Young adults who never shared a bedroom at home can find themselves with college roommates who have stinky sneakers, wet towels on the floor and bad taste in music. When reactions escalate beyond annoyance, resident assistants can step in to mediate.
“Students are living with people they don’t necessarily enjoy or agree with and their lifestyles may be different,” said senior Bren Murphy, 21, in her third year as an RA at Belmont Abbey College in Charlotte, N.C. “When there are conflicts, it’s best to sit them down and hash it out talking, and they equally have to be able to give up something. But it’s kind of hard to talk about what’s bothering them when they really don’t know each other. So being a mediator is a good tool.”
But basic communication isn’t always easy in the age of technology.
“I’ve been in the field for 22 years and one of the biggest issues I see now is the lack of ability to communicate face to face,” said Renee Agner, dean of residential life. “Students are used to Facebook, Twitter and text messages, and when there are problems, we sometimes see the arguments ending up through electronics. It’s hard to know how somebody really feels through those means. They take things wrong and things get bigger and bigger and we end up getting in the middle helping them to learn how to talk to each other.”
RAs are trained to respond to more than bickering. Students come to Murphy when they’re homesick or need a listening ear, and RAs are often the first contact for serious issues that require intervention, like underage drinking, assault and threats or attempts at suicide.
“There also are date rapes, and I’m not sure why it’s increased and is affecting younger students,” she said. “I do know that the culture has shifted as to what is acceptable, or maybe we just see the numbers more clearly now. A couple of times, we’ve been able to stop it. We’ll get a tip from a student at a party who just saw so and so going home with someone, they’re intoxicated, and the friend doesn’t want them to make a wrong decision. I do everything I can to find her and him.”
That sense of looking out for each other is rooted in the school’s Benedictine tradition. “Like most things, the bad is always more obvious,” Murphy said. “But there’s good at every campus and a good clean lifestyle for people to choose. It just takes some work because it’s easy to look around and say that ‘everyone is drinking’ on the weekends. No, they aren’t. There are students who are working hard and seeking a different sort of life.”
Many Catholic colleges and universities have residential communities of like-minded students. Josh Robichaud of Vernon, Conn., is senior resident assistant for a floor of freshman in the Healthy Living/Living and Learning Community at Fairfield University in Fairfield, Conn.
“We have alternative social programs on weekends where instead of the typical college party culture, we have movie nights, hiking and programs where students can be part of the campus social life,” he said.
Robichaud started the Man2Man program two years ago.
“We get together to hang out and promote the positive aspects of masculinity,” he said. “You don’t need to conform to hooking up with girls every night, or substance abuse and violence. And we don’t get preachy. We do it by example. Professors, student leaders and our Jesuit priests speak about their life experiences and how they envision themselves as positive role models as fathers, husbands, professionals and religious.”
Robichaud came to Fairfield looking for like-minded people.
“There’s that sudden freedom for students,” he said. “They lived under the rules of their parents and rules of high school, and now they can make their own choices. The goal is to find a group with the same interests, and I don’t know if all students know themselves well enough to strike out on their own and not be the [negative] things that others expect. You can make positive choices. To me, that’s freedom.”
Maryann Gogniat Eidemiller writes from Pennsylvania.