7 Lessons Learned as a College RA

Anyone who has lived in a college dorm knows what an RA is. They are seen as either the bossy tools who go out of their way to keep you from having fun or the useless nobodies that get a free room to do nothing and let chaos run throughout the halls. Well, I worked as a college RA (Resident Advisor, or Resident Assistant in some universities) while in college, and eventually got promoted to an RD (Resident Director), and a lot of my college experiences happened from the point of view of those positions. Here are ten lessons learned from being an RA/RD:

3DN Landing Strip

The theme one year in one of my residence halls

1. An RA isn’t just that happy-go-lucky robot with a clipboard.

I thought I would start off by giving a clearer description of what an RA is and does, since I’m sure not many people are familiar. An RA is known as a Resident Advisor, or a Resident Assistant, in most colleges. The hiring process to become an RA is much more in depth than any other campus job (which I’ll describe in more detail a bit later), as the responsibilities of an RA range in many areas. The following are the typical tasks an RA of your school would be responsible for:

– Rule enforcer- Probably the most common task RAs are known for. They are in charge of abiding by the university residence hall policy and make sure students in their hall are following them as well. If they catch students not following policy, they are then to either give them warnings or write them up for a variety of punishments options.

– Room checks- Making sure that resident rooms in dorms and residence halls are clean, in proper living conditions, and ready for students to move in. Throughout the semester, they must ensure that the rooms continue to be in proper condition and do not present safety hazards to the students who live in it. They also must check the rooms when the students leave to make sure no damage has been done to it.

– Advising- This is where the “advisor” part comes into play. RAs are often put (whenever possible) in dorms with students in a major similar to themselves. RAs are trained to help students if they are having trouble with classes, with school, or even their personal lives. While not full-fledged counselors, RAs are given basic training to see if students are showing signs of depression, or giving basic counseling advice in emergency situations when a counselor isn’t available.

From my experience, most RAs get the compensation of a paid room to themselves. In many schools, that’s all they get (and sometimes they’ll even have to share a room with another RA). In other schools, RAs get some better benefits. In addition to a free room, some schools give RAs a stipend (ranging from $20-$100 a week), free meal plans, free travel expenses for conferences, free goodies (like shirts, office supplies, mugs, caps, etc), and gift certificates/gift cards.

2. The RA hiring process is very selective and thorough.

Unlike other campus jobs, the position of RA holds a lot of power and responsibility, so it is no question that the interview process will be very comprehensive. Since I don’t know how the interview process goes for every university in the country, I will merely provide the process for mine. I assume other schools are at least in a similar ball park.

The first step is the application. In addition to all the traditional application information that has to be provided, the RA application also puts you to answer essay questions that test your ethics and your desire to be an RA. If you hold the minimum GPA required and the questions show some ethical decision making and interest, you may be called to an interview. In that first interview, even more questions are asked in all sorts of different areas. You are given scenarios that RAs typically deal with and are asked how you would deal with them.

In addition, you are asked to prepare for the interview a 15 minute presentation of how your first RA ‘wing meeting’ will be (the initial meeting with your new residents at the beginning of the year). You are invited to be as creative as possible, and have decent knowledge of the housing policy handbook.

If you pass that interview, you will join a second group interview. All the candidates who have made it this far will be asked to participate in a one-day retreat kind of thing, where games will be played and team exercises will be performed. RDs and administrators will watch these games and see who works well with others and how these students perform in group settings. Being the loudest and most outgoing won’t necessary land you the job. It’s about being yourself, and not being afraid to take risks and talk to people. I would also recommend volunteering to be the first to do something in a game, even if you know you’ll make a fool of yourself. In that initial time when they ask for volunteers and everyone is quiet, that is the best time to shine.

If you get selected to continue, you go through the last interview. This is usually with the assistant or associate director of housing. They tend to ask even more prodding questions to find out more about you, including experiences you’ve had that you think would be relevant to the job, and case studies to truly see how you think. If you can make it past this 3rd interview, you’re almost an RA.

All that’s left is the RA class. In some universities it’s offered for elective credit, in others it isn’t. This class ranges from 1 month to 3 months, once or twice a week, and the class covers just about everything an RA will do: administration, counseling, community-building, activities and events hosting, and even how to dress and nonverbal communication.

If you get through the class and manage to complete your assignments, you get placed in a residence hall and a room, go through another week of intensive training (the class is more on theory, and the training is more on practice) the week before school starts, and voila! You’re an RA!

RA training is serious business.

RA training is serious business.

3. There are a lot of unadvertised perks of being an RA.

In my line of work, I’ve had several dinners with the university president, gotten backstage passes to Jeff Dunham and Tosh.O, and have even been picked as a volunteer for several hypnotists at my campus thanks to my VIP seating. In addition, I have been invited to complimentary trips to the Oshkosh aviation air show to represent our school, and other trips around the country for a variety of reasons.

The point I’m trying to make is that RAs receive many other benefits and opportunities than what you see in the job description. It really is a lot of fun and worth the experience. Plus, as student leaders, putting that you were an RA in college looks really good on resumes and grad school applications. It’s one of the most versatile campus involvements you can have since they deal with so many areas.

In addition, you will be very well-known on campus. As an RA, you participate in orientation events, rallying up students for orientation activities, games, and programs. You usually get to know all the students in the building, and more importantly, they get to know you. If you’re the super strict RA with the iron whip, the students will get to know you and avoid getting in trouble by you. If you make an effort to get to know the students, like saying hi in the hallway, going to the events you promote, etc., you will find that students will talk, and all of a sudden all sorts of people will be saying hi to you on campus, some you don’t even know. This will continue to grow every year that you’re an RA, until you become one of the most well-known students on campus, if you can handle that.

From personal experience, I went from a completely reserved, quiet student as a freshman on campus to one of the most well-known students in school. Case in point, I actually won Senior Class President my senior year and gave the graduation speech on graduation day. The biggest part of the popularity necessary to win that election was the people that I knew and the people that knew me.

It is a great feeling to have residents you had all year come back to you in their junior year and tell you thanks for helping shape their freshman year. Granted, many freshmen could care less, but there will be some that really appreciate your efforts.

4. Once you are an RA, you are always an RA.

Our university’s housing department had a motto about being an RA: It’s not a job, it’s a lifestyle. The reason for this is because you are an RA 24/7, whether you want to be or not. You can’t just “turn it off” when you go clubbing with your friends. Your residents will see you as their RA in the halls, and they’ll see you as an RA in the clubs. They will also see you as their RA ten years from now when you encounter them and their kids at Disney World.

Many university staff members and student affairs professionals started out as RAs. Once they realize they could make an entire career out of doing stuff like that, they went for it. I’m one of those people. I became an RA for life, so to speak. So if you don’t think you can handle the pressure of a job that becomes a part of your life, I wouldn’t recommend being an RA. Otherwise, it’ll be one of the most memorable jobs you’ll ever have.

5. Being a Resident Director (RD) is pretty awesome too.

I want to take some time to talk about a Resident Director. Simply put, it is an RAs supervisor. Rather than looking over a hall, they look over an entire building, and oftentimes several buildings at once. In many schools, these jobs are offered as full time positions. In others, they are offered as graduate assistantships to graduate students who want a place to live for grad school. In my school, however, you can get it as a promotion as an undergraduate if you applied.

The interview process is similar to that of an RA, but there are less people applying and you already know the interviewers very well. As for the job itself, it is amazing. Rather than a simple dorm, you get an entire full-fledged apartment. My apartment in particular had a bedroom, living room, dining room, kitchen, and two bathrooms, fully furnished.

The job is more administrative in nature. You usually have much more full control over the punishments you give out to students who break the rules. You also make big decisions as to changes you make to the buildings you are responsible for, such as adding additional study lounges, vending machines, or even restructuring room placements. You also often get to pick the RA staff you can work with, and hire and fire your staff as you see fit. It is a rewarding experience, and it is one of the only university jobs that I’ve ever seen where you are on just about equal footing to other university staff and administration.

The pay is much higher than an RA’s pay, and most universities will also give you a very generous meal plan and money for travel. However, there is also much more responsibility with the position. As the representative of my building, any cases too big for my RAs to handle were sent up to me. I had to deal with the suicide attempts, students caught with firearms, arson cases, sexual assault, and hate crimes. As the RD, it is not as easy as an RA to be the fun-loving, good guy.

In order to help your RAs out, sometimes you have to be the bad cop to the students in order to make your RAs the good cop. For those who watch Scrubs, think of Dr. Kelso. He has to make the tough decisions in the hospital and look like the bad guy so the rest of the staff doesn’t have to. With the kind of guy I am, that was the most difficult transition. But I found the perfect balance of being fun and easygoing with being tough and fair.

My RA staff at work.

My RA staff at work.

6. A typical day for an RA.

As an RA, my typical day consisted of a variety of different things depending on the day. Other than normal student things such as classes, and RA has to have at least somewhat of a presence in their residence hall every day (so no extended trips where you’ll be gone for more than a day without approval). Though you can usually dodge this one if you just ask a fellow RA to watch your hall for you. RAs also have a couple of meetings they need to attend a week. The two most common are staff meetings and committee meetings. Staff meetings are run by the RD that goes over issues in the building, in the school, or relaying other work-related information. Some RDs also make it a group bonding time and play games or go out for dinner or some type of social activity since RAs are often like family to each other. RAs are also occasionally asked to serve in committees for school events, such as student appreciation, staff appreciation, resident hall Olympics, Relay for life, etc. They also have to go to those meetings.

Also, at least once a week, if not more, an RA is on duty. This means that they may not leave the building they live in for a 12 hour period for any reason. In addition, they have to serve anywhere between 2-6 hours of desk duty, where they must man the front desk of their building to answer questions for students or provide general customer service. Most RAs use this time to socialize with friends who join them during the downtime or do their homework. It’s also how you catch up to the dorm gossip since you’re in the middle of everything.

RAs also have to fill out weekly email reports to their RDs telling them how their residents are doing and have occasional one-on-one meetings with their RDs to tell them how they are doing.

Lastly, RA should constantly be making events and social functions for their residents, like movie nights, bowling nights, dinner, games, etc to keep the community feeling in the dorm. You know you have a good RA when they constantly supply a good range of activities for you to do throughout the year.

7. Some stories from my RA days.

In my line of work, I deal with all sorts of situations, some serious, others humorous. Here are some examples:

The pranksters– I had two “factions” of residents across the hall from each other who pranked each other nonstop, each one upping the ante on the pranks. They would super glue their keyholes, put live cockroaches in their rooms, steal their hats and drop them in the toilet, vandalize their doors with shaving cream, and all sorts of things. This was an interesting but challenging situation.

The shower lockout– The bathrooms in the building I lived in were outside the rooms and required a key for entry. I’ve been woken up several times at all times of the night by guys and girls in a towel who got themselves locked out of the showers and their bedroom. Why do so many people shower at 3 in the morning?

Alcohol poisoning– I ran into a freshman throwing up in the bathroom from alcohol poisoning from drinking too much at a party. He wouldn’t stop throwing up and would occasionally lose consciousness as his friend tried to keep his head up. I had to call the ambulance and have them take him to the hospital. I was told that he was so intoxicated it could have killed him if he didn’t get the medical attention when he did.

Topless wrestling in the halls– This isn’t what you think. For some reason, one year I had a hallway full of guys that for some reason always wrestled each other in the hallway with their shirts off at 3 in the morning. I would come out of my room, exhausted and angry to yell at them, only to see wide-eyed what was going on. I would tell them to keep it in the bedrooms and I went back to bed. Never understood that one.

Hall Wars– There were two dorm halls that were competing with each other for the best hall. Each time a hall put up decorations or set up an activity, the other hall would put up something better. I still remember during Halloween where the competition got so fierce, when you walked into the hallways you felt like you were literally walking into a Halloween town. The walls were covered with wallpaper, spider webs and spiders sticking out, mechanical ghosts on strings flying back and forth, pumpkins by all the room entrances, and an orange glow emitting from the lights. It was amazing.

The Spring Break Snake– A resident apparently had a pet snake in their room and left it there when he left for spring break. The snake managed to get out and scared the crap out of one of my RAs (I was RD at the time) when they were doing health and safety inspections. They had to call animal control to take the snake away. The student was furious.

The sorority birthday surprise– As an RA, I ran into a group of girls keying into another girl’s room with a coat hanger. When I confronted them, they told me they were a fraternity who wanted to fill the pledge’s room with balloons and gifts. I told them that the gesture was nice, but that they were breaking the rules by keying into a room as it is considered trespassing. I didn’t write them up, but told them they had to leave. Unfortunately, I caught them doing it again later and had to write them up.

The Stinky Roommate– I had a complaint from one of my male residents once about having a roommate who’s stench could raise the dead. When I walked into the room, I could confirm that he did, indeed, stink. It was one very awkward conversation I had to have with that resident.

The Tree hugger– I had to take a guy to a hospital because he ran into a tree. No joke. He ran into a tree and knocked himself out.

The beer smuggler. There were about 5 other RAs and I chilling at the front desk one night. One smart freshman decides to walk in right through the front door with a 12 pack of miller and walk right past us. We almost felt like writing him up for two counts: one for alcohol and one for stupidity.

The loud couple– Had to deal with a noise complaint constantly about a couple who were too loud when “going at it.”

The dump hall– For a while, there was a hall that was so dirty, that even the RA was scared to go in it. Garbage was everywhere and the students even looked like hobos. I had to send a cleanup crew to take care of that mess.

My RA staff... still at work.

My RA staff… still at work.

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