities is typically the most fun part of a student affairs professional’s year. Successful programming is not only a skill, but an art. However, we need to be able to teach our programming standards to our full-time and student staffers so they understand what is and what is NOT an excellent program. Unfortunately programming expectations can be very nebulous, subjective, and many times concentrate on quantity rather than quality.

In order to better define the standards programming for my own student staff, I developed a simple, one-page Programming Rubric. Simply stated, a rubric is a written set of criteria for which a task is measured against. Rubrics are typically used by K-12 teacher and professors in the classroom in order to set the standards for how an essay, research paper, presentation, or other assignment will be graded.

The rubric includes a rating of Excellent, Good, Average, and Poor for five areas, including Pre-Planning, Marketing, Finances, Evaluation, and Overall Assessment. There is also a section for comments specific to the actual program being evaluated. Each rating has a numerical value attached to it so you can evaluate a program by creating a programming grade point average (GPA). Given there are five areas of evaluation, including the overall assessment, the points will range from a minimum of five to a maximum of 20. After adding each area together, you divide by five in order to get the program GPA. A programming GPA is a great standard for students because they can relate to it very easily, is easy for them to conceptualize, and offers you the opportunity to discuss results during one-on-one’s and semesterly and / or annual evaluations.

As a specific example, imagine you have a resident assistant who plans a resume writing workshop in which she invites an employee from career services to speak and offer tips. The RA discusses the program with you ahead of time and gets the proper consent as well as advice on how to improve the program. She advertises only using Facebook and spends $75.00 on pizza. Unfortunately, only five students attend the program, and there is little follow up of regarding student feedback and / or learning outcomes assessment. Using the rubic, you give a grading of “Good” (3.0) for Pre-Planning, “Poor” (1.0) for Marketing, “Average” (2.0) for Finances, “Average” (2.0) for Evaluation, and “Average” (2.0) for Overall Assessment. Adding these together, you get a score of 10 points. Divide that by five (for the five areas of assessment), and she earns an “Average” (2.0) GPA for the program.

Download the free Programming Rubric handout to help assess your programming. Feel free to utilize the rubric as a template that you can edit in order to create an appropriate tool for your own department and staffing needs.


Drunk Pumpkin Creates Alcohol Poisoning Awareness

October 26, 2012

Puking pumpkin for alcohol poisoning awareness.

Who knew that a pumpkin, a few safety pins, old newspapers, and some old clothes could create awareness about the signs of alcohol poisoning. That’s exactly what my staff and I used to create a “drunk pumpkin” outside of our office.

We partnered with our campus’s Alcohol & Other Drugs (AOD) education program along with student peer educators to host a table in which AOD information and promotional materials were available. Students could visit the table and take guesses at how many candy corn pieces and Tootsie Rolls were in two different jars. The two students who guess the correct number of pieces of candy (or closest to the correct amount) will win plastic buckets of Halloween goodies, including new scary movie DVD’s.

Developing this program was very easy and cost-effective. The pumpkin cost approximately $9.00, and the prizes were about $40.00 for the two DVD’s and the various candy and goodies to fill the plastic Halloween buckets. The program could even be planned without having a prize contest if your budget is limited. The clothes were stuffed with old newspapers and safety pinned together so the body could be moved without falling apart.

Facts about alcohol poisoning to include in your program can be found at CollegeDrinkingPrevention.gov, which includes the following:

Critical Signs and Symptoms of Alcohol Poisoning

  • Mental confusion, stupor, coma, or person cannot be roused
  • Vomiting
  • Seizures
  • Slow breathing (fewer than eight breaths per minute)
  • Irregular breathing (10 seconds or more between breaths)
  • Hypothermia (low body temperature), bluish skin color, paleness

This is an effective and cost-effective educational program that creates a lot of buzz among students. We had a lot of fun putting it together and encourage you to create a “drunk pumpkin” on your campus! Have a safe and Happy Halloween!


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