Building Community in Residence Halls

At every summer orientation, Stacey Miller, director of residential life at the University of Vermont (UVM) in Burlington, tells parents the same thing: even under the best of circumstances, living in a campus residence hall is challenging.
The parents nod in agreement. Many remember their own experiences in a setting where everyone is young. There are no children around, no middle-aged adults, certainly no elderly, and, perhaps with the exception of fish, no pets.

The college residence hall is an artificial reality — perhaps America’s biggest “reality show.” Students who are strangers to each other are required to live together. Most have never lived away from their families except for a couple of weeks at summer camp. Increasingly they arrive having never shared a bedroom or even a bathroom. Outside of adult-directed social group activities or participation on school sports teams, they haven’t had to interact cooperatively with their peers.

They have almost no experience with community. But now they are expected to create one.

Residence hall advisors (RAs) are there to help them. These fellow students, often 19 and 20 years old, sign on because they want a leadership experience and to provide guidance to fellow students. What they find, however, is that they are the administration’s rule enforcers.

Leading From Within the Community
RAs feel whipsawed. While many residential life departments say their mission is to build community on campus, when it actually becomes time to confront problem behaviors, they resort to punitive measures. This stigmatizes and excludes community members rather than bringing them together with their peers to find community solutions to what are ultimately community problems.

RA burnout is common on campus. The University of Vermont was not immune. In 2010, however, something changed. In that year, UVM began a program of restorative practices in the residence halls.

A student affairs practitioner for more than 17 years, UVM’s Stacey Miller has this to say about restorative practices: “We have finally found the mechanism that helps students live cooperatively, connect, and genuinely build community in a higher-education residential setting.”   

At UVM each August, RAs participate in three days of training in restorative practices — an emerging social science that has applications to education, counseling, criminal justice, social work, and organizational management. The training teaches RAs how to begin the school year with proactive talking circles and how to use a range of informal and formal practices to respond to problems, conflicts, and wrongdoing.

The restorative practices continuum ranges from informal to formal. At the informal end are affective statements and affective questions. (The term “affect” refers to the biological basis for emotion.) Affective questions, also called “restorative questions,” encourage people to reflect on their behavior and their feelings. On the more formal side of the continuum are “talking circles,” and beyond that are formal restorative conferences.

Conducting the Circles
While use of restorative practices does require training, it is not an expert model. RAs easily learn how to ask open-ended questions, use affective statements, and conduct circles that bring residents onto the same page.

The success of restorative practices is due to its fundamental premise: “People are happier, more cooperative and productive, and more likely to make positive changes when those in authority do things with them, rather than to them or for them.”

UVM residential life staff use circles throughout the school year to foster positive relationships, raise consciousness about bias issues, and respond to conflicts and problems, according to Miller.

In response to serious incidents of wrongdoing, UVM staff members employ two different strategies. They use responsive circles when they do not know the identity of the wrongdoer, and they use formal restorative conferences when they do.

If there is anonymous vandalism, for example, RAs convene a circle that allows students to express feelings and brainstorm ideas to prevent a recurrence. The culprit is often in the circle, hearing others’ reactions to their actions and gaining an understanding of how they have adversely affected their peers. That understanding — and perhaps the fear of being discovered — often discourages further problems.

Understanding the Impact to Community

In the first year of restorative practices at UVM, a student, skateboarding in a hallway in violation of rules, inadvertently hit a sprinkler head. Water surged into bedrooms. Ten rooms suffered such severe damage that their occupants had to move temporarily.

Although the student came forward and admitted what he had done, and family insurance covered the loss, the young man was ashamed to face his peers. Students were upset and angry as rumors spread that the act was deliberate. In response, UVM held a formal restorative conference with 30 participants, including all the students whose rooms and property had been damaged. The skateboarder’s roommate and his RA, both there to support him, accompanied him to the conference.

When the other students realized that the incident was truly an accident, their anger subsided. As the other students spoke, the young man had an opportunity to understand how he had negatively impacted so many people in his residential community.  

Smaller problems are handled more informally. RAs might respond to loud music with simple affective statements, telling students how their behavior makes them feel. Or they might be slightly more formal, asking a restorative question, such as “How do you think you’re affecting others?”

Do restorative practices work? Stacey Miller says that before 2010, it was typical for a dozen or more RAs to quit UVM after the fall semester, having found the job of being both peer and authority figure too stressful to continue. After the implementation of restorative practices, however, only one of UVM’s 129 RAs resigned.

We live in a world that is starved for community. It is truly amazing to see how people respond when you give them the tools to build community.

Ted Wachtel is president of the International Institute for Restorative Practices Graduate School, in Bethlehem, PA.