Residence Life Staff Speak on Campus Community

As Residence Life (Res Life) continues to enact the residential vision of the college, it isn’t immune from the national employment shuffle. Of the five Area Coordinators (ACs) Res Life employs, three were hired in December 2020, and one was brought on before Fall 2021, while the Directors of Residence Life, Julia Nicholson and Clea Taylor, have each held various roles in Res Life at Reed for more than a decade. The Quest had the chance to sit down with ACs:

  • Miranda James, the longest serving AC currently supervising Trillium,

  • Sarahina Borgia, who joined Reed from Steven F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas, and is the AC supervising Naito and Sullivan, 

  • Kade Peden, who joined Reed after four years at Portland State University (PSU) and supervises FSM, Anna Mann, and ODB, 

  • Carlos Cortés, who joined Reed from the Wichita State University in Wichita, Kansas, supervises the RCAs, Birchwoods, the Grove, and the houses. 

Jen Hickman, who attended undergrad in Texas and graduate school in Florida, is the most junior AC, who oversees the Cross Canyons and the Woodstock houses. Jen is the only AC the Quest didn’t have a chance to interview.

The ark of student life is long, but at Reed, it is beginning to bend towards a more residential campus. Two new roles which demonstrate a material investment from the college to more fulfilling programs in the dorm are the Orientation and Wayfinding Leaders (OWL) and Program Assistants, while the newly mandatory sophomore housing represents a financial investment on the part of the students. This new investment in students living on campus comes on the heels of an increase in tuition coming out of the pandemic. As the college prepares the dorms for mandatory sophomore living on campus, the Quest took some time to talk to the people who fully understand the ramifications of those changes: the ACs, as well as their direct supervisor and Director of Residential Education Julia Nicholson and Director of Housing Clea Taylor. In our conversations together, the strong community that the ACs have been able to form in order to fight the pandemic isolation shone through as emblematic of their department’s value on connection.  

The new additions to the Res Life curriculum have not gone over without some bumps. A topic of discussion at several Student Body Senate meetings was the OWL’s general discontent with their role and an apparent meeting they held to collate concerns they had regarding their role. OWLs are a joint program between the Office of Student Engagement (OSE) and Res Life. The discontentment with these new student roles was not a surprise to the ACs as the role was new and an initial enactment of a vision, not the final form of the program. When Julia reflected on the program’s rocky start, she acknowledged there have been some problems with the OWL program. The consensus throughout the department was that it would continue to improve as they collected feedback, similar to the method that they took up in the aftermath of the HA unionization efforts several years ago. They will listen and take student concerns into consideration when building new programs and reforming old ones.

When our conversations turned to the topic of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), the diverse team of ACs, and the two white women who oversee them, their answers ranged from reflections on their own positionality to the efforts the department was working on to amplify their own growth areas. DEI was a clear focus and investment area for the entire department. Everyone we spoke with reflected on their personal commitment to increasing diversity, ensuring equity, and working towards a more inclusive campus. At an institutional level, they have a book club dedicated to educating themselves on matters of DEI with a discussion of how the works can apply to their department.

The ACs have worked in and garnered degrees from institutions all over the country, which has led to a diversity of approaches. This diversity of approaches became more clear when we asked them how COVID impacted their work, and what they saw as their career goals. Some of the ACs wanted to be a VP or had a specific position in mind, others talked about their long term work of drawing people together, or supporting sophomores in college and how Area Coordinating was a way to enact positive change to that end.

When the ACs were each reflecting on the specific challenges of their position as a result of the pandemic, they referenced their role in the conduct process. ACs are experts on fostering community in the dorms as well as understanding it beyond, and their role in the conduct process reflects this expertise. ACs’ conduct duties involve meeting with students individually to put together a plan, and review how their actions may have or did materially impact the communities they’re a part of. During the pandemic, these duties did not stop but shifted online and involved students that generally the ACs didn’t otherwise have other opportunities to connect with. They recognized how awkward this might be for students but universally expressed a desire to connect with students on a personal level to whatever extent the students were comfortable, regardless of how they first met.

Another of their challenges regarding relationship building on campus was with their HA direct report. In a typical year, ACs get a lot of casual contact with students, and this helps them assess the emotions in their dorm, the everyday goings on, but during COVID this input proved nearly entirely absent. ACs primarily interacted with their direct reports via Zoom, which wasn’t a new practice for the pandemic but was a new format. The ACs remarked on Zoom as a tool they could deploy post-pandemic as a positive. Their examples of its usefulness were student-centered focusing on a lower energy option for students or HAs who need to meet with them, but might be tired or having a long day. COVID was universally acknowledged as a time of adaptation, picking up the slack for one another, and building community where they could; this especially applied to student interaction. Students not wanting to talk in the halls or while walking into the dorm wasn’t standoffish or rationalized away as students being busy, but was a matter of safety. ACs throughout our time together remarked on how important and rewarding student interactions were, but how COVID changed the nature of those interactions. This may be another one of the scars that COVID leaves, as the effects of the pandemic have dragged their way into a third calendar, and academic, year.

Both directors in Res Life continually referenced their support of students and staff in the department. Julia, who supervises the ACs, and the entirety of the student HA program—from hiring to training—talked about the importance of addressing student concerns, building trust and community, and inspiring ACs to pursue their individual passions, or to build the skills in order to do so. Clea—whose role as director of housing mostly overlaps with facilities and who is responsible for room assignment—had a different perspective on both the culture of Res Life and the role of DEI in the department. Clea’s role is one of the few that overlaps facilities while still being under the umbrella of student life. While facilities is not a department that students typically interact with on a daily basis, Clea stressed how much they care about student wellbeing. Her specific example was how diligently facilities staff carry out requests they receive from Disability and Accessibility Resources relating to physical accessibility for students with disabilities who need housing related accommodations.

This particular cohort of ACs have years of experience in higher education from all over the country, in all sorts of different communities, and one of the last questions we asked was about ways of knowing they found in practice at Reed. Specifically, ways that they have observed things about community, culture, and belonging communicated to student life staff, their residents, and other student facing staff members both intentionally and as a simple matter of tradition. Their answers ranged from a culture of impersonal information passing to the deep care that students feel for each other. More veteran members of the department provided input on how student involvement has changed and evolved over time, and how student-driven a lot of the changes to the department have been even when they were not student-led. Some of the new ACs referenced how unique the Reed student body is, with specific emphasis on the relatively low number of first generation college students (at Reed numbering less than 10% while at larger institutions like PSU a majority of students are first generation). While this data is available, the AC who referenced it did so in order to contextualize the familiarity that the average Reed student has with people who went to college and how that shows up through campus culture. The different means by which students and staff members communicate was a theme throughout the ACs answers as well. While staff prefer email and their professionalized social media, students use social media differently and gain information from posters. The importance of staff understanding the student’s avenues of communication was noted as important so that when staff need to communicate information to students they can do so more effectively, particularly regarding student employment opportunities.

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