Imagine, as a new student, counting your student orientation leader or resident assistant as one of your biggest supporters and friends. Imagine that orientation leader knows your biggest fears about coming to college and has helped you address them. That resident assistant taught you how to navigate a hard conversation with your roommate and stopped by without question when you were having a difficult week. That orientation leader has texted you on the weekend to check on you, and that resident assistant gives you an open hug whenever you they see you on campus, years after you lived in their building. At Endicott College, these close relationships exist and grow every day, thanks to thoughtful planning of student leader selection and training.
Two years ago, Endicott’s Office of Student Affairs combined the hiring and onboarding process for both Orientation Leaders (OLs) and Resident Assistants (RAs) to create an intentional student leadership team. Searching for a broader team feeling, student affairs administration sought to build a group of students with collective pride, who were together in their leadership journey from the beginning.
The results were inspiring, and today it’s even clearer what this unique move has accomplished.
“What we’ve seen is that our groups of both OLs and RAs have been improved by the move to join student leadership,” shares Brianne McGann, assistant dean of students and leader of the OL program. “The way students apply and approach it, the caliber of student applicants, the way these leaders are viewed on campus—it’s all changed for the better. Our first year we had a 30 percent increase in application numbers, and we’ve seen a significant culture change within the group and on campus in general.”
“We are incredibly proud of the team of leaders recruited and hired to work for student affairs” says Caitlin Courtney-Biedrzycki, director of housing & residence life. “These student leaders work to help our community grow and thrive—there is no bigger gift or influence a student can have on Endicott during their time here.”
Several years ago, the Student Affairs Office and College administration reviewed orientation processes and student leadership’s role in retention and developed a plan to build student leadership through intentional planning and increased resources. The office identified a need for increased mental health support for incoming students after seeing more and more first year students struggle with the transition of living on campus and being away from home, and recognized the importance of student leaders in keeping students happy, healthy, and enrolled.
The application process and training for OLs and RAs was combined, and training evolved from learning surface-level ice breakers to mental health tools to help fellow students. Leaders return to campus more than a week before classes begin for a retreat and training that is largely based on the demographics of incoming the class—student affairs began surveying incoming first year students, allowing for detailed data to be shared with leaders.
“We needed to give the leaders tools to be amazing at their job,” says McGann. “Using the survey data, we can show them what’s going on with their new students and pinpoint who might need extra support. We can show them exactly which fears and interests they have in order to best train our leaders to address questions on a personal level and focus on special relationships.”
This year, Endicott trained 61 OLs and 65 RAs. Orientation Leaders also take a one-credit course in the fall that is focused on leadership development and skills, allowing them to check in. RAs receive continued training on a monthly basis through the Office of Residence Life.
Unique, Proven Leadership Model
The Endicott model is so unique that McGann and her team are working on a research paper to present at a national orientation conference. The success of the combined approach has resulted in close to 100 percent retention rate among eligible OLs, thanks to the close-knit team culture.
All leaders are trained on speaking about mental health up front, and that approach has been credited for the increased number of student meetings Endicott has seen in the counseling and tutoring center. RAs understand how important minor issues like roommate conflicts can impact people, increasing the effectiveness of small-scale problem solving and improving relationships within residence halls.
“Being highly trained in real life student crisis scenarios allows our student leaders to best support their peers in times of serious and critical need,” says Courtney-Biedrzycki.
McGann credits OLs and RAs with increased retention and student wellbeing. “There are OLs who get breakfast every week with their old group—they care about students and making those connections,” she says. “Students have pride in these positions; they’re proud to be at Endicott and care about everyone here, and are learning lifelong mentoring skills. We have juniors applying this year who talked about their own first-year OLs as influencers even years later—they’ve formed their own orientation family.”