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True Life: I was an RA

Posted on 04 November 2009 by Kyle Campbell

RA ClipboardThe Resident Assistant position remains one of the most sought after and highest paying jobs on campus. RAs receive free room and board, a $1000 cash stipend and professional development. Many people apply for the job because of positive experiences with their own RAs. Others want the high compensation or a boost on the résumé.
Marquette RAs work for the Office of Residence Life, called ORL in RA lingo. ORL hires RAs based on their individual and group interviews, letters of recommendation, and grade evaluations. Often ORL hires only one-third of the applicants, making the position one of the most competitive on campus. “From the time we begin the interview process for RA candidates, we concentrate on helping them understand the responsibilities of the position,” Dr. Jim McMahon, Assistant Vice President and Dean of Residence Life said.
RAs play a major role in the implementation of programs and policies, according to ORL’s Web site. Many of ORL’s policies, however, are unpopular with students. These include visitation hours, opposite sex overnight policy, and alcohol regulations. Some policies like quite hour restrictions are more appreciated by residents. “Quiet hours are the only way that I get any sleep at night. Otherwise the people next door to me would never turn their music down,” Laura Dowd, a sophomore in the College of Business, and Schroeder Hall resident said.
Like their residents, RAs praise and condemn various policies too. “Upon taking the job you understand it is more important for you to follow the policies even if you don’t completely agree. RAs sign a contract saying they will follow all policies. An RA shouldn’t take the position if he can’t completely follow ORL policies,” said Ryan Samz, a former O’Donnell RA and current Teach For America teacher in New Orleans. “Do I wish I could share a beer with some friends? Yes. Do I understand why it’s important that we don’t allow underage drinking? Yes,” another RA said.
Both students and RAs said they sometimes feel antagonized by the rules in their residence halls, though for different reasons. A common gripe among freshmen and sophomores is that their RAs are “out to get them.” Others suggest that their RAs handle policy violations inconsistently. “A friend of mine was allowed to throw her alcohol away rather than being written up,” Becca Levernier, a sophomore in the College of Business and Schroeder resident said. Levernier added that the opposite sex overnight policy is enforced differently from RA to RA.
Some RAs maintain that their residents do not understand the purpose of the policies they must enforce. Others say their residents do not realize that an RA’s job is on the line if he or she fails to document a violation. For these reasons, trying to maintain open relationships while living with residents becomes difficult, Andrew Glaser, a senior in the College of Business and former O’Donnell RA said. Upholding seemingly unfair policies makes RAs the bad guys and “puts us at odds with our residents,” he said. The RAs and McMahon agreed that enforcing rules in the community RAs personally are a part of is a unique and challenging aspect of the job.
The RA position is demanding in several ways: academically, professionally, socially and emotionally. While there were many responses from former RAs as to what type of person it takes to succeed in the position, the common theme between them all was an emotionally mature one. As an RA, you are not only responsible for yourself, but you are also responsible to up to 30 other people. Says one former RA, “at times you are carrying a burden for other people, and it can become really heavy.” Adds former McCormick and O’Donnell RA Frank Karioris, who is now the Operations Coordinator of Housing Services at the Illinois Institte of Technology. “As college students, we are not necessarily prepared for things we are presented.”
Besides having their disciplinary duties, an RA must “take a sincere interest in the welfare of his/her fellow students,” according to ORL’s website. However, ORL does not do nearly enough to help RAs with this emotional burden, said many RAs, including Alex Elliott a graduate of the College of Arts and Sciences and a former Cobeen RA. “We have to maintain confidentiality, and our hall directors are often busy,” Elliott said. Though there are many resources in place to help RAs deal with this extra emotional burden, many former RAs said they are not always used or advertised by the residence hall directors or ORL. The former RA adds “the system is there, but it’s not used as it should be.”
Dr. McMahon disagrees. “We do intensive training, some of which includes simulations of very real issues that they are likely to encounter, and a great deal of which introduces them to the support services that are in place to assist them in their work. This includes the Counseling Center, Health Services, Campus Ministry and Public Safety,” he said.
To further help RAs deal with many of the emotional challenges involved in the position, Elliott suggests that RAs be required to have mandatory meetings with their hall ministers. Although hall ministers live in every residence hall, she said they are often too busy to provide emotional support for RAs. Other improvements proposed by former RAs include more compensation, staff development, and discussion of the issues RAs face.
Although former RAs agree that application materials do not – and realistically cannot – provide an accurate picture of what RA life is really like, Dr. McMahon said ORL does their best to ensure that RAs are well equipped to handle the requirements. “I understand that we cannot prepare staff for all of what they may encounter, so we look to hire candidates who demonstrate positive leadership, good judgment and decision-making skills so that they will utilize the tools that we provide to respond well to situations and issues that arise,” he said.
Despite ORL’s efforts to prepare students, some former RAs said that they received inadequate preparation to help others with their emotional crises. “The first year is really the training for the second year,” said Amber Erickson, a former Cobeen RA and Arts and Sciences graduate. “RA training lacks quality social counseling training,” added Remington Tonar, a former Schroeder RA and current graduate student at Loyola in Chicago. “While the University would like to restrict formal counseling and mentoring duties to the Counseling Center, much of what an RA deals with, especially with freshmen, is related to counseling and mentoring their residents. I personally know many students who feel their RAs were ill-equipped to handle their own emotional and social isolation needs.”
But given the burdens of the job do many RAs come back? Many said they return because of close relationships with their staff members. “The best aspect of the job is learning and growing with your staff and residents,” Samz said, adding “I loved my staff and wouldn’t have traded it for anything else during my tenure at MU.” Former RAs say the relationships they form with their staffs are some of the strongest they have ever had. “I developed wonderful relationships with my staff members and cannot even count the number of good memories I have with them,” said Erickson. Another former RA says her mostly negative experience was worth it because “I wouldn’t have met my best friends if I hadn’t been an RA.”
This benefit may be due in part to ORL’s focus on teamwork. “Teamwork is stressed during all of the training programs, during weekly staff meetings, and in a Peer Facilitation class. These relationships are often cited as among the most rewarding part of being an RA,” McMahon said. Though this is not the case for everyone, it is a major perk in a position where you’re liable to spend breaks, holidays, and basketball games in an empty building rather than with your family or friends.
Other RAs stressed that the relationships developed with residents are the best part of the job. Though it is sometimes forgotten by RAs themselves exactly what the purpose of being a resident assistant is, the residents should be the main focus of the job. “The best aspect of the RA job was the residents,” said Glaser. Tonar added, “The RA position is rewarding in many aspects, but primarily for the opportunity to help younger students through the myriad of collegiate experiences that we all face year after year. As a fellow student, the RA is given this unique opportunity to counsel and guide his or her residents on their journey.”
The professional development is another large draw. While being an RA alone isn’t enough to engender job prospects, the position does supplement the Marquette educational experience. One hall director agreed that the experience of a Marquette RA is one that helps develop maturity, dedication and character. “It is easy for me to tell the difference between students who have served in leadership positions such as the RA role from those who have not, just by their outlook and professionalism,” he said.
Generally, what offset the emotional burdens and possible social and academic pitfalls were the financial support, the lasting relationships with staff members, and resident interactions.
What can be improved about the RA experience? Perhaps there should be a more realistic representation of the challenges applicants will face if selected. Perhaps mandatory meetings with hall ministers are key. Or maybe it would take a reminder to RAs that they do not need to always share those burdens. Says the former hall director, “One of the common missteps of RAs is to let their residents’ emotional burdens become their own. It is something that is talked about during training and throughout the year, and in some ways a testament to our RAs on how much they care about our students. At the same time it is important to remind staff that they are responsible to their residents, but not responsible for them.”
“This is an on-going concern for us at Marquette,” McMahon said. “Students today arrive on campus with a fair amount of emotional baggage. Most of our RA’s choose this job because they care about others, are empathic and want to help wherever they can. A good counselor knows how to help others without taking on their burdens, but this can be difficult for RA’s. That is why we stress how to refer troubled students to the various support services across campus.” He stressed that ORL continually strives to help RAs through referral services, Hall Director development, and an RA class in which RAs can come together and discuss their issues with professional staff.
The RA position undeniably produces headaches and hassles, but a large majority of current and former RAs said the overall experience was worth the troubles. “I don’t want to lie and say it was amazing all the time. It’s tiring. It’s stressful. It’s a lot of work,” Erickson said, “but I felt like I made a difference for some people.”
One would be hard-pressed to find a perfect job on or off campus. The RA position is no exception. Though he finds the entire experience worth it, “the loss of social life, terrible working hours and no privacy almost made it not so,” Glaser said.
Because of its scope, complexity, and requirements, the resident assistant position is probably never going to be summarily presented in all its full detail. The experience of a Marquette resident assistant varies as widely as the experience of a Marquette student. It is important for residents and their RAs not to forget that an RA is still, and foremost, a student. Trying to maintain a healthy balance of being a student, employee, friend, and enforcer is a tough test.
As a former RA himself, McMahon outlined the best aspect of the job. “What I find most rewarding is the large number of RAs who report that being in that role was the most challenging and rewarding student experience that they had ever had. And once in the work world, they realize the importance of the training and experience they had as an RA.” And Karioris puts it best when he says, “RAs are still growing into what they want to become and the RA position can be such a monumental change that whether they know that or not, the impact the job

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