Seeing the Connections: 3 Perspectives on How Residence Life Staff Support New Students

The Research Team Perspective

A few months ago, we were invited to participate in residence don training at the University of Toronto. In thinking about what we wanted to share, we reflected on the dozens of hours of transcripts we have read this summer. Something we saw over and over again were examples of how peers help their fellow students navigate their college or university. Students create study groups, introduce their peers to a program or service on campus, and are really there for each other when the academic, personal and social pressures become overwhelming.  We heard powerful stories of peers being informal “guides on the side.” But there are even more examples of the role of formal peers; from those who lead academic and social clubs, upper year students in peer mentorship programs and of course residence life assistant and dons that help their fellow students connect the dots.

In a theoretical sense, this fits Bronfenbrenner’s (1993) Person-Process-Context-Time (PPCT) model quite well. The model says that an individual’s development occurs and it is shaped by the interactions between the person and their environment.  The model has four levels with the student in the middle.


Microsystem: The programs, services, people (including them and the student) in a situation.

Mesosystem: The interactions between the microsystems such as how your course load impacts your part-time job.

Exosystem: The institutional policies, procedures, broader post-secondary and political system at hand

Macrosystem: The latent, non-observable elements like societal norms, cultural expectations and social forces.

As those who work in residence life know, the work is rewarding and incredibly challenging. It is almost impossible to underestimate the number of issues, situations and predicaments that can land at your door. Knowing this, we developed three different scenarios for the residence dons/RAs which described a student in a situation coming to their residence advisor for some counsel. What we didn’t want was for the groups of dons to jump immediately problem-solving action mode. Instead, we asked them first to think and reflect on the different programs, services, people, policies, and social/historical forces present in these scenarios. Essentially, we wanted them to think about all of the components that make up the ecological system in the scenario. Most importantly, we wanted the groups to think about how the residence don can play a vital connecting support role in helping new students think about how these different parts of the ecosystem connect. At this point we turned it over to the dons.

– Jeff Burrow, Phd Student/Research Assistant

 The Residence Don Perspective

As a residence don, I have experienced what it is like to be on the supportive end for students during the really good, the really bad, and the really complicated times. Just when you think you have all the details about a situation and you are about to suggest a resource –BOOM- ten more details emerge and you can feel like you are back at step one. This is a common trope for all dons; new and experienced. The activity we did allowed groups of dons to work together to discuss the layers in each situation. We brainstormed the external systems that might be influencing the student. It was specifically stressed to the entire audience that coming up with a solid answer as to how to resolve the conflict was not necessary. I’m sure to many Dons in the room found this request unnatural as Dons are practically conditioned to mediate and resolve conflict with our eyes closed. This request allowed for a more organic flow to the conversation rather than stressing the need to reach a ‘correct’ answer.

In the weeks after training, I started to think of the relationship between conflicts and external factors/resources in a different way then before. First, conflicts tend to come in the shape of an iceberg. There is a small bright instigating moment on top, and a whole dark and complicated mess underneath. Secondly, a student’s external factors/resources are also shaped like an iceberg. There are a few known resources that a student is comfortable with and knowledgeable of, on top, and many underneath that seem unattainable. Sometimes it is a Don’s job to unveil and detangle the dark bottom layer of a conflict shaped iceberg. Other times, it is our job to support a student in their journey to discovering what lies beneath the surface of a resource shaped iceberg.  I had never thought of the detailed complexity of the web of external systems until this presentation. It is a new perspective into the lives of my students and my co-workers and I am glad to be a part of a team that wants to think about these bigger picture concerns.

– Stephenie Murphy, Victoria College Senior Don, (English and History Major)

The Residence Life Staff Perspective

As a research assistant on the Supporting Student Success project, and as a residence life staff member, I was very excited to bring some of our research to the students I work so closely with. I really liked the plan for how the session would bring information to our dons to help them understand the connections of support at the University of Toronto.  It helped them think methodically through how weaving these supports together can best support our students and was a good fit for the last part of our central training (which largely focuses on understanding the centralized resources of a decentralized university).

Our staff got a new tool in their residence life tool kit – a new way to think through some of the complex challenges they face when supporting students. Students who come seeking support may come initially asking for one thing, but typically as you dig a bit deeper, you find out the problem is more complex that just simply academic or personal – all of these elements weave together, and so students need support from multiple departments to get the most well-rounded support. In the weeks after training I’ve seen my own staff sit down with Bronfenbrenner’s PPCT model to think through how to support a student, and what resources may not be coming to the top of their mind, but would be helpful connections for students. This workshop gave our residence staff a new understanding of the complexity of the University of Toronto, and an understanding that these decentralized resources do not operate in a silo when supporting our students.

– From Leah McCormack – Assistant to the Dean, Residence Life, University College

 Summary. Universities and colleges invest a significant amount of time, resources and trust in their residence life staff. Over the course of an academic year, the Dons will likely face issues and situations they like never even considered during their training. We hoped that our session was another chance to see the power and knowledge within their residence teams. And we hoped that the session would let dons see the complexity in any single student issue and the vital role that they can play in helping students in residence make connections to the myriads of people, programs and services on campus that can help them be successful.

Research Findings Part 1: What Defines Student Success?

Over the last several months, the Supporting Student Success team has presented findings from the research study to conference attendees #ACPA2013, #CSSHE2013 and #CACUSS2013. We are happy to share the slide decks from recent presentations. You can find them at the top of the page under the “Presentations and Publications” tab.

This week we are posting the slides from a presentation titled, “What Defines Student Success? A Multiple Choice Question.” With “student success” being one of the most commonly used phrases in higher education, we asked research study participants to define the term in their own words. We found the variation in the definitions quite interesting. The presentation is below but we also invite you to download the presentation and our full set of accompanying notes. All our presentations can be found on the “Presentations and Publications” tab.

As always, we endeavor for this blog space to be used as a place for dialogue. Please feel free to “leave a comment” at the bottom of this post with your thoughts, perceptions and opinions related to defining student success.

Check back in the coming weeks as we will be posting slides on faculty member perceptions of programs and services that support student success, as well as tips from students about improving their learning experience.

Teaser Video: Two Roads Met in a Yellow Wood

We look forward to seeing you at CACUSS 2013 for our presentation Two Roads Met in a Yellow Wood: Faculty and Staff Perceptions of Student Success. The team is presenting on Tuesday, June 18 from 4-5:15PM in room W215 Arts. Please see page 35 of the conference program for more information.