Residential Services: A Key to Student Success

A Q&A with Matt Foster, Director of Residential Services

This article is one in an occasional series about the people, offices, and services dedicated to supporting WPI students and our community.

Residential Services is one of the key student-facing offices at WPI and plays a particularly important role in supporting the student experience and student engagement. Studies have shown that students who live on campus are more likely to attend campus events, develop a supportive network, get involved in clubs and organizations, and generally engage in the growth opportunities—academic, physical, social, spiritual—that college has to offer.

Matt Foster, director of residential services, oversees an active team of professionals and student employees who together support the student experience at WPI. Foster was named director last spring after serving as assistant and then associate director; he joined WPI in 2011, as a community director after having worked for several years in residential services at the State University of New York (SUNY) at Fredonia.

Q: In your opinion, what’s the most important thing your team does for students?

A: We really provide education outside the classroom.  The team in Residential Services will challenge and support every student in their experience, whether students realize it in the moment or not.  There is a passion to help students with whatever they are going through, while also helping them learn skills that will guide them later during their time here and once they graduate from WPI.

Q: The pandemic posed specific challenges for Residential Services. What did you learn from the pandemic that has impacted how you see your role (or Residential Services' role)?

A: I learned that staff members in housing and residence life are professionals who have been trained to manage emergencies, including a pandemic.  This has impacted my role because for the past two years we have had to look at every single aspect of the work we do in housing and adapt in various ways, which has led to some creative opportunities to do things differently.  The team has worked together to adjust opening/move-in of the residence halls, end-of-year closing, programming, and community development opportunities for residents.  Our staff has worked to create more one-on-one relationships with students to better understand their passions, their interests, their needs, and who they are as residents.  This has helped to better support and guide students to opportunities on campus.

Q: Student mental health is a priority for our entire campus; what role does Residential Services play?

A: Residential Services plays a large role in supporting student mental health: roughly 2,500 students live on campus and interact with their Resident Advisor almost every day.  Our student staff members are typically the first to connect with a student, have a conversation with them about how they are doing, and refer them to a campus resource, if needed.  Our department is actively involved in CARE Team, collaborating with SDCC on programming for the campus community, and working with students to address any concern they may have in their living environment.

Q: How does Residential Services support student success here? How does Residential Services help build community?

A: The team supports student success through community development right in the residence halls. We create and support social programs that allow for interaction among residents, one-on-one conversations with the Resident Advisors and residents to provide for insight into who the students are, and we of course help students create a comfortable place to live—a home base.  The team works hard to enforce policies and help students understand them, so that everyone remains as safe as possible while also creating an environment for respect.  We strive to have members of the community feel valued while helping them become more independent thinkers.

Q: Last year, WPI created South Village by leasing three residential buildings, formerly used by Becker College students, to expand its housing options. This year, WPI added more residential space as well as the Student Campus Center at South Village. What’s most exciting to you about opening new space for students?

A: It is exciting to me that students will have another space to socialize, to study, and to make memories.  Opening a new space can be daunting, as you never know if students will like it or if it will meet their needs.  In opening these new houses and student center, we really took the time to think about what our students needed that these spaces would provide.  Seeing it come to life has been amazing and I hope everyone has had a chance to visit.

Q: What advice would you give to first-year students and their parents about transitioning from home to campus?

A: Be open to new experiences and willing to communicate.  One of the biggest concerns we see is when a roommate conflict escalates because the students are unwilling or unsure of how to communicate and just talk with one another.  Most of the conflicts could be resolved with a simple conversation about expectations for living together.  With that being said, everyone has to be willing to compromise and agree to what will work best for their room/space. Our team can help guide that, but students need to learn to do it on their own.

Q: What made you want to take on this greater role in Residential Services?

A: Over the course of my 15+ years in housing and residence life, I have always had a desire to look at the work we do in housing and work with the team to see if there are ways to improve.  Just because a process is the way it is, does not mean it has to stay that way or that it’s the best way.  Taking on this greater role allows me to work with the department team to look at everything and be innovative, creative, and supportive for our residential students.  That opportunity was the driving force for me to take on this role and it continues to excite me every day as director.