December 23, 2019 | By Chuck Carlson
The stories can be found on every college campus everywhere in the country. Reticent 18-year-olds, many of whom are living on their own for the first time, move into a residence hall and find it’s everything, and nothing at all, like they expected.
And then come the problems and the torrent of phone calls home to bemused parents. A new routine and a roommate who snores, stomach-churning homesickness and unhappiness with the food or the town or the weather.
Marcus Dawson has heard it all. And he understands.
“Students are learning about life,” he says simply.
Dawson started in July as Albion College’s director of residential life. It’s a familiar direction; he’s been involved in the field for more than 15 years, from the time he was an undergraduate himself at the University of Toledo. And his goal at Albion is to make sure that the often daunting residential-life experience for students can be the best it can be.
“For me, it’s all about the customer,” he says with an infectious grin. “Whatever I’ve got to do, I’ll do it. I want the students to see me as a resource.”
A resident assistant at Toledo, Dawson graduated with a political science degree and earned a master’s in education leadership from the University of Northern Colorado. This is his first stint leading a residential life team and, as he coordinates an environment in which 94 percent of students live in either the residence halls or apartments, he plans to make the position one of interaction and cooperation.
“I’m taking my experience from all the other places I’ve been to help me here,” he says. “I want all students to see me as a role model in the community. I want the students to know who I am and I want to know who they are, because if you live on campus, chances are you stay in school.”
He sees that as especially important at a college like Albion, with its emphasis on diversity and inclusion.
“We’re shifting from Millennials to Generation Z,” Dawson says. “Generation Z students are the largest and most diverse ever. Many are too young to even remember 9/11. This generation has information thrown at them. So when they’re moving into residence halls, are they looking for information or are they expecting it to be given to them? More students are coming in with mental health issues but more are also seeking help. And we want to help them in any way we can.”
To that end, Dawson has organized events to help students mingle and get to know each other. There are “Soup and Stories” sessions coordinated with the College’s Learning Support Center, where students, over soup provided by dining-services partner Bon Appétit, can talk about their experiences, hopes and futures. There have also been sushi-rolling parties, Iron Chef cooking competitions and more.
“Parents want to know what they’re paying for and they want to know that it’s working out,” says Dawson, who lives in Munger Place just two blocks from the Quad. “I feel it’s important that they know I’m part of the community.”
He also has an open-door policy for any students who need to talk about their school situation. “I prop them on the sofa and we talk,” he says. “It’s important that they know they can come in and talk.”
Dawson is also familiar with concerns raised by both parents and students regarding the residence halls—from room sizes to ages of buildings to cooling during spring and summer.
“We need to work with our beloved alumni to improve the amenities within the residence halls,” he says, acknowledging that donors and financial contributions can make a meaningful impact on the residential experience.
With a charge of ensuring that student residences are as comfortable and welcoming as possible, Dawson and his team have combed the campus seeking RAs who can work with students, understand their needs, and help. It’s why he meets face-to-face with every prospective RA, to judge for himself if they can do what he believes needs to be done.
“My goal is to focus on the mission of the College and help prepare students to translate critical thought into action,” he said. “People make the difference.”