Dan Carter, University Relations, 657-2269
October 4, 2010
In the middle of it all
MSU Billings residence hall director merges jobs of leader, counselor, educator
By Dan Carter
MSU Billings News Service
A beehive of activity, Rimrock Hall has people coming and going in droves. Just as some Montana State University Billings students and their helpers arrive under the burden of clothing, electronics and baskets of supplies, others zig-zag around to retrieve another load.
Move-in day is one of the busiest days of the year at MSU Billings, a careful choreography of lifts, spins, jokes and occasional groans. And this year is exceptionally busy. With more than 600 students making their home in the residence halls this year — an increase of 80 from last year — the hallways and parking lots are especially tight.
And were it not for the small clues — nametag, sense of influence, watchful eyes — Crystal Svoboda would easily be mistaken for a college student.
In the midst of directing traffic and assigning jobs to a variety of yellow-shirted helpers, Svoboda is clearly in charge. The newest member of the MSU Billings Housing and Residential Life team is director of Rimrock Hall and she has 150 rooms and more than 200 students under her care. Her work is a full-contact sport, a highly interactive job that is equal parts guidance counselor, parent and friend.
It’s a serious job that has a serious amount of camaraderie built in.
“Rimrock has more non-traditional, older students and the face-to-face interaction is important,” Svoboda said. “It’s fun and there’s a real sense of community.”
A Minnesota native, the bright-eyed and engaging 24-year-old came to Billings this summer from Wisconsin where she was working in residence life at the University of Wisconsin La Crosse. She has degrees in therapeutic recreation and student affairs administration.
Even though she is roughly the same age as many of the residents under her guidance and care, she has a sense of how important front-line relationships are. The resident assistants (RAs) in the halls keep students engaged in academic and student life and serve as role models.
“The RAs get to be that first face many students see when they arrive here and it’s an important job,” Svoboda said. “Nobody forgets their first RA.”
A sense of community, fun and engagement is part of the equation that has added to increased enrollment at MSU Billings in the past two years. The university eclipsed 5,000 students in fall 2009 and is at 5,335 students this fall. More than 600 students are in the two residence halls.
One key component to that success has been finding ways to meet student expectations and get them engaged in different aspects of the university, said Jeannie McIsaac-Tracy, Student Life and Housing director.
Digitally savvy young adults who grew up immersed in technology and information have computer access and free cable television in their rooms. They also have access to programs and information that help them make transitions easier, she said.
Under the direction of Jeff Rosenberry, assistant director of housing and residential life, MSU Billings is in its second year of a “Yellowjacket Connection” program that provides films, programs and special discussions around a theme. Students in the residence halls can find out more about values, choices, diversity and wellness throughout the first semester.
Studies show that the first 60 days is the toughest transition time for many college freshmen, Rosenberry said, and those programs help retain students and keep them active.
Housing staff are keenly aware that many students come to college without the experience of sharing a room with a sibling, making the roommate experience somewhat foreign, said McIsaac-Tracy, who was a freshman at MSU Billings in 1989 and is now in charge of student life and housing issues.
“Having a roommate is really hard for some students and it sometimes takes more work to make the roommate thing work,” she said. “But we are really, really lucky. We have good students and we so structured and organized that we can make things work.”
For Svoboda, that means making connections with students who have stress and concerns on a variety of levels.
“The expectations of students may be different today, but some concerns of students will never change,” Svoboda said, noting that issues with homesickness, grades and finances cross generations.
And that means relying heavily on the RAs, the front-line support network for dorm students.
“They (the RAs) are looked to on and off campus as leaders, but I think they handle it well,” she said.
Meanwhile, a new wave of students, helpers and parents swell through the doors and Svoboda is swept into the activity.
PHOTO ABOVE: Crystal Svoboda is the new director of Rimrock Hall at MSU Billings. As director, mixes many skills to keep students engaged in university life.