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Diversity and Residence Halls: The Key Role of Student Advisors

Dan Morrison, Acting Assistant Director of Resident Life, University of Maryland–College Park

An "African American History Month" poster has the word "inferior" scrawled over the word "history." The residents of the Honors House awake one morning to find swastikas painted around the interior of their building. A resident requests a room change after learning his roommate is gay.

The residence hall system at the University of Maryland houses a diverse group of eight thousand undergraduates. Maryland places a large amount of responsibility on its 175 resident assistants (RAs) to orient residents, negotiate differences, set expectations, and handle disputes. What can one do to prepare them for challenges like the ones noted above?

First, Maryland has a "Philosophy on Diversity" which is displayed on posters and in all room contracts. It reminds students that "we expect students who choose to live in our residence halls to be open to diversity,...be willing to accept the many differences around them, and treat all residents with respect."

Building on this foundation, each RA takes a three-credit 400-level course in which diversity issues are addressed. Students learn speaking and listening skills and address cross-cultural communication issues. They learn about communication with nonnative English speakers, with deaf students, and with students from diverse cultural backgrounds. Using videos and interviews, they learn about the nature of prejudice and discrimination and attend meetings of diverse cultural, religious, and ethnic groups.

Issues surrounding freedom of expression are also addressed in the course. Every RA can expect to encounter things with which he or she may personally disagree but that residents may have the right to say or display. Preparing RAs for these "inevitabilities" is a crucial training goal.

It is also essential to make RAs aware of all available resources on a campus. At Maryland, these include the Office of Human Relations Programs, the Counseling Center, the Office of Multi-Ethnic Student Education, the Disability Support Service, and various academic units. Staff members from these offices can do training programs or intervene when incidents arise. RA training should include not only information about what resources are available, but also information on how these resources can best be used. For example, in the first incident described above, where an African American History Month poster was defaced, many members of the community were outraged. The RA called an open forum where students could discuss their feelings and work toward a positive solution. Someone from human relations and from the Afro-American Studies Department attended the forum and helped focus the discussion. Working to keep relationships among the various offices and among the RAs themselves strong is an important responsibility of the professional Resident Life staff. Keeping professional staff informed about all diversity-related incidents is also an essential skill for an effective RA.

The Resident Life Department also provides ongoing training for all staff members and works hard to deliver training in new and different ways. The department frequently hires off-campus experts to provide RA staff with the latest information and in new ways.

Finally, one of the most effective training methods is peer-led discussions and problem-solving sessions. Experienced RAs are frequently very effective in preparing new RAs for the challenges they will inevitably face in diverse living situations.

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Communication Tips

Incidents that involve prejudice or discrimination can quickly attract media attention, and it is critical to decide in advance how to handle the media when such incidents occur. Often it is impossible to keep the incident quiet because a student who was involved in or offended by it will alert reporters.

When reporters begin asking questions, college or university public information officers should be called in right away to identify messages and spokespersons and decide how to handle the press. Refusing comment for long periods of time is generally counterproductive because it allows the angriest parties to shape the stories.

Having procedures and protocols in place so that resident assistants know how to get help from the public information office can be critical to containing the media coverage.

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