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Residential Life Staff: Helping Students Connect

by Greta Petry (March 7, 2006)

Residence hall workers like Karla Jaime and Justin Smith, above, and Jennifer Alvarez, not shown, handle everything from boosting school spirit to responding to emergencies.
Residence hall workers like Karla Jaime and Justin Smith, above, and Jennifer Alvarez, not shown, handle everything from boosting school spirit to responding to emergencies.

It's 2 a.m. A student has accidently locked herself out of her room. To whom does she turn for help? A professor? No. Another student? Maybe. An administrator who lives 45 minutes away? Hardly. The answer is: A residence hall director, like Karla Jaime, Justin Smith, or Jennifer Alvarez.

Residence hall directors work for the Department of Residential Life in the Division for Student Success. They live and work on the quad. There's no commute: they can just about roll out of bed and into the office. It's not easy, though. On the job around the clock, they are responsible for hundreds of students, sometimes as many as a thousand. They supervise resident assistants and run programs for the residence halls. Their job is to help out students whose issues can be as straightforward as unlocking that room or as complex as roommate conflicts or problems back home.

"We shape and mold their college environment," said Smith, 22, of Holden, Mass. Smith, a graduate student in Educational Administration and Policy Studies, is an assistant residence hall director and a graduate assistant on Colonial Quad.

Karla Jaime, 24, of Lynbrook, N.Y., is a residence hall director on Dutch Quad. Jaime earned a bachelor's degree in communication in 2003 and a master's in organizational communication in 2005 from the University.

Jaime said the best part of her job is "seeing our students develop and being able to assist them in that growing process. I also love building relationships with my students and getting to know who they are. Often times I have students popping into my office just to say "hello' or tell me a story. It's nice to be able to celebrate their victories when they do well on a test or receive a job offer from a company. It almost feels like they are taking me with them on their journey through life. It's a very rewarding feeling."

Smith, who was vice president of his class from 2001-2002, said, "I feel almost like they are our kids." For example, one of his residents from two years ago is planning to run for Student Association president in the next elections.

And while a friendly, easygoing nature is an asset in this work, it is not an easy job to land.

Director of Residential Life Laurie Garafola said, "We insist upon a competitive selection process for our professional staff. We search both locally and nationally for these positions. Residential Life looks for staff who are energetic, committed to student development, and most importantly, team players. In addition to all the daily management functions necessary in the overall operation of the residence hall, these staff members are responsible for developing an environment within the residence hall community that is conducive to the overall success of our students."

Typically, there are three to four residence hall directors on each quad, two or three in the low-rises and one for each tower.

"I have four of the eight low-rises at Dutch Quad with about 300 students," Jaime said.

Residential Life staff draw students into University life through programs and activities. Jaime organized Dutch Quad's victory dinner after the Clash of the Quads competition last semester. The event included a comedy act and a magician.

Smith mentioned last year's Fountain Day activities, at which faculty participation was key. "I saw a lot of my professors at the pillow fight. I think any socially motivated faculty-student involvement is beneficial for both parties. Being involved in Fountain Day together bridges that gap."

Jaime said residence hall programs raised a substantial amount of money for a Campus Partnership house during Habitat for Humanity Week, Jan. 30-Feb. 4. Students also met the family for whom the house is being built.

Jaime said, "Although fund-raising may be less glorious than wanting to actually help build a Habitat house, we let the students know that without their help, it wouldn't be possible to raise these funds. They are a part of this house."

Even as they build relationships with students and cheer them on in their successes, Jaime and Smith said another part of their jobs involves knowing what to do in an emergency. They are trained to take action if a student is depressed and threatening suicide. With students who are angry and venting, they are trained to stay calm.

Smith said, "You know it's all about respect. With a student who is angry, I try to listen and not take it personally. It's not me he is angry with; it's the situation. I'll say something like, "It sounds like you're having a pretty rough day.' I'll try to help unless it goes against policy."

Residence hall staff play a key role in helping undergraduates adjust to University life. Freshmen and transfer students, in particular, may go through a period of uncertainty.

"First semester was difficult," said Smith, who joined UAlbany as a transfer student. "I was a sociology major in large classes. Second semester I joined Residential Life. I even took 22 credits that semester and volunteered with the Liberty Partnership Program to fill the void. Second semester I joined Residential Life, found my "family,' and suddenly the school became a lot smaller."

Jennifer Alvarez, 26, originally from Manhattan, is a residence hall director on Indian Quad. She came to UAlbany in 1997 as an EOP student. Alvarez graduated in December 2001 with a bachelor's degree in psychology and Africana Studies, and now has a master's degree in Educational Administration and Policy Studies as well.

"Working with all freshmen is a challenge in itself," said Alvarez. "These students are essentially away from home for the first time. The needs of freshmen are totally different than those of other students. They struggle to make transitions, and that is where myself and my staff come in."

Alvarez added, "I feel as though I am on call 24 hours a day. I live with the students and my office is literally right down the hall, so they don't hesitate to knock on my door at 11 p.m. when they need someone to talk to." She added, "I live in a fishbowl. I get stopped at the local market about room changes!"

Jaime and Alvarez have worked for Residential Life for six years; Smith joined the staff three years ago. All three started out as student staff members. Smith says working with student staff is the best part of his job. "The student staff goes through a rigorous hiring and training process and they are the crème de la crème of student leaders at this University. I have to say that Colonial Quad student staff are exceptional at what they do and they always surprise me with their effort and follow through in dealing with the students. In my nine semesters of experience working in a college residential setting, the staff and the people we attract keep me going through the good times and the bad."

Alvarez concluded, "I LOVE working with freshmen and that is why each time I have left the department for one reason or another, I have come back to the same quad. For me it's like having 350 kids of my own. And if I had a positive influence on one of them, I know I've made a difference and that is what counts and keeps me here year after year."


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