• Sarah Robinson

Everything I Needed to Know About Building Community, I Learned from a College Dorm

In last week’s post, Building a Community Starts with a Decision, I promised to share the community building strategies I stumbled upon in my very first job out of college. I was a “Community Development Coordinator” in the St. Louis University residence hall system, charged with building and fostering community under less than ideal circumstances.

Through a steep learning curve of trial and error, I learned what worked and what didn’t work. And these lessons have stayed with me for the past 20 years, informing everything I’ve ever done. (And for the record, everything I’ve ever done involved building a community. Quite honestly, I think it’s part of what everyone does if they want to be successful.)

Everything I Needed to Know About Building Community, I Learned from a College Dorm

#1 Give them ownership of the community, even when you think they are totally going to mess it up. There were no RA’s living on each floor of the residence hall to keep everyone in line. Instead, each floor was given the authority to design and enforce their own rules (with a little guidance of course). With that privilege came the responsibility of paying for any damage that occurred on their floor.

I’ll never forget standing in the stairwell one Friday night listening to a girl totally dress down three drunk boys who thought they were going to knock out a light fixture when no one was looking. She was fierce and she wasn’t backing down. AND her floormates came out of their rooms to support her. It was awesome.

#2 Find the thing that will motivate them to participate in self-governance. Each floor was allocated a small “social fund”. I decided to tie the receipt of that social fund to participation in a Hall Council which governed the entire dorm. A floor representative had to attend 75% of the meeting in order to get their check.

#3 Give them a group project to work on together. Each floor was allowed to design and paint a hall theme each year. We supplied the paint and everything else they needed. We even held a contest which turned into a fierce competition (lots of floors kept their designs a secret, barring anyone who didn’t live there from coming onto the floor).  I was after, and got, two results 1) They accomplished something as a community and 2) they turned a run down building into something that felt like home.

#4 Connect them with mentors. I gave each floor the challenge of asking a faculty or staff member to become their Floor Mentor. A mentor’s job was basically just to hang out, socialize, offer guidance when needed and just be there. It was fun to watch as the mentors started showing up for intramural games, helping with the Floor Personalization Contest and handing out in the dorm dining hall. Most of them had never interacted with students outside the classroom and they loved it. The students loved having a “go-to” adult other than me when they were trying to figure something out.

#5 Believe that they are capable, really capable of stepping up to the challenge. This is the secret sauce and it took me the longest to learn. My students would step up only as far as I believed they could. No more. No less. My job was to equip them, help them, and support them. But if I ever gave them the impression I thought they couldn’t do it, they would prove me right every single time.

These aren’t the only strategies that I used, but they are absolutely my Top 5. They are the ones I pull out again and again and again because they stand the test of time and because they apply universally.

I hope you find these helpful and I would love to hear your thoughts and ideas!

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