Wooster is unique in many ways: we fill arches with snow, steal bricks from pathways and confuse the rest of planet with our misplaced ‘A’s in street names. Our identity as a community is forged through these traditions, but a big part of what makes us a cohesive community is the fact that, for all four years of our education, the vast majority of us live on campus. This is where we eat, learn, love, make mistakes and transition from awkward teenagers to awkward adults. Living on campus, while it has many downsides, is pivotal to forming a strong Wooster community.
Especially given that we pay several thousand dollars for the privilege of living in poorly ventilated, 200-square-foot spaces, one would imagine that Residence Life would be well equipped to deal with the complex issues that arise from housing a large number of young adults together. But, as any student would know, this is not the case; the phrase “Residence Life” is generally followed by eye-rolling and an almost desperate sigh. Housing is a mess, issues of misogyny, racism, homophobia and transphobia abound, and yet the priority we have here seems to be ensuring that 18-year-olds do not drink beer, at least where we can see them.
As a resident assistant, I am part of the system that is supposed to address these issues and bring students together, and I need to report that our system is broken. Part of the problem is one of leadership: in the two years I have been an RA, I have worked with two essentially different professional staff members, who were all nice, competent people, but never got the chance to actually learn about how things work here. Clearly, this is an issue that needs to be addressed and soon, especially as we have already seen the departure of at least one professional staff member this year.
However, at its most fundamental, this school places emphasis on so many of the wrong things. During RA training, we talk about alcohol policy for hours, but we never really learn how to integrate diverse racial or socioeconomic perspectives into a community. There is a real problem on a campus where drinking beer outside on a pleasant sunny day is taken more seriously than students being referred to by the n/c/f-words, and this is where we really need Residence Life to intervene.
Nobody actually cares about community builders after the first couple of forced bonding sessions that we all suffer through during freshman year. Very few, if any, people read bulletin boards, no matter how pretty we make them, unless they catch a few words in the middle of ripping them down. And finally, while you might appreciate a pretty door dec, let me assure you that a hand-made one will not radically transform your college experience or make you feel more welcome in a hostile hallway. And yet these are the main tasks of an RA, along with encouraging behaviors that allow people to binge drink in secret, which is clearly the safest way to do things! While salaries for RAs have been reduced, so have the number of RAs, sometimes leaving a single person in charge of almost an entire building. However, while having enough staff is a problem, the school still manages to find thousands of dollars to spend on a faux Polynesian holiday before classes start every year.
How can we begin to rebuild residence life? To start with, I think we need to work out basic issues, such as whether alcohol poisoning poses a big risk to student health, or whether it is more important to let students know where to find condoms or how to recycle batteries or make a beautiful bulletin board about the flowers of Ohio. We need student input on how to improve our housing selection process. We need to find a way to have programming in hallways that allows students to absorb both calories and awareness. We need to stop punishing people for pointing out that single stall bathrooms do not need a gender assignment, and we need a happy, employed semi-permanent professional staff.
I love being an RA, and I love working with my residents and fellow RAs. I am happy with some of the changes we have made this year to residence life, but we have a very long way to go if we are to transform this internal threat into an asset to this institution.