I was a resident assistant (RA) for two semesters during my junior year of college. I started Summer 2013 and resigned at the end of the Fall 2013 semester. A total of 8 months. Being an RA can be rewarding but it also requires hard work. You're expected to put in a lot of hours for your residents without getting much in return. But, you can make a huge impact in a few people's lives which can make it all worth while. I'm going to outline what it's like to be an RA by going over responsibilities, pay, etc. and you can decide if it's the right job for you. I ended up resigning but I'm very glad I tried it. I learned so much in those short 8 months and I think it was worth it in the end.
Oh and let me just say this now. I'm a 100% introvert. So you don't have to be an extrovert to be an RA, though it does help.
Before I begin, let me just give a quick overview on how housing is structured at my college, since others might be different. We have 8 teams of RAs divided by different dorm types and 4 teams with the same dorm type but divided by building, totaling 12 teams across campus. Each team has a range from 8 to 20 RAs. The number is determined by the size of the community. Each RA runs their own floor and in a few communities there are two RAs on each floor. I was an RA in apartment style dorms over the summer and regular two-person dorms in the fall. The style of the dorm can make a huge difference in your workload. And at my school, you basically don't have any say on where you want to be placed when you're new.
As a resident assistant you are expected to do quite a lot of work and put in extra time. And you have to do this while taking a full schedule of college courses. So good time management is required. At my school we were expected to provide our residents with a monthly program, update monthly bulletin boards, post event posters, and talk to all of our residents. We also had to perform housing inspections and enforce all housing policies. These responsibilities can vary from college to college but overall the goal is to provide residents a safe and healthy learning environment.
When you become an RA, you have to go through training. We received a week of training on leadership, incident response, and safety. This structured training took place during the day and then in the evenings we went back to our communities and learned specific things about our offices. I enjoyed training, whereas most other people were bored. I always like learning new things so I found training more interesting than others. During training, we also did several ice breaker type games to get to know the other RAs on your team.
My favorite responsibilities included anything that required art or creativity. I enjoyed decorating the halls and doors, making the bulletins boards, and designing interesting programs (although I wasn't crazy about actually implementing them). I have lots of pictures of things that I did and I can make another blog post laster talking more about my ideas. Pinterest was my best friend (and still is).
Incidents and Housing Policies
Two of the more important responsibilities are responding to incidents and enforcing housing policies. These are also the least fun. When responding to incidents, RAs are usually the first ones on the scene. And most of them happen at 3 in the morning when you'd rather be sleeping. These can range from a fire alarm going off to drunk students doing something stupid and everything and anything in-between. Seriously, you never know what you're going to walk into. I was immediately thrown into incident response on my first night on-call. One of my residents knocked on my door and told me that their roommate was drunk and trying to pick a fight. I don't want to go into too much detail, but we had to call the police and names got mixed up in the report and it was an incident that kept coming up because we didn't realize that the names had been mixed. So I learned a lot with my first incident. I had to respond to several other incidents while working my first semester during the summer. There are high numbers of incidents during this time because most of the summer students living on campus are freshman who are coming right out of highschool. They are out on their own for the first time, only taking a couple classes, and all they want to do is have fun. Perfect mix for starting trouble. At the end of six weeks I probably responded to about 15 incidents. Which is very high for a short time. In contrast, I only responded to about 5 for the entire fall semester.
Besides specific incidents, RAs have to enforce housing policies everyday. One of the downsides of being an RA is that an RA is always working. You're technically never off the clock, because if you're just walking to your room and you happen to see some shenanigans going on, you're expected to stop what you're doing and handle it. You also have to do Housing Inspections twice a semester where you walk through every room and make sure they're following all the dorm rules. Like no candles, nothing hanging from the ceiling, no hookahs, etc. At my college we had to do this with another RA so we usually got in pairs and we'd help each other do our floors. The inspections aren't too bad unless you run into something that goes against the rules. Or when you discover something awkward. For example, during the fall semester my theme was wild animals and I created big pandas from paper. The panda in the girls' pod was stolen and I found it up in one of the girls' room. Even though I appreciated that she loved it so much that she stole it, I had to tell her roommate to put it back out so that all the girls could enjoy it (Really, you couldn't just look at it a few feet from your room, you had to have it right next to your bed at all times...?).
Anyway, I know I make responding to incidents and enforcing policies like the worst thing ever (and sometimes it is in the moment) but afterwards I realized that I gained a lot of knowledge. Honestly, I wish I became an RA sooner because I learned how to write good incident reports. This would have come in handy when I got hit by a drunk driver. Now I know, if I'm ever in another accident or something similar, how to take proper notes and fill out a good police report. These experiences also help you improve your leadership and conflict management skills. No amount of training can replace the skills you gain from dealing with real issues first hand.
Compensation and Schedule
At my school, you did not get free rent. We got very discounted rent. Mine was about $850 for the whole Fall semester which is absolutely great considering that it's about $860 a month to stay in one of the nicer dorms. Besides discounted rent, we got paid minimum wage for 15 hours a week. At that time it was somewhere around $8.15 an hour. So after taxes, I got paid around $215 every other week. I know some other schools may provide free meal plans or other benefits but my school was just those two. Make sure you look into how your school compensates RAs if you're considering.
My schedule could get a little complicated for weekends and holidays but a standard week was as follows. We would pick a week day, Mon-Thur, where we would work in the office from 4:45 pm - 12:00 am. Then we would be on-call all night until 8 am. If anything happened and we were called, we would have to respond to anything up until 8 am. Luckily, my school also had RHAPS who would stay in the office all night and handle lockouts and any simple questions/concerns. The RAs would get called if there was something that the RHAPS weren't trained to handle.
For weekend shifts you worked 24 hours from 4:45 pm Friday until 4:45 pm Saturday (or Saturday to Sunday for the same time). You would work in the office during normal office hours (4:45 pm - 12 am) and stay in your bedroom on-call for the rest. We usually had to do around four of these each semester, depending on how many RAs are on your staff.
For holidays, we had to choose two days to work but we could give them away if we wanted. You usually got paid a lot more for working holidays so usually people would want to take your days if you didn't want them.
Residents and Other RAs
Most people become RAs because they want to help others. And being an RA is an excellent was to do this. Especially when you interact with freshmen. Being an RA makes you realize how much you've learned during your time at college so far and that you should share it with others. Helping your residents can be very rewarding. One of my favorite things to do was answer questions. I especially enjoyed move-in days (even though they're crazy) because I enjoyed talking to the parents and students about how great my school was. And I loved giving advice on studying and navigating the campus, since I'm great at both. I ended up getting a letter from one of my residents saying that I really helped her out during her first semester and that I inspired her to apply to be an RA. Little things like that can make the hard work worth it.
Besides the good feelings you get from helping residents, you also get the chance to make good friendships with the other RAs. I actually suck at making friends so I didn't get super close to anyone, but other people find this one of the best reasons to be an RA. Your team basically becomes your second family since you're around each other so much. Everyone is usually really helpful and all the RAs know what you're going through if you're having problems. Sometimes you also get an awesome Graduate Resident Assistant or Area Coordinator that will help you out. Keep in mind though, if you already have an established group of friends, being an RA will definitely cut down your free time.
All In All
There are both pros and cons to being an RA and you have to decided if it's the right fit for you. It requires a certain personality, creativity, and determination. In the end, it wasn't the right fit for me but it was still probably the best learning experience I had in college. Afterwards, I was an Honors Peer Ambassador for a summer and Teaching Assistant for a semester and I may not have reached out to do things like that if I hadn't been an RA first. And it's a great resume builder. So even if you're on the fence, you could always try it for a semester and then resign if it's not right. And if you seem like it is right for you then go for it! I met several RAs that absolutely love it and who shave stayed in contact with some of their residents. It's a totally rewarding experience!
There's so much more and so many other details and stories that I could talk about but this post is already long enough! If there's anything that you would like me to talk about or any questions you want to ask me, comment below and email firstname.lastname@example.org! I'd love to hear some feedback and your personal stories!