Training Princeton’s student mentors, behind closed doors

Four residential college advisers (RCAs) huddle outside an oak door in a dormitory hallway. A slip of paper posted beside the door gives hazy details of a freshman student’s concerns with his roommate. “Who’s going in?” someone asks. Alyssa Mancini ’13 nods and the others step back as she knocks on the door. “Come in!” a voice calls from inside. Taking a deep breath, Mancini turns the knob and enters.
 
i-16f0b5286c4f9bdb8bbd95c5fa4aedd4-wb_campus.jpgThe scene inside is improvised, cut, and critiqued. It is early September before the Class of 2015 has arrived, and Mancini, a new RCA in Forbes College, is training to become an upperclass mentor to freshmen and sophomores.
 
While RCA training consists of a wide collection of presentations and discussions, RCAs overwhelmingly agree that the three days of role-playing sessions, collectively known as the “Behind Closed Doors” program, most realistically prepare them to serve as leaders, friends, and resources to their fellow students. Associate dean of undergraduate students Cole Crittenden *05 insists the program “is far and away the most important thing we do with RCAs.”
 
For a typical session, a group of about four new RCAs take turns acting as an RCA while senior RCAs step into the roles of freshmen with common first-year problems. Once the door opens, the situation is “real” and its handling is later analyzed by the non-acting RCAs and visitors from various campus resource offices. The scenarios are designed to prepare RCAs for what they are most likely to encounter and range thematically and in their level of urgency— from residence hall and health concerns to more complex identity issues.
 
For Mancini, the sessions were invaluable for putting knowledge of campus resources to use while learning from experienced RCAs what really works in the field. The silences throughout an exchange were important, she explained. “They gave everyone time to think and calm down in a tough situation.”
 

The learning experience was not just for the newcomers, according to Anjali Bisaria ’12, a senior RCA in Rockefeller College. Returning RCAs evaluated the new RCAs’ different approaches to the same issue, improving their own problem-solving skills.
 
Kanwal Matharu ’13, another new Forbes RCA, found his failure with one scenario to be the best practice for the compassion, fairness, and maturity he exudes with his freshmen today. When dealing with a scenario in which a student had a poster that a hall-mate found offensive, Matharu was criticized by his audience. “I came down as being too forceful and not as respectful to [the poster owner’s] views,” he explained. But receiving immediate feedback on his less-than-perfect handling of the situation allowed Matharu to improve his style for the year ahead with his freshman advisees.
 
Wilson College director of student life Michael Olin said that while the sessions did not resolve every potential problem, they helped RCAs build an important set of skills. “Being an RCA is a creative job that requires creative solutions,” he explained. “What they really learned was how to be present in a situation that might be out of control. You don’t need to have all the answers, but have composure and keep a cool head. That’s what is really useful.”
 

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Emily Trost ’13 is a geosciences major from Huntingdon Valley, Pa.