As director of student development programs, I primarily work with first year students through a number of co-curricular venues throughout the year. A significant portion of that work is through coordinating what our campus calls Summer START and Family Orientation. In a nutshell, START is an overnight pre-orientation for our new students complete with community building, placement testing and academic advising. Family members get to come along and can take part in various interest sessions during the course of their overnight stay. It sounds simple enough, right? Well, on a day like today when the phone is ringing off the hook and the words “crazed” and “frantic” barely describe the pace in my office I must be honest and admit that I sometimes ask myself “Why am I doing this?”! Anticipating the year ahead, I am 99.9% sure that those of you in residence life positions who will be working with new students (first years, freshmen or whatever term your institution uses) will ask yourself this question more than once.
Working with new students can be challenging. I began my career in student affairs as a RA. I must say I was one of those folks who initially were in it for the free, single room. As I began my senior year, I was not thrilled to be living and working on a floor that was predominately freshmen with a few upper-class singles. Maybe it was punishment for going into to the job for the wrong reasons, maybe it was fate… but the bottom line was that the freshman bug eventually bit me. I wouldn’t know it for several years later, but I now know that working with freshmen will be my life’s work. At the core of us who choose to go into the RA position, is a person who cannot turn the other way and walk away from someone in need and freshmen need us.
Freshmen arrive on campus with eyes wide with anticipation while those of us who work with them may be worried, excited, anxious, tired or even have an early case of senioritis. They bring with them luggage containing their prized possessions and painful baggage from past hurts, losses and experiences as we hold open the door to their new homes. They come with a thousand questions that we will answer more than once. Sometimes they come with no questions at all, which scares us. They are eager to try new things like orientation and hall programs and other new things that come in the form of alcohol, tobacco or other drugs. They test their intellectual limits by learning in and out of class and their physical limits by pulling three straight days of all-nighters. They form life-long friendships with complete strangers in an instant but may not be able to talk to that other person sharing their room. All the while we watch carefully with an open door letting them know we are there by their side. Freshmen need us even when they do not want to need us.
Our job is to help them navigate the experience that is their first year. Sometimes I think of it as being the lane bumpers at a child’s bowling alley birthday party. The bumpers give just enough support to those balls that are veering off course. As bumpers, we keep the ball (the first year) on track. All the kids at the party are elated as they knock down pins and maybe even get a strike, but often they are oblivious to the fact that the bumpers are there helping them along they way. In the midst of balloons, cake, games & gifts, the bumpers set out the path before these small bowlers. The bumpers are secondary to all the excitement. It is a rare occasion when you see a child go up to the bumpers and say “thank you!” as the party ends. Yet without the bumpers, imagine the frowns, the disappointment, the tears and even the fears as the ball drifts into the gutter or worse, goes flying into the other bowler’s lane!
So this year as new students descend upon your campus, remember that for many freshmen you will play a pivotal role in keeping their first year on the right track. There will be challenges, but there will also be many rewards. These rewards may not come in the most apparent ways because the path you have helped your students set out on will not be obvious to them now. You are setting the stage for what is to come during the remainder of their college years. Several years ago, out of graduate school and working in my first full time student affairs position (with freshmen) I ran into my undergraduate dean of students at a conference. She invited me back for “Senior Disorientation” and asked me to speak to the graduating seniors about my life after college. Excited and a little nervous, I was more than happy to do this. As I began to speak, I recognized some of the faces in the room. I began to realize that those seniors graduating included the freshmen women from my floor. After the program, I spent some time talking with them and listening to their futures. I was really surprised at the little things I did that they remembered. The night someone cried in my room because she was homesick. The time I made sure I brought a dinner back from the cafeteria for someone with the flu. The fun we had at my really goofy programs. We all do not get the opportunity to hear others reflect on the good work we have done. It was a priceless moment for me and it taught me the lesson that RAs working with new students should ever underestimate the value of their work and the contribution they are making to these students lives.
Submitted by Bridget Haines-Frank, Director of Student Development Programs, Philadelphia University