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Resident Assistants: What you Should Know Before Becoming an RA

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A resident assistant, or RA, is a trained student leader whose duty is to supervise students living in the residence halls. The RA selection and training process is usually intense and quite rigorous. The RA position is very demanding and time consuming. You’ll be expected to sacrifice your weekends to cover duty shifts. You’ll spend part of your summer in RA training. You’ll be the first to arrive on campus and the last to leave. Some residents won’t like you because you enforce the rules, but it’s your job. Being an RA means being left out of many residential activities for fear of “having an RA around.”

There are benefits to taking an RA position. These benefits vary greatly from school to school and may include a single residence hall room (for assured privacy), parking permits, financial compensation/stipends, meal plans, and/or significant discount on room-rate (including full compensation). Most important are the intangible benefits. As an RA, you will do administrative duties – paperwork. These administrative skills will benefit you greatly in future jobs. Most jobs require a certain degree of record keeping. You will learn the importance of deadlines and how to handle confrontation – another skill employers will expect. RAs are often better prepared to make successful transitions from college to the job market, since they can demonstrate leadership training, management skills, and community involvement.

Pre-school training and on-going staff developments will teach you what you need to know to be an outstanding RA. Take time to think about your position, identify what you hope to accomplish, and prepare anything you can ahead of time. During training you will probably set goals for yourself and your floor. As you develop your goals, consider how you want to be perceived by your residents, how you want your floor to physically appear, what you want to get out of your RA experience, and what you want your residents to learn from living on your floor. Know in advance that with all the training in the world, you aren’t going to be able to handle every situation or conflict by yourself. You will have a support system to help you in all matters.

RAs are typically assigned “duty” periods where they will be expected to make rounds in the residence or staff the front desk. You will make sure that institutional policies are observed, and ensure that the residence hall is an environment supportive of the educational pursuits of the students. An RA is expected to be available to offer support for students encountering issues such as roommate conflicts, alcohol or drug abuse, and depression on a daily basis. You will be required to plan and facilitate events (often called Programs) for the residents in order to enhance the living community within the residential hall. These programs can take almost any form – community service projects, social events, educational programs, or skill building. You will be trained in CPR and emergency procedures.

How do you know if an RA position is for you? A few questions to ask yourself are:

  • Are you willing to give up some privacy and free time? You have to be visible to your residents.
  • Do you communicate openly and honestly? Can you effectively keep others informed of important information?
  • Can you keep things confidential? Except for information that needs to be passed on, what is discussed in meetings (especially personal matters) is confidential.
  • Can you effectively handle conflict? Does it make you uncomfortable?
  • Can you make quick decisions when required?
  • Do you have an appreciation for diversity? You will be expected to create a healthy environment for different types of people.
  • Are you ethical? As an RA you have been placed in a position of leadership that will require that you honor both formal and informal rules regarding relationships and your interactions with others.
  • Are you organized? Do you pay attention to detail? You will be expected to be organized and thorough in your job.

As an RA, you should know your residents. As human beings we all have the desire and need to belong. Knowing your residents does not mean that you need to be able to detail their life stories, but it does mean that you should be friendly and show interest in their lives. It’s simple, but it matters. You should respect your residents. There will be residents whose personalities do not mesh well with yours. There will be residents that have behavioral issues. There will be residents that decide that they do not like you for the mere fact that you are an RA. It is important to separate someone’s disrespectful actions from the person, who we should respect. Respecting a person does not mean that you agree with their position or that you even understand it. Respecting a person that you have difficulty with raises your character above any reproach possible. It’s the small things in life that represent respect: knowing someone’s name, being cordial, acknowledging that he or she may be different than you, listening, and basic courtesy. Every RA should know when to say no and know when to admit they don’t know the answer (and then get the answer).

Being an RA has many advantages – both financial and personal. If you get into the position and absolutely love it, you may want to consider a career in student affairs or student development.

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