Staff Editorial: GW must enable the RHA to think bigger

It’s safe to say that GW is a bit of mixed bag when it comes to residential life.

One day, the University is making national headlines for “housing horrors.” The next, it’s putting every residence hall on a seven-year renovation cycle. It forces students to live on campus through their junior years, prompting widespread outcry, but commits to creating a behemoth residence hall to house them all.

In all of these conversations, there are two major players: the administration (namely, GW Housing), and the Residence Hall Association, a student organization that, despite a rocky history, has stretched its legs lately.

In general, though, the RHA has been thinking small, recently announcing plans to launch text-to-unlock systems for residence halls and build a communal kitchen in Thurston Hall. GW, on the other hand, thinks long-term and big picture – this is a school that, after all, sets out its goals in 10-year chunks.

It’s understandable that the University, which has a national reputation and lofty aspirations to look after, would operate on such a macro level. But somehow, these two parties need to meet in the middle of no-man’s land: It’s time for the RHA to advocate for students’ interests on bigger campus issues.

GW’s long-term tunnel vision becomes worrisome when it has side effects – for example, the current housing crunch on campus. Now, it would be unreasonable to ask the RHA to solve this problem on its own. Small tasks are in its wheelhouse, and it’s been doing a great job at accomplishing them.

And the University on its own isn’t necessarily aware of the day-to-day issues plaguing students – the dip in quality of life and roommate squabbles that come from living in crowded spaces – because it’s focused on bigger things. But the RHA could communicate these concerns to GW and push it to do something to assuage them.

The RHA has clearly shown they’re capable of playing in the big leagues this semester. Their advocacy on behalf of students during this semester’s City Hall debacle was a prime example: RHA President Ari Massefski told The Hatchet’s editorial board that his organization brought together City Hall residents and GW Housing to talk about the problem, and that the RHA lobbied the Division of Operations to postpone construction until summer 2015.

And they show no signs of slowing down, either – Massefski also told us his group is looking into “updating the process for signing guests into residence halls, the upcoming construction of a new student lounge on the first floor of Amsterdam Hall, and nighttime street lighting on the Mount Vernon Campus.”

That’s an impressive agenda. The RHA is a relatively small organization – its $30,000 budget from the Center for Student Engagement is far smaller than those of some other groups funded by the Student Association (including the Student Bar Association, which got over $100,000 in 2014 and Program Board, which has a budget of over $80,000). So it’s great to see that the RHA is taking steps to improve students’ quality of life across campus, even if that means initiatives of a smaller scale.

But the RHA will never rise to a bigger occasion if its leaders aren’t assured that their work will be taken seriously and that their efforts will come to fruition. Unless the University shows the group otherwise, the RHA will continue to believe that getting a kitchen installed in Thurston Hall is their ceiling.

GW – the administration, the housing department – needs to show that it will look to the RHA as more than just a student organization that gives out free food in the lobbies of buildings. It should see the RHA as the single, major go-between for students and the University, much in the way that the Student Association has been successful on issues like mental health.

The RHA should function in more than a programming or planning capacity – it can clearly be a successful advocate for one of the issues that affects students most: residence hall life.

When choosing where to attend college, many prospective students take very seriously the quality of a school’s residence halls. Sources like the Princeton Review’s list of best college dorms and reviews on College Confidential prove that residence halls are something that prospective students strongly consider.

Luckily, GW come in at No. 12 on the Princeton Review’s list and spends a great deal of time and energy making freshman residence halls look pretty: Potomac House is showcased during daily tours, while the others are opened up to potential freshmen on Colonial Welcome Days, when accepted students explore the school in depth. Of course, the University wants to tip the scales in its favor by wowing parents and students with shiny, spacious freshman rooms.

But prospective students should know that as of late, the reality on campus has been a bit more up and down. Perhaps by the time they move onto campus, there will be a robust organization to advocate on their behalf.

The editorial board is composed of Hatchet staff members and operates separately from the newsroom. This week’s piece was written by opinions editor Robin Jones Kerr, based on discussions with contributing opinions editor Sarah Blugis, managing director Justin Peligri, copy editor Rachel Smilan-Goldstein and senior designer Anna McGarrigle.

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