Although freshmen year may be an exciting and turbulent time for first year students, it can be even more interesting for the Resident Assistants who guide them through it. A sophomore at Susquehanna University, I am near completing my first year as an RA in Smith Hall, an all freshmen hall where I also lived as a resident last year. Three stories tall, Smith houses approximately 275 co-ed residents and has a reputation for rowdiness.
My time as a Smith Hall staff member has taught me volumes about working in a challenging freshmen residence hall, but the following are the lessons I found most valuable:
Express optimism about campus life. During the first few weeks, you’ll most likely receive a steady flow of eager questions. Although it’s best to give honest answers, try to keep things upbeat. Your attitude can drastically affect the way your residents view their surroundings, and you don’t want to amplify anyone’s nerves – especially when it comes to academics. Try to balance out the negative with the positive; so while you may warn your residents that college provides more classroom challenges than high school, make sure to add that help is available when needed.
You don’t have to sacrifice all your time to guide your residents through the orientation process. If you’re running short on time for one-on-one interactions as the semester begins, hanging up signs and sending out batch e-mails can help to shortcut frequently asked questions and spread information quickly. You can also post signs in the bathroom stalls and ask residents to contribute thoughts and expressions of their own. “Toilet literature” can be a great venue to develop community, share advice, recognize resident accomplishments and announce activities and events.
Be careful not too issue too many disciplinary warnings without appropriate follow up. Despite all the initial excitement, remember that you’re more than just a friendly tour guide. For most freshmen, college is their first real experience living away from their parent’s/guardian’s guidelines. While some residents have no difficulty handling themselves responsibly, others will take their new found freedom and run with it.
Waiting too long to administer policy, as I discovered, can be hazardous to both your hall environment and the relationships you have with your residents. Susquehanna’s Coordinator of First Year Programs, David Satterlee, said “My experience has always been that those RAs who start out the year being tough can easily lighten up after a community atmosphere is established. But an RA that is too easy on the rules early in the year has difficulty establishing a community atmosphere that is conducive to learning and risks being perceived as a jerk later on when they are forced to write someone up.”
Regretfully, I underestimated the value of this advice. Early on, my primary goal was to make my residents feel comfortable coming to me with their problems. By issuing too many warnings before dishing out real consequences, I made my residents feel too comfortable. Before I knew it, my friendly community transformed into an out-of-control mob, and by second semester my write-up rate had tripled. Writing-up a resident for something as small as a noise violation early in the year may be all you need to do to show you mean business.
Don’t feel guilty for cracking down on drug and alcohol use in the building. It’s probably the biggest favor you can do for your residents, even if they don’t see it that way. Freshmen are not accustomed to balancing such a huge amount of work with so many possibilities for play. You may feel that experimentation is a normal aspect of college life, but if you give your residents too much room to indulge in temptation in the residence hall, several will most likely fail-out. Also, the more alcohol “busts” you have, the lower the chance your residents will be taking ambulance rides. Alcohol poisoning cases tend to correlate with “pre-gaming” – or drinking before going out to party – which is usually done with liquor because it’s easier to smuggle into the residence hall.
It’s alright to make friends in the building. You are not expected to socially wall yourself off from the people who live around you. However, to avoid drama, you should make it clear that you will document your resident friends just like everyone else if need be. A true friend will realize that by violating policy they put themselves and you in the sticky spot and will respect that you have to do your job.
Know how to handle criticism from residents. You may come across residents who will criticize you or question your authority. As “rookies” in college life, some freshmen hold false expectations about what they are and are not entitled to do, and you will probably be perceived as the bearer of bad news. Although you do not owe anyone an extended explanation (especially if a resident is disrespectful or belligerent), you may be inclined to crack open your student handbook or call another staff member for reference when your actions are questioned. Also, when documenting a situation, don’t let residents pass the blame on you. Encourage them to take responsibility for their actions by pointing out that they put themselves on the write-up list.
Never be afraid to ask other RAs for help. Being an RA is a complicated position and it takes time to absorb everything you need to know. It’s best to double check on policies if you’re unsure, and it’s beneficial to call for backup before approaching a suspicious room; you never know what might lie behind a closed door. It’s also great to turn to your Head Resident or professional staff member for advice and support. Talking to a resident about RA concerns is not a good idea, as it breaks trust and breaches confidentiality amongst your staff team.
Don’t beat yourself up if your hall community isn’t picture perfect. It is not your job to control the actions of others, but to guide them. If you’ve done everything in your power, it’s ok to let the professional staff do what they can to straighten out your trouble-makers through the judicial system.
Where upperclassmen pretty much know the drill, most freshmen truly depend on you to show them the way on campus, which can seem like both a blessing and a curse at times. Things do get hectic and I may occasionally wake up to find a cherry pie splattered on the bathroom mirror, but the gestures of appreciation I’ve received make the trying times worth while. By the end of the year you’ll strongly agree that “patience is a virtue,” and you’ll probably find that you had a lot more of it than you knew. Try to reflect on what each situation has taught you and congratulate yourself frequently, because whether residents acknowledge it or not, you are making a difference in their lives.
Submitted by Cassandra Smolcic, Resident Assistant, Susquehanna University