RAs react to “meaningful conversation” initiative

RAs have mixed feelings on the requirement, which asks them to report on conversations with residents

Each year, the Office of Housing and Residential Education trains approximately 177 Residential Advisors, more commonly known as RAs, to help foster a positive residential community for students living across campus. As a part of the ten-day long training program, RAs learn about a requirement that most residents don’t know exists: RAs are required to have “meaningful conversations” with their residents and digitally log the content of those conversations.

After having a meaningful conversation with a resident, Res Ed instructs RAs to log onto a specific portal where they begin by selecting their name from a list of current RAs. Next, the RA records the resident’s VunetID. The portal then prompts the RA to select the relevant topics of the conversation. Before hitting ‘Submit,’ the RA provides a one or two sentence description of the “meaningful conversation” content.    

“I think there are some pros and cons. When I first heard about it in training, I was really shocked. It kind of made me question last year, were the conversations I had with my RA from a genuine place?” Bethany Dieringer, a first year RA in Towers, said. “But once I met my residents and figured out what the RA job entails and how we fit into the web of student to administrator, it started to make more sense to me.”*

I feel that by making this a checklist on every resident, it becomes like a homework assignment.

As more students on campus begin to learn about this program, more questions arise. What is a meaningful conversation? Why do RAs have to tell other people what we are talking about? How does this benefit anyone on campus?

Traci Ray, the Director of Residential Education, and Anthony Sierra, the Assistant Director of Selection and Training, did not respond to the Hustler’s multiple attempts to contact them.

According to the RAs, there is not one singular definition of what constitutes a meaningful conversation. A second year Commons RA, who requested to remain anonymous, said a “meaningful conversation” can cover a number of different things.

A screenshot of the portal that RAs use to record meaningful conversations with their residents for review by Res Ed.

“There is a broad list of topics that count as meaningful conversations. Academics, extracurricular, mental health, physical health, social health, sexual health,” he said. “Not just small talk like, ‘Hey, how are you?’”

RAs are asked to use their discretion when it comes to determining if a conversation is meaningful.

“I feel like the interpretation of that can differ depending on where you are, which is kind of a problem because if some RAs are saying, ‘Okay, any conversation I have counts as a meaningful conversation,’ then it’s hard to understand the actual relationship you have with your resident and the genuineness behind it,” Dieringer said. “There wasn’t necessarily a formula that said you have to talk about these things and it has to be this long.” 

The Office of Housing and Residential Education analyze all of the data collected on meaningful conversations to assure that RAs are interacting with residents in the desired manner. For many RAs, however, the requirement to log the conversations devalues their purpose.

“Ultimately, I think in theory, it’s beneficial. In theory, RAs should be having meaningful conversations, and it’s nice seeing which demographics of campus we’re engaging with,” the anonymous RA said. “But, in reality, I think the concept is really dumb. Having to log down a conversation I have with someone, whatever it’s about, is not only a waste of my time, but also a breach of privacy on my resident.”

RAs are given the choice of whether or not to let their residents know that they will be logging the conversations that they have. While many RAs want to protect their residents’ privacy and let them know that the conversation will be recorded, they worry that this knowledge would affect their relationships with their residents. 

“If on my first floor meeting, I told all my freshman, ‘Hey, any conversation I’m having with you, I’m logging down,’ that would make them question what I am here for,” the anonymous RA said. “I felt like it would make things awkward, especially because I don’t want them to be scared or see me as an authority figure who was just there to fill a checklist or check a quota.”

The idea is for the Res Ed higher ups to have a pulse on what’s happening with the student body

The RAs interviewed believe that ResEd is using this new initiative to break down the barriers between students and administration. According to Dieringer, logging parts of the conversation can help identify if issues like stress, excessive partying or feeling unsafe are widespread.

“A lot of people think there is a certain quota that Res Ed says we have to meet. That’s not really the point of it,” Dieringer said. “The idea is for the ResEd higher ups to have a pulse on what’s happening with the student body. I guess they think the most efficient way to do that is for us to have these conversations and share what we talk about.”

Vineet Desai, an RA on the Commons, said that he does not believe Res Ed uses meaningful conversations to get students in trouble or invade their privacy. 

“Most RAs have these conversations anyways,” Desai said. “In your RA meetings, you talk about these conversations anyway, about students of concern with your head RA or your Faculty Head of House where you talk about students who are facing problems. This is just a direct way to get that information to administration and Res Ed rather than just your area coordinator and your other RAs.”   

Still, Dieringer and Desai both said some residents don’t always feel comfortable with the idea of their conversations being logged. They said that residents may feel like conversations are forced, or that something confidential they share might be recorded somewhere. This causes hesitation among residents to come to their RAs when they are struggling with personal problems.

“Maybe it would be better if you only need to submit them for residents that you are concerned with,” Desai said. “I think it would actually mean something to submit a meaningful conversation. I feel that by making this a checklist on every resident, it becomes like a homework assignment. You’re just going down a list of residents and more so for completion rather than for the purpose of the program.”

* A correction was made to the article on Oct. 10, 2017. The original quote was used out of context and has been corrected to provide more accurate context. The Hustler regrets this error.  

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