By Shannon Loewen, Residence Life Director at Tyndale University College & Seminary
Community is always the key phrase when talking about residence. Everyone wants a good community. It is what brings the residents back year after year. A year ago our community shifted. We expected it but did not know in what ways it would change. We saw a decline in participation, the halls were quiet and everyone was in their rooms. We had lost our “doors open” atmosphere, both literally and figuratively. With a simple statement from the fire department, our community changed. Residents were no longer allowed to have their dorm room doors propped opened. We had worked through all the logistics and policies with this change, but did not anticipate how it would affect our community.
Walking through the hallways with shiny linoleum floors and closed doors made the space feel sterile and uninviting. You could not hear the life coming from the rooms, music intermingling with the laughter and slow hum of conversation throughout the dorms. What we discovered was an opportunity to change our cultural norm. The Residence team switched their views on their environment and began to treat their space more like an apartment building. Where so many people live their lives without knowing their neighbours, choosing only to connect with those they were familiar with.
We wanted to break the mold, transform the culture we found ourselves in. We had to think of ways to draw people out of their worlds and into a space that would excite them to be a part of a greater community. With this new focus the Residence team set out to transform their community.
We recognized that when someone is invested in something they are more likely to follow through, to participate and bring along friends. So we started with a block party. The Resident Assistants (RA’s) worked with their dorm to transform their hallway into a space with a unique theme that residents could come and mingle in; it was a huge hit. Returning residents said it was one of the best events they had been to. The success of the event also energized the residence team and helped spur the next team on to a positive cultural change.
One of the other aspects of our growing community is the increase in students who have more severe anxiety and mental health issues. The RA’s not only try to build a positive atmosphere but are the first to help residents through their dark moments. This led us to move to having two RA’s per dorm. Not only would this help spread the stressful times out, but it would also increase our residence team number. This means more energy, more creative ideas, and the manpower to pull off the grand ideas.
The environment that people live also plays a role in how they interact with others. In a sterile, cold space people tend to be cold and sterile. One of the RA’s had suggested carpeting the linoleum hallways. They had noticed that in the dorm wings that had carpet residents could be seen sitting in the hall together hanging out. The linoleum halls were too sterile and uncomfortable and did not provide a space that was inviting to residents.
A healthy, vibrant community requires intention, hard work, and perseverance. There is no perfect formula to creating the best community. Each year a new mix of people enter the dorms bringing their own personalities, problems, and energy. However, we have found some things to be true no matter who you are. People want to belong and they will invest when they feel have a stake in it.
The residence team meets weekly and part of that meeting is talking about the pulse of the community. We try to figure out what is going well and what we can do better and how to get the residents to participate. We continue to assess the residence and how we can continue to help foster a healthy, vibrant community among our residents.