Resident advisors (RAs) play a key role in campus life at UMass Lowell. With anything from locking oneself out of their room to difficulties adjusting to campus life, residents are taught from the first day of orientation that their RAs serve as a mentor and go-to in any given situation. A new Residence Life policy, however, is raising questions from RAs themselves about the role it will play in their relationship with their residents. RA/Resident One-on-Ones are mandatory 15-minute conversations that all RAs are going to have with their residents throughout the start of the spring semester.
During their most recent training session, UMass Lowell RAs were instructed to approach their residents and conduct an interview-style conversation through which they are to ask residents questions about their personal perceptions of their transitional success into the second semester, their overall well-being and to provide resource referrals for their residents as needed.
According to the Spring 2018 Facilitation Guide for the RA/Resident One-On-Ones, “these conversations are meant to allow RAs to have an understanding of how residents are updating and prioritizing their personal and academic goals based on what happened in the first half of the academic year”. The guide also contains a numbered, step-by-step outline for exactly how to conduct these conversations. It includes everything from greeting the student to encouraging them to set goals for the Spring semester. The RA is to ask; what goals the resident achieved last semester, what goals they did not achieve from last semester and what people or things supported the student in achieving their goals.
The RA must also report on a green, yellow and red scale to show how well they feel that student is transitioning. The report even asks RAs to mark issues their resident discussed that “interfered with achieving [their] goals” from a list of personal subjects provided by the guide. Drug and alcohol use, mental health and relationships are only a few items on the list for an RA to choose.
The results of every conversation are to be noted and submitted electronically by the RA in what is known as a Qualtrics form.
The Office of Residence Life responded to widespread concern over ethical issues regarding the attaching of a resident’s name to personal information without their knowledge in a Jan. 25 email in which RAs were told that they will not be including residents’ names in the report and that RAs themselves can decide to explain the purpose of the conversations to their residents. Also in the email was reassurance that only the large, overall themes of the issues mentioned in the conversations will ultimately be shared with partner offices like the Dean of Students’ Office and the Wellness Center and will not be released publicly.
The information of students whom RAs determine to be struggling with serious issues is to be delivered in a STARs report. The acronym stands for “Students at Risk” and refers to UMass Lowell’s Behavioral Intervention team. The team is comprised of faculty and staff members from the Dean of Students’ Office, The Wellness Center, Campus Conduct, EMS and the UMass Lowell Police Department and serves to review all reports they receive to determine whether a student’s situation warrants a check-in based on the indications made in reports.
RAs across campus have expressed concern about this new policy’s lack of transparency and fear over long-term effects it could have on the RA/Resident relationship.
Alexander Sanginario, who has been an RA for the Honors College for the past three years questions, not the intentions of this policy but rather the implementation of it. “Many times, in my three years as a resident advisor here, I’ve seen vulnerable students turn to their RA for help and a point in the right direction, whether that be counseling, medical treatment, or outside help,” Sanginario said. He goes on to explain his concerns stating, “those bonds are instantly broken when RAs are asked to report potential issues obtained in an organic conversation behind the resident’s back.” He adds that “it makes it seem like we’re fishing for information to get people in trouble and in a data set rather than actually caring about the residents and their wellbeing. That is not the purpose of and RA.”
Another RA who prefers to remain anonymous, agrees that the policy has good intentions and has opted to inform her residents about the conversations before conducting them. She explains that RAs were initially encouraged not to mention the purpose of the conversations because they did not want residents to hold back in their responses. But even after explaining the One-on-Ones to her residents, the RA said that she will still feel uncomfortable conducting the conversation. “I like sitting down and getting to know them, it’s just uncomfortable that they know I’m reporting it.” She also notes her discomfort with being expected to determine the emotional state of her residents. “RAs aren’t trained to be counselors, so us trying to go in and assess everyone is weird,” she says.
The Office of Residence Life’s Associate Director, James Whitaker, stated that the one-on-one conversations are “part of Residence Life commitment to supporting the Residential students at UMass Lowell” and referred to them as a “national best practice in student housing”.
RA/Resident One-On-One conversations are set to take place between January 29th and February 23rd. Every RA will be interviewing and filing a report on at least 75% of their residents.