FORM: A Vision for Transformative Leadership
By Timothy Ferret
As a supervisor of para-professional staff, I have often encountered difficulty in vision-casting for my Resident Assistants at the beginning of the year. It is not for lack of motivating, inspiring jargon to choose from. By my count, I could choose from any of the following with which to inspire my RAs: The mission and vision of the institution, the Student Affairs mission and learning outcomes, the departmental mission, the First Year Experience Residence Life learning outcomes, and then finally my own counsel.
It is pretty overwhelming. And it can’t all be done. Not effectively, in a manner that is ultimately reassuring my RAs that they know who they work for, and why they are in their positions. The high turnover in student leaders from year to year allows student development professionals to experiment. I like to think of Residence Life as work which can be done in a variety of “right” ways. Some years I have focused more on the institution, or the department, but always my own supervisory vision for my particular staff. The following are a set of ideals that I use with my Residence Life para-professionals, asking them to foster a particular sort of environment. With these core values for our staff, the hope is that we are creating an environment conducive to transformation. What I appreciate about transformation, beyond even just growth, learning, or change, is that it is all those things. It is a more holistic, encompassing term, and most definitions use adjectives such as “radical” or “dramatic” for what is occurring. So my catchphrase with my RAs is, “In order to transform, we must F.O.R.M.”.
Each resident will be accepted as they are, and met where they are at. At our institution, inclusivity has been a newer higher education and societal term that we have sought to integrate into our campus culture. For our Resident Assistants, this looks like experiencing Inclusivity Training with our Intercultural Office and professional development trainings during the school year on topics such as micro aggressions and sexuality. For my staff in particular, it looks like reminders of how they each felt when they were out or on the margins. Nancy Schloessberg’s (1989) theory of mattering and marginality reminds us that we have all experienced feeling marginalized. To aid in individuals moving to a place of mattering, they often need an invitation into a ritual or rite. If we meet our residents where they are at, that goes a long way to them sensing their own mattering and intrinsic value.
Opportunities to meet Christ
Each resident will be exposed/introduced to an incarnate Jesus Christ and challenged to respond to the call of Christ’s Lordship in his or her life. We know that there are varying degrees of faith commitment among our students, even on our most conservative Christian campuses. So I challenge my Resident Assistants to never assume that all of their resident interactions are with individuals who have come to trust in Jesus as their Lord and Savior. For any students who are not yet believers, or are along a wide spectrum of uncertainty and doubt, we as a Residence Life staff want to be “Christ’s flesh on our bones”, a sentiment carried from John Bunyan into Student Affairs by a former supervisor of mine. Even further, when we have residents who are attempting to work out their salvation while living in our communities, there is bound to be areas of their life where they would benefit from being challenged to bring it more and more under Christ’s Lordship. Integrated means wholeness, or complete. Challenging and supporting residents as they integrate their faith into all areas of their life is contributing to their journey towards becoming whole in Christ. For some it is entertainment choices, for others it is being stewards of their sexuality. Whatever it may be, the ministry side of our work at faith-based institutions is directed towards the cross.
Residents should experience healthy living circumstances, and we will be aware of the conditions of their rooms and shared spaces. While the latter is a practical aspect of providing a residence life program, safe and healthy living circumstances require intentionality and presence. We should not expect our residents to thrive or come to a better place of self-awareness if they don’t feel safe. Holistic is a term used in many of our campus and departmental mission statements, and for my staff it means having an awareness to the personhood of their residents. Similarly to reporting a faulty drinking fountain or clogged toilet, I want my staff to be sensitive for irregularities among their residents. If they notice odd trends or adjustments in behaviors, I want them to develop an internal warning system that causes them to take note, and be proactive in providing care to residents.
Residents will have the opportunity to become a well-adjusted group member and learn the social skills necessary for living in a community; they will be encouraged to grow in their knowledge and understanding of the diverse people present on their floor. Former United States Commissioner of Education, Ernest L. Boyer, has six principles for an integrative community of learning; one is being a caring community. Boyer (1990) states that students “must understand what it means to share and understand the benefits of giving. Community must be built. Thus, a caring community not only enables students to gain knowledge, but helps them channel that knowledge to human ends” (p. 54). We utilize September as “story month”. Building off the chosen memoir for the incoming class’ Common Reading, my RAs create a floor event founded upon the concept that everyone’s story is important and valuable. This hopefully creates a foundation for the floor community, and allows for a comfortable atmosphere where the uniqueness of each person is upheld.
F.O.R.M. isn’t groundbreaking or altogether unique. It is simple, concise, and core to what I desire my RAs to be about as they interact with residents on their floor. When I describe the RA role to potential applicants, or those outside of higher education, I refer to it as a “both...and…”. It is both a professional job and a lifestyle. Professionally they receive training and have expectations for how they regulate and maintain a sense of safety for their floor and building. It is also a lifestyle, in that there is so much of their work that will never be quantified. We don’t measure the impact of every little conversation that happens as our RAs stop by doors, or talk to a resident on the sidewalk. We don’t gather every note they jot down to themselves to follow up with a student who seemed lonely, agitated, or off. F.O.R.M. gets at the “both…and…” of Residence Life.
Tim Ferret has a decade of Residence Life experience, serving currently as the Assistant Director of Residence Life – First Year Experience at Messiah College.
Boyer, E.L. (1990). Campus Life: In Search of Community. The Carnegie Foundation for Advancement of Teaching.
Bunyan, John. (1769). The works of that eminent servant of Christ, Mr. John Bunyan. Sands, Murray, and Cochran, Vol 5.
Schlossberg, N.K. (1989). Marginality and Mattering: Key Issues in Building Community. New Directions for Student Services, No. 48.