Suggestions for college dorm programs
April 15, 2005 12:34 PM   Subscribe

I was just accepted into a position as a Residential Assistant for my sophomore year at Carleton College, a small liberal arts school in Minnesota. I've started keeping a file of ideas for floor or dorm programs, and I'm looking to add to it. So, MeFites: Can you suggest any particularly awesome events that could be run for a floor, preferably from personal experience? My floor will have 53 residents, including myself and a Co-RA. The building will have around 200, about evenly split between freshmen and sophomores.
posted by SemiSophos to Education (30 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
One of the most successful dorm programs at my school was having a sex toy vender come and give a "party" kind of like they do for tupperware and pantry chef and stuff of that sort. For floor programs I would suggest maybe something that involves everyone coming together to cook/bake something. That usually appeals to college students. Anything with free food. Having a Tattoo Artist/Piercer come give a talk and answer questions was another good one that was done at my school. How about a casino, poker party type thing. Hope those ideas help.
posted by genial at 12:47 PM on April 15, 2005

Some events that I offered as a RA:
  • "Friends" night - Thursday night the girls on my floor all watched "Friends" together, chipped in for Pizza, and I provided popcorn from my budget.
  • PB&J Wednesdays - the boy's dorm next door had a Priest living there who would make "Lavin Burgers" - peanut-butter and jelly sandwiches - for anyone who wished to come. When he finally moved out of that dorm at age 80+, we took turns sponsoring it.
  • Baking cookies! Or is there still a house where you can go to do that in Northfield?
  • Christmas party - The hall council sent a letter to parents asking them to mail in a small gift for their daughter. The "surprise guest" was the building's maintenance man dressed as Santa. Polaroids of each room posing with him were a hit.
I think that recurring events are great - the time commitment to arrange one event isn't much less than arranging an event that recurs each month.

Carleton has co-ed dorms (my school did not), so there might be other ideas that would work there that wouldn't work elsewhere.
posted by Coffeemate at 12:52 PM on April 15, 2005

Oh, and congratulations! The best piece of advice I can offer you is to make it clear that you can be a resource, advocate, and friend to your residents, but that you need time to study or veg just as much as they do. Setting clear boundaries will be a huge help.
posted by Coffeemate at 12:53 PM on April 15, 2005

Winter barbecue.
posted by kenko at 12:54 PM on April 15, 2005

I liked casino night, and we frequently did things with films ... we'd get the hall all decorated up with pirate stuff when Pirates of the Carribean came out and a bunch of the guys got dressed up like pirates and the girls got dressed up as pirate lasses or governor's daughters or whatever and we ran around waving swords and yelling "ARRRRRRR!" for a weekend. We also did a monty python weekend and I got my roommate to follow me around clapping together a pair of coconut halves and looking for shrubberies.

We did a 'midnight breakfast' and massage lessons during 'dead week' before finals.

Generally, anything that lets people get kinda crazy and feel like a family, because a lot of the kids are dealing with the dual stress of being away from home and having all these classes and test and crud.

And I'll second and third the boundaries. You have to give a big part of yourself to make it work for everyone, and you've got to walk a fine line between "big brother/sister" and "disciplinarian" ... just make sure you don't get too stressed out and turn into a tin god.
posted by SpecialK at 12:58 PM on April 15, 2005

Not really an activity, but the coolest thing about my RA my freshman year is that she decorated all the bathrooms, tossing the institutional shower curtains for swimmy fish. We were the envy of the other floors, who spent all of their budget on beer.

She also bought, with the RA budget, a discount movie pass for each resident's birthday (they are much cheaper than regular movie passes) and, if requested, would check out the dorm van to haul everyone to the theater and back.

How about karaoke night? I was too busy planning a wedding to participate in any activities, though I know there were some.
posted by rhapsodie at 1:06 PM on April 15, 2005

We did a halloween party for kids from the university's grad student child care center, though you could pick any kids center (maybe low-income/disadvantaged?). Plan well in advance to account for difficulties in arranging transportation and for parental permission and chaperones. We decorated the basement and did some basic games and treats. It was fun, done in late afternoon, and didn't cost a whole lot. In general, I think that any service activities (spend an afternoon at a food pantry or Habitat for Humanity) are good ways to introduce students to their new, greater community and help people socialize with floormates.

We also did a floor-wide trip to a midnight showing of Rocky Horror, complete with dressing up!
posted by handful of rain at 1:08 PM on April 15, 2005

I did a fingerpainting evening during finals week and publicized it as a stress relief thing. It was really fun. I covered the floor of the lounge with plastic bags all taped together and we all just sat on the floor. Then I put up the paintings in the hallway when they were dry. Fun stuff.

Weekly or monthly events (movies & pizza? sundae parties? etc.) are great. Also I found it really helps to have mandatory meetings, like the move-in and move-out stuff, at events that also have food and movies or something.

Movie marathons are good - I did Star Wars; also fun would be Indiana Jones, kung fu night, nostalgia night (Goonies, Ferris Bueller?), Wes Anderson (Rushmore, Royal Tenenbaums, Life Aquatic, if they like that sort of thing) ...

Also good is to contact campus groups that have ready-made programs to put on. You might get info about this in your training. For example, the LGTBA at my school has a Guess The Straight Person panel all ready to go; you just have to call them. That one is fun if people are into it and counts as educational, if you have requirements for that.

On preview, yes, yes YES about the fine line. I set it up - unsanctioned by Housing, of course - such that I didn't care what they did so long as I didn't know about it because then I would be in the situation of having to do something about it, which I really didn't want to do. I didn't explicitly say "go off campus to smoke pot and don't let me catch you in the hallway with your beers" but that was what I meant and they knew it. It worked fine. Possibly I just got a good group of kids (two years in a row) but I think being so straightforward about it helped them respect my position - they knew I wasn't out to get them but that if they acted stupid I would have to do something. I was and still am good friends with several of them, so I think that worked out.

On preview again: yes, things that get the kids off campus are excellent. They will love you for that. Art museums, all-ages shows, rent the local art house for a midnight showing, barbecue or frisbee in the park, anything you can do that's not in the dorms. Getting the vans helps, obviously, as they don't have to worry about transporting themselves.
posted by librarina at 1:10 PM on April 15, 2005

When I was doing all my freshman icebreaker crap, most of the time it was something like "talk to your neighbor, then introduce them to the group."

If I were you, I would make two parallel lines of 26 people and rotate them clockwise every minute or two. Expose your freshmen to as many new people as you can so they can figure out which ones are holding on to. After doing the introduction wheel, throw a scavenger hunt or something. Get people in groups of 5 and let them loose to explore the campus. Have food waiting upon their return.

Have fun. Being an RA can be really cool.
posted by rfordh at 1:10 PM on April 15, 2005

Are these people legal and are you allowed to throw events that involve alcohol?

My residence had a couple of traditions that were fun:

Roving parties - each room would decorate on a theme and provide some kind of theme related snack food. The partiers would make their way from room to room, eating the food, etc. These were bring your own beer events so could be alcohol free.

Midnight Margaritas - our RA had a blender. The only blender in the whole building. We had a lot of relatively local students who'd go home on weekends, and such, so on long weekends, he'd invite the few of us who were left over for Margaritas night.

Pub night BBQs - every week after pub night, we had a late night BBQ in the courtyard. Because at 2AM, and after half a dozen drinks, a fifty cent hotdog is exactly what you need. Everyone loved it, it broke even in terms of cost, and it was kind of a bonding experience.

Squirt gun Assassin. During frosh week, everyone who wanted to play was given the name of someone to assassinate. You had to figure out who the hell they were, and squirt them (never in a classroom or library) to kill them and take over their target. It really forced you to get to know people, because we basically had no idea who the people on our slips were when we first got them. We had 212 people in our Assassin ring in my first year, and the winner wasn't determined until Winter Exams week.
posted by jacquilynne at 1:10 PM on April 15, 2005

Tie-dye. Easy cheap and fun. They did this every year at the student center where I went to school. Provide fair warning and a list of suggestions of things worthy of dying (shirts, pants, scarves, socks, underwear, sneakers). Collect pickle buckets for the dying and some squeeze bottles to do splatter dye.
posted by plinth at 1:19 PM on April 15, 2005

Mefite HITORMISS is a full-time residence hall administrator in NYC, you may want to contact him directly for suggestions.
posted by silusGROK at 1:23 PM on April 15, 2005

I don't have any ideas but I just wanted to say I wish I had lived in some of the dorms people are talking about!

Oh wait- I just had an idea: magazines (or other reading materials) in the bathroom stalls.
posted by elisabeth r at 1:44 PM on April 15, 2005

Group community service?

One activity we recently did when I was resident included everyone on the floor (or in the building) chiping in and donating (or get it donated by your campus dining services) bread, peanut butter, and jelly... then everyone spend some time assembling PB&Js en'masse until all of the supplies are depleted. Then bag and box the sandwiches and drop them off at a homeless shelter, food bank, or directly to the homeless.
posted by mhaw at 1:45 PM on April 15, 2005

I was an RA one year, here are a couple of things I did:

- I threw a big potluck Thanksgiving dinner. We set up tables all down the long main hall of our floor and each room brought something. It was a blast, I did it right before everybody left for the actual Thanksgiving break.

- I threw a big Superbowl party. We had access to a huge conference room with a projector and a big screen. I went in with another RA and we bought sandwich stuff and chips. That was a lot of fun.

- I had one of the schools astronomy professors come and talk about the constellations, and then we had fruit pizza afterwards.

- We had to do some "educational" activities, and so I had one about alcohol awareness and abuse, and then we made mocktails afterwards.

- Around finals time I made home-made egg mcmuffins for everyone and they could just come by and grab one and go back to studying.

Good luck and have fun.
posted by bove at 1:50 PM on April 15, 2005

Bring 'em up to the Twin Cities... come to the MIA or the hot new Walker. See a show at the Guthrie.

As an RA in wayyyy outstate MN, my biggest coup was getting my floor to drive 3 hours to the Cities for a Wolves game... if you call the team's ticket office, you can generally get a group discount (you could also try the Twins, which would probably be cheaper).
posted by COBRA! at 1:59 PM on April 15, 2005

I can't add any specific suggestions, but make sure you plan activities that will be fun for both the introverts and the extroverts on your floor. I remember being tormented by the horrible icebreaker games I was made to play my freshman year. So not fun.
posted by insideout at 2:33 PM on April 15, 2005

From the photos I'm guessing you're in a small town. Try the game "Bigger and Better." Residents split into teams, and each team gets a quarter. Now they knock on doors (yeah, in town) asking people to trade them something "bigger and better." Keep trading up for an hour or two, and everyone meets back and a winner is declared. When I played this freshman year, a team got six kids' bikes; another team got a couch. I'm an introvert, and I didn't know any of my teammates too well, but it was fun. I think it'd be even better with people who'd known each other for a bit.
posted by NickDouglas at 2:53 PM on April 15, 2005

COBRA! where did you go to school?

Another bathroom idea is to post a weekly or monthly newsletter of things that are going on around campus. I know a lot of schools email a daily calendar, but they don't get read much. Putting together something for that captive audience is fun and handy.
posted by Coffeemate at 3:01 PM on April 15, 2005

- Movie nights with microwave popcorn in big bowls. Scary movies were always popular.

- Trips to the supermarket/Walmart/Target for food and supplies. As boring as this sounds, it was actually a great way for the entire floor to get together and stock up, especially in the first few weeks and months after move-in. Bonus points for supermarket games (like scavenger hunt). One of my best freshman experiences was getting thrown out of the all-night supermarket. :D

- Find out about school, local, and sports events. Your residents will thank you for exposing them to everything the college and surrounding city has to offer.

- Course planning nights. This may not be applicable to Carleton but at Berkeley, picking classes each semester was a stressful time because of the immense course catalogs, b0rked scheduling website, and difficulty with fitting classes to schedule. Having upperclassmen in various majors available on an evening to discuss their experiences and provide course advice is a boon to confused incoming freshmen. Most major departments have a few gung-ho students who would be willing to lend an evening to help.

- Not an event but our floor taped pages of jokes on the inside of bathroom doors and changed them routinely. The "types of poop" jokes were quite popular and it was always amusing to see residents from other floors come just to use our bathrooms.

- Since you have a Co-RA, some friendly competitive events with each of you leading teams couldn't hurt. Team divisions could be locals vs out-of-state, girls vs guys, first names with 4 letters or less vs more than 4 letters, right-handers vs left-handers, or even-number birthdays vs odd. Change up the teams regularly to get the residents to get to know each other.

- Make sure every resident's birthday is remembered. Invariably you'll end up with some introvert residents as insideout mentioned and doing a little something for them on their birthday goes a long way to ease feelings of homesickness. Even something as simple as getting the other residents to pitch in a few bucks to buy pizzas to eat in his room is terrific.

That's all I've got for now.
posted by junesix at 3:16 PM on April 15, 2005

So many good ideas!!

Don't get discouraged if nobody attends the programs you put on. Sometimes they won't. Keep trying.

I had to check genial's profile to see if he was one of my residents when I was an RA, because I had a tattoo artist come up for a program once. It was awesome -- he talked about tattoo and piercing safety in great depth, then told gross stories...and even let slip that a certain nameless professor at the school had thunderbolts tattooed on his penis.

I tried to get professors to come to the dorms -- this was easier at my school, which had no graduate programs and hence much more professorial involvement. For example, one of my residents once asked me what postmodernism was, which led to discussions and eventually a philosophy and an English professor leading a discussion in the lounge.

It's hard to come up with quasi-educational programs -- we were required to make at least half of our programs something other than just a pizza party -- but something about sex usually works.

And finally, Johnny Depp Movie Weekend was fun -- I showed every single Johnny Depp movie back-to-back. Someone was always around to put in the next movie, even when I was asleep.
posted by climalene at 3:57 PM on April 15, 2005

Apple-picking trips. Group outings to dinner or concerts or cultural events. Scavenger hunts. Regular movie or TV nights (host the O.C. or West Wing or some show you already love, and open up your room to anyone else who likes it too). Paintball trips. Dinners. Door-decorating contests for Halloween.

I agree with what's been said above: try hard to balance events out of the dorm with events inside the dorm, big events and little events, loud and quiet, etc. It also helps to plan stuff around things you're personally excited about so it's less of a job for you and more fun.

My freshmen dorm floor got hooded sweatshirts with our house name on them. The idea caught on and it's been done every year since. I still see kids wearing 'em around fairly regularly, and it gave our floor some name recognition in other dorms.
posted by bonheur at 4:22 PM on April 15, 2005

Curious -- which dorm / floor is it? I went to Carleton back in the day...
posted by omnidrew at 4:40 PM on April 15, 2005

Congrats, SemiSophos! Programs that have worked really well in our building (650 mostly first-year students):

- Majors Fair: We had at least one professor from every school on campus and people from the student advising center in our lobby. Residents could come and talk to the professor about different programs and classes that were available from the various schools.

- Coffeehouse: Coffee, hot chocolate, and talented singer-songwriters from all over campus in our lobby. Got residents involved (a bunch of residents played) and it was tons of fun.

- Formal Dance: Our hall staff put on a formal dance for all of campus as a fundraiser for the American Cancer Society. Over 500 people came, and we raised almost 2500 dollars!

But again, these are just suggestions. As an RA - especially a first-year - it's important to do things that interest you. They're more fun, and when you're working as hard as RA's do, you deserve to have fun even when you're working. If you're curious to know more, feel free to email me (email is in profile)!

ALSO! Get to know as many people as humanly possible. Get to know their names. Call them by their names every time you see them. Not only is this fun - it feels good to know lots of people - but it's an investment in your programming. If everyone know, loves and respects you, more of them will come to your programs.
posted by joshuaconner at 4:45 PM on April 15, 2005

Oh, and this is a FANTASTIC resource. All of the best programs from around the country compiled into a searchable database.
posted by joshuaconner at 4:47 PM on April 15, 2005

As one of the aforementioned introverts, let me add:

Whatever you do, make sure that people can opt out of it with zero pressure, including social pressure from you.

I'm sure you guys mean well and think this stuff is actually fun, but an awful lot of the things mentioned here -- the group games, forced icebreakers, fingerpainting, social-goodness education and mixers and such -- sound like something straight out of the Inferno to me (or at the very best like annoyances that I'd have to plan around), and I don't have very fond memories at all of the bits and pieces of things I was forced/pressured into attending.

So, please, when someone doesn't show up to something or expresses a lack of interest, don't bug them about it, and don't say "Hey, I noticed you weren't at the event on Friday, what's up?" as if they had some sort of obligation to be there.* Someone's lack of interest in your events is no more a cause for your concern than who their favorite author is.

Again, I know you guys (and RAs in general) mean really well, but it's primarily the sorts of people who find these activities fun who become RA's, and not everyone is like that.

*Unless they'd agreed to be there to do something, of course.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 5:08 PM on April 15, 2005

Thank you everyone for the great ideas! Keep 'em coming! One of the greatest things that I've noticed about this thread is that many of the ideas are implemented on an all-campus scale (we have campuswide Assassins rounds, but with rubber band guns, hot sauce "poison," alarm clock "bombs," etc), and there's an event overview distributed through the campus dining halls every day that highlights on and off campus activities.

Coffeemate: The house you're referring to is still owned by Carleton, open 24 hours, and houses two student residents. It's the Dacie Moses house, and has all the gear and ingredients needed to bake cookies, with one one stipulation: they have to be left for other people to enjoy.

Omnidrew: What class were you? I'm currently a freshman on 4th Myers, which I love, and I'll be RA'ing on 4th Goodhue, which will be... an adventure, to say the least. Last year it was known as "5th Goodhue," as it was a bit higher than the other floors.
posted by SemiSophos at 6:32 PM on April 15, 2005

Congrats, SemiSophos! I lived on first 'Hue my sophomore year. That hill is really fun after an ice storm!

The few things I remember from floor events:
* We all took turns making snacks for the weekly study break
* We posted butcher paper on the lounge walls and decorated it like a pirate ship
* One year a group of us went & raked lawns for elderly people
* I would have gone apple picking
* Super-long sundae night (I think we made it in a clean rain gutter - 15 or 20 feet long)
* Not a floor event exactly, but one year they showed Ghostbusters on the outside wall of Goodhue (the end towards Evans). It was a lot of fun, especially when a storm came up at an appropriate moment.
* There was a superbowl party in the lounge, I think
* We all went to the head res's apartment to watch the election results one year
* I went with some group (not the floor, I think) to the Renaissance Fair
* hallway frisbee
* Special late-night snacks in the lounge during finals week, at 11pm or 2 am or something like that\
* We all went to Dacie Moses' house and made cookies

In general, I avoided all of the icebreaker type events. Low-key stuff made me happiest.
posted by belladonna at 8:08 PM on April 15, 2005

We had porn parties in my dorm. But I went to a college with a pretty hands-off administration.

I hated get togethers with activities or get-to-know-you games. My favorites were really low key, like watching the Simpsons or just study breaks with food. Things that promise some academic assistance can get some people out of their rooms who wouldn't ordinarily come. We had a test party at the end of the year, where everyone had to bring one (or more) old tests for the dorm test bank in order to get in. It was always pretty popular.
posted by LittleMissCranky at 6:36 AM on April 16, 2005

SemiSophos -- class of 81. Freshman year I lived on 1st Goodhue, corner room in the back. About as far away from everything as you can be on the campus!
posted by omnidrew at 12:25 AM on April 17, 2005

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