Directors of residence life and student orientations take little time off over the summer as they organize welcome weeks, introductory programs, activities, and mentorship for incoming students eager to start a new academic year. However, building on collegiate energy and opportunities for social connectivity may also bring on an ironic twist. In May of this year, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy issued an advisory — Our Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation — calling attention to possible threats to physical and mental health and encouraging Americans to take action. For colleges and universities, the announcement drives home the crucial need to support student health and wellness as they promote and manage the campus experience.
“Advisories and concerns about loneliness and isolation only serve to amplify the complexity of students coming to college, carrying stressors with them, including complex mental health and well-being concerns, and navigating a world learning to move through multiple pandemics,” recognizes Dennis Passarella-George. As director of resident life at the University of Maryland, College Park, he credits a significant strength used to push back against consequences of the epidemic. “One of the greatest opportunities about living in residence halls, especially as a new student, is the power of traditional residence hall experiences to fight against loneliness and isolation through connections and community.”
The director emphasizes the collaboration and strategic planning in place that help shape student living and development. Considering the importance of social connectivity, he highlights the university’s Common Ground peer dialogue program, organized block parties, and student leadership training days where students can join the Terrapin or Terp community and become productive academic learners. Currently, the university houses students within 39 residence halls and offers more than 26 unique academic Living-Learning programs designed to keep those students engaged.
“Our mission in resident life is to promote growth and learning, cultivate connections through community, and create safe, inclusive residential environments to foster a sense of belonging,” notes Passarella-George. “We are also guided in our work by our vision to create residential experiences where all students thrive and grow by living on campus and by living our values of community of care, discovery of self and others, inclusive and equitable communities, learning and development, safety, and being student-centered.”
As the director describes, teams within the department of resident life continually assess the needs of the UM community. In doing so, they hope to develop the best approach to provide necessary services and to support their student body. Outside of the direct contributions made by the trained staff, the intentional design of UM’s residence halls encourages interaction – from relaxing in the lounge and forming study groups with friends to daily morning routines and taking the elevator together before and after class.
Notably, UM established proactive measures to address loneliness and isolation prior to the U.S. surgeon general’s announcement. The collection of feedback from the university residents, for example, specifically narrows in on student connectedness and purpose. In addition to holding conversations with student leaders living in the residence halls, students may share their experiences through informal conversations with resident assistants (RAs) and through fall and spring RA evaluations. Moreover, staff members routinely measure students’ overall satisfaction with living on campus grounds and their ability to connect with others. The strategic approach aligns with suggestions made by the recent advisory, which warns, “The health and societal impacts of social isolation and loneliness are a critical public health concern in light of mounting evidence that millions of Americans lack adequate social connection in one or more ways.”
Most higher education institutions typically follow guidelines and models to ensure their students’ well-being with academic learning and growth within residence life, and so does UM. Passarella-George relies on what’s called the Community Development Strategy. By implementing the planning and programs listed below, resident teams strive to support the advancement and belonging of more than 11,000 UM students who select living on university grounds as part of their campus experience.
- Community Mapping: RAs share what they know about each of their residents with the Resident Director, with the intention of helping to find tailored ways for helping each resident to connect to our campus community.
- Community Living Agreements: RAs have a personal touchpoint with each resident and their roommate(s) to discuss strategies for successfully living together.
- RA Terp Talks: RAs schedule availability hours on their floors and engage in structured interviews with residents to get to know them and deepen connections.
- Educational Print Materials: RAs prepare educational materials on their bulletin boards and in other locations throughout their floors on a monthly basis to help educate residents on topics that change monthly.
- RA Programs and Activities: Each RA plans at least three events in the first six weeks of the semester and at least two events per month throughout the year, based on the interest of their residents with the goal of offering ways for residents to learn, connect, and engage with each other on their floor and across campus.
The UM director readily acknowledges that critical learning and engagement extend beyond the classroom, particularly within residence halls where opportunities allow new students to build social skills, to define their own identities, and to utilize available resources during this time of development and reflection. As Murthy’s advisory urges, “It will take all of us — individuals and families, schools and workplaces, health care and public health systems, technology companies, governments, faith organizations, and communities — working together to destigmatize loneliness and change our cultural and policy response to it.”