Life is different as an RA. Let’s spend some time thinking about “how your walls can talk.”
Think about the following. Every action, decision you make, word you speak, joke you laugh at, television show you watch, magazine you read…even the posters on your walls…will be analyzed. Remember, once you become “the RA,” students often forget that you have your own personal likes and dislikes. In many respects, you forego the ability to stress out about homework, play your music excessively loud to blow off steam, argue with your next-door neighbor, and experience all of the wonderful emotions a traditional residential student experiences. However unfair this realization might seem, the fact of the matter remains that you now make an impact on students, positively or negatively, without even knowing it. You can even make an impact on a student by simply inviting them into your living space because you think it is a quiet location to talk. Imagine the following scenario:
You are a first year Resident Assistant on a co-educational floor. You feel that you have built a positive rapport with most of your residents. You know all of your residents’ names, often eat dinner with them, and many seek you out for friendly advice or direction. You are putting up your month’s bulletin board when Cathy, a first-year resident stops and asks to speak with you. You recognize Cathy as a friendly but quiet resident who basically stays to herself on the floor. You drop what you are doing and tell Cathy that you and she can talk in your room where there is a bit more privacy. She agrees. You walk down the hall, open your door, and you both enter your room. You close the door, sit down, ask her what she would like to talk about, and then, silence. It is apparent that Cathy is hesitating and after a few seemingly LONG seconds, Cathy smiles and stands to excuse herself. She apologizes for her abrupt departure, but states she just remembered she had a meeting with her academic advisor. You encourage Cathy to come back if she ever needs to chat again. Cathy leaves, and you are left to wonder if her excuse was clearly valid. You shrug it off and return to the original task of putting up your bulletin board.
Here is the reality of the situation. Cathy was struggling with peer acceptance and body image issues. These issues started in high school long before she knew she would be attending college, living on your wing, and having you as a Resident Assistant. High school was tough for Cathy, as she lacked the attention other girls in her class, the “prettier” girls, regularly received from the boys. Cathy, an already petite young woman, believed that if she could lose some weight, she would be more attractive and receive the same attention the other girls in her class received. She began slowly, but her moderate dieting and exercise regiment were not doing the trick. This lead to more severe measures of dieting with new and creative ways to drop the pounds: laxatives, excessive exercising, small to no food consumption for days at a time, etc…Cathy still did not receive the attention she desired and as high school graduation neared, she was so frail she looked like a skeleton.
Cathy was anxiously anticipating starting college. She viewed moving away from home as a fresh start to her personal life. Cathy arrived at college anorexic still battling her disease. She knew that she had lost control of this disease in her life a long time ago and was looking for someone to help her regain control. Here is where you enter the picture. It was a huge risk for Cathy to seek you out. After all, you are male, the species of humanity that lead Cathy down this path of destruction, and who she was trying to impress in the first place. However, she felt a connection with you. That is, until she walked into your room and saw Pamela Anderson strewed about on your walls. Another wall: Carmen Electra. Another wall: A huge Playboy symbol on a wall-sized poster…
The reality of this situation is that the walls of your room spoke to Cathy. Because of what hung on your walls, it would not have made a difference what you said to Cathy. Cathy felt that you bought into the whole ideation that thinness equates to beauty, and you were no more different than the people she was trying to impress in high school. Obviously the intention of hanging these posters on your wall was never to alienate one of your residents. However, the fact remains that Cathy’s experience in seeing what was on your walls negatively impacted her.
Many opportunities to positively impact students could be missed due to similar but varied scenarios. You may be thinking, “But how am I supposed to know?!?” You aren’t. But however unintentional, because of what you might have hanging on your walls, you may lose touch with one of your residents and struggle the entire year to regain what was lost in a single instance.
It may seem overwhelming, almost frustrating, that you have now taken on a position where it appears you have no place for your freedom of expression. This was never advertised on the Resident Assistant job description when you applied. I am quite certain it never stated, “Must be an energetic person with the desire to positively impact people…oh, and by the way, when you become a Resident Assistant you can no longer publicly share your own likes and dislikes no matter where you are at any time because you are a role model and some things that students may hear you say or see you do they may negatively internalize.”
As frustrating as it may be, as a RA you live in a fishbowl, and you need to recognize, accept, and embrace this reality. It comes with the territory of being a Resident Assistant on the front lines with students. You live where you work. No matter how good you are at time management, living where you work leaves little down time for you. But becoming a Resident Assistant was never about you. Your motivation should be for your residents. Keep this in mind as you consider the following:
Fact: A Majority of the World Does Not, Nor Will Ever, Look Like A Swimsuit Model.
So, keep your walls free of swimsuit models. Pictures such as these buy into the stereotype that thinness equates to beauty, and if some of your male or female residents do not fit the mold, then they may feel you perceive them as being less attractive. Approximately 10 – 20 % of college women are struggling with an eating disorder (4 to 10 % of college men struggle as well).
Fact: We all come to college with years of experience, luggage, and baggage that has shaped our worldview.
This includes all of our experiences surrounding the topic of body image. Eating disorders are complex problems, and simply do not revolve around body image. Although this aspect plays a large role, eating disorders stem from a variety of physical, social, and emotional issues, all of which shape our opinion of what we perceive to be acceptable by society. Recognize that body image is an aspect that adds to the diversity on your floor. Be intentional in addressing body image issues without alienating those residential students that may be struggling with an eating disorder.
In conclusion, you can be a Resident Assistant and still maintain your own individuality. It is a constant challenge, and figuring out how to do this is different for everyone. You can begin this process by understanding that it is not enough to be politically correct. Rather, strive to be culturally competent. It is adequate to be “PC,” but it is essential to be competent in understanding why certain actions in your position may alienate students. Obtaining this knowledge will help you make great change and positively impact your residents on your floor.
Submitted by Matthew R. Shupp, M.S., N.C.C., Assistant Director of Student Life, Community College of Philadelphia