Promoting a Civic Ethos in Campus Residence Halls

Amy Miller, Residence Director and Coordinator of Civic Engagement Alfred State College, College of Technology, SUNY

December 17, 2018

Alfred State is a residential campus with 71% of their students living in 13 different residence halls. Students living on campus have a unique opportunity to participate in co-curricular activities that happen where they spend a majority of their time. This unique environment allows students to engage in everyday practices that contributes to a spirit of public-mindedness. Below are six ways that Alfred State has involved students in creating a civic ethos in residence halls:

  1. Competition Amongst Residence Halls
    The Pioneer Cup is a friendly competition between the college’s residence halls for leadership in civic engagement and sustainability. The Pioneer Cup is a trophy that is passed amongst the monthly residence hall winner. The competition is a key component of Alfred State’s goal of creating a culture of civic engagement and embracing sustainability on campus. Residents participate in activities, programs, and events that are related to the civic engagement and sustainability. For example, students are awarded points for donating blood, participating in a day of service event, and attending a deliberative dialogue.
  2. Training Resident Assistants about Civic Engagement
    Each residence hall has between 6-13 Resident Assistants (RA) who are responsible for maintaining a safe environment while building a cohesive community on their floor. At the beginning of the fall and spring semester, the RAs go through a week long training that includes a presentation from the Center for Civic Engagement. This training allows the RAs to understand the basics as well as teaches them what resources are available if they want to be move involved. The RAs are student leaders who oversee 25-45 residents so the RAs are able to spread their knowledge of civic engagement in their residence halls which enables the information to reach further. The training is also great in promoting upcoming events like a 5K fundraiser, Make a Difference Day, and deliberative dialogues. The goal is for RAs to bring their residents and participate in the events.
  3. Political Engagement
    During move-in day, Resident Assistants have voter registration forms at the check-in station when students arrive to pick-up their keys. Making the registration process part of the other paperwork processes is an easy way to engage new voters. In addition, for National Voter Registration Day in September, each residence hall sponsors an event to get students to register to vote. Each building had a Resident Assistant assigned to come up with an event such as tabling in the lobby, an interactive game, going door-to-door to ask or creating a competition amongst different floors. For the 2016 election, residence halls organized debate watch parties where students could gather in the lounge to view the political debates and have a discussion afterwards. This allowed students to have deliberate conversations about differing viewpoints. Additionally, these viewings allow students to stay informed and well as see the candidate’s stances on current issues.
  4. Resident Assistant Programs
    Resident Assistants are responsible for planning biweekly programs in their residence hall throughout the semester to build community. These programs are ideal because the students can stop by a program for ten minutes or stay for an extended period of time. For example, an RA program called “Pie Your RA” is where the students bring a canned food to be donated to a local food pantry and the student gets to throw a pie at their RA. Other programs include making cards for Veteran’s Day, watching documentaries about social issues and having a discussion, inviting University Police to talk about the dangers of drunk driving, and hosting a trivia night about human trafficking. After a shooter killed 11 people in the tragic shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue, RAs hosted a pop-up program where students could put their handprint and pledge to be hate free.
  5. Deliberative Dialogues
    Because residence halls foster a sense of community, students are more likely to engage in difficult conversations with members of the residence life staff whom they have created a close relationship. In coordination with the Office for Cultural Unity, Residence Directors (RD) hosted “After Hours Diversity Conversations” to address a social issue in each residence hall. The point of the conversation is to look at a social issue, discuss the options and decide what is the best course of action. Some Residence Directors used the NIFI Issue Guides to discuss topics around socio-economic status and immigration which were an excellent resource.
  6. Sustainability Ambassadors
    A new student position, Sustainability Ambassador, was created as a collaboration between Residential Services and the Center for Civic Engagement. Sustainability Ambassadors are responsible for education, administration, and programming of sustainability initiatives within residence halls. As a student leader, Sustainability Ambassadors are students committed to creating a culture of sustainability and encouraging sustainable behaviors in the residence halls and throughout campus through engaging activities and events. The Sustainability Ambassadors host programs in the residence hall to educate their peers on ways to be more green, create bulletin boards related to more sustainable practices, advise the Student Senate Sustainability Fund committee and provide oversight for recycling rooms.

Implementing civic engagement programs, leadership positions, and dialogue is strategic and has allowed students to participate in something to better their world locally. These residential activities align with the College’s vision of “creating opportunity for our students to achieve successful careers and purposeful lives.” Students who participate in these programs, trainings, and conversations develop a sense of purpose greater than themselves. The goal of civic engagement in the residence halls is to infuse democratic values within the living environment. This infusion shapes student’s character into one that is open-minded, civil, ethical, and empathetic which contribute to the civic ethos that Alfred State desires.

Thinking of your specific institution, what departments in your college can you work with in order to increase student participation in civic learning and democratic engagement? Within those departments, how can you collaboratively promote a civic ethos?

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