Massachusetts Daily Collegian

Residential Life announces changes to housing services

By Katie Landeck

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Fifty-four students lost their jobs via email Wednesday, when Residential Life announced its decision to eliminate the Peer Mentor program, effective in fall 2012.

Justin Surgent/Collegian

The program, which has been at the University since around 2004, employs built-in mentors who work to aid first-year students in accessing campus resources – both academic and otherwise – and in navigating their social and emotional transitions to college life.

The next day, Residential Life also revealed plans to eliminate the Apartment Living Assistants in the North Apartment, the restructuring of the Cluster Office systems, the creation of all freshmen dorms and the creation of a new tutoring program for 2012.

Incensed by the announcements, students quickly took to Facebook, where several of them reposted a report that was attributed to Student Government Association President Yevin Roh that listed suspected changes that further infuriated students, who worried that their jobs and friends and co-workers’ jobs were at risk. The list of rumored changes included turning the resident assistant (RA) position into an unpaid internship, the removal of cultural floors, moving residence directors out of the building and structuring living arrangements based on GPA.

Many of the listed concerns are untrue, according to Executive Director of Housing and Residential Life Eddie Hull, who said that the RA position would remain untouched, as would the cultural floors. He also said that living arrangements would not be structured by GPA.

However, as verified by Hull, changes will be made to the Residential Director position. According to Hull, there will be fewer Assistant Residential Directors in the building, but the number of full-time staff members will increase. In addition, a student conduct unit will be created so that the Residential Directors and Assistant Residential Directors can focus on community building, according to a document that summarizes the changes sent out to residential directors by Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs and Campus Life Jean Kim.

Also listed in the document is the elimination of first-year housing in the Southwest Residential Area. The document does not contain information about where first-year housing would be located next year.

The RA position will remain the same, according to Hull. The only planned change as of yesterday will be the addition of 23 RA positions for fall of 2012.

The most significant changes will occur in the peer mentor and ALA positions. They will cease to be implemented starting next fall. According to the document, the 19 ALA positions were cut as North “is a community that does not need to be treated the same way as First Year students.” Four assistant residence director positions will be added to the North Apartments.

Residential Life officials feel that other services, which document lists as “First Year Experience Specialists, Graduate Learning Specialists, Residence Directors and RAs” can fulfill the same responsibilities and duties peer mentors performed for housing residents.

To replace the peer mentors, the University intends to implement a tutoring program that has yet to be officially named, though Kim called the new student group “peer tutors” during last night’s Faculty Senate meeting. According to the document, this new position will focus on the academic success of first-year students by offering tutoring, test preparation and direct academic support to students, which has been a “missing link.” The tutors will not be required to live in the buildings, according to Hull.

Residential Life has been discussing these changes since October, according to Hull, who said that yesterday was the official roll out dates for the new programs. Kim approved the plans on Nov. 16.

“I believe these changes will enhance the quality of residential experience for our students, especially for first year students, and strengthen the collaboration between academic and student affairs in creating and maintaining a total living-learning environment that will contribute to our students’ success,” said Kim in an email.

However, some students – like the ones that silently lined the walls of the Faculty Senate meeting yesterday holding signs saying “What the Hull?” and “Students First” – are not as confident in the changes’ positivity.

“I think they are kind of screwing over future freshman classes,” said sophomore Casey Waugh, who works as an RA. “RAs go through very different training than peer mentors do and for RAs to have to make up for that is ridiculous.”

As faculty members filed into the meeting, students lined either side of the hallway in Herter so the the senators were forced to walk through them as they entered the meeting. Several members showed their support by smiling or giving students a thumbs up sign.

Once the meeting started, over 100 students silently marched into the meeting filling the side aisles and the back of the auditorium.

During the Faculty Senate meeting, there was a question and answer period where students were given a chance to speak. Waugh, who held a sign that read, “It sometimes appears that Hull does not respect students” –  a statement quoted from an opinion article titled “Paging Eddie Hull” from Duke University’s “The Chronicle,” published in 2005 during Hull’s time working as a dean at Duke – voiced her concerns, as did several other students.

“I went to support all of the peer mentors and try to get some information on what is going on with the RA position,” said Mike Spahr, an RA.

“I think that it is an understandable decision to change peer mentors to peer tutors, but I do not think it is a wise decision. It all bottles down to cold hard math,” Spahr continued. “It is cheaper to have tutors, rather than to pay the – I think it’s – $4,700 [to keep peer mentors]. It’s easier to pay people for the hours they put in as a tutor rather than those who participate in full live-in positions.”

According to Hull, the budget for Residential Life will not be cut in any way to accommodate the changes to the program. The tutors will, according to Hull, effectively cost the program more money than keeping peer mentors.

A common complaint among protesters was the lack of student involvement in the decision process that went behind the housing changes. One student held a sign asking “Why did no [one] ask me?”

“This wouldn’t be such a big deal if we had been involved every step of the way,” said Roh. “We wouldn’t need to rally if we were informed and included in every step.”

Students stayed for the entirety of the two-hour meeting, holding signs in silence as most of the senate’s meeting had its agenda reserved for discussions on the University’s football program.

“I saw all of the student voices that were present and heard what the faculty had to say and I really don’t think I would have done anything different,” said Roh.

It was after the meeting that the document clarifying the changes, which has also been posted on Facebook, began to be circulated. Even with the new information, many students including Roh, are still upset by the changes.

“I absolutely do not agree with the decision,” said Roh. “There is a fundamental difference between a mentor and a tutor.”

Roh went on to explain that peer mentors support many students who do not emotionally connect with their RAs.

“I know peer mentors who have supported students through depression, through hard family times, through isolation, etc.” said Roh.

Freshman Erica Bynarowicz, a resident of Melville Hall in Southwest Residential Area, has found her peer mentor to be particularly helpful during her enrollment appointment and when a friend needed to go to disability services.

“He walked her to disability services,” said Bynarowicz.

“My friends who are peer mentors are going to have to find another job, find an alternative living [arrangement], just a different way to manage their spending and income,” said Spahr. “Which is something for a college student that is complex to handle.”

Ashley Berger, Brianna Corcoran, Alyssa Creamer, Stephen Hewitt, Ardee Napolitano and Chris Shores contributed to this report.

Katie Landeck can be reached at [email protected]

19 Comments

19 Responses to “Residential Life announces changes to housing services”

  1. ohgeez99 on December 2nd, 2011 8:50 am

    “I know peer mentors who have supported students through depression, through hard family times, through isolation, etc.” said Roh.
    =====
    My I ask what you, as an RA, were doing while the peer mentor was doing YOUR job?

  2. Axe on December 2nd, 2011 9:55 am

    An RA’s job and a peer mentors job are fundamentally different. An RA is a community developer, policy enforcer, and to a certain degree a type of administrator. The reason we have peer mentors is to provide a more personal ally for 1st year students who are particularly vulnerable to the negative effects of transitioning into college. They are better qualified to deal with the aforementioned issues than are RAs, who have a variety of other duties. In fact RAs are likely to point students towards peer mentors for situations like this.

    I will concede that their are some things which peer mentors and RAs have the same type of training for, because there are some needs of students that both parties should be prepared to handle. But if you expect either an RA or a Peer Mentor to take on the duties of the other job in addition to their own, then you would have to make it a full time position.

    What was the RA doing? I don’t know, probably their job, just as the peer mentor was doing theirs.

  3. Elie on December 2nd, 2011 10:33 am

    ohgeez89,

    Why are you assuming they were working on the same floor, or the same building, or the same cluster, or even the same area? And regardless, if the resident does not emotionally connect with the RA but does emotionally connect with the Peer Mentor, why force him/her to talk about personal issues with the RA? Furthermore, it is unimportant that dealing with such issues falls under the job description of the RA and not the Peer Mentor. The point being made is that because of the nature of the Peer Mentor position, students feel comfortable approaching Peer Mentors and asking for their help.

  4. mixedyearra on December 2nd, 2011 10:39 am

    I find that residence education allowed for the chaos to exist by not releasing official documentation in a timely manner. In the time between when the senior staff/peer mentors were notified of the changes and when official documentation was released, the rumors spread (whether true or untrue) created chaos, because no one knew the truth.

    And as for the previous comment, first year students are generally needier academically and emotionally than mixed year students, due to their new and unfamiliar setting. First year residents get to know their peer mentor through academic-oriented meetings. If a first year student chooses to go to a peer mentor whom they already know and trust for non-academic issues, and their RA is not made aware of their resident’s need, there is only so much the RA can do. Just because a resident comes to a peer mentor for non-academic issues, would it be better for the peer mentor to say, “Sorry, that’s the RA’s job.” Of course not. That would be inhuman.

  5. FormerGormanRA on December 2nd, 2011 10:59 am

    Probably planning programming and community activities and trying to enforce housing policy.

    RAs are not meant to be your friend, they can help, but I wouldn’t let one counsel me and I was a RA.

  6. Anonymous on December 2nd, 2011 12:39 pm

    What was he doing? Fighting for student rights and diversity policy as your sga president, organizing rallies such as what you witnessed yesterday, meeting with key administrators to ensure that the student voice is heard, and being an all around model student and person whom you shouldn’t be so quick to criticize.

    Don’t take a quote like that and twist it against somebody who only has good intentions.

  7. IntactHull on December 2nd, 2011 1:09 pm

    There might be a difference between an RA and a PM and a cluster office manager in title, but they are interchangeable. Fire two of the three (preferably keep the RA) and pay them better to do the others work.

  8. SB on December 2nd, 2011 1:51 pm

    “Roh went on to explain that peer mentors support many students who do not emotionally connect with their RAs.”

    I have never had an RA that I really felt like I could go to with problems. To me, my RA’s were always just nagging us about going to socials or spending the rest of their time in their rooms behind closed doors or gone. Peer mentors were good people to have around when you don’t have that RA to talk to.

  9. Anonymous on December 2nd, 2011 4:33 pm

    Just because a peer mentor helped a student through depression does not mean the RA was not doing their job. Perhaps the student felt more comfortable confiding in someone who is not also their disciplinarian. This is one of the many reasons it is important to have more than just an RA as a resource in Freshman dorms. It is hard to have a close, trusting relationship with the person who also acts as the authority figure in your residence.

  10. getoverit on December 2nd, 2011 7:04 pm

    “My friends who are peer mentors are going to have to find another job, find an alternative living [arrangement], just a different way to manage their spending and income,” said Spahr. “Which is something for a college student that is complex to handle.”
    ========
    Too complex? It is called the real world…you are adults now, start acting like it.

  11. replyto:ohgeez99 on December 2nd, 2011 10:34 pm

    The RA was most likely busy making rounds keeping his students SAFE. RAs have duties like walking around dorms during quiet hours to ensure that policies are enforced and stopping hooligans who can’t quiet down or are causing trouble. RAs are also a source of mentoring, particularly for roommate issues or general concerns, but as it is probably known the RA or the peer mentor isn’t camped out at their dorm room 24/7. The peer mentor serves as another in house resource that students can access that doesn’t have the “parent-like” role that RAs do, and has a different roll than a RA, so that there are a variety of resources available on a freshmen student’s floor. Peer mentors have more focus as a mentor roll for academics and personal issues. Residential assistants and peer mentors have different names for a reason.

  12. Caroline on December 2nd, 2011 11:48 pm

    Is nobody else horrified that they’re taking the freshmen out of Southwest? Where are they going to put them? The new honors housing is obviously for just honors students… Are they moving all the upperclassmen out of Central? Northeast? Orchard Hill? Regardless of what happens, any place where ALL the students are first year students will be even rowdier than Southwest currently is.

  13. Reasonable Adult on December 3rd, 2011 3:09 am

    UMass is running a deficit, and overcrowding rooms for freshmen. The 54 rooms that the university will now be able to “sell” to students should generate upwards of $200,000 per semester in new revenues. Sorry PMs, I would rather the school keep my fees from going up than to try to appease 54 people.

  14. itsallinthecards on December 5th, 2011 12:10 pm

    “My friends who are peer mentors are going to have to find another job, find an alternative living [arrangement], just a different way to manage their spending and income,” said Spahr. “Which is something for a college student that is complex to handle.”
    ====
    If a peer mentor can’t figure this out, they are the last person I would go to with any problem.

  15. AE on December 5th, 2011 6:27 pm

    I worked in a first-year building for all 3 years of my RA experience (I graduated in May 2011). As an RA in a first-year building, my job would have been nearly impossible without my peer mentors. First year students naturally require more assistance and guidance during the college process: the students are transitioning to a more free and independent learning environment and doing more things. Students experience the newfound freedom in different ways: some students require discipline, some require academic support, some need a shoulder to lean on, and some have multiple, complex needs. I found that while I was working as an RA, the residents particularly hard to bond with were those that were acting out or require multiple written reports and RD meetings also often needed emotional support. Students, for the most part, don’t want to open up to and be vulnerable with the person that wrote them up and got them into trouble. My peer mentors were infinitely valuable; they are less intimidating, as they don’t handle discipline, and often seem more of a friend than a supervisor. Also, combining the responsibilities of being in a first year dorm and also working with their academic questions and needs (signing up for classes add/drop, buying books, setting up meetings, working with disability services) would have been impossible. It is so easy for someone to fall through the cracks. Changing the system is going to leave more first year students behind, and that is not something that will be positive for the future of this University.

  16. mason on December 9th, 2011 6:11 pm

    The matter that they lost their jobs may be illegal. I believe the law requires that if an employer knows or can reasonably know a lay off will occur in the future than they are legally required to inform those employees 60 days prior to being laid off.
    Although it is difficult to say because they layoffs appear to just barely constitute a violation of the law.
    Anyway if your interested here is a link.

    http://www.doleta.gov/programs/factsht/warn.htm

  17. Reality on December 12th, 2011 2:13 am

    Time and time again the PM’s have failed to correlate any notable rise in success with their addition. Quantitative data does not back up the spending we do on them!

  18. Frank Vazquez on December 14th, 2011 4:39 pm

    @mason:

    this doesn’t apply to “peer mentors” – it is unlikely that their compensation rises to the level of the definition of an employee, nor does the elimination of about 50 positions rise tot he definition of a “mass layoff” – to wit, “A covered employer must give notice if there is to be a mass layoff which does not result from a plant closing, but which will result in an employment loss at the employment site during any 30-day period for 500 or more employees, or for 50-499 employees if they make up at least 33% of the employer’s active workforce.”

    How on earth do you think that about 50 peer mentors make up 335 of UMass’ active workforce?

  19. PK on December 18th, 2011 8:33 pm

    The reason why the PM program is so crucial is because the university has followed along with the horrendous trend of creating all freshman dorms in which there is no mature influence to help students adapt to college life in a sane and balanced manner. Having worked as an RA in an all freshman hall, I can tell you that having the responsibility of documenting housing violations does not exactly endear your residents to you. PMs, as live-in staff, provided at least one, non-judgmental resource for students to turn to. While I agree that paying for each freshman to have a upperclassman buddy is not exactly the most cost effective plan, it ameliorates the effect of concentrating that much foolhardy naivete in a cramped dorm. In essence the university has already shot itself in the foot and now plans on discarding the tourniquet that has kept the bleeding to a minimum so far, intending to replace it with a nice herbal salve.

    Maybe the creation of all freshman dorms was a necessary evil at first in order for the university to separate the student classes that were content with random rioting (last major one being in 2006) from the new flocks coming to the school. I can almost understand the need for that initial reboot but lets be clear, umass is not the same university it was back then. That battle is over and its time to restore balanced dorms because its no secret that it doesn’t keep freshmen from drinking or getting into other shenanigans.

    As a ALA for two years, I also wish those four new ARDs the best of luck dealing with an entire building apeice. North only recently began to truly come into its own as a peaceful, relaxing residential area. I don’t look forward to hearing about its transformation into another puffton. Aside from that, it was a fantastic program for community minded students who also wanted to work their way through school while looking to move out of the general dorms. Honestly, a true shame considering the caliber of many of the students who worked in that position.

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