Their expertise reaches students where they live

From left, Resident Directors Rachel Patton, Katie Ellis and D.J. Heyward plan ahead.

Story and photos by Theresa Smith
GCU News Bureau

Some students like to sleep with a light on or prefer falling asleep with a television on. Others prefer a dark, quiet setting. Similarly, some students don’t mind an overflowing trash can or dirty dishes in the sink, while others cringe at smelly, unsightly messes.

With Move-In beginning Aug. 20, Grand Canyon University Resident Directors D.J. Heyward, Rachel Patton and Katie Ellis shared tips for living harmoniously in the resident halls and apartments and establishing relationships with their RD’s and Resident Assistants (RA’s).

“One of the benefits of living on campus is having an RA to support you, so students who really get to know their RA not only have a fun interaction with them, they are in the know with what’s going on in their living area and they attend community gatherings,’’ Heyward said.  “It’s especially important for a new student. Studies show that when students get involved in their community, it coincides with their academic success.

North Rim Apartments line the left side of Lopes Way with Papago Apartments North in the distance. Prescott Hall and Camelback Hall border the right side.

"We hold very tightly to the idea that we want our students to feel supported, to feel a sense of community. How can we make sure everyone is being reached, that no one falls through the cracks? ... The RAs play a pivotal point in supporting their residents, so get to know your RA and RD and have open conversations with the people you live with. Do not be afraid to have tough conversations and to make a roommate agreement.’’

A roommate agreement is a list of considerations roommates make to each other, including what time lights will go out and what time devices are turned off.

“It should include what you are sharing,’’ Patton said. “Who is providing cleaning supplies? When are you cleaning? What time people go to bed, and not to slam the door.’’

Understanding each other’s differences is important.

“I think some of the conflict stems from being around people who are outside your normal background or people that were raised completely differently,’’ Ellis said. “So filling out that agreement, actually talking with your roommates, is the first step in being comfortable in your space. It helps prevent a lot of issues that could arise. ‘’

Heyward, Patton and Ellis are among 41 RD’s living in the residence areas. Heyward will oversee 500 residents and 10 RA’s in Papago Apartments, Patton is guiding 300 residents and 10 RA’s in Chaparral Hall and Ellis is responsible for 300 residents and six RA’s in Cactus Apartments.

With the opening of Jerome and Cactus, two new apartment buildings on the east side of campus, there will be an unprecedented number of students -- an estimated 12,000 -- living within GCU's boundaries. That, in turn, requires the largest team of RD's and RA’s in GCU history. After preparing all summer, including a three-day retreat July 18-20, the RD’s will spend two weeks in early August training RA’s who arrive on campus early to prepare for their leadership positions in the 21 buildings that house students.

Engaging activities at homes away from home

As the number of students living on campus continues to grow, the RD’s must adjust to meet the challenge.

“We want to make sure we are engaging students in a very creative way, so each summer as we sit down we want to talk about different ways to engage the residents, whether it is a fun way or an educational way and how can we better support them,’’ Heyward said. “We want to make their living area not only a place where they live, but also a place where they can learn and grow as individuals and students.’’

Among the activities, all of them designed to build community and facilitate friendships, is a stress-relief session in which students make stress balls (balloons with beans inside) and talk about their concerns. S’mores Night and Waffle Night are planned for various floors. Entire communities will gather for all-building Fall Festivals, featuring a live band and painting pumpkins. In the past, one living area used its budget to rent a mechanical bull.

The well-appointed lobby areas, with their comfortable couches and chairs, large flat-screen televisions and ping-pong tables, are a prime meeting place. So are the swimming pools adjacent to several of the buildings.

A view of colorful Prescott Hall and Roadrunner Apartments in the heart of campus.

 “We plan community gatherings once or twice per month, depending on the living area,’’ said Patton. “We follow a Community Learning Plan (CLP) in each living area to teach students important skills like conflict resolution and mental health awareness. Some of the activities are divided by floor. They are fun, engaging and at the same time educational.’’

Cooking lessons and laundry tips are part of the CLP, which is in its third year under Director of Resident Life Matt Hopkins.

“It is anything applicable to new incoming students or returning students who maybe haven’t lived anywhere other than home,’’ Ellis said.

In the cyclical nature of living on campus, many of the freshmen who become the most involved apply to become RA’s for their sophomore years.

“A lot of the time the students who are drawn to their RA’s are the ones who end up being interested,’’ Ellis said. “They are the ones who say, ‘Oh, I want to do what they are doing. I want to be involved in planning these events and be involved in being community within the building. The ones who ended up applying for RA were the ones who were very active in community and were the ones interested in bringing that forward for the rest of their GCU career.’’

Experience in faith focus 

Interestingly, Heyward, Patton and Ellis were not RA’s in college, yet they all share a similar background in terms of working with young people in faith-focused environments.

"The kind of people we hire have a love for the Lord, have a love for students and are willing to walk with students," Hopkins said. "Here, we wire them into the student experience."

Patton earned a bachelor’s degree in Special Education from Arizona State and a master’s degree in Christian Studies from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C., and then worked with high school students at summer camps and in campus ministry.

“I was led to this job because of the personal relationships we are able to have with RA’s and residents and how we’re able to walk with them at a really pivotal time in their lives,’’ said Patton. “What better way to do that than living in the same building with them and really do life with them, seeing them walk in and out of the building every day and being able to have intentional conversations and relationships with them. So that’s what drew me to this job.’’

Patton’s ministry training is implemented as she begins her second year as an RD.

“With my RA’s we do devotions together, I pray with them and for them,’’ she said. “We talk about the Lord. It is not a requirement to be an RA, but it is built into our relationships with them since they are pointed toward Christ. Even if I have residents who come and are having a difficult time and are not believers, a lot of times I end those conversations with, ‘Do you mind if I pray for you?’ Being able to bring my beliefs into it is a huge part of this job.’’

RDs often share their faith with students.

Ellis earned her bachelor’s degree in Biblical Theology and Photography from Sacramento State, whereupon she returned to her San Francisco Bay Area family home to work in youth ministry. 

“This job is a ministry opportunity,’’ said Ellis, beginning her second year as an RD. “We are not only influencing them, we are living life with them, so it is a lot different than most other jobs I could be doing. That is what drew me in; I love working with students one-on-one and getting to know RA’s. It is an incredible opportunity to walk with college students through a time where they are figuring out so much of what they are going to do next.’’

Heyward grew up in New Castle, Del., and earned a bachelor’s degree at ASU in Nonprofit Leadership and Management and a master’s degree in Leadership from GCU while working in a teen program at the Boys and Girls Club.

“I love being able to walk with students through the hard stuff and then celebrate with them when they have successes,’’ said Heyward, a fourth-year RD.

He rejects the perception among some residents that RA’s and RD’s are in “gotcha’’ mode.

“One thing that is important with our roles as RA’s and RD’s that some students don’t know is that we are not out to get them,’’ he said. “I think there is a bit of a stigma that RA’s are like the police. No one signed up for this job to be that. We all signed up to build community to support the students. Our RA’s are incredibly passionate about meeting the residents where they are and being able to support them and love them the best way that they can.

"Sometimes when you are doing life with people, it gets messy and that’s where that stigma comes from. But our heart and passion behind why we are in Residence Life is so that we can come alongside students while they are in this transitional period in their life. We want to help them and prop them up to be successful, not only in academia, but also in their life as they try to figure out who they are as an adult.’’

Contact Theresa Smith at (602) 639-7457 or [email protected].


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