Many of us have been there. You go to sleep a little early to celebrate your third night of a shift on call that had been—for the most part—a relatively quiet weekend leading into midterm exam week. Deep into your sleep you get a call at 1:30 AM from an RA that you find difficult to believe. “The protesters are coming on campus!” In a skeptical haze you follow up on your RA’s concern and walk towards the heart of campus. Suddenly your awareness of the gravity of the situation is piqued and you are fully awakened to the sound of student activism forever bursting the perceived “campus bubble” by inviting members of the community on campus to drum up awareness and civic engagement.
“Out of the dorms, into the streets! Out of the dorms, into the streets!”
Prior to that night the campus was largely in a lull, virtually oblivious to the protesting that took place just over 11 miles away from campus. That night, the soul of the first Jesuit school founded west of the Mississippi river was called into question as students distraught by the August shooting of Michael Brown was followed by the mirrored shooting of 17 year old VonDerrit Meyers, Jr., just four days prior, in the bordering Shaw neighborhood. It was hard to tell which frustrated students more, the premature deaths of two young Black men at the hands of White law enforcement individuals or the silence of a student body that go on to break a university record for participation in Make A Difference Day later that month.
I was in my fourth year as a Residence Hall Coordinator at Saint Louis University while serving within that on call rotation. I entered the field seeking to encounter the same amount of activism that fueled my student experience. Prior to the event known as Occupy SLU our students had been highly involved, but were scantly engaged in the Saint Louis community, often succumbing to the “SLU Bubble.” The days to follow would see a six day protest partnered by students and members of the community riddled with pushback and “Yik Yak” comments that would make the most seasoned professional cringe. Campus Ministry led prayer vigils and student led “die-ins” that reflected racial solidarity would raise student awareness, precede reflection, and sometimes spark heated debate—or worse—contempt, and apathy.
Front and center you could find housing administrators working with students to facilitate those tough discussions and challenge students to see a perspective that often times contradicted their worldview. The learning communities provided the perfect platform for students to explore counter-narratives that challenged the status quo. Residence Hall Coordinators worked with learning community stakeholders of themed communities like leadership and social change, Ethical Leaders in Business, Diversity and Unity, and Micah—a faith and social justice community—to facilitate reflective discussions that were happening across campus. Those Residence Hall Coordinators without learning communities still had work to do. Often times open office doors lead to one on one discussions where students could voice their frustrations or just sit in silence and be heard, no matter what side of the argument your opinion lies.
While many of the students that invited the Saint Louis community onto campus that night opened the campus to the community, much of the hard work was done in the residence halls. Residential spaces are more than just a place to sleep and study. They provide the greatest opportunity for students to have uncomfortable conversations in their home environment. More specifically, learning communities offer the greatest opportunity for learning as discussion participants may have developed those tighter bonds needed to receive a counter-narrative with an empathetic ear. It is incumbent upon housing professionals to create those inclusive communities where everyone is accepted. To do so, housing professionals must be brave enough to bring these discussions to the table. Starting with common courtesy for others on your floor or personal living space, we challenge students to think about who they are and how they impact others.
That early Monday October morning student engagement with the community validated the need for housing professionals to continue fostering inclusive communities within residential spaces. Our students are impacted by what goes on around them and are becoming more increasingly engaged. With many fixed points in the housing calendar from opening, to health and safety checks, to closing, are your prepared to engage with them?
Charles Stephens received his Masters of Arts in Student Affairs from Michigan State University, and currently serves as an Area Coordinator at Philadelphia University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He is an active member of the Pan-African Network within the Coalition for Multicultural Affairs where he serves as the Co-Chair for Foundations Mentoring. Charles wrote this piece for the Commission for Housing and Residential Life.