Training Focuses on Care for Students, Safety, and Community
by Jennifer Spencer
Campus is abuzz with preparations in August as staff plans for students to arrive at or return to Fordham. For resident assistants and their commuter counterparts, August is dedicated to intensive training designed to give their students a safe, productive, and enjoyable year.
All resident assistants, commuter assistants, and freshman mentors go through extensive training in everything from crisis management, emergency procedures, and multicultural education to team building and how to develop fun programs for their student communities.
While resident assistants live on campus, commuter assistants at Rose Hill and commuter freshman mentors at Lincoln Center work in a similar capacity to serve as a resource for students who commute to Fordham.
Resident assistants spend a full two weeks in training; commuter assistants go through a shorter version of training.
Resident and commuter assistants/mentors are on the “front lines” of working with students, said Kimberly Russell, assistant dean of students/director of residential life, Rose Hill. They are often the people closest to a student when he or she needs help.
Training focuses on making sure they are equipped to support students no matter what need arises.
“We value the resident assistants so much, and it’s critical that they have a lot of training and know who to turn to and what’s expected if there’s a problem,” Russell said.
Administrators from offices across Fordham help train the resident assistants, ensuring they are aware of resources on and beyond campus, including Security, the offices of Substance Abuse Prevention and Student Support, International Students, Multicultural Affairs, and Counseling, and Psychological Services.
Camille Wilson is resident director for freshman students at Lincoln Center’s McMahon Hall. She said one of the highlights of training was a program called, “Behind Closed Doors,” in which more experienced resident assistants role-play difficult situations, giving new resident assistants a chance to practice handling the challenges they may face in the job.
“In training, they have lots of conversations about what could happen, but in this exercise, we throw them into the fire and let them handle things themselves, as it would be in real life. It gives them a chance to ask all their questions and learn about how to handle these situations before they’re presented with them,” Wilson said.
While the importance of the resident assistant and commuter assistant/freshman mentor roles requires serious training, a significant part of these student employees’ jobs is also to build community and friendships, something that is modeled in the training.
“Almost everything that we do in training is done in such a way that resident assistants have a model of what they can do to reach out to their residents. We have a day of programming excursions where the resident directors will plan an event, like a day in Central Park, so resident assistants can see what a great activity is and see hands-on how it’s done,” Russell said.
Dorothy Wenzel, director of the Office of Student Leadership and Community Development at Lincoln Center, oversees the hiring and training of commuter freshman mentors. She said these students, like resident assistants, have a huge role in helping freshmen find their home at Fordham.
“For our incoming students, it feels much easier to reach out to a sophomore or junior and say, ‘I don’t know what I’m doing,’ than to reach out to an administrator. If we didn’t have this program, there would be no one reaching out specifically to commuter students to say, ‘These are the events going on,’ and providing this ongoing care and encouragement to help students get involved,” she said.
Commuter freshman mentors send weekly e-mails to their students with a roundup of activities on campus, and let their freshmen know which events they will be attending. Wenzel said that freshmen often feel more comfortable attending an event when they know their mentor will be there.
For both resident assistants, whom students call “RAs,” and commuter assistants/freshman mentors, it’s that deep sense of care for students’ well-being that student affairs staff hope is instilled during training.
“It’s critical for me that the resident assistants know that it’s their responsibility to really, deeply care for each resident on their floor,” Russell said. “And we try to give them resources so that if any of those students have hiccups, they know where to turn.”
Russell said the deep level of care Fordham has for its students is evident throughout the training process. When Joseph M. McShane, S.J., president of Fordham University, met with resident assistants, he took time to speak to each of them individually.
“He asked them where they would be working, and I love the way he said it—he said, ‘Where are you caring for our students?’” Russell said. “The fact that our president knows and understands the importance of this role, and takes time to get to know each of the resident assistants, is really special.”
“I haven’t seen that at any other institution,” she said.