Residence Life: More than just a bed to sleep in

By Ryan Manning — I haven’t had a ton of jobs. In high school, I was often too busy with Latin club or Theatre or homework to work all that much; but, I did do some tutoring and worked every once in a while with a local catering service. My freshman year in college, I was a work-study student in the Linguistics Department for a semester.

In fact, I just realized that every employment opportunity I have had has been in Residence Life.

For the past 6 years, I have worked in Residence Life in some capacity almost continually. I’ve been an  OA, DA, AA, CA, another kind of CA, PA, AHD, RD, and probably a lot more (Residence Life really likes abbreviations). And that doesn’t even include the unpaid positions (one of those was abbreviated “CA” too).

But before I get too deep into just listing off things on my resume, I’ll try to get the the point. Not all of these positions have been your standard, run of the mill, community building, policy educating, live-in staff members. The diversity of positions within the umbrella organization of “Housing” is intense. In my current department, we employ nearly 100 full-time professional staff members, only about 30-35 serve in a live-on capacity (meaning their job requires them to reside on campus). And maybe only about half have a traditional “student affairs” background. That 100 staff members doesn’t include the additional staff in the Residential Facilities department (mechanics, carpenters, housekeeping staff, etc.). To sum it up, for a student to have a safe, enjoyable, and comfortable experience living on campus, it takes more than a good RA.

To this end, it’s important to realize, at times, how different Residence Life can be from other aspects of Student Affairs. Sure, we seek to educate students, welcome them to the campus community, prepare them for life after college, and encourage them to make responsible and informed decisions. But there’s a whole other side to creating housing opportunities for over 10,000 students, and being cutting edge while doing it.

This week really hit this notion home for me. I recently joined a department-wide committee called the Continuous Quality Improvement Committee (CQI for short). CQI is made up of staff from all over the department: Assignments & Public Inquiry, Information Systems, Publications & Design, Programs & Outreach, Administrative Operations, Human Resources, and Housing Partnerships. I don’t necessarily need to describe what all of those groups do, but I think it’s sufficient to say that I am 1 of 2 “Community Staff” (staff  members who live and work in a specific group of residence halls and coordinate the typical “Reslife” stuff) on the committee of almost 20.

The point of CQI is sort of two-fold: first to improve the quality of our “product” and second to focus on providing a higher standard of customer service and satisfaction. When I read the description for CQI, I was almost taken aback: I don’t think I’ve ever heard Reslife staff talk about their “product” or “delivery of services” before. Now, my Latin degree doesn’t give me much of a Business background, but I took enough Economics courses to know that this language makes our work sound a lot more like a company or corporation than your average Hall Director would probably like to admit. Sure, we focus on student learning and development, but CQI also recognizes that we can’t do much to create an environment where students can learn about themselves and each other if they aren’t satisfied.

At its core, Residence Life offices, at most institutions, need to operate like a business. Most departments are auxiliaries, meaning their budgets are separate from the overall campus or student affairs budget, because we generate our own revenue. We pay our staff, fund programs, purchase equipment and supplies, and maintain our facilities almost entirely with money from students’ room and board fees. Looking at it this way, students are not only students, but also customers purchasing our product, in this case a comfortable, safe, and welcoming experience from the time they consider living on campus to the day they move off. So, the product we are selling and the way in which it is delivered needs to be at the highest quality possible. To meet this need, my department created a set of Customer Service Standards, outlining how staff members ranging from the Director to Service Desk staff interact with our stakeholders, which CQI is charged with both improving and upholding.

I know what I just described sounds a lot more like your local grocery store or coffee shop than the people behind where you lived in college, but it’s true that a large part of Residence Life operates like a business. Needless to say, while all 100 staff members working here want the best for our students, we can sometimes encounter a dilemma deciding between what’s best for the student’s development and what’s best for customer satisfaction. I would say that often we are lucky enough to have student development come out on top. But I think ultimately, how much a student learns in their residence hall is a type of customer satisfaction, sometimes that satisfaction just might be delayed until the development catches up.

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