Perks and Pitfalls of Being a College Resident Assistant

A resident assistant (RA) is a trained peer leader who supervises residents living in a dormitory. RAs have many roles and responsibilities. They build a community through programming, serve as resources, mediate conflicts, and enforce college’s policies. RAs must be role models on campus and hold themselves accountable to all policies.

As the application season quickly approaches, are you considering becoming an RA? RAs get free room and board! That settles it. But wait a second— there’s a lot more to being an RA than just a free single room. Being an RA can be extremely difficult, especially if you’re not in it for the right reasons. Before you sign up, make sure you know what the position involves.

Perks

Making an Impact

The most rewarding aspect of being an RA is knowing that helping someone, even in the slightest way, can have a major impact on his or her life. When I came back to college after summer break, several of my residents from the previous year approached me and gave me big hugs. As an RA, you help residents go through various issues ranging from homesickness, roommate conflicts, and alcohol poisoning to suicidal ideation and power-based interpersonal violence. You give advice about getting involved on campus, talking to professors, and socializing.

Time Management

Being an RA is a 24-hour job. Sometimes residents are surprised that we are also full time students who have other responsibilities, such as on or off campus jobs, internships, or involvement in campus organizations. Being an RA means having mandatory weekly staff meetings and weekday and weekend duties when you have to go on “rounds” through all of the floors and stay in the building from a certain time in the evening until morning. This position helps you plan your time well and prioritize. You become good at multitasking and scheduling.

Crisis Management

As an RA you learn to think on your feet. You don’t have time to plan every move because the situations that arise are time sensitive. You might find someone passed out in the bathroom and have to transport them to the hospital. You might have to evacuate the building at 3AM in your PJs. You might have a resident cry on your shoulder about a recent breakup. You never know what to expect, so you always have to be ready. Being an RA teaches you how to handle any crisis. For a crisis to be handled well, effective communication skills are crucial. You develop them by interacting with your fellow RAs, residential directors (RDs), and residents. Sometimes the communication is urgent and can’t wait until the next day. During crises, RDS, fellow RAs, and police have to be notified immediately.

Relationships

One of the best things about being an RA are the relationships you can form. You spend so much time with you fellow RAs during training, mandatory staff meetings, and also by working and living together in the same building, that they can quickly become some of your best friends. You share this bond with each other because you have similar experiences as RAs. RAs understand that you are sleep deprived because you’ve been dealing with an incident while on duty or had a few lockouts at 4AM the previous night. They’re your biggest support system and you can always rely on them. They can help you by covering duty or being there for you when you break down— RAs call that “RA-ing” each other. Besides the issues of the residents, RAs frequently have their own personal problems, so being there for one another is very important.

You also have unique relationships with your residents. They continue to ask you for advice if they feel comfortable around you. It’s wonderful to see them grow throughout the year. Often times you can become friends with most of your former residents.

Not only are relationships formed with your peers and residents, but also with your RDs.  They are your supervisors and you spend a lot of time working with them. They help you with both your professional development and your personal growth.   

Compensation

Each college offers different compensation packages, but most provide free room and board. You get your own room and don’t have to worry about living with someone else. For most, this compensation helps finance their college education. It depends on the location of the college, but I’m able to live in downtown Boston for free. A lot of people apply to be RAs just because of free housing. This reason is valid, but not good enough. The job is a big commitment and requires a lot of dedication, so you need to be passionate about it; you can’t just do it for the money. Maybe you care about fostering diversity and inclusion in the community or maybe you want to help the freshmen adjust — these are all important factors in making the decision to be an RA.

Pitfalls

Time Requirement

You’re going to be busy. Sometimes your time isn’t always your own as an RA. Academics always come first, but then it’s the RA position (not any other leadership position or job you hold on campus). You have to be able to work around other commitments and get coverage when needed. It’s important to manage your time well and even schedule in time for rest.

Sleeping in Your Office

Unlike any other job, when you’re an RA, you basically sleep in your office. Maybe it’s 3AM or 8AM in the morning and someone knocks on your door — it’s a lockout. You have to do it. Maybe you have a significant other, but your resident needs you urgently, so your privacy is limited.

Stress

Juggling a lot of things at the same time is stressful. You have classes, other commitments like jobs or clubs, and your personal life. Sometimes your residents forget that you’re also human and that you might feel the same things that they are feeling. They come to you to complain about their roommates, professors, homesickness, personal problems, etc. That’s why you can always rely on your RA friends to listen to you.

Returning to Campus Early

Returning early to campus for training requires you to do some major planning with your summer. You can’t work, intern, travel or research for the entire summer and you have to find places that would hire you for a shorter period of time.

Fish Bowl Effect

As an RA you’re held to higher standards even if you’re not officially on the job. Technically, you’re never “off duty.” If you see something wrong, you have to report it. Students know that you’re an RA and they look up to you as a role model. They might follow every step you take. If you make a mistake, they might hold it against you and it can cost you your job, unfortunately.

The RA position has prepared me for future employment because it has not only taught me how to communicate effectively, manage time, educate, and mediate and solve conflicts, but has also helped me develop a leadership style. Like Ralph Nader said, “The function of leadership is to produce more leaders, not more followers.”

Image Courtesy of Demi Vitkute