GW to Transform Service and Care for Residential Students

Roles are being reimagined so students can work in areas more tailored to their interests, and live-in staff will assume more managerial involvement.

professor's gate in front of District House
(William Atkins/GW Today)
February 24, 2021

The George Washington University will transition this fall away from the current student residential advisor (RA) program and increase the number of federal work study and student employee wage positions within residence halls, all part of a shift to a professional staffing model that will provide enhanced service and care to the on-campus student population. 

During the pandemic, the Division for Student Affairs examined residence hall operations and made decisions about how to cultivate an environment where students can fully excel, said M.L. “Cissy” Petty, vice president for student affairs and dean of students.

The transition to a new residential service model aims to ultimately enhance the GW student experience, said Stewart Robinette, assistant dean of students for Campus Living and Residential Education (CLRE) in the Division for Student Affairs.

With this new approach to meeting the needs of residential students, each residence hall will have at least one professional staff member living in it. The professional staff will continue to collaborate with the faculty-in-residence (FiR) in the halls and get the opportunity to personally connect with the students living there. The amount of training, education and experience that the professional staff possess means that they will provide higher level support and expertise when addressing the counseling, safety, behavioral intervention and conflict resolution areas of the residential advisor role that student resident advisors sometimes found complex and a less satisfying part of supporting their peers. 

Seth Weinshel, assistant dean of students for CLRE, said that transitioning to professional staff members makes it easier for students living on campus to access the support they may need for a number of services and streamlines processes so that students would not go to another student who, with the current model, would need to then escalate the issue to a professional staff member anyway.

“We are putting that professional staff member at the very first point of contact with a student with the idea that that an issue gets resolved,” Mr. Weinshel said. “That student is then also only having to deal with one person as opposed to dealing with a peer and then with another person to tell their stories sometimes multiple times, which sometimes in itself causes additional challenges or frustrations for our residents.”

In addition, Mr. Robinette said that by shifting some of the responsibilities from students to trained professional staff members, students will have the opportunity to hone in on their passions and flourish in more of the things that they enjoy.

“When you have such a broad array of responsibilities that our residential advisors are doing—and doing very well, mind you—to be able to narrow it into what their passion is and what they want to learn more about, that makes it that much more exciting for that student staff member,” Mr. Robinette said. “That means that we can really tailor experiences for student staff in a way that not only are they serving in a peer leadership way that provides deep meaning in their service, but also that they're developing a depth of knowledge in their role.”

The re-imagining of the RA position has resulted in nine new categories of student positions that will offer a more tailored experience for the approximately 200 students who will assume those roles. The new roles will incorporate programmatic, logistical and community-building activities in a number of interest areas. The new roles and responsibilities include:

  • Front Desk Operations:
    • Provide a welcoming face and offer resources and assistance at the front desks of residence halls. 
    • Assist with responding to student and family inquiries via phone and email.
  • Operations Assistant:
    • Check rooms before and after a student moves in or moves out.
    • Maintain the cleanliness, check-in/out and retrieval of move-in items like blue moving carts.
  • Programming Assistant:
    • Facilitate community building and study break events.
    • Provide logistical support at residential events.
  • Communication Assistant:
    • Create print and digital content for bulletin boards and digital signage.
    • Assist with communication materials, including building-wide emails.
  • Peer Mediation Assistant
    • Offer peer perspectives, alternatives and resources to support residents on issues related to interpersonal conflict.
    • Mediate low-level conflicts between residential students and offer peer-to-peer guidance on navigating interpersonal conflicts.
    • Provide administrative support for student meetings with professional staff members and refer students to campus resources.
  • Faculty Program Support Assistant
    • Provide administrative support for Faculty in Residence programs.
    • Support digital and social media communications for the Faculty-in-Residence, Living Learning Communities and Affinity programs.
  • Residential Programming Support Assistants
    • Create weekly roundup communications. 
    • Track residential programming and manage data.  
  • Social Media Assistants
    • Provide assistance with the [email protected] social media accounts.
    • Review website for errors or out of date information; update website as needed.
  • Transitions Opening/Closing Assistants
    • Check rooms to make sure they are broom clean and ready for move in.
    • Greet families and students, and provide assistance.

GW will be the “standard bearer” in this innovative approach to residential advisors, Dr. Petty said, with the university being one of the first colleges and the largest to implement this type of program. Pete Galloway, president of the Association of College and University Housing Officers-International, noted that mental health issues, as well as the pandemic, have pushed higher education institutions to rethink staffing models such as residential advisors.

“Residence life departments, like that at George Washington University, are assessing the ever-changing and increasingly complex needs of students living on campus,” Mr. Galloway said. “Changes like these are being considered to provide safe environments for students and continue to enhance academic success and engagement.”

This transition should help families of GW students feel more confident about responses to emergencies, Dr. Petty said. She said that with this transition, she hopes to see an overall increase in retention and graduation rates, as well as student satisfaction.

“As part of our job, we should be playing toward students’ strengths and encouraging them to excel in ways that build up a better humanity for all of us,” Dr. Petty said. “All of these things can be emphasized by having role models, teaching the right things at the right time.”

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