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Jena Leonardo is a sophomore from Buena, N.J. majoring in english and planning to complete the Graduate School of Education (GSE) five-year joint bachelor’s degree/master’s degree program. A resident of Hardenbergh Hall, she currently serves on the Residence Hall Association Executive Board as the Director of Advocacy. Jena recently helped organize the Campus Safety Walk in conjunction with the Student Affairs Knights’ Watch campaign. We recently caught up with Jena to talk about the Knights’ Watch and her involvement with RHA.

How did you get involved with the Knights’ Watch and the Safety Walk?

RHA is involved in the Knights’ Watch campaign because of Karima [Woodyard] who oversees Busch as the Campus Director. She approached me about helping to lead the event and I was surprised because I wasn’t even a captain last year, I just participated as a walker. Currently, I oversee 35 advocacy liaisons, one from each hall. They all bring up safety concerns to me, both within and outside of the residence halls. Once I found out she wanted me to take on this role, I was so interested because I want to help out all the advocacy liaisons address their safety concerns.

Tell us a little about the Knights’ Watch, its mission and the goals of the Safety Walk?

The Knights’ Watch’s main goal is to make Rutgers a safer school. There are always safety concerns, especially on College Ave, since we are a city. We are such a large school that I think sometimes these small problems start to get overlooked. We want students to be able to walk everywhere and go places that are well lit, but sometimes lights go out and there are other electrical hazards, potholes, etc. We just want to make sure all those things are addressed and if things aren’t fixed we want to make sure we go back and make sure things are done.

How did you get involved with RHA and specifically now become the advocacy chair?

I’ve always been involved with student government. Upon coming to Rutgers, the first student government organization that approached me was the Residence Hall Association. I loved the idea because in a way, it was a small-scale form of student government. Rutgers is huge and your initial thought may be, ‘I can’t be a part of a student government at a school of 60,000 students.’ But RHA helps breed student leaders in a smaller environment. I wasn’t scared to run for a hall [position] because it was with the 255 people I lived with.

I was the president of the hall I lived in last year and I originally ran to be president of the hall I’m currently in, but I love to challenge myself. I realized I was getting too comfortable with what I was doing and advocacy was something that I’ve never done before. I’ve always done things to help enhance students’ experiences from an events, programming perspective, but never dealt with specific issues and concerns that help improve the actual living conditions of students.

How has your first year as RHA Advocacy Chair been going?

Right now, I’m still transitioning to the role and we’re trying to build our foundation. Last year, they only had seven consistent members. This year, we started with 18 and already have 27 advocacy liaisons and are continuing to grow. We’re working on training everyone so they know how to write proposals and understand their roles and what they’re capable of. We’ve also begun creating subcommittees so they can work on issues that are most important to them – whether that be safety, the busing system, or even the use of washers and dryers. I’m also working on several initiatives with dining, RUTV, and the Knights’ Watch and sitting on all these committees within Rutgers allows us to make those necessary connections that will help us get answers to our questions and concerns. Ultimately, I want our advocacy liaisons to realize they’re capable of awesome things, but we’re taking it one step at a time.

Does your work and the goals of RHA, Residence Life and your involvement in Knights Watch intersect?

I may be biased being in the Residence Hall Association, but I want people to live on campus. A lot of people eventually shift off campus, because they may feel there are better opportunities elsewhere, but our number one thing is that we want our students to stay on campus. Studies have shown that students who stay on campus are better off academically and socially. In this position [within RHA], I’m working with people who represent every building and we’re trying to improve every single residence hall, every single apartment, and every single suite. Being a part of the Knights’ Watch, we’re even improving the surrounding area. We want to address the issues of our students, and we want them to continue coming back, feeling safe and staying at Rutgers.

Have you ever thought of living off campus?

To be honest, last year my friends and I were looking to live off campus in a house, but it fell through last minute. Initially, we were upset about it, but now I’m so happy it didn’t happen because there are so many more opportunities living on campus. I just love being a part of something so big. Residence Life is such a huge department within Rutgers. I feel like I have the rest of my life to live in a house or an apartment, but it’s a once in a lifetime experience to live in such a big community. The connections you make, the ability you have to change something in your community are things I would have missed out on. You’re surrounded by people every day and you get to hear about their issues. My time in the halls and my involvement with RHA has given me leadership skills that I never had before. It’s taught me how to look out for others and has given me a sense of selflessness as a part of a team. Rutgers is so big that sometimes it’s hard to make it a small scale. Being in a residence hall helps create that closer environment where you can be there for each other.

What have you taken away from your experiences in RHA and Residence Life so far?

I’ve been in this new position for three months, and I’ve already discovered so much about myself. I want to go into education or possibly student affairs. I’d like to do something along those lines, working for students. We’re the future leaders of the world and it’s really important we get these experiences now. You’re not going to get that [leadership experience] unless you’re directly involved and the opportunities are so easily available. We’d never turn anyone away from joining RHA or anything like that. Even if they don’t want to join [our organization], we still encourage them to come out to things like the Safety Walk because we just want them to get involved. Don’t be afraid to speak up. You can’t talk about the issues unless you’re willing to make a difference. I’m not saying I can fix every issue that comes up, but you have to be willing to try and get yourself involved. You have to start somewhere and that’s what I’m doing.