After completing her Ph.D. here and working in residential life since 2007, Dr. Vicka Bell-Robinson has been an integral part of the Miami University community for over a decade. This year, she was appointed as the Director of the Office of Residence Life. Bell-Robinson’s familiarity with the Miami campus and substantial background in working with residence life provides a positive and exciting future for housing at Miami University. The Miami Student sat down with Bell-Robinson to discuss her outlook for the future of Miami residence life and her mission to solve residence-based issues.
TMS: Now that you have been appointed as the Director of the Office of Residence Life, what is your top priority for the department?
VBR: My top priorities remain the same that they’ve been throughout my career: I believe that residence halls and on-campus apartments should be places where students can sleep, can study, and be comfortable. College is a really stressful experience, so my top priority has to be the safety of our residence halls and the environment in which students are expected to live.
TMS: What long-term goals do you have? Is there anything you’re hoping is accomplished a decade from now?
VBR: I want us to be the premier residence life program in the country. I think with that comes being innovative, making sure that we are aware of current and growing trends and how the student body is changing over the years, and how we are being agile and adaptable to the needs of students. We’re looking to enhance the relationship between faculty and the living experience. There [are] some schools that do faculty in residence programs; we don’t have any of those here. We’re looking into exploring opportunities like that and what we might do to connect the curricular to the co-curricular. I think mostly just making sure that we’re not just a place to sleep and study and be comfortable, but that we’re enhancing the overall student experience as well.
TMS: Miami University has the unique policy of requiring that students live on campus for two years. How long has this policy been in place? Do you agree with this policy?
VBR: My best guess is eight years; I think it started the year after I came here, or two years later. We were housing, before that requirement, 70 percent of our students. Part of what I think is a benefit of the second-year experience is that since there’s so much happening in your first year, that policy helps students realize they don’t have to worry about where they’ll live their second year because they know they’ll be on campus. It takes the pressure off a lot. The idea, too, is that there’s a lot of resources devoted to first-year students, and we wanted to devote the same resources to second-year students. It’s still easy to get lost in your second year. We want to provide a meaningful experience for second-year students, just like we do for first-year students.
TMS: Now that you’ve been appointed as the Director of the Office of Residence Life, are there any specific paths you plan on guiding the department in, or any certain changes you hope to make that you were not able to in the past?
VBR: Sitting in a different seat, I certainly have a different viewpoint of the whole organization. I think any time there’s a sort of organizational change, you want to be sensitive to the needs of the organization, and the human beings that make that up. I think sometimes working with organizations we can forget that they’re made up of living, breathing human beings. When you’re thinking about organizational change, it’s important that you really try to get it right. Regarding what I want to see, I really want to make sure that there’s always student contact. That’s why I got into this work: I care about students and I care about their experiences. Everybody has a different perspective and I want to make sure I’m hearing from a variety of different students about the live-in experience.
TMS: Miami University offers its students the unique experience of Living Learning Communities. What plans do you have to develop these communities in the future?
VBR: I want students who want to participate in Living Learning Communities to have a really solid experience. And not every student on our campus wants to participate in a Living Learning Community, I think we have to respect that. Because if you have students who want to participate in a community, and you have students who don’t, and you put them in the same community, it’s going to water down the experience for those who want to be there. I had this idea last week about “lifestyle” communities that aren’t quite Living Learning Communities but more based around common traits. For example, maybe I’m out of state, or I’m a veteran, if I’m around similar people, seeing how that can enhance the Miami experience.
TMS: Many Miami dorms differ regarding how they separate students regarding biological sex. With modern society’s shifting norms regarding gender and sex, how do you foresee the university’s halls being planned in the future?
VBR: I think what you’ll notice if you look at recent Miami history is that we’ve done some pretty significant shifting. In spaces where we can, we’re trying to permit, encourage, and allow more connection between male-identifying and female-identifying individuals. That’s certainly a changing trend in higher education that we have to keep our eyes on. If you look at the renovations, there’s a lot more private-use bathrooms in the dorms. I think if we can get over the bathroom hurdle, we’ll be able to see more converging of the biological sexes.
TMS: Different RAs are known for having different approaches regarding student alcohol violations, leading to certain dorms earning reputations of being either lax or strict regarding alcohol use. How can the RAs be more uniformly trained to ensure that all incidents are reported in the same fashion?
VBR: One common myth of Resident Assistants is that they want to get people in trouble. If you were to talk to a majority of RAs on this campus, they would say it’s their least favorite part of the job. But they have responsibilities to make sure everybody is upholding university policies and that everybody is staying safe. All of our RAs receive the same training and they’re all supervised by live-in professionals. We have weekly staff meetings, too. With any position, you’re going to have people who take it more seriously or less seriously than others. But everyone receives the same training, and we try to have pretty consistent supervision. And we assess. Around Thanksgiving, we do an assessment of living and learning. It’s a survey that all residential students receive, and at the very beginning of that survey is an opportunity for them to evaluate their RAs. That’s an opportunity for students to give that feedback confidentially. If they want to address that before then, they can always call the Office of Residence Life, and we also have a general email address which is firstname.lastname@example.org and someone can work more closely with them to resolve those situations as well.
TMS: Similarly, what measures can be taken by the Office of Residence Life to ensure that sexual assault and sexual harassment is kept at a minimum in the dorms?
VBR: Sometimes students, because of the amount of alcohol they are drinking, are unable to make the appropriate decisions for themselves. I think when we in residence life can tell then we can do something to intervene, but far more frequently, we aren’t around to see that. So students have to care for each other. We talk a lot about bystander behavior. But situations can be reported to an RA, or to a hall director, or through an anonymous report called EthicsPoint. So a student can submit an EthicsPoint, and then somebody from the university will receive that complaint, and we’ll figure out how we can address the situation. So students have a lot of ways in which they can get things addressed.