This semester, Sarah Lawrence said goodbye to Residence Life Director Carolyn O’Laughlin and said hello to SLC’s newest staff member and the woman who will be filling her shoes, Myra McPhee.
McPhee comes to SLC from a position at the United States Embassy in Nassau, Bahamas, where she worked to promote the U.S. Department of State’s 100,000 Strong in the Americas Initiative pushed by President Obama,which claims to expand study abroad opportunities for international students. “Technically, my boss was John Kerry,” McPhee quipped. Before that, McPhee worked in the residence life departments at Michigan State University and Loyola University in Baltimore.
At the time of the interview and the writing of this article, McPhee had only officially worked on campus for three days. Adjusting well to her new position, McPhee discussed her role, and the positive changes that she wishes to see in the Residence Life program here at SLC.
In essence, it is the Residence Life Director’s job to ensure positive relationships between individuals in the college community—specifically, smooth transitions for freshmen into campus life as well as training and managing the Resident Advisors. Traditionally, there has been low turnout to residence life programming and a general sense of isolation felt by students towards the community. McPhee wants to change all of that by working closely with RA’s to develop more meaningful programming that appeals to students’ specific needs.
The RA program is an important one; not only does it help students connect and engage with the community, but it also helps RA’s to develop personal and professional skills. Aislinn Garner (’15) has high hopes for positive change to the program under McPhee: “With the new director, I'd like to see them look into giving raises or more appreciation to the staff, potentially,” she began. “RAs work really hard, sometimes to the detriment of our own social lives or academics. Often students don't realize how little we are paid compared to other institutions, and especially considering the amount of work involved with the position. I also hope the school works on being more open with what an RA can and cannot do at Sarah Lawrence, because people seem a bit confused sometimes, even after an RA has explained their role.”
There has been a lot of talk among the student body that there will be a crackdown on RA’s, and that RA’s will be required to write tickets to students who violate SLC’s code of conduct. Some RA’s even expressed concern that writing tickets will impede their ability to advise, because advisees will see them as disciplinarians instead of resources for help. McPhee dispelled those rumors, explaining that this will not be the case. She said, "The RA role will expand to support the RAs documenting incidents that disrupt the SLC community. RAs will be empowered to ensure their communities are healthy, positive and flourishing. There are no plans for RAs to write tickets."
RA’s will never be required to write tickets. Instead, they will be expected to adopt an expanded role in dealing with community conflict when it arises. This could be as simple as an in-depth conversation with a student who is having a negative impact on the community, and then reporting that that conversation occurred to their supervising Graduate Hall Director. While this will mean more responsibility and accountability for RA’s, it is certainly far off from the police state that the rumor mill spread around campus.
Though nothing has been set in stone, and all of these proposed alterations to the roles of RA’s are just talk at this point, many of the RA’s support the idea of an expanded role in enforcing policies to keep campus safe. David Tierney (’17), for example, is excited about the changes: “We're not going to be like security, we're not going to be doing rounds, we're not going to be actively seeking out offenses,” he explained. “If we stumble across some sort of offense, it means that it's affecting the community, or that it is disruptive enough to be noticeable. Being able to document will gives us a tool to make sure that everyone is being respectful of others in the community. I think in a lot of ways, it will ultimately make it easier for us to do our jobs, to facilitate community development.”
McPhee worked at big schools in the past, and completed her undergraduate and graduate degrees at the University of South Carolina, which culturally is a very sports-centric school. She knew coming in to her new job as Resident Life Director at SLC that the needs of students here are very different than the needs of students that she was accustomed to previously.
One of McPhee’s biggest focuses has always been on the success of RA’s. She wants to make sure that RA’s are more than adequately equipped to tackle life after college. RA’s not only have to manage their own time and deal with their own personal issues that crop up as they navigate social and academic life at SLC, but also deal with the issues of the students under their supervision. McPhee wants to make sure that they have all the tools that they need to thrive while at SLC, and afterwards as well.
For now, McPhee is still getting used to life at SLC—she will not be able to develop effective programming until she figures out exactly what makes the community tick. Stop by her office in Student Affairs to introduce yourself and give her a warm welcome to SLC.
by Wade Wallerstein ‘17