Take a second and think of your three closest friends. How did you meet them? How did your relationship grow?
In the Residence Life world, we focus a lot on relationships and connections. It’s all about helping people feel welcome and helping them become part of a community.
Most of the time, we’re focused on proximity connections – creating environments and opportunities where people can connect to the people who live near them.
But that creates tension when people are connected elsewhere. They have other groups of friends and are less interested in most wing or court events.
So what’s your experience? My guess is that it’s similar. Those three closest friends you thought of are friends because you did something together over time, not because you were neighbors. You shared an interest. You worked together on a project. You served alongside each other in a club.
At my undergrad ten thousand years ago, I didn’t hang out with the people who lived next to me. I found connections through the things I did – a campus ministry, the campus paper, and a service organization. Once we connected around common interests and common goals, we became friends and even (for a few) roommates the following year.
What if we encouraged proximity connections, but also found effective ways to encourage affinity connections? We would seek people out, care for them, invite them to that wing event, but also point to other activities like a club or organization they would fit well within (at APU, think D-Groups, intramurals, clubs).
Proximity does matter for connection. But let’s face it, everyone on a college campus is in close proximity to each other. Maybe the affinity connection is more important – getting people connected in decentralized things that run from year to year.
As a living area, that means our role is to connect to individuals and point to resources. Along with that, we should create events that bring those existing affinity connections together, letting groups of people connect with other groups of people. Don’t worry. Those open mic nights, competitions, and broomball still have their place!
So if you’re an RA, here’s a freeing fact. There’s no reason your residents are required to connect with the 12 people who live near them. But, there should be a place where they find their fit. So don’t just be an event planner. Be a resource! Help people find connection wherever it exists.
**Side note – living learning and theme communities are a little different – in those you have both proximity and affinity. Seems like a good match, right? Also, proximity connections work best before people have any other connections. So they’re still important in a freshman dorm or for new transfers. But once people establish friend groups, the idea of building community with 30 people placed next to each other by chance becoming best friends becomes less likely and more frustrating.**