Becoming a Resident Assistant means joining a staff team that you will probably remember fondly for the rest of your life. It also means joining a much larger team: the Administration of your College or University. Up to this point, regardless of your previous leadership positions, you have likely been “simply a student.” Now, you are a member of the University staff, and – strange but true – this makes you an admissions officer, a teaching assistant, a security officer, a member of the counseling center staff – the list goes on and on. Like it or not, you are now part of the administration.
Being an Authority Figure
For most new RAs, becoming a part of the administration means becoming an “authority figure” for the first time. This is certainly a mixed blessing. It feels good to know that most students will look up to you, seek you out for advice, and listen to what you say. However, you should also know that not all students will respect your authority, and some will challenge you and test your limits.
Being a Role Model
According to the current RAs that I surveyed, the biggest adjustment in becoming part of the administration is understanding the implications of being a role model. Some of the comments they had were:
“No matter where you are or what you are doing, you will always be the RA.”
“People raise their expectations of you; you can’t be just a student anymore.”
“There is always someone watching; you are like a celebrity, without the money.”
“You are no longer an individual, but a part of the University; anything you do will be assumed as representing the University.”
Being a role model means that students will look to you to see what is acceptable behavior. Some will watch what you do because they expect more from you than the average student; after all, authority figures are supposed to be flawless and perfect in their behavior. These students want to know that they can trust you to do the right thing, even if your supervisor or other RAs are not around. In other words, they will look for you to show integrity. This is not always easy, especially when you are new to the job.
Other students will be watching your behavior to determine your limit: “if my RA takes part in that behavior, then he/she certainly can’t write me up for it.” It is important to realize that such students may try to use your behavior to justify their own. Failing to hold students accountable can also backfire on you. You may be tempted not to document a situation, or just give students a “warning” when you confront them, and then later when another RA on your staff confronts them, such a resident may say “That new RA didn’t care, why do you?” Again, residents like these are just trying to justify their behavior as “normal,” so make sure you don’t do anything to “lower the norm.”
Certainly, residents are likely to be more cautious around you, and this can certainly include your friends. Help your friends to understand that being an RA is your job and nothing personal. In doing so, you are really helping them to remember where they fit in the community. It certainly doesn’t mean that you have to give up your friends; as one RA put it: “You may just have to give up some of your wild ways.” Even with your friends, you are now likely to be viewed as an authority figure, and this adjustment is challenging and sometimes frustrating.
Being A Community Leader
Being a part of the administration means that you can have a very significant and positive impact on the lives of those in your hall community. You are the one who sets the tone of the floor/hall for the year, and this tone can make the difference between a friendly, civil environment and one characterized by poor communication, conflicts, and disturbances. Most RAs will tell you that if you let your residents know what is expected of them early on, the year will go much more smoothly. However, remember that you won’t receive a magic “power pill” during staff training; setting the tone is not so much about asserting your “power” as it is using your influence as a leader among your peers. If you are perceived to be on a “power trip,” your residents are probably less likely to follow your lead. One current RA says, “Being disrespected is almost expected at some point along your RA journey.” You can’t expect that, just because you are an authority figure, everyone is going to respect you all the time. You will earn the respect of your residents by being consistent, fair, and responsible, not just through your title as “RA.” Don’t assume you have to act like someone else; just be aware that others will see you differently.
Making Other Positive Contributions
In addition setting the tone for your hall community, being a part of the Administration also means making positive contributions in other ways. New staff have a greater ability to advocate for the needs and wishes of other students. Being on the staff, you have the ability to gain insight into the larger goals of your department and of the institution as a whole. Added to your understanding of what it is like to be a resident student, you will be in a unique position to help bridge the gap between faculty/staff and the student body. Get a sense of the larger goals of the institution, and you will have a better idea of why things are done the way they are. Getting to know other staff, faculty, and administrators will undoubtedly make your job easier. Ally yourself with other staff (for example, the housekeeping staff); build relationships, rather than foster the divide. Other institution staff will see you as a part of their team until you show otherwise. Work to balance your identity; advocate for students as well as the larger institutional goals.
You will probably also recall times when you or your friends have used the phrase “the administration” to imply all those who worked at the college. As in “I can’t believe the administration decided that”. You can no longer say that without talking poorly about yourself. As Peter Parker’s Uncle told him “With great power, comes great responsibility”. Instead of railing against the administration, you are now part of it and therefore you can work to make changes in ways that will benefit students.
When it comes to becoming part of the administration, many RAs will tell you the same thing: “I never anticipated the time that would go into position; I was involved in too many activities, spreading myself too thin. Do what you can to make sure that you don’t become overwhelmed by the job”. You have taken on a big responsibility; ask questions, and don’t be afraid to ask for help or clarification. Remember, you were selected for the RA position based on who you are, as well as what you can learn from the position.
Finally, a few more words from an experienced RA: “When I became a part of the Administration, I realized I was now a part of the system that was keeping me safe and in check. I got a whole new appreciation for the system when I became part of it.” Welcome to the staff; you are now an even bigger part of what makes your institution a wonderful place of learning. Relax and enjoy the position. Who knows, you may even decide that Student Affairs work is the career for you.
Submitted By: Dana Severance, Director of Residence Life, Frostburg State University