Third-year St. Thomas University student Chris Fritz loved his job as a residence advisor in Harrington Hall last year. But after several Residence Life policies were changed over the summer, he said he feels disconnected from his fellow RAs and students and unable to perform his job well. He said at least two-thirds of RAs feel similar.
“I know someone who actually said in their meeting [with Residence Life], ‘I honestly feel like a fake, like I’m not doing anything,’ which has been something that has been put forward by quite a few [RAs].”
Over the summer, the Residence Life staff, who three out of five were hired within the past year and a half, adjusted the way RAs and RCs function in residences and how students interact in residences. Some policies changes surround confidentiality issues and drinking in public residence areas.
Unlike last year, if a student talks to a RA about something personal, they cannot share it with the rest of their RA team in the residence, said Fritz. There are around four to six RAs in each of the four buildings. One student residence coordinator (RC) is in each residence and leads the RA team.
According to STU’s website, RAs “promote positive community engagement” and “ensure the safety and well-being of the residents.”
Fritz said this impedes RAs from properly helping students and dealing with situations.
He said for example, if a student told an RA they had been sexually assaulted by someone in the house, no other RAs would be allowed to know. He said if that person then got in a fight with their accused assaulter, then the RAs wouldn’t know the context. An RA who wasn’t informed about the assault may approach the situation differently without that knowledge. RCs also tend to take on duties in other residences as part of their job.
“It results in walking into situations that could be very severe and having no idea.”
He said this made it so he couldn’t give advice and support to his RA team due to confidentiality changes.
“They were looking for support and I was not able to give them that support, because they weren’t allowed to talk to me.”
In addition, residents are no longer allowed to drink in lounges and public spaces in residence. Instead they are only allowed to drink in their rooms behind closed doors.
Fritz said this creates an atmosphere of secrecy and prevents people from meeting anyone new and bonding.
He said before the policy changes, when passing by people drinking in the lounges, the RAs would remind them to eat something or drink something and laugh with them. Now, Fritz said they can’t do that because they’re behind closed doors.
“We’re not able to have that conversation with students.”
In addition, Fritz said when he brought his concerns to Resident Life staff on different occasions, they acknowledged his and other RAs’ concerns, but nothing came of it, which he said he perceives as a sign of disrespect.
“They don’t check up on you. They don’t say “Hi, you posed this [concern], we’re looking into it, we’re doing this.’ It’s just they validate it in the moment, and then they just completely overlook it.”
He said there’s no trust between Residence Life staff and RAs anymore. For example, he said RAs must sign a document saying they aren’t going to lose the master key to residence. Once signing the document, if they lost the key the would be held financially responsible for $500 and their job could be put under review. Fritz didn’t sign the policy, so he had to pick up a key at 3:30 p.m. and drop it off at 8 a.m. every day he was on duty. He wasn’t allowed to use the master key which they soon locked in a box where Fritz said he couldn’t access.
“Just the fact that like, I’m your employee. I’m not allowed to do that. You have to trust me that I won’t. And if you can’t trust me not to use a key, how do you trust me to do that.”
A major review
Brock Richardson, who has been the Residence Life director for three-and-a-half years now, said these changes are the results of the first major review of policies in at least five years.
He said some RAs were taken off guard and others understood the changes.
“There were a lot of conversations about explaining why.”
He said although no RAs were consulted during the review process about the changes, Residence Life met with every RC and RA during August training and there has been ongoing one-on-one meetings.
He said they changed the policies and processes so they met basic safety standards.
Richardson said the changes to the drinking policy were made in order to follow a harm reduction approach and diminish the misconception that a large number of students drink frequently. He said they wanted to be more inclusive. Residence Life also compared their policies to other universities’ policies on alcohol in residence when making the decision.
In regards to the new confidentiality policy, Richardson said rather than moving sensitive or important information out, it’s moved up to the resident supervisors.
“But that information doesn’t get shared with four or five other peers in the house. Just to respect what that student’s going through and to respect the confidentiality of that student.”
“It does leave some people feeling like they don’t know everything, but it’s not that we’re not ensuring that people aren’t cared for.”
He said now the process within residence is similar to how counselors interact with each other, where they never share names.
As for RAs who aren’t feeling as connected to their team, Richardson suggests team building.
The review of Residence Life isn’t completed yet. Richardson also said house committees were under review and there may be a new student employee in Residence Life who will help with programming and event creation in residence.
Fritz moved off-campus with some friends on Nov. 7 and said he thinks others will follow him if things continue to get worse.
He said he felt like a weight had been lifted off his shoulders when he left.
Looking back, Fritz said he thinks the Residence Life team should have observed how life in residence worked before making any changes and consulted the RC and RA teams.
“We have years of experience being on a St. Thomas residence. And we know how things work here, how they work best, what doesn’t work and what does.”