Have you considered how you will celebrate and embrace the diversity of your residents? At the end of the year, what will your residents be saying about each other and you?
Setting the tone for how your residents engage with one another around difference continues to be one of the most important duties of an RA. Shouldering this responsibility requires personal commitment and professional competency on your part. The first step in the learning process begins with you and a look at what you may have learned about people who are similar and different than you. Let us take a look at the many ways we show up in the world and what that means for each of us.
Difference Is Not Deviant
While many believe that we are all the same and are part of the human race, we all do not have the same experiences. Depending on our gender, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, national origin, and ability we may experience the world very differently. Just think about how the world is set up for those who are right-handed – most school desks, manual shift cars, baseball gloves, and hand tools better suit those who are right-handed than those who are left-handed. Even some parents work hard at making sure their children are right-handed so that their life experiences are much smoother. Do we believe people who are left-handed are less competent than those who are right hand dominate? Let’s hope not, however, such parallels can be drawn from other personal attributes that can cause us to believe that certain people are better than others. A significant part of our humanity is the collection of memories that feeds our awareness and shapes who we are and how we perceive and regard others.
Skills to Practice
An important skill is to see and understand the world from a point of view other than your own. This literally means being able to see, hear, feel and think as if you were another person. Advertising and marketing firms do this all the time, and are usually rather effective at doing it too. Only when you put yourself in another person’s place can you begin to take action that supports and validates that person. Try this when you see someone you may not ordinarily interact with and imagine what thoughts, feelings and concerns may be flowing through their mind.
Re-writing Old Stories and Reactions
When you see someone, anyone you do not know, what stories are you writing about them? If you are driving down the road and the driver in front of you has a head full of gray hair, appears to be a very senior citizen and is driving too slow, what comes to your mind? How might your reaction be different if the person looks like they were old enough to have gotten their Learner’s Permit yesterday? Might you have more empathy for the younger person? What if the older person is one of your grandparents? How might that influence your reaction?
Dr. Maura Cullen, an educational consultant and a respected colleague often tells leaders to learn to be consistently inconsistent with how we react to and interact with others. What she means by this is that every person needs to be treated in their own way and that we should consistently do this.
Visualizing Your First Year
One practical method for achieving success in any endeavor involves practicing and visualization. This involves using your vivid imagination and taking a trip to the world of pretend. Allow your entire first year as an RA play, fast-forward and rewind on the big theatre screen of your mind.
You have completed training and with great excitement and relief you are ready for opening day. Your bulletin boards are complete and your door nametags are in place and look great. The roster of new names is already very familiar to you since you have spent lots of time learning all of your residents’ names and how to pronounce them properly. Now is the time to test your knowledge as residents begin moving onto your floor that first day.
After you introduce yourself to your residents, you try to get to know them by asking where they are from and if there is anything you can do to assist them. In your mind, you notice who they are – at least the observable characteristics you picked up from your first encounter. You realize that their experiences are greatly shaped by their sexual orientation, gender, race, ethnicity, religion, ability, economic status and background. You also realize that some of your residents, whether you like it or not, may trigger certain reactions in yourself because of what you may have learned about people who look or act like them.
These stereotypes are real and all of us have stereotyped. Our challenge is to consistently work to keep our stereotypes in check and not take action based on these stereotypes. When our inaccurate views lead to misjudgments our actions can easily and often do alienate others. Learn about your residents as individuals who may or may not share a collective experience with others who are like them. Avoid trying to put them into molds of how you think they should be.
The First Floor Meeting
Most of your residents checked in earlier that day so you are getting ready for your first floor meeting. Given all of the other things you have to talk about, how will you include some words and actions that will help set the tone for the year around how you want the floor to value diversity? What can you say to your group that will begin making the message clear? Perhaps you can openly share where you stand and what you personally expect from each person and what they can expect from you? Will you tell them what they can expect from you? Maybe the message is really about respecting and valuing each other’s differences and similarities? What about just living with civility and honoring one another as unique and special human beings?
Whatever direction you take, your role is to make sure each resident feels as though they matter to you. This is often easier said then done since it is quite possible that one or more of your residents will simply not buy into your ideas or will not believe you. Luckily you are still imagining all of this, but let’s say it happens for real. Understand that your residents are not necessarily reacting to you. You can easily represent an authority figure from the past who let them down and their reactions that were intended for someone else are being directed at you. Do not take this personally and continue trying to engage those residents.
Classes Have Now Begun
Imagine all of the interactions you will have with your residents. Now that you are well into classes, do you still try to connect with all of your residents, or do you just connect with those you feel that you have the most in common? Do any of your residents feel like they are invisible? Do you say hello to them? Are you being intentional about reaching out to every one of your residents?
How about programming? What a great opportunity to bring your residents together. Whether the event is social or educational, any program is a great opportunity to bring the floor together. Is your programming inclusive? Does it represent the interest of your entire floor, or just the desires of the most popular residents? How did you decide on what programs to have?
No matter how hard we try, programming often represents the interest of the programmer in some way. Even when we try not to be biased, we do tend to program around topics that interest us. Understand that your floor will most likely represent a spectrum of individuals. Therefore, having a Christmas party will certainly alienate those residents who do not celebrate Christmas. A mock dating show can be, and often is – at least on television- exclusive of gay, lesbian and transgendered people. Residents want to see themselves and their interest in the events you plan so be sure to solicit input from everyone and avoid being exclusive.
Your imagination is running at full speed by now and the semester looks so bright. Your programming captures your residents’ interests and honors their uniqueness. All seems well until you come back to your floor and find two residents arguing. You discover this argument is over a derogatory slur. Maybe it’s racial, homophobic or sexist? Since we are being creative, let’s imagine it’s all three. How do you respond? At least the administrative details depend on your institution, but let’s consider the residents involved for now. How will you show concern for the person who was on the receiving end of the comments as well as the sender? What can you do to show respect to both parties? Since you have done so well at seeing things from another’s perspective, perhaps you can try to see the situation from their point of view as well as get them to see it from yours. Remember that first floor meeting? Since you set the tone so well, having this discussion now should be a little bit easier. You may be nervous at this point, and it’s totally fine.
Fast Forwarding To May
The time went by very fast and now the school year is over. What will your residents say about you and how you honored the diversity on your floor? Where you the kind of RA who made each resident feel as though they mattered to you and the floor? How well did you connect residents to one another? When you needed to confront inappropriate comments and behavior did you do so? Were your programs inclusive of everyone? Could your residents see themselves and their interests in the activities you planned for the floor? From the first floor meeting to saying goodbye for the year, did you walk your talk? What will your residents say about you and each other?
Your time as an RA will certainly be a memorable adventure full of incredible challenges and equally proportionate rewards. However, what you do as an RA is up to you, and your decisions and actions will impact your entire community. We only have one world to share and embracing and celebrating our diversity allows us to delight in this sharing. Just remember there are residents counting on you and what you will do that you have not even met yet. This year seize the opportunity to leave a mark, not a stain on their lives and experiences as a member of your floor.
Submitted by Tom Segar, Director of Multicultural Student Affairs and Disability Support Services at Shepherd College in West Virginia