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American Campus Communities’ Residence Life Program Gives Students a Home Away from Home

June 26, 2024

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Company Updates People

ACC’s Director of Residence Life Meg Nicholson Talks About Her Cool Career and What Today’s Students Want–and Need

Residence Life at ACC Communities

College is a time of transition and self-discovery. For many students, it’s their first time living on their own, away from their families, friends and hometowns. This blank slate of new possibilities can be extremely exciting but also overwhelming.

Our role at ACC is to help students succeed. We do this by creating a “home away from home.” Part of the equation is designing our student housing communities’ physical spaces to foster academic and personal success. The other part is building connection and a sense of community through our Residence Life program, or “Res Life” for short.

The Res Life program is implemented by our on-site staff at each ACC community and focuses on supporting residents in all areas of life including academic success, health and wellness, sustainable living and education, career development, community engagement, giving back and financial literacy. Each ACC community offers unique educational, recreational and social events as well as company wide initiatives such as our mental health awareness campaign with Hi, How Are You Project and our For the Greener Good sustainability education campaign.Our latest resident survey shows these efforts are paying off, with 84% agreeing or strongly agreeing that “I can be academically successful at this property” and “I am comfortable being myself where I live.”

Meg Nicholson is ACC’s Director of Residence Life. Her role, which she says is the “coolest job at ACC,” involves a blend of designing new initiatives and empowering the resident assistants and community assistants at more than 143 communities to develop their own unique events. Meg earned her master’s in higher education from Kent State after graduating from John Carroll University. She is celebrating 20 years with ACC this year: She joined the company in 2004 as an assistant general manager, working at communities near Cleveland State University before moving into her current Res Life role in 2014.

We caught up with Meg to learn more about her passion for Res Life, the trends she sees among today’s students and what advice she’d give others looking to work in this field.

What drew you to working in student housing?

I’ve always wanted to work with college students. College is such a special time in life. So much is happening, and the experiences you have and the choices you make will help you develop as a person. You’re independent but still have a safety net, which helps you gain your stride. Part of that safety net is the people around you. When I was a student, I was positively impacted by the staff on campus. And I was a resident assistant in college and saw that I could make a difference. I wanted to keep paying it forward, so I went for my master’s in higher ed.

How did the staff at John Carroll University have a positive impact on you?

One of the first people who helped me was the director of our alumni office, where I had a work-study job. I didn’t want to go home for the summer because I loved my independence, so he created a job for me so I could continue developing the way I wanted to. That changed the way I thought about people on campuses: It’s not just the faculty who are there to help, but also the staff. This experience taught me to ask for help!

What brought you to ACC?

I wanted to gain experience with a private company, and as a former RA, I was intrigued by the idea of working in student housing to make an impact. I ended up being an assistant general manager for four years and then a general manager for six. I was proud of what we accomplished but was ready to grow and have a larger reach, so I jumped on the opportunity to become director of Res Life.

Why is Res Life so important?

Research shows that students who are more engaged in their community are more academically successful. Res Life encompasses everything about the resident experience. We focus on connection and community. It’s our job to ensure that students have what they need to succeed and establish ourselves as people who are there to help.

What are your top priorities as Director of Residence Life?

A big part of my job is keeping my pulse on student trends—what do they want and what do they need from the resident experience? I then spend my time doing big-picture strategic planning and doing hands-on training of our new student staff making sure our property teams have what they need to support students. All along, I also ensure we’re fulfilling the missions of our university partners.

What student trends are you seeing and how are you addressing them?

We’ve seen an increase in students struggling with social anxiety since the pandemic. Many students are hesitant to talk to their peers in person, which can make it more challenging to foster connections. It also makes it harder for us to conduct roommate mediations. We’re collaborating more with our marketing team to increase our social media presence. That way students can connect with our teams and each other in a less intimidating way and get comfortable before interacting in person.

Supporting students’ mental health has become a big focus of ACC’s Res Life program. We’re trying to break the stigma of talking about mental health and getting help. Through our partnership with the Hi, How Are You Project, our resident and community assistants are trained to provide peer-to-peer support to residents. We've used the results of the 2023 Thriving College Students Index Report to educate our staff on the correlation between their connection to the residential community and their mental health. We'll be using the results more as we move through the next academic year.

This year, our annual Res Life Conference, a one-day training for our staff, focused on mental health—how staff can support both students and themselves. Many of our team members also opted to take suicide mitigation training.

We’re also seeing more graduate students wanting to live on or near campus. ACC is building more housing for this population, like our new communities at UC Berkeley, Princeton and Emory, and we’re also building new Res Life program models for these residents.

What’s next? What excites you about the future of Res Life at ACC?

We know our residents want to give back and get involved in their communities. So in February, we launched a pilot program with ACC’s new nonprofit partner, CoreGiving, where we organized events for residents to volunteer together at their local food bank. Twelve communities participated this year, and we’re working to scale it across the country.

What advice would you give someone looking for a career like yours?

Keep an open mind. Remember that there are more ways to teach and make a difference than just in the classroom. Ask questions—that’s the best way to learn about anything. And work hard and be kind.

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