If These Halls Could Talk: Crafting Your Residence Life Story

It’s the time of year when I begin to think about the importance of stories and traditions.

Do you have stories or moments that stick with you?

Do you have traditions that you have passed onto others in your family or friendship groups?  

What about in your workplace?

Stories are “a description, either true or imagined, of a connected series of events.”  While traditions are “a belief, principle, or way of acting that people in a particular society or group have continued to follow for a long time, or all of these beliefs, etc. in a particular society or group.”  I have found that how we talk about stories can generate curiosity and excitement and, at times, they serve to offer caution to the receiver.  How we pass on traditions and ways of being can be fun and lighthearted or can create a disconnect between sender and receiver if the tradition is not understood.  Also, I believe it is important to check in from time to time to assess whether traditions include or exclude.  I want to share two stories that bring me joy, one is personal and one is professional.  

One of my favorite memories of my childhood always took place around the holidays when my Mother would sit us down and read to us.  We would have hot chocolate and eagerly hang on to each word.  The story was always the same but something about that moment was truly special.  Perhaps it was the experience with our Mom or maybe it was commitment to our yearly tradition.  Years later in my own home, I have found myself keeping that very same tradition with my own children.  My Mom reads the story over the phone while my children drink hot chocolate.  While it is good grandma time, also, I still selfishly enjoy my Mother reading a story. But as an adult with my own children I had found that I too wanted to create my own traditions.  So, now my family and I, do a little old and a little new!  

During my time in residence life, I have had the opportunity to supervise, advise, and provide support to countless employees and residents.  Those opportunities varied between one-on-one meetings, judicial hearings, events and programs, connecting with family members, or random office drop ins.  All of those moments and relationships yield stories.  One of my favorite stories that I would like to share involved making food with my colleagues during a winter retreat.  At the time I was one of 4 Assistant Directors and we got the idea that we wanted to cook breakfast for our resident directors for the January retreat.  Together we each used our talents to create a spread of cooked-to-order crepes, omelets, grits, beignets, and breakfast sausage.  It was an amazing time to watch each other’s technique, trade cooking secrets, and ultimately show appreciation through food to our direct reports.  We moved around each other in the tiny residence hall kitchen, effortlessly from set up to clean up.  And the part that makes this one of my favorite stories is that I recently saw one of my former colleagues and he shared that this practice is an annual tradition now at that campus.  At my new campus, I have brought this with me and I cooked for the team during our summer retreat!  

While these two stories create feelings of nostalgia I want to offer up the notion that we may need more than feelings and good memories to tell the story of what we do in residence life.  One of the questions I continue to hear throughout my time working in the field is, “How are we telling our story?”  And the answer usually results in the creation of one pagers, prepping for cabinet presentations, roadshows with campus partners, or sometimes the mere reporting of the number of participants who attended our events.   Have you thought about how you go about telling the story of your department?  Or on an individual level how do you talk about your experience as someone working in residence life? How do you collect data points to support your story?  

Here are some questions to get you started:

  • Does your department have an assessment team internally or access to one on campus?  And if so, what methods of data collection do you use?  Software?  Roompact? 😉 Focus groups?  Exit interviews? 
  • Do you have a strong residence life alumni base who would be willing to share their experience of living on campus or working in the department?  
  • Could collecting stories from student focus groups be beneficial? 
  • Do you partner with student housing groups like National Residence Hall Honorary or the Residence Hall Association?  How do you truly capture what happens in your halls?
  • Where are you currently telling your story?  
  • Who is your audience? 
  • A question to start with is, why our department? And then why not, our department?

Whether you have been in Residence Life for 2 months or 30 years be assured that you have a story to tell and perhaps can share at least one campus or department tradition.  And with each new team member and student there is the sharing of stories and passing on of traditions along with the hope that we allow space to create new each year.  The stories and traditions may vary based on your position and length of time in the field but I wonder:

  • What is the chance of similarity in our residence life stories?  
  • What are the traditions that we hold in residence life and housing that cut across our many institutions?  
  • What are the things we get excited about in our work?  
  • And what are things that we share to caution others before joining the field or a department?  
  • What are the spaces in our field where we allow for storytelling?
  • What are stories that our residents tell and what traditions are they hoping to start?

Each of us are characters in the larger residence life and housing story because we work so hard to provide a home to college students and/or to the student and professional staff who live in and provide support, care, and resources.  It is important to not only tell stories amongst ourselves, we must also think about how we partner with those in assessment, the alumni office, and anyone who can share all of the fantastic things we do to turn empty spaces into homes.  Stories matter just as much as those who are a part of creating!  I wonder what your halls would say about what they have witnessed if they could talk?

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