What Matters in Residence Life?

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At the end of June, Thomas Carlson-Reddig, Shannon Rydell, Beth Buffington and I flew down to sunny Orlando for the 2015 ACUHO-I Conference to represent Little as an exhibitor, hit up some sessions on the latest and greatest thinking on strategies and issues in residence life, and talk about how residence life and architecture interact.

Our thinking was that given how quickly university and college programs are growing and changing, we needed to get an update from people who are on the front lines of student life and residence programming about their priorities, and what needs they’re trying to meet. So before we went down, we decided we’d try our damnedest to listen, without jumping the gun and moving straight to architectural solutions. Which can be hard for designers, right? Because really, we’re built to problem-solve and we just want to help you, dangit.

Anyway, I digress. We wanted people to talk to us about what was on their minds for this ACUHO-I and what they were facing when they got back to their respective universities. But how do you get people to engage, beyond bribing them with candy? How do you get people to take a minute to talk as they rush from speaking session to hotel room to reception and back?

We wanted people to have fun talking to us, and know that we were listening. Which is where the whiteboard came in, and the piles of markers. And yes, definitely the giant bowls of candy – the good stuff, like Snickers (which it turns out are very valuable in the conference shadow economy, but more on that later).

 How many architects does it take to put up posters? At least four (two off-screen.) #drawnwithlittle #acuhoi

A photo posted by Little (@littleonline_) on Jun 27, 2015 at 1:41pm PDT

And it was awesome. Over four days, we had the privilege of speaking to hundreds of people – from Chief Housing Officers to residential education programmers to resident assistants – about the joys and challenges of their involvement in residence life, and basically #whatreslifewants. We elicited anecdotes about experiences students are having; how Residence Life programming compensates for student needs; and how it augments the academic experience students are having on-campus.

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I’d have to say that I was pretty intrigued by some of the huge differences we saw from region to region, both within the US as our most familiar market, but also internationally. For example:

  • Some of our major university systems have populations of students who are essentially homeless, because there isn’t enough capacity on campus and market rates in surrounding areas are wildly unaffordable for anyone making less than median income – which is basically every undergraduate. How do you make sure these students are getting time with registrars and advisors when they’re stressing about where they’re going to sleep?
  • The “double-door” problem of suite-style housing: if you have a student who’s struggling, and their resident advisors don’t know, and their suitemates aren’t in a position to notice, how do you help them get access to resources for their well-being and academic success?
  • From an international perspective, if you’re a university with campuses in two (or more) countries or regions, how do you develop a unified sense of student life and shared identity? And did you know that Australian universities don’t do shared rooms? Everyone gets a single? Can you imagine how different your college experience would have been if you never had a roommate? It’s almost unimaginable for most American students, who basically spend August before freshman year agonizing over their selections, right?

 

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These are big deals, and just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. I mean, obviously, needs are very different from school to school, but we uncovered a lot of patterns and possibilities that we think are very worthwhile paths for exploration, and actually do affect the way we think about student facilities and how they can be best designed to meet an individual university’s goals, as well as each student’s needs.

I think the major take-away is that a lot of the time, people drill down on facilities very pragmatically, without necessarily taking a big-picture look at the part that their Residence Life program plays as a major part of a student’s successful and enjoyable educational experience. Sure, it’s awesome to get all your beds into your land allotment, but it can be so much more. There’s a huge question at the heart of it – how do your facilities support your programs and help your students take advantage of the inherent opportunities of being on-campus, and learn to write their own narratives for their collegiate experience and eventual adult life? That’s something we’re pretty eager to unpack.

So, then what are the next steps? Because why would you collect all this information and then let it just…chill, when you can do something excellent? Continuing our series on What People Want in Residence Life, we’re planning to build off our successful “What Students Want” symposium to ask “What Residence Life Wants,” and see if we can’t find better solutions for student and faculty life.

So, look out for invitations to a symposium near you! We promise good times with architects, fun exercises and ideas, and don’t worry – we’ll make sure we have good candy at those too.

If you attended ACUHO-I this year, we would love to hear any further thoughts you might have. Leave them in the comments, email us, tweet us, IG us, FB us… (#whatreslifewants, #littleonline – whatever floatsyerboat).

(And, in case you’re wondering about Orlando, I didn’t have a whole lot of time to explore, but from what I did see: I love that there are fireworks everywhere, every night; there’s a PUB IN EPCOT!!!!; everything needs more shade; and Harry Potter World is amazing and totally worth it. Also, I’m a Gryffindor. Obviously.)

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