Just don't call it dorm life

The cadre of professionals meeting first-year students as they move in to residence halls this fall are hardly like the house proctors of old

It’s 10 p.m., and McCarren Caputa is visiting a student in Todd/Phibbs Hall. They’re discussing campus mentoring programs to help the freshman cope with first-semester jitters. As Caputa stands to leave, a young woman knocks on the door. Water is cascading from the third-floor bath. Rushing up the stairs, Caputa grabs her cell phone as it trills the theme from Sesame Street. “Yes, I know,” she says with unwavering patience, “We’re on the way.”

Caputa might say it’s just a typical day in the life of a resident director if she could imagine what one looks like. “There is no such thing,” she says with a laugh. “We might check on students for parents who haven’t heard from them lately, or go to the hospital with them if an emergency arises. Or if they violate policies in the building, we would meet with them. The staff often gets together to discuss upcoming programming and cover concerns about students not doing well in class. And then there are the overflowing bathrooms.”

 

Professional network
The “we” Caputa talks about is an intricate network of professional staff and well-trained students working in residence life at the university. Each hall hosts a resident director, or RD, like Caputa (most RDs at Puget Sound oversee two halls and live in an apartment in one of them), one resident programming adviser (RPA), and three to eight resident assistants (RAs), who live in the hall as well. Shane Daetwiler is director of residence life and oversees the whole cadre of staff members.

Caputa’s husband, Nick, and 20-month-old daughter, Zain, live with her in the hall. She enjoys watching her daughter grow up surrounded by college students. It takes a village, as the expression goes, and that’s what it’s like in a residence hall. “Zain walked for students before she walked for me, and her language skills are far above most her age. She’s outgoing and friendly, not leery of people. And it’s amazing to watch students come alive with her.”

Describe this set-up to any college graduate who can recall, say, the day Elvis died, and expect a blank stare. The ’50s house mother who loomed near the front door late on weekend nights or the free-for-all dorms of the ’70s are long gone.

These days residence life workers are professionals at what they do, trained in counseling, advising, and social and educational programming. While a master’s degree is not required, Caputa, who holds a M.Ed. in student personnel administration in higher education from Western Washington University, reports that all Puget Sound RDs currently have one. Even student RAs go through extensive two-week training at the beginning of the term and continue training throughout the year.

“Rarely do I have to step in when an undergrad is having trouble. RAs handle referrals to campus services, tutoring, counseling, and academic advising very well,” says Caputa, who is starting her fifth year as RD. “But when students don’t feel comfortable going to another student, I’m right there, a grown-up who is still young enough to remember what it’s like to be at school and away from home.”

 

The real world
Daetwiler joined the staff in 1996 and has headed the program since 2004. He was a RA and RD at his alma mater, Redlands University, and has a deep understanding of the challenges of campus life.

“The campus is not a place to come to escape the real world—we are the real world. Or at least a prequel to it,” he says. “We want students to feel at home and comfortable on campus, but we also want to prepare them for life after graduation. That’s why it’s so important for the staff to help students learn how to work through issues by developing conflict-resolution, consensus-building, and decision-making skills.”

It’s more than a full-time job. Between the RDs and RAs, staff are on call and armed with cell phones 24/7, and efforts are under way to continue classroom learning where undergrads live. Residential seminars, for example, allow students enrolled in the same first-year seminar to be housed together so they can carry on conversations begun in class. The university currently offers about 10 residential seminars, but plans up to 20 in years ahead.

 

Building relationships
Other programs build community and address social issues—maybe a barbecue on the front lawn to help people get acquainted or an alcohol-awareness program featuring a root-beer keg. Emily Miller, who just finished her M.A.T. and served as a RA, RPA, RD, and Graduate RD, recalls a cultural awareness program to address diversity. “We organized Queer 101, a discussion and Q&A with a panel consisting of students who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered, and straight,” she says. “People got to ask questions and hear stories. It’s eye-opening for some, especially freshmen coming into an environment that may be very different from their high school.”

And the behavioral changes seem to be lasting. Cara Cantonwine, a former RA and RPA who in 2005 earned a bachelor of music with dual majors in vocal performance and music education, now serves as program and event coordinator for the City of Vancouver, Wash. She considers her experience in the residence life program valuable training for negotiations at work. “My job can be very political, and my skill at handling the promoters, planners, and performers goes back to my RA training,” she explains. “Residence life has a phenomenal network of all kinds of people who support each other no matter what—people you can call in the middle of the night and they’ll be there to listen. It wasn’t about getting free room and board—it was about having relationships with people.”

Even when the results of such efforts are not immediately obvious, the program is working. Consider a young woman Miller recalls who didn’t participate much. Several years later at a campus event Miller attended, the young woman was asked to tell her UPS story. “She talked about me! I was floored,” Miller says. “She wasn’t the one who was knocking on my door asking for advice or attending events. I had no idea that I had had that kind of impact. She told about all the campus activities she was currently involved in and how that came about because she had felt cared for on campus. I feel very encouraged that it’s not always the people we think we had an impact on who are changed by our relationships with them.”

Miller will begin teaching choir and drama at Bethel Junior High in Spanaway, Wash., this fall, and she knows skills honed over the past five years will help. “I feel strongly that in school generally, and specifically in the choir classroom, students cannot reach their full musical and personal potential if a solid community is not in place,” she explains. “Singing is so personal—the voice comes from inside of us—and to sing with others is an intimate experience. If students don’t feel they can be vulnerable and express themselves musically, the sound will suffer. I saw this in my student-teaching experience. I had to work hard to build community there, but it made a difference. I know I will be a better teacher the rest of my life because of my experience with residence life. I’m glad to be part of something that grows and has a positive communal impact on the world.”

 

Moving on
Caputa likens move-in day in August to Christmas: bright, shining new faces illuminated with excitement. Nine months later, she feels a mix of emotions as the students move on. But she has strong memories that remain after the rooms are empty.

“It’s wonderful to venture out with them, whether it’s helping them find a new doctor, working through a roommate conflict, or teaching them how to iron,” she says. “I’ve made really good friends with a lot of students. We keep in touch over the four years they’re on campus, and later I get cards, letters, and wedding invitations. So it’s not so much that I say goodbye to them as I get to wish them well as they continue their journey.” — Lynda McDaniel