Community. One of the buzzwords you will hear a lot of as an RA is “community”. Perhaps the most important role for you as an RA is to create a community that is strong and “healthy.” But how does one do that, and what is a “healthy community?”
I’m sure you have a job description that is pages long, and an RA Manual that is chapters long—both describing in great detail all that you must know and do and be in order to be a good RA. (or you will get one during training). These lists and responsibilities can be daunting for a first year RA. But you need to know that it is all very doable. This year will be challenging in some ways, but also fun, fulfilling, and it will provide many opportunities for you to continue to grow and develop.
What will set the tone for the year in your designated area (be it a wing, a floor, a house, or an entire residence hall), is who you are and what standards you set for your residents. When I say standards, I mean standards for what is acceptable in how people speak to each other, how they behave towards each other, what condition common areas are left in, what is acceptable to write on message boards, what pictures are appropriate to put on the outsides of doors, and what is permissible for the conditions of bathrooms.
All of these things affect the atmosphere of a community. You have a great opportunity to set a high standard, and if you can, this will make the rest of your job easier. If the residents respect each other, learn how to appropriately respond to each other, and practice acceptable behavior in a residence hall, there will be fewer unnecessary roommate conflicts, fewer offenses made unknowingly or unintentionally, fewer disgusting bathrooms, more laughter, more meals shared, and a more homey, accepting, comfortable environment in which to live. You need to keep in mind that it is not as if you are being thrown into a community where you are at every whim of the residents (and personalities) of those who live therein. As an RA, you have the freedom to establish ground rules. But how do you establish what those ground rules are?
Since you were hired from a group of many candidates to fill this position, I am sure that you hold qualities that set you apart. You have proven yourself as someone who manifests the values that your university administration is looking for in its community members. At our university we establish a set of Core Values that we expect to be evident as the “hallmark of the life of each and every member” of the university community from the student to the professor to the dining hall worker, to the custodial worker. These values are faith, integrity, respect, excellence, scholarship, responsibility, freedom, confidence, service and community building. These values are applicable to your position regardless of the nature of your university. Your university also has a core set of values that can be found in its mission statement and your department most likely has some as well. If you can use these values (and perhaps others that are dear to you) to establish expectations in your designated area, the results will be beneficial to you and your residents.
To begin with, you need to model the behavior you want to see in your residents. You need to communicate with them the same way you want them to communicate with each other. Begin with a community contract early on, where you all can talk about what you want to expect from each other. Students tend to have high expectations of each other, and if those are established early on, your group is more likely to hold each other accountable. Talk with your residents about how to keep each other accountable. If someone breaks the community contract, establish what the repercussions with be.
Remember to be real with your community. You, as an RA, aren’t the “controller” of the community, however, you do have power to help others become better people. Be aware of who the natural leaders are in your area, so you can rely on them to help you in setting the living standards you want to live by.
It is always easier to become more lenient than it is to become more strict as the academic year progresses. You want to be warm and welcoming, and yet be sure that there is an understanding of why certain behaviors and words are unacceptable. Your residents will respect your integrity if you remain consistent in those expectations.
You don’t want to live in a community where people are unkind to each other, disrespectful, antagonizing, or overbearing. Work to bring out the best in people. Strive to nurture what is good in them, and help them to discover more within themselves than they knew was there. Provide opportunities for them to be kind to each other, help each other, and just enjoy the mysteries and differences between them.
You have the power to make a difference in not just one person’s life, but in many lives. Allow your best to shine.
Your community is counting on you to set standards for them and to help them grow. You have the qualities within yourself, and you can help others to develop them as well.
Submitted by Malinda S. Clatterbuck, Area Coordinator, The Catholic University of America, Washington DC