What does it mean to be an R.A.? When I think back to my own R.A. experience, I often think about the old army recruiting slogan, “The Toughest Job You’ll Ever Love”. Being an RA sure was tough and believe me it is a lot tougher now than it was back in the ‘80’s. Sure some issues are the same, I dealt with my share of homesick freshmen, roommate conflicts, lockouts and quiet hour violations. However, I think that RAs today are dealing with more students with mental health issues as well as tougher alcohol and drug policies than in the past.
At the time I decided to be an R.A. many of my friends asked me why? Why do you want to be a “snitch”? It made me think a lot about why I was considering the R.A. job in the first place. When asked the question; “Why do you want to be an RA?” during my interview, I answered just like most of you by saying things like: “Because I’m a people person” and “I really like helping people” and “All my friends come to me with their problems.” I didn’t give much thought to things like doing room condition reports, attending meetings, program requirements, writing up my friends, dealing with obnoxious drunks puking on my shoes or people writing “RA: Resident Asshole” on my door. Sure, I did attend a lot of meetings, and did have to write up the occasional friend, I even spent a semester on job probation because I didn’t complete my programming requirements. However, when I reminisce about my RA days what I remember most are the friendships that I made, the sense of belonging that I felt on staff and of course how for me it ended up being not only a job, but also my career.
What I would like to do is offer you all some advice on how you can get the most out of your R.A. experience. I have put together 10 tips based on my own R.A. experience as well as working with RA’s at 4 different institutions over the past 17 years. So here goes:
Number 1: Stop Trying to Explain to Your Family What it is You Do!
Let’s face it, unless one of your parents was an R.A. when they went to college, chances are they are not 100% sure what it is that you do. Basically they know that it has something to do with “being in charge of the dorms”, and they know that you always have to go back early and you are always one of the last to leave at the end of the semester, but beyond that they are most excited that it helps pay expenses. No matter how hard you try to explain it, they will never quite grasp why you have to go through training every semester. Still, after all these years, when I mention training, my mother will ask, “don’t you know the job by now?”
Number 2: Maintain Friendships With Your Non-RA Friends
We talk a lot about community on all of our campuses and in a lot of ways; the RA staff is it’s own micro-community. At times it can even border on “cult like” behavior. I’m not sure why or how it happens, but very slowly we start distancing ourselves from some of our old friends because they just don’t understand what we are going through, and our new RA friends are so understanding and supportive. Plus, we think that close bonding feeling from training is going to last all year long, and before you know it you are sitting at “THE RA TABLE” in the cafeteria. And we wonder sometimes why our Residents can resent us? On some of the stressful days, you will be glad that you have stayed close to your old friends, when you don’t feel like talking “shop” and you just want a break from it all.
Number 3: Don’t’ Be a Perfectionist, instead Strive For Excellence
I think that the R.A. position naturally attracts over achievers. In addition to your school work and your R.A. position, many of you probably hold down another job and are involved in various leadership positions and activities on your campus. At times you can feel a tremendous amount of pressure to be “Perfect”. As a recovering Perfectionist myself, I am telling you to let it go. There is no such thing as being perfect. Perfectionists are never satisfied with the finished product because they are always trying to make it better. They never get to enjoy their success. About 4 or 5 years ago my supervisor pointed out my perfectionist behavior and gave me a great piece of advice. Instead of trying to be perfect, strive to be excellent. Being excellent really means just being the best that you can be. Personally, I find a lot of satisfaction in my work when I know that I did it to the best of my ability.
This leads right into my 4th tip, which is: Always Give 100% to what you do
If you are going to do something, you should do it right. Recently I was walking through one of the residence halls on my campus and I was struck by a bulletin board that one of our Senior RA’s had done on her floor. It made such an impression on me. I’d like to share it with you, it was titled: If 99.99 percent was good enough then:
• 315 entries in Webster’s 3rd international dictionary would be misspelled
• 107 incorrect medical procedures will be performed by the end of today
• 2 million documents will be lost by the IRS this year
• 3056 copies of yesterday’s Wall St. Journal would have been missing 1 section
• 12 babies will be given to the wrong parents today
• 22,000 checks will be deducted from the wrong bank accounts in the next hour
I don’t know about you but I find these statistics to be staggering. I don’t need anymore convincing to give a 100% of myself. Don’t you think that others deserve 100% of what you have to give?
Number 5: Be a Team Player
I am sure at some point this year your RD or someone on your staff will remind you “there is no “I” in team”. As corny as it sounds, it is very true. One of the greatest things about being an RA is you are not alone. You have your friends, your family, your fellow RA’s, your supervisor and the rest of the staff who are all there to help you. Being on staff truly is a blessing, but it is also a curse. The old adage “One bad apple can ruin the whole bushel” certainly applies. It only takes one R.A. to abuse his or her power or to break a rule or to not be a good role model for residents to have bad feelings about all RA’s. Being a good team player is truly understanding that it is more than just supporting your peers, it’s doing your best to represent them well.
Number 6: Accept That You Do Not Always Know What an Impact you are making on the Lives of Your Residents
The RA position can often feel like a thankless job. There are times that you feel really beat up and wonder what happened to the helping people part. I want you all to think back for a minute to your lives before you were an R.A. Chances are part of the reason you applied for the job is because of something your R.A did for you. Maybe it was during those first few weeks when you were sitting alone in your room feeling homesick and your R.A. stopped by just to say Hi and to ask you how things were going. Or maybe it was it was the first time that you walked into the cafeteria alone and you were dreading it and your R.A. invited you to sit down and join them. Perhaps it was when your long distance relationship ended and your R.A. found you in the lounge crying and stayed up all night talking to you. Did you ever really say Thank You? Did you ever tell your R.A. how much you appreciated him or her? Probably not! Fortunately once in a while some one does tell you how you touched their lives. Just recently, a former summer conference staff member contacted me. The reason he was calling, he is getting married this fall and he would like me to be there. Days like this remind me, why I do the work that I do. Remember, you do make a difference in people’s lives everyday, even if they do forget to thank you.
Number 7: Learn To Sell the Skills the RA Job Teaches You
As I have pointed out, my RA job turned into my career. Some of you may also decide to go into Higher Education as a career. For the majority of you however your career path will take you somewhere else. However, the skills that you are developing now as an RA will help you no matter where you end up. As RA’s you are learning to be event planners, to balance multiple priorities, to mediate conflicts, to be strong leaders, to be public speakers, the list goes on an on. In preparing for this article, I spent some time surfing the web and I checked out residentassistant.com. If you have never checked out this site before, you should do so. One of the things on the site is a list of famous people who were RA’s. It includes:
• Paul Reiser, the actor from the TV Show Mad About You (SUNY Binghamton)
• Wesley Snipes, the movie star (SUNY Purchase)
• John Nabor, Olympic Swimmer & Commentator (Univ of Southern California)
• Chyna, the wrestler with the WWF (University of Tampa)
• Katie Couric of the Today Show (University of Virginia)
• Mike Ditka, former Football Coach and Sports Commentator (Univ. of Pittsburgh)
• Senator Hilary Rodham Clinton (Wellesley College)
It’s a pretty impressive list. I can’t say for sure, but I am willing to bet that the R.A. experience played a part in getting these folks to where they are today. Who knows a few years from now we may be adding you to this list.
Number 8: Manage Your Priorities and Take Care of Yourself
I am sure that at one time or another you will hear from your supervisors that you are a student first and an R.A. second. However, you are so much more than that: you are your parent’s children, you are sisters and brothers, you are a best friend, a significant other, an employee, a campus leader, you wear many different hats. As I grow older, I find myself struggling to find some balance between my work life, my family life and still managing to find time for myself. Some of you may have heard this story before, but I think it bears repeating:
A wise man stood before a group of 100 people and had some items in front of him. Wordlessly, he picked up a large empty jar and proceeded to fill it with rocks. The rocks were about 2” in diameter. He then asked the audience if the jar was full? They all agreed that it was. So the wise man then picked up a box of pebbles and poured them into the jar. He shook the jar lightly. The pebbles, of course, rolled into the open areas between the rocks. The audience laughed. The wise man picked up a box of sand and poured it into the jar. Of course, the sand filled up the spaces between the rocks and the pebbles. Now, said the wise man, “I want you to recognize that this is your life. The rocks are the important things, your family, your partner, and your health, anything that is so important to you that if it were lost you would be nearly destroyed. The pebbles are the other things that matter like your job, your studies, your house, your car, etc. The sand is everything else, the small stuff. If you put the sand into the jar first, there is no room for the pebbles and the rocks. The same goes for your life. If you spend all of your time on the small stuff, you will never have room for the things that are important to you. Take care of the rocks first, the things that really matter. Set your priorities because the rest is just sand!
Need I say more?
Number 9: Be a Risk Taker
John F. Kennedy once said, “We should not let our fears hold us back from pursuing our hopes.” This article was originally presented as a keynote speech at the Boston Area College Housing Association’s annual R.A. conference. When I was asked if I would be the keynote speaker, I said no! I was terrified. I was asked to think about it overnight. Obviously, I said yes. I decided to take a risk. Public Speaking has never been easy for me, but unless I face my fear, I will never get over it. I am happy to report that the speech was very well received. During your R.A. experience and throughout college in general, you have a great opportunity to take some risks. Try something new, do a bulletin board on a topic that no one has ever done before, sponsor a program that may spark some controversy, present at an RA conference next year, participate in the National Student Exchange Programs RA Exchange. Whatever, but don’t be afraid to take a risk.
Number 10: Have A Positive Attitude
Of all the tips that I have offered in this article, this is probably the most important one. We all take for granted how our attitude affects everything that we do. Being an RA isn’t easy. There are going to be some tough days, but you can’t let it get you down. Some RA’s on my own staff have joked about how their compensation package breaks down to 8 cents an hour. It was pretty humorous at first, but at times it can become a real de-motivator. You can’t focus on stuff like this, how can you put a price on helping others, on student service? We all need to realize that we have the power to decide how we are going to react to the bumps in the road, the emergencies, the crises, and the things that we didn’t plan. Remember you can’t put all of your valuable time and energy into things that you can control and the only thing that you can control is YOURSELF.
Submitted by Beth Moriarty, Associate Director of Residence Life and Housing, Bridgewater State University