Translating the Experience

Translating the Experience (photo by Bob Stephano)

It had already been a really long day, at the end of a really long week, and it was getting late. So the last thing the resident assistants (RAs) wanted to do was move heavy furniture. But something about the set up of the bunk beds in Wharton Hall’s quints felt … off ... somehow. Some could think the rooms had a “good” side that favored one student over another.

First-year students were set to arrive in the morning, so the Wharton RAs took off their shoes and got to work. Fellow RAs and even staff from Public Safety soon joined in — an impromptu collection of 30, hammers and mallets in hand, spilling out of two rooms. Very Swarthmore.

“It was a great example of the responsibility [the RAs] take for the residential experience,” says Rachel Head, director of the new Office of Student Engagement, which supports the RAs. “I don’t know that I’ve seen better teamwork.”

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The RAs pored over campus maps and documents, absorbing countless hows and whys.

The remodeling followed a comprehensive training program held in late August to prepare the RAs for their array of duties. Through 10 days of training, students pored over campus maps and documents, absorbing countless hows and whys. They also interacted with staff from various offices, departments, and resource centers — a spin of the campus Rolodex — on whom they will rely.

Whether it was having breakfast with Environmental Services staff or role-playing emergency scenarios with Public Safety, students established open lines of communication, expanded their perspectives, and learned where to turn for help.

“We have so many resources available to us as [RAs],” says John Lim ’16, an economics major from Ellicott City, Md. “It’s daunting looking from the outside in, but not when you’re able to put a name to the face.”

The highlight of the training was the chance to set off sprinklers and extinguish flames at the fire safety session. Because the RAs much more commonly put out fires in the figurative sense, though, lessons on mediating conflict resonated.

“Conflict is difficult for anyone, but RAs need to confront it,” says Head. “We look at how to deal with students we have coming in from all different backgrounds who, perhaps for the first time, have to live among people who have different views or values than they do.”

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The long days of training bonded the RAs with one another, boosting their support network.

The through-line of all of the training is the need to create a welcoming, friendly environment, says Head. It wasn’t about giving the RAs all of the answers so much as preparing them for the unexpected.

“My greatest challenge right now is the unknown,” says Osazenoriuwa Ebose ’14, a sociology & anthropology major from Scotch Plains, N.J. “That includes any tumultuous changes within my own life, the campus community, the academic community — it’s all one big question mark. But it’s a challenge I readily accept.” [Listen to the advice and encouragement Ebose gave to new students at First Collection.]

Despite the uncertainties, long days, and stress, the 52 RA positions are coveted. For most, says Head, it’s not about the money — which covers room but not board — but a basic desire to “translate the experience” of their beloved Swarthmore.

“We want to create an experience and community students will remember, hopefully beyond their four years on campus,” says Gabriela Campoverde ’15, a linguistics and art history major from Astoria, N.Y., who baked scones to foster community in her hall last year.

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Fire safety was the highlight of the training sessions for many students.

“My RA made a huge difference in my first year, really creating a home for me on campus,” adds Treasure Tinsley ’15, an Honors history and art history major from Fort Worth, Tex. “I wanted to do that for someone else.”

Tinsley and the other RAs didn’t have to wait long for that opportunity — as soon as their training ended, they shifted into orientation mode, guiding 417 first-year and transfer students through six days of Swarthmore 101. The RAs entered their first day of classes with exhaustion, but also a wider support system.

“My memories will not be of the long sessions but of the spontaneous pops of happiness,” says Ebose, citing the Wharton remodeling, which the students capped with a frozen yogurt run. “It was an abrupt decision that ended up bonding a lot of us together in the simple commonality of family. When we need help, we know we can find it within each other.”