As student leaders, resident assistants (RAs) are the heart of what drives our Residence Life departments across the nation. RAs are looked to and expected to be strong role models for their communities based upon their every day behaviors. The strive to nurture a diverse environment is an important component of being an RA as more and more students of color are attending college.
Reflecting that diversity in our staff must remain a priority as we strive to practice the tenets of what we espouse in our departmental and institutional missions. Yet, are the numbers of African-American resident assistants consistent with the numbers of that particular student population on our campuses? And how can we assure that potential African-American student candidates feel “identity safety” as they strive to secure a leadership position within the halls?
This article will explore the idea of stereotype threat and how that may impede progress to diversify our Residence Life student staff. Stereotype threat and its related issues will be defined and further suggested interventions for success will be illustrated. This article will be helpful to resident directors, assistant directors, and directors who devise and implement resident assistant staff selection throughout the academic year.
Stereotype threat is a concept that has been regularly studied by Dr. Claude Steele, head of the psychology department at Stanford University. He defines stereotype threat as “the threat of being viewed through the lens of a negative stereotype, or the fear of doing something that would inadvertently confirm that stereotype” (Steele, 2003, p. 111). Because of this threat, anxiety is created in the person and the intervening response may be avoidance of the perceived threat or diminished performance in light of the threat, as can be the case with academics.
A person may have been the target of a specific stereotype, and due to that experience, that person may feel mistrustful and/or apprehensive when in similar types of situations, even if they aren’t being stereotyped or discriminated against. “Such, then, is the hypothesized nature of stereotype threat – not an abstract threat, not necessarily a belief or expectation about oneself, but the concrete, real-time threat of being judged and treated poorly in settings where a negative stereotype about one’s group applies” (Steele, 2003, p. 112).
Let’s look at a specific example of stereotype threat. Imagine a situation in which a black resident is confronted by their white RA for a quiet hours violation. Yet, other white students who are just as loud in the hallway are not confronted. The stereotype involved here is that black students are loud.
This unfair interaction has now set the scene for stereotype threat for this particular black student. As a result, this student may experience what is referred to as “spotlight anxiety” when visiting other residence halls and coming in contact with other RAs or other Residence Life staff members. The ultimate consequence is that this student may not take part in activities in the halls, become an invested part of the hall community, or consider the prospect of applying to be an RA.
Because race is such a salient and tangible aspect of a black student’s life, Student Affairs administrators must take greater strides in developing “racial trust” by having an inclusive and nurturing environment so these students feel at home and are more apt to become a leader within the halls. “In specific classrooms, within specific programs, even in the climate of entire schools, it is possible to weaken a group’s sense of being threatened by negative stereotypes, to allow its members a trust that would otherwise be difficult to sustain” (Steele, 2003, p. 130).
Providing a safe and inclusive environment is the key for leading black students to apply for and become resident assistants. Specific interventions can be implemented in order to create a holistic and comprehensive Residence Life program that nurtures diversity.
Acknowledge the Problem – The simple fact that black students are not applying for resident assistant positions is not an adequate excuse for why diversity is not being reflected in the staff. Assuming that black students do not want to participate or are not interested in such leadership positions in the halls is a naïve perspective and should be quickly dismissed. Acknowledging that there is a clear deficit in an appropriate reflection of diversity in the staff is the first step in making progress. Assessing and diagnosing the problem should lead to further discussion and planning specific interventions for inclusion.
Develop “User-Friendly” Selection Processes – Many departments are dogmatic in their approach to the selection process and this may not be conducive to attracting everyone. Day-long and weekend group candidate sessions may not be ideal for students who have outside employment or may need to return home in order to take care of family, which is the case with many students of color. In addition, religious holidays and other sacred observances (e.g. Sabbath) should be respected by not hosting selection activities on these particular days.
Many departments mandate taking a semester long RA course, which is not only very labor-intensive for students and staff alike, but may have financial repercussions for students on scholarships or cannot afford to take an “extra” class in addition to their already full semester course load. The need and efficacy of such classes should be re-examined especially as it regards to the department’s mission on attracting all students to the resident assistant position. Honestly, Student Affairs professionals go through less to get a professional, salaried job than many RA candidates do to get room and board! So why set up students for failure or have them self-select out when you can save time and money and not alienate a large group of students.
Establish Relationships – Become an ally; get out there! People don’t care about you until you show them how much you care about them. Establishing relationships is the hallmark of every Student Affairs professional. Establishing relationships on campus is not only a great way to develop rapport with students, but also a way to attract potential student leaders. Being nice is simply not enough. In order to engender trust among students of color, true outreach must be a strategy and thereby a priority for Student Affairs professionals.
There are ample opportunities to become an advisor to student organizations on campus. And if the role is already filled, attending meetings, providing support for their programs and activities, and being generally available for advice and leadership development is always appreciated by students.
Student mentoring is also another way to develop strong, supportive relationships. Guiding students of color to become involved through campus work-study programs that you may supervise (e.g. desk attendants, mail clerks), programming & activity planning in their hall, and simply taking an invested interest in their lives is a great way to develop trust and confidence.
Critique Your Current Climate – Taking steps to objectively assess the current climate and atmosphere of the residence halls in regards to welcoming black students is of utmost importance. Do black students enjoy their living environment and regularly attend programs in the hall? Are their current staff members of color to reflect students like them? Are current staff members trained properly to handle incidents of discrimination and intolerance? Is a tone set that establishes a campus culture that does not tolerate racial insensitivity?
These questions must be answered in order to understand whether or not the foundation can be laid to recruit and develop student leaders of color within the residence halls. But if these students are uncomfortable and ultimately do not want to live there, why would they want to work there?
Being mindful of stereotype threat and interceding to try to develop trust among students of color not only serves to attract potential resident assistant candidates, but also to develop and enrich students’ college & university experiences despite the resident assistant program. Acknowledging lack of diversity as a problem, developing strong relationships by being an ally, creating inclusive selection processes, and critiquing the current on-campus Residence Life “experience” as it pertains to students of color are practical manners in which to pave the way for incorporating diversity into the Residence Life staff.
•Steele, C. (2003.) In T. Perry, C. Steele, & A. Hilliard III (Eds.)., Young, Gifted, and Black: Promoting High Achievement Among African-American Students (pp. 109-130). Boston: Beacon
Submitted by Scott M. Helfrich, M.S., Area Coordinator, Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania