Creating a college home

Blair and Bridgers are charged with helping new students feel comfortable at UAS

Posted: Friday, December 14, 2001

Their schedules aren't written down, but every moment is filled with activity.

It could be aiding a homesick resident or a student stressed out by exams, or maybe organizing an intramural basketball game. With 270 residents to look after - each with unique backgrounds and concerns - University of Alaska Southeast housing staffers David Blair and Amy Bridgers face a new set of challenges and rewards every day.

"The day just sort of takes care of itself up here," Blair said.

The students in housing come from around the nation - Alaska, Utah, Georgia - and the world - Zambia, Sweden, Finland. They range in age from just out of high school to returning students in their 50s and 60s. Some are married; some have children.

The job of bringing the group together into a cohesive community - and making their home away from home really feel like home - falls to Blair and Bridgers.

Blair, UAS residence life manager, and Bridgers, Banfield Residence Hall manager, work full time in UAS housing and are completing their first semester on campus after arriving last summer.

Blair oversees the entire housing complex, including the central lodge building, seven apartment buildings and Banfield Hall - Bridgers' building - where freshmen and many new transfer students stay.

Prior to arriving in Juneau, Blair completed his master's degree in education, with an emphasis on student services, at Montana State University-Billings. Bridgers graduated from Western Carolina University in North Carolina, where she served in several residence hall positions.

The two said creating a place where students truly can feel comfortable is a primary goal - one that takes on extra significance at this time of year, with exams and holidays.

Bridgers said even the name of her building - residence hall as opposed to dorm - is meant to further the feeling of home.

"A dorm is a place where you sleep, (while in) a residence hall you're given your space, and you can make your space as unique as you want to," she said.

Creating a good atmosphere - someplace students want to be, and that they feel a connection to - is done in a variety of ways.

One part of reaching that goal is Blair's dog Rio.

"Rio was allowed to come along and be the lodge dog ... and students seem to really like him," Blair said.

Students use a check-out board when taking Rio on walks. Bridgers said he fills the role of surrogate pet for many students.

"People miss their pets as much as they miss their family," she said.

Blair and Bridgers said making the campus feel like home also includes efforts such as giving out cards and candy - "Good News Grams" - to residents who have accomplished something special, making exam-week stress-release care packages, taking group hikes and organizing community activities such as game nights and a gift exchange.

Blair said residents without cars are provided transportation to stores and recreation opportunities several times a week.

For those students who have trouble with classes or adjusting to life away from home, the housing staff steps in.

"We try to keep an eye out ... if somebody seems homesick or doesn't seem to be connecting with anyone," Bridgers said.

Bridgers said she and Blair, plus six student community assistants, give residents someone who will understand their difficulties. In addition, she said this year's residents have created a good atmosphere on their own.

"They've been a welcoming and warm group to each other," she said.

By encouraging and spreading that welcoming atmosphere - and because they see many students more than any other university staff - Blair and Bridgers said they feel they can play a big role in improving student retention from year to year, which has long been a goal for UAS.

Managing 270 students, maintaining buildings and a host of other duties can create a more-than-full-time job at times.

"You get it all in residence life, because on any given day there's 270 potential concerns that could come Amy's or my way," Blair said. "If someone calls at 2 a.m. and says 'My toilet's overflowing,' that's nothing you learned in a textbook. You're sort of a jack-of-all-trades."

For all the challenges their jobs may bring, though, Blair and Bridgers said there are many benefits. For example, Bridgers said, it's rewarding to see the results of helping a lonely student make connections.

"When you see that same individual three weeks later going out to the movies with a bunch of people ... it makes you feel good to see that you're making a difference," she said.

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