The secret life of the Resident Assistant

Indiana University | Photo courtesy
RAs give up a lot to be there for their residents.

What it’s really like living and working in the residence halls

Resident Assistants are, depending on your experience, the annoying older sibling you never asked for or the friendly face down your hall. Resident Assistants (RA) live with you, they listen to you, they know all the little ins and outs of the people on their floor, but what do you really know about their position?

While it may seem that RAs exist to make billboards or sign out board games, there’s a whole lot more to being an RA than initially seen. I got the chance to speak to five individuals, three former RAs and two current RAs to find out about their experiences within the position (for their privacy and protection, their names have been changed and any personal details have been omitted).

After speaking with them, it seems clear that a place to sleep and a meal plan come at a high cost to their social lives, mental health and self-esteem. All five individuals cited problems with being undervalued as workers. Several touched on the unfair expectations of the job, the inability of leadership within Residence Life to listen and the constant pressure of knowing you could be fired at any minute.

Sarah, a former RA, discussed how the stress of job affected her, “Being an RA uprooted any stability in my mental health and sent me spiraling.” Other individuals I spoke with echoed this sentiment. Matt, also a former RA, said, “This is not a job you do with balance. If you do your job right, your social life or anxiety will be off. If you do your job wrong, you get fired and have nowhere to live.”

When asked about negative experiences within the position, some frustrating examples were brought to the table. Jackson, a current RA, discussed a presentation Residence Life was using to show how successful NDSU’s program was compared to other schools. “I remember they would always talk about this survey they had gotten that showed student satisfaction had gone up a ton since implementing all these changes that meant a ton more work and stress for RAs.”

“But I knew someone in the RHA (Residence Hall Association) office who had the rest of the survey which showed RA satisfaction plummet[ed] since the changes were made. The directors were literally going to all these conferences for residence life bragging about how happy their students were but leaving out the slide that showed their employees, who are students too, were completely getting bulldozed by their policies.”

The overwhelming amount of work was echoed by every person I talked to. Even Leo, a current RA who is largely favorable towards the position, said, “They make all the deadlines due at the same time.”

Among other things, an RA’s weekly duties typically include a two-hour staff meeting once a week, a special event to attend with their residents (like a basketball game or Campus Attractions event), being on duty, where they work in the office and are on-call all night, a possible special assignments meeting (there are some RAs who get assigned to attend special committees within residence life) and they often have to complete billboards and talk to residents. The RAs I spoke with said they spent anywhere from 5 to 30 hours a week working for the position. This time was not including any of the casual conversations they had with residents on a daily basis.

Matt talked about how frustrating it could be when there would be weeks of only four hours of work and then a week with 30 or more hours of work due to poor planning. “All these little events take up more time than you think. The job I work in now, I knock out eight hours at once. As an RA I was doing two hours here, three hours there. And if I had to go somewhere for something that doesn’t even count for the time spent getting places.”

The gist is that RAs are busy, and many of them are overwhelmed by their haphazard and fractured workload; a lot of which they say was pointless. Former RA Bergen discussed how there would be meetings where all the RAs from different halls would come together for a big meeting. “Most of them weren’t even necessary. So we’d have to take time out of our schedule to go play a Kahoot about which Hall Directors have a dog or not.”

These individuals felt that their time was not respected, but it went further than that. Not one of the individuals I spoke with said they felt valued as an RA. Four of the RAs, Sarah, Bergen, Jackson and Matt had all been told by separate individuals that it would be easy to replace them. As Sarah said, “The people above you don’t care about you and enforce it by emphasizing how easy it is to replace you… They did not care about me. Residence Life only cares about their image.”

It was a pattern among the RAs that when they would go to their bosses about concerns of meeting deadlines and completing schoolwork all while living in your workplace and maintaining your mental health, they were met with the line, as Bergen provided, “‘I hear you, but this is a job.’”

This type of dismissal has led some to disregard the requirements of the position, like Matt. “When they tell me they don’t care about me, why would I want to do my job well? My residents care about me, so why would I write them up for stuff? I’m going to help the people who help me.”

None of the RAs I spoke with relished that element of their job, the part involving getting students in trouble and all either admitted directly or alluded to letting things go that they knew weren’t allowed. 

Not only are RAs expected to report students breaking procedures, but they are also meant to report on their fellow RAs.

“It’s so weird,” said Jackson, “Like we’re told to be buddy-buddy with [other RAs], but like, then when the first thing goes wrong we go tell our Hall Director and that person can get fired for anything we say… It either encourages friendship but rule-breaking or everyone just hates each other.”

So if RAs are dealing with stressful workloads, lack of appreciation and animosity on their staff, why do they do it? Well, they did all cite positive experiences associated with the job as well. 

Sarah, Bergen and Jackson all discussed how much they enjoyed the friends they made on their staff. Sarah said, “They really helped me through my times as an RA, because they gave me something to lean on… Having that group of friends who were all RAs gave me a sense of belonging, knowing we were all in the same boat.”

Connecting with residents was also really important. Jackson discussed how powerful it was to help one of his residents through a difficult time in their life. Bergen said she really enjoyed talking with her residents when it wasn’t required (RAs have predetermined conversations with students each month where they transcribe what their residents say and send to their Hall Directors).

As a former RA myself, I can say too that my experience with my staff and my residents was the best part of my job. However I, like every person I spoke to, ultimately would not recommend the position. 

In a glorious rant, Bergen laid out a few things, “I would not recommend the position, and I’ve told other people: ‘Don’t do it.’ They’re not organized, they don’t value their employees as much as their residents, it’s too much of a time suck and the scholarships aren’t worth it.”

Both Sarah and Jackson brought up how they couldn’t recommend the position because of the mental toll it takes. Sarah mentioned how hard it is to live where you work, “I never felt like I could relax or decompress from work since it surrounded me. If you believe you can handle it, try it out. If you’re anything like me, stay far away.”

As Jackson put it, “Working for people who value your mental health when you’re a freshman on campus but sh*t on it when you’re an RA is too messed up. I’ve worked crappy food jobs where my company valued me more. I’m here for the scholarship and that’s it.”

Leonardo was the only one who might recommend the job with some caveats: you have to be extroverted, happy and willing to share your space. It should be noted, however, that since the time of his interview and today, Leonardo has quit his job due to the requirements of the position.

In my experience, the things that are attractive about being an RA are the friends you make and the students who live on your floor. The scholarship is far from providing ‘free housing’ and ‘free food’ as the five individuals I talked with can contend, the scholarship is earned through hours of hard work, stress and losses to your social life, academics and mental health.

RAs are not some villains with an agenda to ruin college freshmen’s lives (at least for the most part). Even Hall Directors, with a few notable exceptions, really do want the best for their RAs and residents. The problems within Residence Life are rooted among the higher levels of an organization that expects too much of its employees and is reiterated in an institutional structure that prioritizes the health of some students over others. 

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