So you got that R.A. position you have been dreaming about for two semesters, and now your stomach is a bit tight and doubt is creeping into the corner of your thoughts. Can I really do this?
You have been hired for the R.A. position because you have successfully made the transition into the university culture and residence hall living. You show the potential to guide students through the challenges that they probably do not even realize await them. Instead of picking their community of friends who think, act, and have the same interests, they will suddenly be dropped into a new environment made up of people from different backgrounds, cultures, interests, habits, abilities, and sexual orientations. Diversity will now become a very real everyday occurrence, and many of your residents have probably never had to honestly look at how that will affect and change them.
Philosophy of your position
Your most immediate role is quite simple: help your students successfully transition into a new environment and culture. They will be have to use skills that they most likely have not yet completely developed, and from now on, nobody else (parents, friends, teachers) can do it for them. Sound impossible? It isn’t; you have already made that transition successfully, and with solid training you will be ready to mentor others as they go through something that, in many cases, will be similar to your own experience. Work hard from the start to develop solid relationships with your residents. If they realize that you understand their concerns and issues, that you care about them, you will be able to have the kind of conversations that have meaning and impact in their lives: the advice of a friend and peer. Help your residents learn about developing positive patterns from the very start of their year. Challenge them to think about their responsibilities as a community member, to clarify their values, and to make wise decisions around academics, study habits, alcohol, drugs, friendships, sexual relationships, exercise, parties, and wellness.
Training gets the mind churning and the emotions flowing. As the whirlwind of information and ideas swirls around you, take time in the evenings to think about how it all relates to working with your residents. Think back to when you first moved into the residence hall system. Remember that feeling of tightness in your stomach? If you can stay focused on why you do things as well as how you do things you will definitely develop the ability to help residents remove that tightness that they will be feeling. Although they probably have not thought much about it, the following issues will become very real in their lives.
Think about how you can support and challenge them around these topics:
• Building Community
Rules and policies may help provide structure for the incoming students, but relationships, honest and caring communication, and a solid role model in the form of a Resident Assistant will help even more. You can help create an environment where individuals feel that they not only fit, but belong; not only matter, but have a voice; not only can feel safe, but can become involved in programs, activities, and make life-long friendships. Get involved with your residents to help them gain the confidence and skills for setting the kind of patterns that will help them succeed in a totally new culture; one that places all the responsibility for their success directly on their own shoulders (for the first time in many cases).
Don’t worry… we will get you ready. Residence Life programs have excellent preparation and training programs for the new staff coming into R.A. positions. As you prepare this summer, you can look at your job description to figure out the many roles you will play in student lives. Use your time at orientation and training to ask questions and gain ideas about how to develop the skills that will help you fill those roles. The bonus for you personally is that these skills will help you be successful the rest of your life: with your career, family, parenting, or volunteering in your community. The life skills you develop are the real compensation for the R.A. position, not the standard room and board that helps lighten the financial load. Here are some things you can expect in your training, and also some things to think about as you prepare to move into your new position.
General to Specific
When you first get to training you may be anxious. Relax, it will all fall into place. Most Residence Life programs will begin training by setting a philosophical groundwork for all you do: examining why the system is set up the way it is. You may want to learn about how to properly fill out an incident report, and they will be talking about why they approach conduct as an educational and developmental process. Don’t panic! The training will move from general to specific, from philosophy to policies and procedures. This has purpose! You will need to help students understand why we do what we do. Focus on seeing the vision behind the policies and procedures that help students become successful. They will need someone they trust and care about who will be willing to honestly ask them to think about why they are making the choices they are making. Have they thought it through? Do they realize how their actions effect others? Do they realize the opportunities they may gain or lose with their choices and behaviors?
Orientation and Teambuilding
Get ready to initially do lots of talking, sharing, and playing with your staff. Teambuilding is strategic in building your comfort with your environment and your staff! Get your frame of reference correct from the very beginning. The R.A. job is not an individual working on a floor section; it is a staff team working with a building of students, with each member having both central and floor responsibilities. It is essential for you to build a relationship with fellow staff members based on trust and solid communication. Those silly teambuilders and games are building a support group for you! Play with them! Invest in developing solid relationships with your staff and they will “have your back” in the tough times ahead. They will be the ones who truly understand what you are going through, and they can help you keep it all in perspective.
Some of the most beneficial sessions you will have will be with your staff team as you begin talking about roles, goals, and expectations. Within these conversations your values, as well as those of your co-workers will quickly surface. The initial teambuilding will help you find your commonalties as a group. It is during these discussions that you find your diversity as a group. Try your best not to judge the variety of perceptions and opinions, but work to gain the strength of looking at issues from the various points of view. Your openness to different approaches and styles will only benefit students and your own personal growth. Finally, it will be important to come to consensus on how you will approach things as a staff. Your flexibility, as well as that of your peers, will be essential. Keep your ego in check and learn and grow from the process.
Skill Building and Practice
As you move further along into training, the specifics will begin to come. You will have training on topics ranging from assertive communication through desk and duty responsibilities. “Well, if I ran into that situation I would just…”. A word of warning: the real life situations are always more complex and intimidating than what you talked about in training. The more opportunities you get to actually practice the skills you are learning, the more prepared you will feel when you first have to use them. Possibly the most beneficial training will come in the form of role-playing and case studies. Staff members usually hate the idea of Behind Closed Doors, but the reality is that these sessions will help you the most. In sessions such as Behind Closed Doors, a new staff member knocks on a closed door and responds to whatever situation is being role-played by experienced staff. You can get past worrying about looking foolish in front of your peers, so just relax and try out what you would actually say and do if you walked into certain situations. Returning staff will be incredibly helpful as they talk about what has worked for them in the past, and probably more importantly, what mistakes they made and learned from. You will quickly gain confidence and develop approaches, words, and actions that will help deal effectively with the kinds of challenges that arise from time to time on the job.
Meetings and communication patterns
During training you will work around class times to set up the semester’s patterns of communication for you, your staff, and your supervisor. Some words of advice about meetings: use them wisely, and enter into them having thought about what issues you have questions about and what opinions you are willing to share. Typically, you will meet individually with your supervisor, attend weekly staff meetings with your Resident Assistant staff, lead floor and community meetings, and attend student leader meetings such as Hall Government and programming teams. Although there are a lot of meetings, every one can bring you energy if you prepare ahead of time, think about how you want to express ideas and thoughts, and attempt to focus as much on others as you do on yourself. The great discussions that take place during training can continue throughout the semester with supervisory and staff meetings.
Listed below are some of the topics that will most likely be covered during your orientation and training. This varies from school to school, usually depending on time, resources, availability of trainers, and in-service training sessions available during the fall semester.
• Community Development
• Helping/Communication skills
• Emergency procedures
• Desk/Duty procedures
• Academic support
• Campus resources
• Administrative duties
How You Can Prepare
Read! Carefully look over any summer mailings or articles given to you after being selected for the R.A. position. When you get to training get excited and stay focused. Be a sponge and soak up all that you can! Ask what and why questions about policies and procedures so you can help students see the bigger picture. Commit to learning as much as possible so you can role model and become a valuable resource for the students you come in contact with during the academic year. You will come out of this experience with life skills. You will improve your skills in communication, problem solving, facilitating conversations/discussions, time management, group leadership, and vocalizing your values and beliefs. The students will gain from your friendship, guidance, and commitment to their success.
You were hired because of what you have learned by getting involved and taking leadership opportunities. It seems ironic that we now ask you to slow down and focus on this particular leadership opportunity, but we need you involved and committed. This is one of the most important positions at your school. To do it well, you will need to let go of some of those other experiences and focus on this incredible and important opportunity. All those other leadership experiences have led you to this point. To do the R.A. position well takes an incredible time commitment. This time commitment is not just desk, duty, and meetings, but also the time it takes to build relationships, develop and provide programs, help students learn to prioritize and problem solve, and to consistently communicate with staff and students with the daily challenges of college life. This truly is a once in a lifetime opportunity to touch so many lives. We have confidence you will do it excellently!
Submitted by Guy Arnesen, Associate Director of Residence Life, Colorado State University