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My Student Experience: Graduate Assistants in University Housing Make Campus Feel Like Home

Students walk by Turrlington Residence Hall during a fall day. Photo by Marc Hal

When Cambria Rotondo ’21 was struggling as an undergraduate student, it was the graduate assistant in her building, Wolf Village Apartments, who connected her to the resources and support she needed. 

That’s why, after spending a few years as a high school mathematics teacher, Rotondo returned to the NC State College of Education to earn her master’s degree in higher education administration, and, last semester, became the new graduate assistant for Wolf Village. 

“I was like, ‘I want to do that for other people,’” Rotondo said. “I want to make an impact on people like that.”

Each semester, thousands of students call NC State’s campus home and, whether they live in Bowen or Bragaw, Sullivan or Syme, their experiences are shaped by College of Education students like Rotondo, who work as graduate assistants in University Housing.

These graduate assistants are connectors, said Bryan Botts, associate director of University Housing. They serve as a support system for residential communities, provide Living and Learning Villages with unique experiential opportunities, conduct data analysis and enact leadership and training initiatives. 

“They get to engage in high-impact experiences where they can build relationships with students,” Botts said. “They can truly have an impact on students’ lives.” 

While not all graduate assistants in University Housing are College of Education students, many are. The department purposely collaborates with the college’s Higher Education Administration and College Counseling and Student Development graduate programs to fill those positions, Botts said. 

“We benefit from it as a housing department because we get to work with students who are learning about their field and their profession,” Botts said. “They’re learning the most recent research, the most recent literature; they’re having rich conversations with their peers about what’s happening on the academic side, and then we get the benefit out of it from the practical side.”

Within University Housing, there are four types of graduate assistant positions: Residence Life, Residential Learning, Living and Learning Villages; Residential Learning, Education and Support; and Residential Learning, Leadership and Training.

While each graduate assistant has different responsibilities depending on their role, taken together, Botts says, they represent a group of students who are supporting the NC State residential experience by making the university feel like home. 

On-Call and On-Campus

When much of the university heads home for the evening, Resident Life graduate assistants, who live on campus, serve as part of an on-call rotation to support students after hours.

Patrick Kelleher, a master’s student in the Higher Education Administration program, oversaw the Quad Commons and Wood Hall communities last semester. For him, being on-call was an opportunity to provide the same type of assistance he once received as a resident advisor at Stockton College in New Jersey.

“I’m the one who gets the calls from the RA now, so I get to be the one that calms them down, that reassures them that they’ve made a good decision or helps to inform the next decision,” Kelleher said.

Sometimes, resident assistants reach out with questions about resolving roommate disputes or how to help a student who may need mental health support; other times the question might be about a facilities issue, such as a broken sink or faulty shower. No matter the call, there is always a graduate assistant ready to talk the resident advisor through what to do next. 

“It feels good to be able to help in the moment,” said Rotondo.

In her role, Rotondo was able to co-supervise a group of 23 resident advisors, engaging them through one-on-one meetings, guiding them through the process of planning programs, and providing them with additional training and evaluation. The courses she has taken through the College of Education, Rotondo said, have only increased the impact she has been able to make.

“[I’m] able to take classes and then apply the theories and stuff that I’m learning to my work with students,” Rotondo said. “Being able to kind of connect those things is really cool.”

Patrick Kelleher was also able to draw on his experiences as a College of Education student in his work with University Housing. Last fall, he won the North Carolina Housing Officers case study competition for his work on engaging graduate students and families living in University Housing with residential curriculum and programming and adapting it to their specific needs, as well as motivating a resident assistant team that was looking for increased community engagement. 

“What most excites me [about working in University Housing] is getting to show students that they have so much power within themselves,” Kelleher said. 

Patrick Kelleher, who oversaw the Quad Commons and Wood Hall communities last semester, explains some of the work he was able to do enhance the residential experience.

Living and Learning 

When undergraduates in Students Advocating for Youth (SAY) Village need advice on working with the elementary school students they mentor, they know they can come to their graduate assistant, Emily Braren.

“It’s been beneficial, being able to say, ‘OK, well, when I needed to do that, this is something that worked, or here’s a lesson that I think could work if you apply it,’” said Braren, a doctoral student in the NC State College of Education’s Teacher Education and Learning Sciences social studies concentration, who has years of experience as a classroom teacher.

Living and Learning Villages’ graduate assistants like Braren work with their directors — in Braren’s case, Director of SAY Village Robin McWilliams — to support their village’s specific learning outcomes and are often placed in communities where they are able to utilize their unique professional backgrounds. 

Cameron Torrey, a master’s student in the NC State College of Education’s Higher Education Administration program, previously worked for a study abroad program at Northeastern University, where she led a trip to Thessoliniki in Greece. As the graduate assistant for NC State’s Global Village last semester, she was able to draw on that experience to help advance students’ cultural competence.

One of the programs Torrey helped plan was a series of dinners with the village’s scholar in residence, Erin Jordan, that focused on different regions of the world. For example, in January, students learned about immigration from Korea and cultural relationships with food; in February they watched the documentary, “A Place Without People,” about the land rights in Tanzania.

Torrey said she was better able to foster the village’s unique learning environment due to what she learned as a student in the College of Education’s Higher Education Administration program. 

“It’s really been beneficial in applying what I know about civic engagement and civic education to advocacy within SAY Village,” Braren said. 

Cameron Torrey, the graduate assistant for NC State’s Global Village last semester, describes what she loved about working in the Living and Learning community.

Data Dives and Team Training

When she was an art teacher, Megan Kaltenbach, a master’s student in the Higher Education Administration program, swapped out desks for tables and set up drawing boards to transform her classroom into a more inviting environment for her middle schoolers. Now, as the education and support graduate assistant for University Housing, she sees her job in a similar way. 

“Translating that to the higher education landscape, how do we create spaces and learning opportunities that students want?” Kaltenbach said. 

In her role, Kaltenbach analyzes data to see where University Housing is finding success in engaging residents and where there is room for improvement. She runs monthly audits to determine which programs are performing well, examines the feedback students provide their resident advisors and also creates independent activities residents can complete on their own. 

Kaltenbach uses data to not only improve the day-to-day experience of students living on campus but also to benefit those who work in University Housing. 

“How do we better train RAs and village mentors in student staff training in July, based on the data that I’m collecting right now?” Kaltenbach said.

That sort of data is especially relevant to Sarah Donovan ’24MED, a recent graduate of the College of Education’s College Counseling and Student Development program. Donovon spent last semester planning for the upcoming summer training in her role as the graduate assistant for leadership and training, and will now oversee it in a full-time position with University Housing. 

She will determine what is covered each day, who the presenters will be and what team building activities the participants engage in, all while ensuring the incoming graduate assistants, resident advisors and village mentors understand the responsibilities that their respective roles entail.

In doing so, Donovan will draw on her experience working in a variety of roles within University Housing, including as a Resident Life graduate assistant and Living and Learning graduate assistant, while also implementing the lessons she learned through the College of Education.

“A lot of the skills and techniques that I’ve learned in my classes have been super applicable to the different jobs I’ve had in housing,” Donovan said. 

The constant across each role, as Donovan sees it, is being there for students. 

“If they have tests, struggles or whatever, [I’m there] to be their sounding board,” Donovan said. “If somebody just wants to cry in my office, that’s fine. I just want to be a consistent, steady person that somebody can rely on if they need to.” 

Whether it’s having those one-on-one interactions or using data to improve the residential experience, being a graduate assistant in University Housing, Kaltenbach says, is a way to have a lasting impact on the students who live on campus, now and in the future. 

“The work that I’m doing right now will impact housing in three, four or five years,” Kaltenbach said. “That’s important to me.”