Food and films help create campus connections

Baking isn't in her official job description as a resident director (RD), but Susie Lambright has written it in. She bakes so much that she burns out the motor in her mixer every six months. But she keeps cooking because she has learned it is one very effective means of connecting with college students.

Chad Coleman, another RD, is a film aficionado. And he knows that the students in his residence hall love movies too. So a large TV and home entertainment unit in his apartment have made his place a prime campus hang-out.

As veteran RDs for Kratz, Miller and Yoder residence halls - which are primarily home to first and second-year students who are new to living away from home and with their peers - Lambright and Coleman have many responsibilities, but the opportunity to get to know students one-on-one is what both of them enjoy most.

"It is all about the relationships. Getting to know the students on an individual basis is the stuff that keeps me engaged with my job," said Lambright, who started in her position in 2001. "I want to be part of their lives and the campus community in ways that matter." She often attends campus athletic events, theater or music activities, stops by students' rooms to chat, hangs out in the student-run campus coffee shop, Java Junction, and invites students into her home.

With Lambright, food is central to how she builds community. "It is a big part of who I am and how I connect with people," she said.

Yet the combination of cooking and her RD work is like ministry. "Susie doesn't just feed our stomachs, she feeds our souls. She wants more than just physical safety for us as students, she also wants to see us alive spiritually," said resident assistant (RA) Kassidy Cheek, a junior from Franklin, Ind.

Lambright has planned pie days, a cake walk (which included one baked by then-Interim President John Yordy), weekly dinner meetings in her apartment with the six RAs she supervises, a Cinco de Mayo party and more. Every other week she hosts a "Supper at Susie's" night, to try to get to know all the students who live in the residence halls that she oversees.

These gifts of food do not go unnoticed or unappreciated. After yet another of her hand-mixers broke last spring, RAs and others pitched in to buying her a heavy-duty Kitchen Aid mixer for her birthday. "Over 100 students pitched in, which meant so much to me," she said. "It was a huge surprise and tremendous blessing."

Coleman isn't a cook, but his small apartment nearly bursts at the seams when he holds monthly cheesecake-and-movie nights for 30 to 40 students who crowd in front of his big-screen TV. Some students even show up an hour early to get the best seats. "Chad does his best to make everyone feel welcome on campus," said Mary Roberts, a sophomore from Dayton, Ohio, who was also an RA in Yoder Hall. "Even if you've just met him."

Coleman, who started his job in 2003, also enjoys making videos, and each year compiles a tribute for his residence hall - featuring photos provided by the seven Yoder Hall RAs, video he shot throughout the year and of volunteer lip-syncers for a soundtrack. The goal of the big project is to include all students that live in Yoder Hall in the video and to make it available to them as a keepsake.

The job of an RD isn't all food and films. It is about building community in good and difficult times: mentoring RAs, staying with young adults in the midst of medical problems, helping students settle in to the campus community, providing accountability for campus standards and much more.

As students spent one of their last days on-campus before heading off for the summer in mid-May, they gathered around Lambright, Coleman and fellow RD Alex Naula for a brat or veggie burger off the grill before joining in a friendly game of sand volleyball tournament. The RDs knew they would be back again next fall to continue building a college community by sharing their gifts and passions.