Some Things to Keep in Mind...Managing the RA Position
By John Stafford, Director of Residence Life, The College of New Jersey
You applied for the position. You attended the group activity events. You had one, maybe two interviews. You waited patiently for THAT letter. You received the coveted position offer and you excitedly signed your name and accepted. You are an undergraduate staff member for the 2003 - 2004 academic year. But, have you asked yourselves the hard questions? Do you know why you wanted this, no, not that reason, the real reason? Do you know why you were selected by us?
This missive is to get you to think again, not to doubt your ability, but to strengthen your resolve to be the best residence life staff member for your self, for your residents, for your department and for your institution. In the next few words, I want to offer you some wisdom (okay, maybe just my opinion) on what will make you the strongest campus leader possible. By committing to be the best leader possible you are making a decision that will have an impact on your education, your career and your life.
• Plan, plan, plan - You think you know good time management, but having the RA position will give you a new definition of time management. Before you leave this year, think about how to balance your academics, your extracurricular desires and the specifics of this position. How will I spend time getting to know each of my residents early in the semester? What kind of impact do I want to make in programming? How will I deal with confronting my peers? Having a mindset on how you will tackle the individual aspects of this position will serve to be, at minimum, a nice psychological mindset for developing your own image of “me as an RA.” One of my golden rules for RAs is the “Two Week Rule”. In the first two weeks of the academic year (for both first year and upper-class RAs) spend as much time as possible on the floor. Make your classes, get some food, reconnect with your friends, but spend every available minute on your floor with your door open, mingling with your residents, taking down opening day signs, planning your fall programming schedule, making a PRESENCE on your floor. By doing so, your residents will see that you care, know that you want to have an impact, and most importantly, see that you are available, so later in the year, when your time is more pressed and you are off the floor more, the same presence will be there. They will feel you around even when you are not.
• Stay up-to-date - Hand-in-hand with the above advice is to stay current on issues on your floor, in your building and on your campus. If the fliers on your bulletin board and door are from homecoming and homecoming was three weeks ago your residents will not have the feeling that you are present or that you care or know what is happening on campus. It may seem like a simple flier that everyone knows has passed, but for you and your work ethic it is a statement that you expect your floor to make it without you. You are stating clearly that they do not need you to be apart of the campus. And, they will not need you, because they will know find other avenues to receive up-to-date information.
• Be the Leader - Once any group forms, a leader will naturally come to the forefront. In residence life we intentionally build groups by the mere fact of housing as we do, and we also intentionally select that leader to be at the forefront: YOU. Being a leader does not mean that you have to have all the answers; it does not mean you have to be right; it does not mean you always have to lead, but it does mean you have to be the leader. You have to be the person who makes a presence; you have to be the person who knows where to turn to for the answer, and you have to be the person who instills the sense of community. If you do not, someone will. Every group that forms will naturally have a leader - we want that leader to be you.
FOR YOUR RESIDENTS
• Know your residents - As human beings we all have the desire and the need for belonging. For the simple knowledge that I am validated as a person for being where I am and that I matter to someone or someplace. By simply making sure you know the names of each of your residents you will give them the spark of acknowledgment that is important. Knowing your residents does not mean that you need to be able to detail their life stories, but it does mean that you should supply a simple, “Hi, Bob, have a good day.” or “Sally, remember we have a great program tonight.” Recognizing someone and saying hello means a great deal. It means someone recognizes that I am here and values that connect. It’s simple, but it matters.
• Respect your residents - Respect, we all want it and we should all give it. There will be residents whose personalities do not mesh well with your personality. There will be residents that have behavioral issues. There will be residents that decide that they do not like you by the mere role you play as an RA. It is important as leaders and staff members that we separate someone's actions that we may find disrespectful, from the person, who we should respect. Respecting a person does not mean that you agree with their position or that you even understand, but it does mean that you care. Respecting a person that you have difficulty with raises your character above any reproach possible. It’s the small things in life that represent respect: knowing someone's name, being cordial, acknowledging that s/he may be different than you, listening, and basic courtesy.
• Be the leader - As mentioned above, in every group a leader will naturally come to the forefront, and in residence life, we want a skilled trained leader. Your residents want and deserve the same thing. Your residents might have various thoughts and ideas about what you are suppose to do, but one thought they all share is that they need you to lead the floor. They are looking for someone to look out for them, someone to be a resource for them, and someone who can just be there if needed.
FOR YOUR DEPARTMENT
• Be Understanding - As with any employer, even when you do not agree with or understand why the residence life office makes a certain decision, try to understand the big picture. Ask the questions and be willing to know the “whys” of the decision making that goes on. Your professional staff has dedicated themselves to work in the field of higher education and have dedicated themselves to educating students, including you. But the every day pressures of budgets, personnel issues, responding to criticism (both warranted, and not warranted) and developing the big picture is a stressful work environment. And we have lives too. We have families, interests and hobbies, and commitments in our personal lives as well. So, be understanding; we’ll try if you try.
• Take care of yourself (maintain enthusiasm) - We all know working in residence life can be a trying experience; the handful of students with behavioral concerns can be draining to our spirits and ideas. Because of the inherent responsibilities that come with leadership the position can be demanding and stressful. Have you planned and developed good time management? Are you eating well? Have you developed a regular exercise regime? These basics do form the foundation for the rest of our lives to function well; functioning well helps you perform well; performing well helps you achieve. Achieving makes our departments and you and our students more successful. “Catch on fire with enthusiasm and the world will run to watch you burn” (John Wesley, Founder Methodist Church).
• Be a Leader - You are undergraduate students who have accepted a job that entails leadership and role modeling on campus. You are invested with the responsibility to take care of others through advising, community building and leading. You are authorized to make significant decisions on your floor. You are our voice to our residential students and we respect and appreciate what you do. The department needs you to be a good leader that can represent its interests to the residential students.
FOR YOUR INSTITUTION
• Be true to your school - Like the old song, being true to your school is an important function as a campus leader. Your executive administration will make many decisions that you will not agree with based on your own knowledge or beliefs. Politics will become part of your education and guide decisions. The answer will not always be available when you want it. But be true to your school; you chose to accept admission here for a reason and that reason should still exist, and if it does not maybe you need to make sure you still fit. While no school wants to lose you, being in college is a very important, but very personal decision. Love where you learn.
• Work hard for your school – You took on the responsibility of employment, but you work where you live and learn. This can cause many ethical decisions for you to make. But above all else, give this job, the frontline residence life position, all that you have in work ethic and commitment. The personal development that you will gain by the unique opportunities that will come your way is immeasurable. You will be far ahead of the average graduate when you leave your alma mater; and you will learn a lot about yourself as well leave a solid legacy for those to come.
• Be the leader - Wow, you are a CAMPUS leader. You are more than an employee in residence life; you are more than an RA on a floor. You are the spokesperson for your institution. You have the power, and the authority, to represent the ideas and concerns of many individuals. You have the power, and the authority, to speak on behalf of the institution. This is a heavy responsibility. Your influence in HOW you represent the students and the institution will play a role in the happiness of your residents and the success of your school. Whew……but we all know you are a student first, and we take time to make sure your development is a priority as you look out for our residents.
About the Author
John D. Stafford holds a Masters degree in Counseling and Human Development (Radford University, Radford, VA) and a Bachelors degree in Business Administration and Theatre Arts (Lenoir-Rhyne College, Hickory, NC). John has sixteen years experience in supervision, ten of which are in higher education. For over six years, he has developed and given more than fifty presentations on topics such as leadership development, mission statements, supervision, staff training, alcohol use by college students, and public speaking, among others. He has a professional background in theatre arts and staff training and is currently the Director of Residence Life at The College of New Jersey, in Ewing, NJ.