On Fishbowls, Role Modeling, & Self-Care by Sandie Downs, M.A.

fishbowl blog

At last, the end of the year has come or is closer than ever.  In residence life, we often like to celebrate the accomplishments of the last year through banquets and award ceremonies.  Working with student leadership groups, I had the opportunity to watch the National Residence Hall Honorary recognize others with their “fishbowl”: a literal candy-filled fishbowl given to the residence hall that has written the most “Of the Month” awards (a recognition tool used by the National Association of College and University Residence Halls). It’s a fun tradition, and although the candy tends to disappear in a few short minutes, the image of a fishbowl is something that has long been in my mind.

I have worked in residence life for the past five years, but I still remember advice I received during one of my first RA trainings.

“You’re in a fishbowl!  Whatever you do, people can see, so you should be aware of your actions and how they might appear to or affect others.”  I have found this idea of being on display from all angles to be true.  We expect student staff and student leaders to be good role models, to act in accordance with student codes of conduct, and to enforce policies.  Of course, they should be doing their jobs, treating others kindly, and being responsible members of their communities; however,

it can be a jarring shift to feel like just a “regular student” one day and be told everyone is watching you the next.


Add in the fact that many students entering a staff or leadership position are still developing morally, and things can get tricky.

Does the “fishbowl effect” really mean our students always have to be working, checking e-mail, or smiling?  How do we balance the need for our students to be good role models with their need to learn and grow?  As housing and residence life professionals, it is important to have conversations with students about what the fishbowl effect looks like.

In my experience, the fishbowl analogy seems to be intended for student staff members who have not deeply considered the fact their actions go beyond themselves.  In this way, it functions like a plus one reasoning tool: if students are at a stage of moral development where they are more focused on consequences to just themselves, this might allow them to start thinking about how their actions have wider effects on others (Blatt & Kohlberg, 1975).

In explaining policies, it is always important to provide the “why” behind it, when possible.


Sometimes our student leaders may be tempted to let something slide if they are not connecting an incident to ethical or safety concerns.  We expect a lot from our student staff, but it is important to remember they are still learning.  Their position is still an opportunity for education, and when students do fall short of standards, encouraging them to reflect on why their actions may have been concerning is a good practice.  Our students are humans, and humans make mistakes.  Although there can be serious mistakes, we need to show grace where we can and encourage growth and learning through these errors.

On the other hand, I have noticed some students take the fishbowl idea very seriously, struggling with perfectionism, afraid to leave their hall.  These are the RAs who take 2 am calls from residents when they are not on duty and lose confidence after making small mistakes.  It is just important to encourage self-care in these students.

The fishbowl idea can be very scary, but I have conversations with these students to let them know it is okay to take a break, to go out with friends, to visit their family, and it is necessary to set boundaries with others.


We talk about how they can work toward greater balance and how they can give themselves grace when they make mistakes.

If our students are in fishbowls, then we are there with them.


Dialogues of “person first, student second, staff member third” abound, and yet student affairs professionals still struggle in caring for themselves and doing what they say they value (myself included).  While we may preach balance, comparing how busy we are with our co-workers or bragging about how tired we are does not do our students any good.  We can be authentic about our journeys toward self-care and share what we have learned with our students,

but we should not glorify comparison and burn out.


Yes, people who work in residence life often face the challenge of living where they work, but even if we live in fishbowls, we are still human.


Blatt, M., & Kohlberg, L. (1975). The effects of classroom moral discussion upon children’s level of moral judgment. Journal of Moral Education, 4, 129-161.

sadie downs

Sadie Downs—Very recently graduated from Bowling Green State University with an M.A. in College Student Personnel.  She will soon be continuing her residence life journey toward self-care and balance in Colorado, hopefully through hiking, reading, karate, and Netflix.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s