Northwest Association of College & University Housing Officers

It’s Time to Engage in Dialogue

By Pamela Altmaier

It was my first year as a Resident Director at Oregon State University. I had the best student staff members, residents that were engaged (like 100 residents attended Friday night Bingo level of engaged), and a living-learning community that fostered dialogue around power and privilege. To this day, that community is one of my favorites.

One day, I had a resident approach me and share that an unknown individual had vandalized her door with a derogatory term based on her racial identity. I listened to her experience as she told me that this action made her feel unwelcome and unworthy. It had hindered her view of the community. During our interaction, I asked what I could do to support her and she requested a community dialogue that would educate others around bias-related incidents and what it meant to be a community member. I was inspired by this request and as a result, began my research around bias-related incidents.

I was excited to know more about what makes someone choose to disclose their experiences with bias to another and how as a profession, we could support students when they do disclose. I must have read every book by Derald Wing Sue over those next few months. I met with my committee members, submitted my IRB, and planned my interview questions.

Before continuing on, the names shared throughout the rest of the story below are pseudonyms meant to protect the identity of the participants in my study.

That excitement completely transformed during my first interview. I met with Stephanie that day; I had my questions ready, recording started, and she started to share her experience where a colleague of mine had targeted her. I am so thankful that I had a recording of her interview, because all I remember is being stunned that a colleague was responsible for the impact and struggle of that student. This feeling only continued throughout the interviews. Seventy-five percent of my participants reported that the individual who targeted them was a university employee. Seventy-Five Percent!

During my interviews, students shared the impacts of these biased actions. They shared the emotional tidal wave that would hit them every time they were targeted. That’s right – every time. Participants shared that these experiences have continued to occur throughout their entire college experience. One participant, Matt, even shared that he became suicidal because he experienced a bias-related incident every day.

Something needs to change! As housing professionals, we need to strive to do better and to change culture.

  • I ask that we engage in dialogue with each other. Based on various involvement, identities, and level of student interactions, housing professionals have a wide range of understanding around power, privilege, and the experiences of students from marginalized identities. Seventy-five percent is unacceptable. We need to educate each other on what constitutes a bias-related incident, the impacts of these experiences, and how every bias-related incident is creating an unwelcoming and hostile environment for students.
  • I ask that we commit whole-heartedly to every interaction that we have with students. Every participant that disclosed to a university employee did so to a housing professional. That’s huge! As housing professionals, we have so many more opportunities to build connection, a sense of belonging, and trusting relationships with students. We have the opportunity to respond and support students through these experiences. What a waste if we don’t listen.
  • Lastly, I ask that every institution – every housing office – has a response plan for bias-related incidents. Students are being impacted and often times that impact is caused by university employees. If we hear the disclosure and do nothing, we are just as responsible. And honestly, we can impact the students just much through our betrayal.

Pamela currently serves as the Area Director for Conduct and Community Standards at Oregon State University. Before this role, she served as a Resident Director at Oregon State University and an Undergraduate Hall Director at the University of Montana. The blog post is referring to Pamela’s Master’s thesis: Students’ Decision to Disclose a Bias-Related Incident, which she presented on at the NWACUHO Annual Conference in Spokane, WA and was named Best in the Northwest Program.

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