Community Learning Exchange

Home Away From Home: Collective Leadership in Residential Life

How do you build a more connected community within a university?

Sarah Uphoff, the assistant director for Residential Life and a PhD. student in Adult, Professional and Community Education at Texas State University, knows her campus and her university community well. But when Sarah attended her first Learning Exchange at the San Marcos campus in July 2013, she began to see the school through a new perspective.

Participants gather in the opening circle at the July 2013 Learning Exchange 

She and another member of her PhD. cohort heard about the Community Learning Exchange through Dr. Miguel Guajardo, a professor in Texas State’s Education and Community Leadership Program and decided to get involved. Sarah works with the Residential Life staff to provide a safe and welcoming environment for students who live in campus housing, and she was interested in learning how to apply the CLE pedagogies to improve this experience.

“RAs (resident advisers) need to create community with their residents,” she said. “Kids grow up in neighborhoods, and most don’t see or know real community. I would like them to have that experience. ”

Sarah was involved in the planning process leading up to the Learning Exchange and was surprised by the insights she gained along the way - both about collective leadership and about herself.

“I consider myself a pretty organic person, but I have to say that part of me was really challenged by the process,” said Sarah. “I had to recognize that we sometimes have a perception of ourselves that is not actually accurate.”

What is the right environment for learning? 

The Learning Exchange that Sarah attended was “The Art(s) of Leadership: A CLE focused on Youth-Adult Partnerships,”  and she brought a team including two young people from They Speak Austin, a nonprofit she helps out with that encourages middle school and high school students’ interest in writing through spoken word, youth poetry slams and other performing arts.

The first night of the CLE, a group from They Speak that was going on to compete in the Under 21 category of the National Youth Poetry Slam performed for all of the participants. Sarah said that this performance broke the ice and allowed for honest dialogue early in the Learning Exchange.

“It immediately opened the space for people to be comfortable,” she said. “When kids shared their stories in the slam, it allowed people to be in the circle and be vulnerable and break the place where people want to hide. I love watching young people find their voices and become brave.”

A group of CLE participants explores new places and ideas

Youth and adult participants came together from groups and organizations from different parts of the country to share their stories, bring up challenges they are facing and explore community-based solutions. Sarah, as a first time CLE participant, remarked that the environment of sharing and respect was what an education setting should be but often isn’t.

“I noticed the amount of love and appreciation people showed for each other,” she said. “It’s clear people came to do work, but it’s refreshing to see that work can still get done this way. It’s not just touchy-feely.”

How do you create change collectively? 

Since July, Sarah has begun to bring the learning from the CLE back to her day-to-day work at Texas State University. She seeks to foster a holistic approach to student and staff training at the university.

“We often resort to lectures and PowerPoints,” she said. “So the first change is to create a real space for learning.”

During the past semester, Sarah taught a student affairs class for RAs and looked for ways she could incorporate CLE approaches into the classroom experience. For most classes, they met in a circle to better open dialogue, and she also invited students to talk about where they wanted to focus their learning. She said this format encouraged students to be more engaged and more willing to talk during class.

The Texas State University campus in San Marcos, TX

In her work supervising RDs (residential directors), Sarah is also trying to build a culture of sharing and honest conversation, asking open-ended questions such as, “How are you doing?” and “How are you reaching out to residents?”

Sarah is enthusiastic about what she is learning through the Community Learning Exchange and hopes to get her colleagues to participate in the future. She would like to host a Learning Exchange for the professional level staff, as well as one for the student Resident Advisors and perhaps one for students down the line. She believes that the more people within Residential Life who embrace collective leadership, the more they will be able to build an authentic community for students. Students living away from home for the first time can often experience feelings of isolation and combat emotional and mental health issues, so creating supportive relationships is crucial.

“A lot of kids are very protected when they go away to college, and they’re not prepared to deal with things emotionally,” said Sarah. “I want them to learn how to deal with the yucky parts of life. The CLE is about the whole person - what you did, how you felt. I want the programs we do to practice having authentic conversations and reaching out to each other.”

Read more about past Learning Exchanges 

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