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From left to right: Oliver Lim, Jack Kelly, Ashley Copenhaver walk through the Harbor courtyard. Photo by Jack Basmaci.

Student advocacy takes top priority under Resident Student Association leadership

The executive board members of the Resident Student Association take their positions as advocates for the residential community very seriously. 

On top of their staple events, like Midnight Breakfast and Dogapalooza, the RSA hosts semesterly town halls designed to allow students to bring their concerns and questions to the University of Maryland, Baltimore County’s professional staff, which, depending on the semester, may include the police department, campus dining services or campus mailing services. RSA members have stationed suggestion boxes in the front lobbies of all of the residential halls, which are sorted through for monthly review, and host smaller events over the course of the semester in order to build relationships and increase contact with residents.

Ashley Copenhaver, RSA president, has made advocacy work a priority for the organization. But the road to establishing RSA as an advocacy organization has not been easy, and it is something that board members are continuing to work towards.

But before they can be advocates, they have to have visibility.

“Throughout the first month of being president, I came to the realization that I can’t focus on advocacy,” said Copenhaver, who is a mathematics and biology double major. “I had to choose something else to focus on, […] the indirect impact of which would be affecting advocacy.”

The RSA was not originally designed as an advocacy organization, despite current efforts to become one. An early issue of The Retriever reported that the Resident Student Association formed in 1977 as a counterpart to the now-defunct Resident Hall Council, which was sponsored by the Student Government Association. RSA was not SGA-sponsored and was created to be the social programming arm of the RHC, while RHC handled the political aspects of the organization. RSA events were therefore restricted to only residential students.

Today, the RSA, which presumably absorbed RHC at some point over its roughly 40-year history, serves approximately 3,900 UMBC students and is meant to bridge the gap between residential students and professional staff. Additionally, each executive board member receives a stipend for their work, and RSA receives its yearly budget through Residential Life. Paisley Martin, the Residential Education and Leadership Coordinator and RSA’s advisor, said that it is easy to view RSA as the “younger sibling” to the Student Events Board or the SGA. 

“We’re also the hybrid of the two of them,” Martin said. “I see us as the top tier of student organizations” in terms of importance to student representation.

The road to getting involved with RSA typically begins with a spot on one of eight community councils. There is one council per residence hall, and one council that represents the four apartment systems on campus. While RSA schedules programming for all residents, across all residential halls and apartments, Community Councils receive a yearly budget to use in their specific building. 

Oliver Lim, who serves as RSA’s National Communications Coordinator in Training, feels that a strong relationship with the community councils is important to “maintain [the] foundation” — and a training ground — for RSA. Before beginning his position with the RSA, Lim, a sophomore pre-nursing major, served as the Community Council president of Chesapeake Hall. The events his council hosted averaged about 80-90 people by the end of the academic year, which was “really good for a freshman hall,” Lim said. After his success in the Chesapeake Community Council, Lim became a summer conference assistant, where he gained a greater understanding of Residential Life processes, and then joined RSA as its NCCIT in October of fall 2019.

Within RSA, Lim works alongside Jack Kelly, the National Communications Coordinator. Kelly, a junior mechanical engineering major, represents UMBC’s RSA at the national and regional level and attends biweekly, national online meetings with other NCCs. This allows him, and by extension, UMBC’s RSA, to stay up to date on what other campuses are doing around the country and get advice on different situations.

UMBC’s RSA belongs to the National Association of College and University Residence Halls and the Central Atlantic Association of College and University Residence Halls, of which Martin is a regional advisor.

“Other people on the e-board — they don’t see how what they do impacts the region or [nation], but we get that full scope,” Kelly said.

RSA has been strengthening its impact on campus recently with a campaign to place free menstrual products in the residential halls and the Apartment Community Center. The organization also partnered with Residential Life — which is not directly affiliated with RSA despite providing the organization’s funding — to issue a sustainability survey last semester that gathered over 1,500 responses, according to Kelly. Among the biggest concerns: removing plastic bags from campus and switching from plasticware to eco-friendly cutlery.

Not all of the suggestions students submitted can be fixed overnight, according to Kelly. But RSA plans to continue to bring these changes up to their professional staff contacts. 

“I feel like everyone wants to see an immediate impact,” Kelly said. “A lot of it has to do with consistency, and consistent persistence. … If the university hears it once, are they going to do anything? If the university hears it year in and year out, multiple times a month, that’s going to promote change.”

Martin is particularly excited to see this kind of long-term planning from RSA, as it is “not something that RSA has seen or really had the ability to do in the past.” She continually encourages the executive board to “think bigger” about how to create visibility for themselves on campus, even as she is doing her own work to make sure students are aware of the opportunities available to them.

“It’s continuing to position RSA as another option [for student leadership],” Martin said. “RSA isn’t for everybody, just like being an RA isn’t for everybody, so how do I make sure that students know … all of their options coming out of their first year?”

Copenhaver always saw RSA as her option, though. From her freshman year, she was involved in her community council, and then worked her way up to become director of events in her junior year. She said that the people she was around kept her coming back, as well as the fact that she’s “drawn to things that need a little bit of renovation.”

“I like being very engaged in the community … and I also enjoy advocating for students,” Copenhaver said. “RSA gives me that platform to be able to do that.”

Applications for executive board positions within the RSA open March 9.