The Journal of College and University Student Housing - Volume 46, No. 2 - 12

Kristen A. Renn

Living on campus has long been found to
be positively related to student engagement
and success (Mayhew et al., 2016; Pascarella
& Terenzini, 1991, 2005; Schudde, 2011), but
scholars have not elaborated the mechanisms
by which living in a residence hall brings about
positive outcomes for first-generation and
low-income students. In spite of the evidence
of peers having a positive impact on college
students (Astin, 1993; Crisp & Cruz, 2009)
and of the effectiveness of RAs in providing
safe and communal spaces for campus living
(Blimling, 2010), RAs and other peer residential staff represent a largely untapped resource
for systematically promoting academic success
amongst residents and for intervening when
residents encounter academic obstacles. While
RAs may conduct some programming that
relates to academics, historically the role has
not been integral to institutional efforts for
academic success. This expectation may be
changing as residential curricula emerge (Kerr
& Tweedy, 2006), but on the whole student
success efforts lie largely in academic affairs
units (Kuh et al., 2011). Even literature pressing for academic and student affairs partnerships to improve student success ignores the
potential of peer residential staff to contribute
to the work (Levy & Polnariev, 2016).
In their introduction to a special issue of
The Journal of College and University Student
Housing focused on resident assistants, the
guest editors referred to Blimling's (2003)
foundational text about RAs, noting the "widespread use of resident assistants in college
and university housing and the importance
of the position to residents' safety, sense of
community, and social development, as well
as the smooth operations of the hall" (Taub,

12

Student Success Mindset

. . . RAs and other peer residential

2.	 How do they enact this role?

staff represent a largely untapped

3.	 What barriers to and facilitators of this
work do they encounter?

resource for systematically
promoting academic success
amongst residents and for
intervening when residents
encounter academic obstacles.

Johnson, & Calhoun, 2016, p. 9). They made
no note of contributions to learning, academics, or student success. Blimling (2010) noted
10 major roles of RAs (student, role model,
problem solver, conflict mediator, campus resource, trained observer, community builder,
group facilitator, counselor, and administrator), some of which can be applied to student
success but none of which name the RA as
educator or facilitator of student academic
success. Boone, Davidson, and Bauman (2016)
traced the increasing complexity of the resident assistant role in the United States to one
that is currently focused on health and safety,
community building, and conflict resolution;
in their predictions of the future orientation of
RA positions, they stopped short of calling for
contributions to student persistence and academic success.
Given the potential for residential staff to
contribute to student success and the lack of
evidence about how they might understand
and enact that role, I conducted a qualitative
study that addressed three research questions:
1.	 How do resident assistants understand
their role in promoting student success?

THE JOURNAL OF COLLEGE AND UNIVERSITY STUDENT HOUSING

METHODOLOGY
I conducted a generic qualitative interview
study in the constructivist paradigm. As Percy,
Kostere, and Kostere (2015) noted, a "generic
qualitative inquiry" (p. 76) is appropriate for
questions that require a qualitative approach;
are inappropriate for ethnography, case study,
grounded theory, or phenomenology; and/
or to which researchers bring a body of preknowledge that they wish to examine more
carefully. This study fit all three criteria for a
generic qualitative inquiry. Furthermore, this
type of inquiry can borrow data collection and
analysis methods from other genres of qualitative research (Caelli, Ray, & Mill, 2003). This
interview study uses sampling and interview
strategies from grounded theory together
with theme-building analytic approaches

Although definitions of student
success commonly connect to
a set of measurable academic
markers . . . , peer residential staff
had more expansive definitions
that were more aligned with the
holistic definitions of student
development common amongst
student affairs scholars and
practitioners.

common to phenomenology and grounded
theory.

Site, Sample, and Data Collection
Michigan State University (MSU), the site for
this study, is a large public research university
with about 40,000 undergraduates that requires first-year students to live in on-campus
housing; at the time of the study about 40%
of sophomores remained on campus as well.
To accomplish its goals to increase graduation
rates, decrease time to degree, and eliminate
opportunity gaps for minoritized students, the
university explicitly trains three types of residential peer staff to support its student success
efforts. Specifically, the university has integrated a student success mindset into training
and support for residentially based peer staff
including resident assistants (RAs), multicultural assistants (MCAs), and success coaches
(SCs, who are assigned to housing units but
do not live in residence). Though the peer staff
report to distinct organizational silos (housing,
student affairs, and student success units
report to three different vice presidents), they
work across these boundaries in residentially
based teams to support student success. As
part of its overall strategy to promote student
success, this university relies significantly on
peer residential staff as key partners in the implementation of success strategies. This analysis is based on data from the RAs only, as the
role translates most readily to practice at other
residential institutions.
With a research assistant I conducted individual interviews with undergraduate students
from the three programs. We interviewed 70
students total, of whom 40 were RAs. I invited
all current students serving in these roles to
participate and purposefully selected within
V O L U M E 4 6 , NO. 2 * 2 0 2 0

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The Journal of College and University Student Housing - Volume 46, No. 2

Table of Contents for the Digital Edition of The Journal of College and University Student Housing - Volume 46, No. 2

Contents
The Journal of College and University Student Housing - Volume 46, No. 2 - Intro
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