Though I was terrified before I started, during the second year of my Masters I was a residence don, an experience that was an intense education on how to build a community and support others. Helping students build like-minded friendships, resolve conflicts, succeed academically and avoid unhelpful social behaviours (along with the million and one other things you find yourself doing as a residence advisor) taught me so much. Above all though, it taught me that with warmth, love, good intentions and smiles, it is possible to help others, even when you don’t have all the skills and answers at the outset. Determination, not perfection is what is needed, and all personality types (even the introverted ones) can serve others.
It also taught me that helping is a two way process. Throughout the year, whether it was in tea chats at my apartment, ice cream socials in the hallway, dinners in the cafeteria, or any other interaction, I felt so so blessed to be given the opportunity to work with the amazing 17-20 year olds on my floor. They were interesting, ambitious, courageous women, and I learnt so much more from them than any contributions I was able to make. In truth, we helped each other grow.
These lessons are relevant for any community planner, and to remind myself to keep these learnings alive, I thought I’d outline some of the things being a don taught me about helping other people. For the residence advisors out there, what would you add to this list?
1. Have predictable times when people can always visit
As a don students drop by your apartment all the time. This is a good thing; you want students to feel that they can come to you when you have a problem. At the same time, we each had a three hour block of time on the same day of each week where we were always at home. And although students were a bit hesitant to visit at the beginning of the year, the visitors increased with each passing week, and I discovered that when you are trying to help other people reliability and consistency is key.
2. Tea and chocolate are key.
When someone is seeking your advice and assistance, you have to create a space that is friendly, welcoming, and non-threatening. The ritual of making a cup of tea and taking out treats helps with that initial nervousness. (Smiles help too). If someone isn’t sure how to share their problem with you, they have the warmth of a mug of tea for reassurance, the act of waiting the tea to steep, and all the actions of pouring milk and sugar to give them time to feel comfortable. Chocolate and cookies are also important, and all three were things that each don always had an ample supply of in their apartment.
3. Listening is a skill
It takes time and attention to learn how to be a good listener. Listening to someone is about listening to their words, paying attention to their body language and noticing the concerns that underly what they say. It’s also about the things that go unsaid, and it’s about being patient enough to not offer up your diagnosis of a problem and your analysis of its solution. It’s about asking questions that allow the conversation to unfold, and that give others the space to share. Throughout that year, often the most powerful thing I could do to help another person was to listen to them.
4. Eating with others forms bonds
In residence we had a practice of trying to eat with our students as often as possible (each “house” had its own table) and this definitely helped in getting to know students who were more reluctant to seek out assistance. It strengthens your relationship with other people when you sit together and eat together regularly. Sometimes a person may feel too shy to come and visit you, but as you break bread and eat together, it becomes easier for them to share what is going on in their life.
5. Know how to deal with emergency situations
Before we began our roles as Residence Dons, we had a two week intensive training program that covered how to create effective programming, detect signs of students at risk for suicide, administer basic first aid training, use a fire extinguisher, deal with the ‘isms’ and pretty much any kind of situation that could possibly appear in a residence environment. At the time it was intense, but over the course of the year that training came in handy when addressing issues of intense homesickness, intoxication, academic distress and roommate conflicts. The experience taught me that in most things there are best practices, and the more knowledgable you are, and the more tangible skills you possess, the more at service you can be.
6. Smile. Go knock on doors.
You might organize great programs, advertise them well, hang out in the common room, and keep the door to your flat open when you’re home, and there will still be people that you just never see. In such situations, though I love the world of email/FB/Twitter etc, there is really no substitute for going for a walk and knocking on doors to have the conversation that you need to have, even if that’s simply to check on someone you haven’t seen for a while to see if they are ok. This also means going where students are so you get to know them better and they feel comfortable confiding in and seeking you out for help.
7. Seek out mentors for advice
Before I started as a Don, I was terrified (and convinced) that I would fail at the role. I’m very introverted, and the thought of trying to build a positive university experience for forty-five other students genuinely filled me with fear. In the four months beforehand though, I had a job working on leadership programming at the University of Toronto, and in that role I sought out the advice of people at the university who I felt would understand my fears, and whom I felt could offer constructive advice, and hold me accountable to trying new things. Without those conversations I might have changed my mind halfway through the summer, and would have lost out on some seriously valuable learning.
8. Work with others to build community
You can create the best impact when you work with others to create change. Being a residence don taught me that I have a particular set of strengths and skills, but I am not skilled at everything, and I am more useful when working with others. When we organised events as a residence building, and when I worked together with 2 or 3 other dons to focus on specific issues that were relevant to the entire residence community, you could see the impact of people with very diverse skill sets coming together. It brought home the lesson that high impact change can only happen in teams.
9. Bring your personality to your work
When I first started out as a Don, I thought that my quiet, introverted personality wouldn’t work in a residence environment. I was confused about why I was chosen for the role in the first place. As it turns out, I ended up on a all -female floor, with predominately international students doing a specific language/university bridging program, and where I was placed was precisely suited to the kind of person that I am. It was a lesson that our personalities are not weaknesses, and that there are always contributions that we can make once we recognise our strengths and stop fighting who we are.