"When students feel supported, whether academically, emotionally, or personally, they are better equipped to meet the challenge of academic life at Grand Valley."

Susan Mendoza-Jones, assistant director of housing for Resident Education

Mom and Dad worry about all kinds of things when their child heads off to college -- grades, homesickness, partying. But Mom and Dad need to remember there is someone already in place at the university to stand in the gap between home and school. Someone who has been training for weeks to handle the needs of not only first-year students, but all students living on campus. There are actually 104 of these standout students at Grand Valley. They are resident assistants and multicultural assistants, and they are dedicated to their roles.

"RAs and MAs guide students," said Susan Mendoza-Jones, assistant director of housing for Residence Education. "They help facilitate the adjustment from high school to college life, and from college life to the real world." RAs and MAs are trained to assist all students but usually make an especially strong bond with freshman. "All staff make strong connections with all types of residents," said Mendoza-Jones, "but the connection is much more immediate with first-year students." That connection is, for some students, a key factor in their college success. "When students feel supported, academically, emotionally, or personally, they are better equipped to meet the challenge of academic life at Grand Valley," she said.

Long before any students arrive in the fall, intense summer training is taking place for the assistants. MAs and RAs are chosen from a pool of applicants that must have a minimum of a 2.5 GPA. Once earning the coveted role, these student leaders learn how to help students through role-playing, simulations, and round-table discussions. They are instructed in many different areas, including active listening skills, intercultural competence, conflict resolution and emergency response. They also learn the purpose of a liberal education and how to connect the classroom with campus life. RAs and MAs are given details on the many services that Grand Valley offers its students. "There is a lot to accomplish during training," said Mendoza-Jones. "It's the most complete training a person ever receives for a job."

RAs and MAs live in each of Grand Valley's 21 living centers and five apartment communities and are responsible for the students living on their floor. There are specific times when they are "on duty," meaning they remain inside during that time and "make rounds" periodically through the building.

The role of the resident assistant is often thought of as a police officer of sorts -- someone who is in charge of breaking up parties. Mendoza-Jones said that is actually a very small part of the responsibility. "There are the predictable needs, like roommate conflicts," she explained. "But many students are not prepared for the realities of college life. The needs of students have shifted in recent years. Many are used to having their own bedrooms, bathrooms and televisions. For some, this is their first intercultural experience. Education can be difficult and challenging. RAs and MAs help students negotiate new experiences and challenges while connecting them to the Grand Valley community."

The position of multicultural assistants was created at Grand Valley in 1990 with the purpose of promoting the understanding of differences and creating a safe place for students of diverse backgrounds. There are about 2,000 undergraduate minority students at Grand Valley. MAs have similar responsibilities as RAs, but they also plan programs that enhance diversity awareness. "These are very dedicated students," said Mendoza-Jones. "The more students are exposed to diversity in thought and culture, the more prepared students will be to leave Grand Valley and positively impact their communities as alumni."

RAs and MAs receive free room and board, but Mendoza-Jones points out that students take on the position and responsibility because they care. She said the team of MAs and RAs become a community.

"They share common experiences with one another," she said. "They work selflessly to support the students, while at the same time they learn life lessons which hone and sharpen their leadership skills and sense of purpose. They are Grand Valley."

"The campus climate is changing as more students of color become involved and active at Grand Valley."
-- Sharese Shannon, Multicultural Assistant

Sharese Shannon has a room full of smiley faces. You could call it her trademark -- yellow smiley faces on her wall, her comforter, her posters -- pretty much everywhere. Her bright and cheery room and her favorite smiley-faced chair make for an inviting atmosphere for students who might come to ask for her advice or just sit and chat awhile. This is Shannon's third year as a Multicultural Assistant, a role she has worked hard at and takes very seriously. "MAs are like cultural peacemakers," said Shannon. "We strive to help break down barriers."

The Lansing native, a senior majoring in Public and Nonprofit Administration, is well-known in Kistler, her living center, and around campus. She is recognized by most of the students she passes on the way to class. "Being an MA is like living in a fishbowl," she said laughing. "We're looked at as role-models, as an example. Our behavior cannot be hypocritical."

Shannon has great ambition for the future. "I plan to attend graduate school and study leadership and education administration," she said. "I would like to be a dean or the president of a university."

That wasn't always the case. This motivated and self-assured young woman admits that attending college proved to be a tough transition for her. Shannon loved the beauty of the campus when she visited while in high school and was excited to come to Grand Valley. But she started to struggle during the second semester of her freshman year.

"It wasn't easy coming from Lansing to Allendale," she remembered. "I developed a bad attitude and didn't want to come out of my room much. My grades started to suffer." Shannon said she got help and support from her RA and MA. She credits them with not only helping her change her attitude, but with wanting to help others get connected.

"I knew that I needed to reach out to others that may have the same feelings and struggles that I had," said Shannon. "When I became an MA, my grades improved and I learned to manage my time more efficiently."

MAs are responsible for planning activities that focus on issues of diversity. One of the most popular and successful programs is called "Tunnel of Oppression." Shannon said in 2003, the first year of the program, 500 people showed up. There was only enough time to allow 300 people to take part in the experience.

"The program is a simulation of what it is like to be different," she said. "Participants are exposed to a variety of set-ups. For example, in one part, a mock job interview was held, but none of the interviewers spoke English. It demonstrated the frustration that is felt when people can't seem to communicate."

The training for MAs begins during the summer and is ongoing throughout the year. Shannon said the comprehensive training she received and the weekly meetings she attends prepare her to handle the different situations that come her way. She relied on her training during one memorable situation.

Susan Mendoza-Jones visits with a group of MAs and RAs.

"I had a student who came to me with a serious problem," Shannon recalled. "She stuck to me like glue for two weeks. I helped her work through her feelings and behavior. We talked about how she was being perceived. Through our talks, she eventually changed her whole demeanor and how she presented herself. She was able to take advantage of the support programs offered at Grand Valley. Experiences like that make it all worth it."

Nick Dondzalia had a plan. After graduating from Grand Rapids Catholic Central in 2002, he wanted to attend Grand Valley to continue to play his favorite sport -- lacrosse and to study physical therapy. After one semester on campus, he realized lacrosse wasn't for him, and neither was physical therapy. "My interests changed," said Dondzalia. "After taking a few business classes, I knew that was the field for me."

The one thing he didn't want to change was his approach to learning and making friends. Dondzalia was very active in high school and wanted to get the most out of his college experience as he could. "I had a great RA when I came to Grand Valley," he said. "It was an important friendship for me and I knew early on that I wanted to be that kind of friend for someone else."

"I have no affiliation with any of the things that originally brought me to Grand Valley. I wouldn't change that for anything."
-- Nick Dondzalia, Resident Assistant

Dondzalia has done just that. After two years as a resident assistant, he has built a rapport with the students in his living center.

"I'm like a big brother to the guys on my floor," he said. "We have fun together, but they also have enough trust in me to talk about more serious issues."

Most conflicts involve the adjustment for first-year students. "It's not that roommates don't like each other," he explained. "Some students have a harder time with the transition to college. I just get them to agree to my 10-day policy. When 10 days go by, I tell them to just stick it out for the semester. This works 99 percent of the time. It's funny. When these students have to leave campus for the first time, they usually can't wait to get back."

There are times when a serious issue does come up. Dondzalia said he relies on his intense training. "RA training is a tough process, but I have learned how to deal with people," he said. "I have learned how to think on my feet as well. I've made some mistakes, but the support staff is great; they are there to help you through it."

Dondzalia said being a resident assistant has helped him mature and become more focused. "It's not all about me," he admitted. "I am still focused on my goals, but I want to serve my community and make a difference along the way. I can say, 'I was there. If I can do it, you can do it.'"

Dondzalia is majoring in both finance and economics and is looking to graduate in 2006. He wants to study abroad before leaving Grand Valley and then attend law school.

Dondzalia said he has learned a lot about himself through the transition he made early on at Grand Valley and through his time as an RA. He was voted the 2004 Homecoming Regent.

"I have more respect for my peers and I confide in my parents more," he said. His parents have noticed and commented on his position as a leader. "They are proud that their son is having an impact," he said.

Page last modified July 20, 2011