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Gaining an Advantage By Focusing on Residence Life

Kelly VickroyIt's hard these days to stand out in the competitive world of student housing. All of the big and small players are doing their best to offer top-flight amenities such as swimming pools, fitness facilities, Internet cafes, and the like. Many place special emphasis on luxury apartment interiors that boast everything from granite countertops to stainless steel appliances. Campus Advantage does a lot of that, too. But the Texas-based company goes even further with its service-driven Students First Residence Life program that is squarely focused on developing dynamic and positive communities that stress connections in a student-resident's life. 

Kelly Vickroy, Campus Advantage's National Director of Residence Life, sat down with us recently to discuss both the program and why more companies should make residence life a priority.  What follows is our chat:

NATIONAL APARTMENT ASSOCIATION: Could you please introduce yourself to our readers?

KELLY VICKROY: Certainly! I've been in some form of student housing work ever since I was an RA on campus in 2005. I joined Campus Advantage in 2010, starting as a community manager at one of our properties. I eventually took an opportunity with the home office as the Assistant Director of Residence Life and was promoted to the Director, where I oversee our Students First Residence Life Program at all of our properties that we have under Campus Advantage.  I got my Bachelor's degree at a small Illinois school, Quincy University and my Master's from Northern Illinois University.

NAA: For our readers who are unfamiliar with it, what is the Students First Residence Life program?

KV: The program is based on our company mission to provide rewarding living, learning, and career experiences. A community is much more than four walls and a roof or the combination of a lot of fancy amenities. We believe it is our responsibility to provide our residents with an exceptional living experience that is going to launch them to success now and in the future. Our Student First Residence Life program starts at the front line with training of our Community Assistants, our student staff members that we hire and train to understand the wants and needs of our residents and how to serve them best through effective program and event planning. It's about building a collaborative and strong community that's still connected to campus, identifying and supporting students in distress, all while providing exceptional customer service.

NAA: What distinguishes the program from those of your competitors?

KV: Our Students First program is at the heart of our company. We don't consider it to be a side project consisting of the occasional pizza party or pool party. The philosophy of putting "students first" is at the forefront of all of our decisions. We call ourselves the "experience experts" in that we try and provide a variety of experiences to help our residents grow academically, socially, and personally. We seek to provide skills necessary for them to achieve success outside the classroom and in the career world. We also employ a team approach to residence life. It's also not just our Community Assistants that are responsible for the Students First Residence Life program. Our general managers, maintenance teams, and even the home office play their roles. The universities and local communities are key and crucial to the experience, as well! We work really closely with university departments, as well as local and national businesses and organizations, to ensure that we are offering well-rounded resources and support.

NAA: Can you give us an example of when Campus Advantage has worked with a university in this regard?

KV: We specifically encourage our staff to reach out to each university's Career Services, Counseling, and Health Services departments. We have found that these departments are usually very excited about working with students no matter where they live. We've been really successful in co-programming with them to provide events like resume writing workshops, mock interviews, stress-relief events, and health and wellness programming. From our research, we've learned that our students care less about just having fun anymore, and more about what you can learn or accomplish while having fun.

NAA: With today's college students being so savvy when it comes to things like social media and mobile technology, are you taking advantage of those things to enhance the overall mission and experience?

KV: Of course! We definitely utilize sites like Twitter and Instagram to reach our residents. Recently, one of our properties did an "MTV Cribs"-type promotional contest for the property, opening it up to all of the residents to enter their video submissions as well. We've also used technology to bring in people who are experts from different career fields to come and speak to our residents through live streaming webinars, where residents can interact with the speaker and other properties through a hashtag conversation on social media and group discussions. There's no doubt that students are more tech-savvy these days, but we also find that old-school, face-to-face communication is still very beneficial.

NAA: Going forward, do you think more companies should make residence life a priority? What do you think the future has in store for resident life programs, in general?

KV: The easy answer is to become more dependent on technology, since that's what our students know. There's the idea that "It's new! It's faster! It's less work!" However, I really think there still needs to be that blend. I think the industry as a whole should become better at incorporating technology, but only when it complements the personal one-on-one and group interactions with our residents. We need to continue to get residents out of their rooms, out of their apartments, and interacting with others. Building strong communities will only enhance their futures and enhance their personal growth. 

As the industry grows, everyone is raising the bar on amenities and quality furnishings. It's the norm these days, as companies compete to try and outdo one another with larger pools, bigger clubhouses, etc. Don't get me wrong. I think these things are great to have. But, at some point, it all cancels out and boils down to communities providing exceptional customer service and genuinely caring about the people living in their community. It should be our job as student housing professionals to ensure that we are providing more than a place to live, but a home. One that builds friendships, builds memories, and builds character. It's good business and the right thing to do!

By Teddy Durgin