In Parrish Third East, the theme is "I Spy," taken from the children's book. On Wharton AB Third, it's the "Hall of Boy Bands." On Mertz Second North, where the theme is "Odds and Ends," a singular event - a lightning strike, for example, or winning the lottery - is posted on every door along with the likelihood of its happening.
Every fall, resident assistants in dorms across campus choose their own special themes to welcome students. Themes are one step toward building the thriving "hall culture" that characterizes residential life at Swarthmore.
"We've had everything from the 'Hall of Lady Gaga' to the 'Floor of Hope,' which was decorated with pictures of famous Swatties and their accomplishments," says Rachel Head, assistant dean for residential life. "One year in Mary Lyons, the theme was 'Famous Marys and Famous Lions,' with Mary Queen of Scots and the Cowardly Lion. By tradition, you can never repeat a theme, so as an RA, you have some pretty big shoes to fill."
"The job of an RA here is significantly different from the job of an RA elsewhere, which is a fantastic thing," says Andrew Stromme '12, computer science major from Minneapolis, Minn. "I get to spend more time being a friend and a positive force on the hall and less time being the bad guy."
Hall themes are among the first responsibilities that RAs take on during the year - and they take their responsibilities seriously. Broadly defined, the role of an RA is to create community, both in their halls and across campus. They serve as advisers and facilitators, activities coordinators and cheerleaders, diplomats and confidantes, and liaisons to the College administration.
At Swarthmore, RAs are mentors, not enforcers. "The job of an RA here is significantly different from the job of an RA elsewhere, which is a fantastic thing," says Andrew Stromme '12, who created the boy band theme in Wharton. "I get to spend more time being a friend and a positive force on the hall and less time being the bad guy."
"We expect our students to act like adults," explains Head. "If someone is playing music too loudly, we expect the hall to work it out. If roommates aren't getting along, our 'no swap fall term' policy gives them time to deal with their differences. RAs are really helpful in addressing the issues that come up in their hall communities."
Not counting students studying abroad, nearly 96 percent of Swatties live in residence halls this year. They come from widely diverse backgrounds and bring to campus a wide range of personalities and points of view.
Holly Kinnamont '12 (center), a film and media studies major from Frederick, Md., says one of the most rewarding parts of being an RA is that "You learn to interact with so many different people, and you get to help them in different ways."
For many RAs, dealing with such different types of people is both their greatest challenge and their greatest reward. "Before becoming an RA, I was used to interacting primarily with outgoing people who are forthright about their feelings," says Holly Kinnamont '12, creator of the "I Spy" theme. "But not all people are like that - and they shouldn't be - so getting to know residents who approach good news and bad in different ways was a big adjustment for me.
"It's one of the most rewarding parts of being an RA, though," she continues. "You learn to interact with so many different people, and you get to help them in different ways, whether it's answering a quick question, taking a sick resident over to Worth [Health Center], or sitting down and reassuring first-years that they do belong at Swarthmore - something that has happened to me a few times, both as a freshman, when an RA reassured me, and today, when I reassure freshmen myself."
From breaks to baking
The process for becoming an RA is selective. This year, 50 were chosen from a field of more than 120 juniors and seniors. They come from all walks of campus life. "We look for athletes and non-athletes, different majors, different backgrounds, a balance of men and women, and juniors and seniors," says Head. "We want the RAs to represent the entire student population."
Although RAs receive compensation equal to the cost of board, their primary reason for applying is that "they had a really good RA on their halls themselves," Head says. "They enjoy their hall communities, and they want to share that experience with other students."
"I knew early on that I wanted to help welcome others to campus and be a resource for those around me," says Charlie Huntington '12, an English literature and linguistics major from Winchester, Mass.
"From the moment I arrived on campus as a freshman, older students - my RA and the cross-country captains - were instrumental in getting me acclimated to Swarthmore," says Charlie Huntington '12, creator of "Odds and Ends" in Mertz. "Their enthusiasm for helping us adjust reminded me of my own experience at sleep-away camp - first as a camper, then an intern, and finally a counselor. So I knew early on that I wanted to help welcome others to campus and be a resource for those around me."
RAs begin the academic year before other students arrive, with an intensive training program that covers everything from diversity to financial aid to sexual misconduct. Throughout the year, they stay in regular contact with the Dean's Office for advice and support.
As the year unfolds, RAs' roles expand to include organizing activities designed to bring students together. Study breaks are popular everywhere. On Wharton AB Third, where each resident represents a "boy band" - Backstreet Boys, 'N Sync, Maroon 5 - "we're planning a hall theme study break where everyone shows off the music of their band," says Stromme. Weekly hall dinners were a hit last year in Dana, where Kinnamont was an RA. "My hall had the extremely awesome benefit of freshly baked cookies and breads from a multitude of Dana bakers," she says.
Next door, Huntington was the RA in Hallowell Lower Level (the basement). "The freshmen on my hall bonded very quickly and turned the lounge on our floor into a perennial hangout," Huntington recalls. "It was great to watch this flourish."
Learning from each other
"RAs learn how to balance being a peer with being a leader, how to resolve conflicts, and the importance of being 'in authority' while leading with grace and compassion," says Assistant Dean of Residential Life Rachel Head. "Navigating through different groups is a skill they'll use for life."
RAs typically like the fact that most floors combine different classes. "The mix of years provides diversity for the hall and dorm life," says Stromme, whose hall in Wharton includes first-years, sophomores, juniors, and seniors. "I especially enjoy having first-years because they are always willing - perhaps with a little persuading - to drop everything and come to a study break."
The classes learn from each other. "First-years find that it's okay to be lonely, to not have found their place yet," says Head. "Down the hall, seniors are having the same kinds of worries about their job searches and life after graduation." Upperclassmen regularly share with one another - and first-years - their insights into classes, professors, places to study, extracurricular activities, music, politics, philosophy, and the best place to get a cheesesteak.
At the same time, RAs themselves learn skills they'll be able to use long after graduation. "They learn how to balance being a peer with being a leader, how to resolve conflicts, and the importance of being 'in authority' while leading with grace and compassion," Head says. "Navigating through different groups is a skill they'll use for life."
While RAs strive to build community, it's not all work and no play. "Being an RA is a ton of fun," Huntington says. "From feeding your resident baked goods to giving scholarly advice to leading your hall into snowball fights against other dorms, it rewards your efforts and brings you a new-found perspective on just how wonderful an experience Swarthmore is."