On April 1st, Brock University held its annual Residence Awards Dinner. The awards are given out each year to students and student leaders in recognition of their involvement and contribution to residence life at Brock University.
When James Fleming, the Director of Residence, called Les McCurdy-Myers, Brock’s Manager of Personal Counseling and Leadership Development to receive an award, the last thing he was expecting was to receive an award in his own name. One can appreciate his initial skepticism. It was, after all, April Fools’ Day.
“At the end of Fleming’s speech he said they were introducing a new award and that the award was for supporting student leaders. But when I was called and I saw my name I couldn’t believe it, this is incredible. This is such an honour,” said McCurdy-Myers.
“It revealed to me how much I want to stay connected with Brock University. It hit me hard in terms of how unbelievable it was to have this award in my honour.”
The Les McCurdy-Myers Award was presented to Mr. McCurdy-Myers in recognition of his 40-year career of supporting and training student leaders. Leslie or ‘Les’ for short first came to Brock in 1969 to study psychology when the school was barely five years old.
The Arthur Schmon Tower had just been built the year prior and the student population numbered just a little over 3,000. Today it’s nearing 19,000. And most of the part-time students Les attended class with were teachers looking to upgrade their skills. In other words, the school was a very different place back then.
After finishing his bachelors degree in psychology, Les then attended graduate studies at the University of Toronto. When he finished, he came back to Brock in 1977 and since then has been training and supporting Residence Dons for forty years. I sat down with Mr. Myers over the weekend to hear his story and how he came to have such a long and distinguished career at Brock University.
You grew up in St. Catharines. I imagine the city was quite different back then.
“I was born and raised in St. Catharines. My mom was a secretary and my dad worked at Thompson Products, which was a parts supplier for auto companies. I grew up not far from Ontario Street which, back then, was mostly farm country for growing grapes. When I was a kid we used to come up here around Easter time and ride our bicycles. My next-door neighbour at the time, his uncle, owned the farm that Brock now sits on.
We would ride our bikes around the edge of the escarpment and bring lunches and sit and look out over the city. I have always felt that St. Catharines was home. I can even remember back then at the time feeling that someday I would build my home here.”
When did you decide that you wanted to attend university?
When I left high school after grade 12 – I didn’t go on to grade 13 – I got married within a year and I had it in mind that after getting married and getting work I would attend university by going to night school. I knew they had a category called mature student so after a year or so I called up the school and asked how you go about applying.
They told me I had to be out of high school for at least threes which I didn’t mind. I was still very frightened about attending school again. I had failed grade one and grade six because of learning disabilities that were unidentified. Although I was working and earning a pay cheque, I wanted a change of career so I was determined to attend.
What was your job before coming to study at Brock?
“I was working at the Ontario Paper Company in Thorold, a paper mill factory. I had worked there for ten years while completing my bachelor’s degree. But after waiting a little while longer I had a meeting with the administrators and I was allowed to write the admissions test to see if I could handle the material and course load.
Luckily I passed the test and soon afterwards I started taking night courses. I did that for six and a half years while working shift work forty hours a week at the paper mill. I would come up here a couple nights a week to do evening courses and during the spring semester I would take a course as well.”
Did you know what kind of work you wanted to get into after finishing your studies?
“Well, I was up here trying to get an office job. My intention at first was to get out of doing shift work. Originally I had thought of doing something maybe in personnel so I was taking a lot of psychology courses. But then I started getting feedback from some people who said that they thought I could do better, that I had more to offer.
I was getting really good marks – As and Bs – which encouraged me so I applied to graduate school at the University of Toronto. So after almost ten years at the paper mill I decided to quit my job there and went on to complete my counseling psychology training at Toronto.”
When did you first get involved in training Residence Dons and student leaders?
“So prior to going to the University of Toronto I had been a peer in the counseling service at the Student Development Centre. I came back the following year after UoT as an intern and in the process of being an intern that’s when I did my first residence group. So in 1977 I was an intern and I did my first bit of training for the Residence Life Staff (RLS).
Although I’m retiring this year, the university is allowing me to come back to do one last little piece of training so that will mean forty years of training RLS. The groups were small back then, maybe a dozen students or so, but now they can number as many as 70 students. Thousands of students when you think about it.”
How does the Residence Life Staff training work? How do you train students to become student leaders or residence dons?
“This is where you have to ask yourself what do the students need in order to do their job? What skills do they need? I have two lists or sets of goals that I’m looking to achieve when training residence dons and other students. The first is what we call “content goals.” I want this person to be able to actively listen, to be able to have a problem solving model that they can use when on the job. So these are the concrete things that student leaders are going to learn in training.
The second is what we call “process goals.” This involves things like getting people to trust one another, to be able to delegate information quickly and effectively. In this stage, I’m aiming to train the students in clear communication. I want to move the group through to ‘self-disclosure’ and ‘self-examination.’
So once you make these two lists, then you have to work on the group as a whole. Active listening is key here. People need that if they are going to get to know the new students who are coming in. They need that skill if someone is in trouble or if someone just needs someone to talk to. It doesn’t matter what the issue is. It could be stress with studies, drug or alcohol abuse or even sexual assault so active listening is critical.
What if a student is feeling suicidal? They need to know what to do in those situations but at the same time they will be practicing their listening and communication skills you will also be introducing them to those things that will need the most attention and practice, the skills that will be most important to them.
In their future function as residence dons, the skills they learn are going to be the most valuable once they are actually on the job so you keep bringing them back but at different times. It’s a little bit like coaching to use an analogy. You give students the knowledge but you also give them the training and the skills to make sure that they learn how to deal with difficult situations.”
“In terms of what the group will learn, we start the training by introducing risk factors. So we start from the least risky situations that they will encounter and later on to the most risky. In group process training the first thing that has to happen is that the students have to get to know who they are with – the other student leaders in the group that is – what kind of qualifications they have, and what they’re interests are. It’s a way of getting everyone aware of who they are and what they are like as people and fellow students.
Once everyone has a good idea of who the people are in the group we move onto expectations. What does the group do? We refer to this as “inclusion needs.” The way this part of the training works is that everybody meets and each person is given four minutes to introduce themselves. It can take hours to accomplish inclusion needs but it’s worthwhile because it means the group is getting a first impression of who each person is.
At the end of each week of training we do what’s called a process whip in which everybody in the group has up to five minutes to talk about how the training has impacted them as a person. This is also an opportunity for students to voice any concerns they may have about the training and what they like or don’t like.”
You said that there are largely three phases to training the group. Would you mind describing those phases?
“The first phase, as I mentioned earlier, is called inclusion needs. It allows everyone in the group to ask themselves do I really want to be a member of this group and does this group want me to be a member of it? What do they expect of me? Who else is here?
Once we have finished with inclusion needs training the next thing that comes up is control training. This involves a number of variables: how much am I going to allow this group to influence me? How am I going to influence the group? This gives people a chance to see what they are like, what they expect and more importantly, it gives people an opportunity to debate ideas and make suggestions about how the group should operate as a team.
The final phase is what I refer to as the intimacy phase. This has to do with how close do I want to be to these people? How close do I want them to be to me? How much we understand one another? How well is our communication? In this phase, it’s a way of getting people to understand where each person is coming from. The intimacy phase is also important because it really helps the group if they happen to get stuck in the training somewhere. If people understand each other, know where the person is coming and have a general idea of what each person is like, it can really help the group to move along and to succeed.”
What happens if something does go wrong in the training? How do you solve that?
“If something does go wrong or if the group gets stuck somewhere along in the training, I like to use the high jumping analogy. If someone is doing high jumping and they crash, someone who understands process training will not only look at the crash itself but the steps preceding the crash to try and figure out where exactly the person went wrong.
Did they fall because of a bad takeoff? Maybe they fell because of a bad approach which lead to a less effective takeoff or flight. Being aware of the process makes it much easier to pinpoint where exactly the group made a mistake. It allows you to retrace your steps and to see what happened.
When we combine the three phases – inclusion, control and intimacy – and we keep track or monitor our progress, we can address where things go right and where things go wrong.”
For off-campus students who might not understand how the don or residence system works, could you provide a brief overview?
“Well, there’s Head Residents, Don of Academics, Don of Activities and Residence Dons but here is a more general picture. So you have your students and you also have volunteer groups who advocate and enhance student experiences. There’s also residence life staff. At the paid level are residence dons who can be responsible over a certain area; it might be a hall, a court or some other area.
And we have two other dons associating within the system, one is the don of activities. They do programming that students can take a part in and then there’s don of academics. They do programming as well but they also do mentoring. They help out students with their academics, and they arrange study times.
These two roles weren’t always there. Before it was just area dons. Then we added the don designate. Although they don’t have an area if something were to happen to one of the dons we have a trained person on staff that can fill in if they need to.
So you have dons for each respective residence. Overseeing them in the resident is the head resident. This is a student position as well who is responsible for a particular group of dons. They deal directly with administrative work and taking care of dons in terms of their development and work needs.
The head residents plays an important role we should mention. When you have a new crop of students coming in year-after-year, it can be hard sometimes to maintain continuity or a sense of community. But the head resident in their role provides that.
The dons function as a community. They actively do things together to enhance and build up the student experience. It is what they are trained to do. However, sometimes they also have to dispense discipline out of safety concerns. There are rules the students have to follow and abide by on residence. We are particularly concerned for student safety around alcohol use on campus. So dons are not only trained to actively listen to students, to hear their concerns, but they also look out for student safety.”
Now that you are looking at retiring after forty years working at Brock, have you thought about what you would like to do with all the free time you’re about to have?
“One of the things that happens in life after you get married, after you start a career and have a family is that many of the things you like to do in your spare time is you put them down. You don’t forget about them, you just don’t have any time to do them.
I used to paint and I used to wood carve a lot, especially whenever I had time to go camping. I like to create things, to use my hands. I also have in mind of taking up some writing – maybe even write and publish a book. I don’t want to say too much right now but it is something I’ve been giving a lot of thought to lately.
My wife and I both like to travel, which is something we’ve been talking about lately. I don’t think I would like to be out and on the road all the time, as someone who likes being home, but every now and then I think we’ll make some time for traveling.”