Sunday, December 1, 2013

Building Community Through Programming

It was approximately 7:45 p.m. when my supervisor stepped into the busy lounge. It was my first program as a Resident Assistant at the University of Maine, and I was worried that there weren’t enough people in attendance. She asked how many residents had attended the program, and I replied, “Somewhere been 45 and 50.” She looked surprised and said, “This many guys have been here the whole time?” I surveyed the room, taking in the scene she was witnessing.

Two University of Maine police department officers in full uniform were standing with a group of sophomore men, giving them relationship advice while they all shook glitter onto homemade Valentine’s Day cards. At the food table, football players dipped pretzel sticks into melted chocolate and rolled them in pink sprinkles. At the craft table, young men bickered over which scrapbook paper and buttons coordinated best and called “dibs” on patterned scissors. While there were still more women in attendance than men, there was a high number of men who’d attended and participated. She offered congratulations on a job well done as one of the police sergeants called me over to help with a particularly tough glittering job.

I joined a group of men who were intent on crafting the perfect Valentine’s cards, all with the intent to distribute them to a special someone in their lives. While assisting the sergeant, we discussed his two-decade long marriage. He was overcome with emotion while describing his deep love for his wife, unashamedly wiping away tears while painstakingly applying silver glitter to a heart-shaped card. The guys around us listened to the conversation, pausing to ask the sergeant how he made his relationship last so long. He gave them the sage advice to be kind, pay attention to her wants and needs, and to take the trash out without having to be asked before they moved away to decorate sugar cookies.

Left alone we discussed the program, which he described as a success. He asked me how I had gotten so many men to attend, which was something he said he rarely saw. I told him I’d simply asked them to come. Like my supervisor, he expressed surprise that we had managed to gather so many men in one place. I wondered why this was such a unique occasion. I wasn’t told until later by my supervisor and fellow Resident Assistants that it was a rare thing for men to come to programs in our residence hall and other halls on campus and rarer still for them to stay and participate. Apparently, what we had achieved that night was unusual.

As a mid-year hire and a non-traditional Resident Assistant, I came into a community that had already been firmly established. The floor was exploding with testosterone, packed to bursting with high caliber athletes and men who were in the process of discovering their own burgeoning senses of identity. They were establishing themselves as members of fraternities, falling in and out of love, and grappling for control over themselves and others. Many were busy outside of the hall with academics, clubs and friends, but most were spending the majority of their time in their rooms not doing much of anything. They were playing a lot of video games and ordering an obscene amount of pizza. They were also getting into trouble.

We had some real problems on our floor. There were rumors of heavy drug use, parades of women in and out of rooms, and the custodians were harkening the conditions of the bathroom to that of cow barns. Some men were almost in tears because of the unsanitary state of their bathroom, by which they were disgusted and upset. Tensions on the floor were escalating as damage charges rose for things like boxers stuffed into a toilet or vomit in a shower. I spoke to the men on the floor repeatedly about the repercussions their behaviors were having on their community, but they didn’t seem to care. My own frustration was growing, because it appeared that no matter what I said or how many damage reports were written, nothing was getting through to them. From my perspective as an older female who was on the verge of pulling her hair out wishing these men would flush their toilets, it appeared as if there was very little understanding on their part in regards to how their behaviors might be impacting those around them. What I didn’t understand was that from their perspective, I was just some chick in a blue polo barking orders at them. I didn’t know who they were yet I was demanding they behave appropriately. They had no personal investment in their community or maintaining the hall and even worse, I had no personal investment in them as young men.

I couldn’t place my finger on exactly why they were acting out, so I asked one resident with whom I talked frequently what was going on after noticing his door tags were ripped off his door. His friend laughed and replied, “He did it when he was wasted.” I wanted to know why he ruined his door tags: why not the anonymous posters, or something else in the hall? He replied, “I hate it here. I don’t want people to know I live here.” His honesty was shocking and refreshing. As I learned from a recent interview with Peter Paquette, Assistant Dean of Student Integrity at Georgia Institute of Technology, when we give young men the freedom and permission to express themselves in a safe environment, we often receive honest answers. In that moment, I learned about something critical happening with my residents because he was able to safely share with me without fear of judgment or recrimination.

I realized I had to figure out a way to engage them fast. A weekly pizza party wasn’t going to fulfill the requirements of the Residence Life department, nor was it going to give the men valuable life skills beyond who could grab the most slices and run away the fastest. It became my goal for the semester to ensure that the men in my building knew that as their Resident Assistant and fellow student, I wanted them at the programs that were being held. I wanted to know who they were as students, as individuals and most importantly, as men. They had to be allowed the space to be who they were as men within their home, which from August until May was the residence hall, but to also make it so they were not being detrimental to those around them.

I learned that there were a lot of assumptions being made about the men on my floor and in the building. I heard things being said like, “We don’t bother programming for guys, because they won’t come anyway,” and “Men don’t like programs.” Therefore, based on these beliefs and assumptions, no programs or attempts to engage men on my floor were being offered. Unfortunately, as we have learned, “false assumptions about boys and men reinforce our denial about college men’s problems,” which allows a sore spot to grow into a festering wound of misunderstanding (O’Neil & Crasper, 2011, p. 93)

The problems that arise from these misunderstandings, which have ultimately fed into a “boys will be boys” mentality, have enabled men to develop and perpetuate undesirable and detrimental behaviors that harm themselves and their communities. We can most likely agree that these behaviors are not good, unsafe and upsetting, not only for the men but also for those in the community they reside in or those they interact with and yet very little is currently being done to prevent these behaviors from perpetuating. It is my belief that we have a responsibility not to make assumptions about what men want or what they will do, but rather provide them with the same resources and opportunities we provide to all students.

When I envisioned my Valentine’s Day program, I didn’t yet have the understanding I do now of the challenges facing college men. I knew I wanted them included, attending my programs and I didn’t want them grabbing cookies and leaving. I used the opportunity to reach out to the campus police department, and invited two of the officers to join us. The interactions they shared with the residents that evening proved to be more than I could have hoped for. The students were able to engage with the officers as positive mentors and role models and the program created a safe space in which they could positively interact with one another.

Following this program, I noticed I was able to have a better rapport with many of my male residents and the ability to have more candid and meaningful conversations with them about what was happening within our community and about their own personal development. While the issues our community were experiencing were not resolved overnight, things did begin to improve. When I spoke to my residents, they listened and had more investment about what was happening within their community. They continued to come to programs and they encouraged other residents to attend. One athlete in particular would do a round of the floor prior to programs and pound on doors, demanding that his teammates come out to support the event. And perhaps most excitingly, my co-Resident Assistant and I were finally able to convince them to flush their toilets - about 85% of the time, anyway.

O’Neil, James M., and Crasper, Bryce. (2006) Using the Psychology of Men and Gender Role Conflict Theory to Promote Comprehensive Service Delivery for College Men. Masculinities in Higher Education. (iPad Mini Version) Retrieved from

About the Author:
Chelsea Castonguay is an Academic Support Coordinator in the Department of Residence Life at the University of Maine. She completed her undergraduate work at UMaine in English and is currently pursuing a Master's in Student Development in Higher Education there.

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