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“You’re Worse Than My Mum” – Reflections on Residential Advising in the UK

Penny Robinson, University of Leeds, United Kingdom

PennyRobinson.jpgI have just finished a 23-year stint as a warden at Bodington Hall, the largest hall of residence of the University of Leeds, with 1,200 residents.  Yes, I know “warden” means something else in the US; I had a lovely Californian Junior Year Abroad (JYA) student who found it highly amusing and, whenever we met, would say “Morning, Warden Robinson.”   Just to set the record straight, prison officers in the UK are “warders.” Not that I didn’t feel like one sometimes.

Traditionally, UK halls of residence have academic staff who act as wardens, with postgraduate students as sub-wardens.   They make sure the hall’s rules and regulations are observed and that students behave responsibly towards the local community, and also provide pastoral care and advice.   As I shall outline below, they also assist students to organize cultural, social, and sporting events, and help them with their personal and academic development.

Some institutions are removing pastoral support from residences, saying that 18-year-old students are adults and shouldn’t need it.    The University of Leeds takes a different view, arguing that to be placed in a hall of 1,200 almost exclusively first-year students is by its nature an unnatural and sometimes alienating experience.   Students come from all over the UK and overseas, some from small rural towns and villages, and can find Leeds, the fourth largest city in the country with one of the biggest universities, hard to cope with.    Many are homesick and miss their families and friendship circles.   Leeds sees the residential advising structure as one of the central planks of its holistic student support system.

At Leeds, we do not believe that it is possible to draw an artificial distinction between academic and personal problems.   Academic difficulties may lead students to display antisocial behaviours in the residence, or to become withdrawn, refusing to socialize with others; personal issues may have a deleterious effect on academic performance.   Because wardens and sub-wardens have all been through the university experience, they are able to reassure students that there are very few problems which can’t be solved if they are addressed soon enough, and that they themselves have probably experienced the same feelings of uncertainty and alienation, doubts about whether the course they are on is the right one for them, etc.   A resident will often feel that s/he is the only person to suffer from a particular problem, and it can be a great relief to them to realize that this is far from the case.   It is important that the warden or sub-warden should not solve problems for the student, but should help them to discover how to do it themselves.

Wardens and sub-wardens are required to have a comprehensive knowledge of the University’s regulations and central support systems and, crucially, to understand and identify the boundaries of their competence.   They are not counsellors, doctors, chaplains, financial advisers, etc., but they know how to refer residents to those who are.    It is vital that they should appreciate the importance of confidentiality, maintaining this but explaining to students that there may be situations (for instance, if the safety of the resident concerned, or of others, is endangered) when complete confidentiality may not be possible.   If the student gives permission, the warden may liaise with their personal tutor or the student support officer in their department, to ensure that the University approaches the issue in a coordinated way. 

Because wardens and sub-wardens are outside the resident’s academic line of authority, it is easier for him or her to approach them with concerns regarding their department.   Confidential discussions may take place without the personal tutor or student support officer becoming involved; this may later be necessary, but frequently issues can be resolved in an informal chat with the warden or sub-warden.   As the wardens and sub-wardens live in the residence, it is easy for the resident to go to see them, without the formality of making an appointment. 

Of course, it’s not all about problems!   Most students thoroughly enjoy their time at the University and in the hall (sometimes a little too much – the comment in the title was made to me by a first-year who didn’t appreciate it when I suggested that his apparent ambition to drink Leeds dry was misguided).   The University feels it is important to encourage them to channel their enthusiasm into ways which will help them to develop their transferable skills and enhance their personal profiles.   The University’s interactive website, www.leedsforlife.ac.uk, is key in helping to do this; students use it in their departments and personal tutorials, too, so the academic and the residential work together in an holistic way.   Leeds for Life encourages students to develop, reflect on and articulate the skills and attributes they acquire, not only in their academic studies, but in all areas of their lives, including in their hall of residence, and to prepare themselves effectively to succeed when applying for places in highly competitive careers.

All halls of residence have residence committees; residents stand for election to these and, with the assistance of wardens and sub-wardens, organize the social, cultural and sporting activities of the hall.   The election itself is a developmental experience, as students learn how to run the democratic process.   Those elected to committees need to use the skills of teamwork, time management and prioritization of tasks, balancing their hall activities with their academic work and part-time employment, as well as carrying out general organizational and administrative tasks.   Good interpersonal abilities are also vital, as they must liaise not only with the other hall members, but with wardens, sub-wardens and hall managers.   The president of the committee is a key officer in this respect.    The residence committee budget, made up of contributions from all hall members, can be substantial, and committee treasurers must manage this competently, keeping accurate records, and, with the rest of the committee, ensure that it is spent in a way which reflects the wishes of all the residents of the hall.   The committee also keeps an eye on the members of the hall, telling the warden or sub-warden if anyone appears to be unhappy or unwell. 

Sporting activities encourage residents to develop the skills of working in a team, and the social side requires committees to organize both small events (discos, bar quizzes, open mic nights, etc) and others which are very large and require great input and commitment.   Most halls will have an annual ball, the budget for which may run into many thousands of pounds, and at which major stars will perform.   Students’ organizational abilities are tested to the utmost when they work on these, and they need to deal with performers, agents, caterers, security staff and a wide variety of people.   Charity events encourage residents to appreciate and liaise with the local community. 

Culture is not forgotten!   Bodington Hall, which unfortunately closed last year, had a great tradition of debates, which helped students to learn the skills of debating in a safe, non-threatening environment, and the annual  Bodington Lecture, given by a prominent figure from the world of politics, culture, entertainment, charity, etc.   Residents helped to organize these events and, in the case of the lecture, met and entertained some very eminent people, also introducing and thanking them in the lecture itself.   It is hoped that other halls will continue the Bodington tradition. 

Of course, all this would be of negligible value if the residents were not able to identify and articulate the skills acquired during their time in the hall.   There has been a tendency, which Leeds for Life is trying to combat, for students (a) to believe that prospective employers value only the skills gained in the academic context, and (b) to think that skills development and career preparation can be left to the final year.   The University is working hard to disabuse them of these notions, and to encourage them to take full advantage of the opportunities afforded to them during their time in the hall of residence. 

It must not be forgotten that sub-wardens are students too.   Their job is an extremely complex one;  they live in the same block as the residents and have to inspire respect, ensure discipline is maintained, and also make sure that they are approachable, so that students will come to them with problems.   They need excellent negotiating skills, not only when dealing with students individually and in groups, but also when helping residents to resolve difficulties between themselves.   Teamworking skills are vital, too; at Bodington there were 15 sub-wardens.   The skills and attributes developed by sub-wardens have proved immensely attractive to prospective employers.

As will have been seen, Leeds believes strongly that residences should work together with academic departments to encourage the holistic development of students, and that the last thing they should be is mere dormitories.   I thoroughly enjoyed my 23 years of wardening and miss the close contact with the students and the opportunity to know and appreciate them, not just from the academic point of view, but as rounded people with varied and fascinating skills and attributes.     

Penny Robinson
Senior Tutor in Spanish and Portuguese
School of Modern Languages (Spanish and Portuguese)
University of Leeds
p.e.a.robinson@leeds.ac.uk

Cite this article using APA style as: Robinson, P. (2013, September). Reflections on residential advising in the UK.  Academic Advising Today, 36(3). Retrieved from [insert url here]

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