This blog series features different writers responding to the prompt, “What is the future of the RA role?”
The Resident Advisor role is an expansive one, and I best remember learning this as an overwhelmed sophomore sitting in a large auditorium with a couple hundred other RAs-in-training. Outwardly, I was quiet and attentively taking notes, but my internal monologue had reached a full-blown panic, as I was discovering the breadth of the role and all I’d be tasked with as a natural introvert. However, during that training nearly a decade ago and now, I still hold onto a point made by the director of housing in her opening session: that she as the director could not meaningfully connect with the thousands of students living on campus, but each RA had a much better chance of connecting with their community.
As I worked more roles in ResLife and learned more about education and community, the point became more meaningful. While I first viewed the idea as a matter of feasibility and scaling – that we needed more people to do more work – I came to understand that connections and community support students’ ability to learn and thrive, and those relationships were best formed by peers in smaller groups, making the RA role essential. Many of the components of the RA job reflect this emphasis on community. However, as the work of ResLife evolves and the ways that students connect and learn change, it’s worth critically examining the job responsibilities and determining what changes have already occurred and future changes that may be beneficial. What work is essential to the RA role that can’t be performed better by other means? What traditional responsibilities can be done away with or be better accomplished by other means?
Essentials of the RA Role
While the ways that students connect and learn may be changing, the human need for community remains constant, and RAs are uniquely positioned due to their peer status and relatively small community to foster relationships, form community, and facilitate the type of learning that happens in community. Hence, RAs’ time is most valuably spent when they create and leverage connections:
- One-to-one relationship building: This may be an organic part of the role or a more structured one, utilizing the format of intentional interactions. Regardless of the form it takes, relationship building is more easily done with peers in smaller communities, which RAs are uniquely positioned to do. Relationships are of value themselves and often are the reason students are drawn to the role, but additionally, these relationships provide an important foundation for retention, learning, co-creation of the community, and early intervention when necessary. The connection, even to a single student staff member, is a connection to the institution.
- Community building: While professional staff may have expertise on college student development or campus demographics, each community an RA oversees is bound to be unique. The individual and collective interests of the students are bound to vary, different norms and traditions may take root, and each RA will have their own unique style of connecting their residents with each other. RAs may require some specific training and accountability measures of how to build community, but with a little autonomy, they are uniquely positioned to facilitate connections between students in ways that professional staff cannot. Residents will be more invested in a community which they co-created with their RA than one that was organized by staff members external to the community.
- Collaboration in educational plans: ResLife professionals have a great deal of expertise in educational methods and our learning aims. We also hold a lot of practical experience in planning and facilitation. However, we lack a firsthand understanding of what it’s like to be an undergraduate student at our institution in the present time. Collaborating with RAs on our educational plans ensures we incorporate our theoretical and pedagogical expertise with their knowledge of the student experience and what will engage their peers. Failing to involve student leaders might result in plans that are great in theory but fall flat in practice. Additionally, RAs may be in a better position to serve as a facilitator of learning around topics that require vulnerability. Students are more likely to speak and engage on difficult topics if it’s with a facilitator and community they already feel connected to.
- Accountability, conflict, and crisis: Perhaps in the ideal world, RAs would have no need to face policy violations, conflicts, and crises, but realistically, we know these events will occur and student staff will be involved. While there is certainly an argument to be made that RAs are not the most qualified responders, attempting to remove these elements from the role would leave gaps. Even if we don’t intend for them to be first responders, student staff are likely to encounter a crisis or hear of one before professional staff members, so there will always be some institutional obligation for them to respond. While we can design protocols to limit their involvement to areas of their competence, minimizing that role as much as possible may create an incongruent experience for the student. A community leader who “disappears” when conflict or crisis strikes may come off as unsupportive or incompetent. Additionally, removing responsive elements from the RA role provides no opportunity for potential budding professionals to learn crisis response skills.
Even if we view some of these roles as essential, it’s important to avoid getting so attached to tradition that we don’t consider the best means of achieving our goals. For example, we may know that we want RAs to prioritize building individual connections, and often a strategy for that is intentional interactions. That said, it’s important to continually assess whether that specific strategy is achieving the goal of building connections and to consider new ways of achieving the goal if it’s not. This might involve modifying or eliminating familiar – and even beloved – components of the work, which may be uncomfortable but necessary.
Practices to Reconsider
Despite the constancy in the need for community, the ways that students connect and learn have continued to change. The pandemic accelerated our and our students’ ability – and even preference – to use technology for connection and learning. While there are times we certainly need to push back and acknowledge that relationships and learning, not efficiency, are the primary goal, in certain spaces we can innovate and use technology to achieve efficiency. There are times when having dozens or even hundreds of student employees run a task in parallel might be unnecessary. A few examples include:
- Administration and operations: Certain logistical steps need to be taken to ensure that our communities remain secure and operational. We’ll never eliminate aspects of the work like key management and opening or closing tasks, but changes to make these processes more efficient or to shift work from the RAs leave more time for student staff to build community. Critically examining processes to determine if the use of new systems or technology or centralizing responsibilities may make time for more important work. For example, digital forms, like RCRs or roommate agreements require less coordination than physical ones, and processes like organizing keys or verifying rosters can be conducted centrally.
- Informational meetings and messaging: Unlike the learning that we hope to be transformational, some information that needs to be shared with residents is simple and direct. While there are certainly upsides to gathering residents to listen to information about policy or closing procedure, like the opportunity to ask questions or the guarantee they’ve heard the information, there are times an email or video will suffice or even offer greater clarity and consistency.
- Bulletin boards, flyers, and postings: While incredible work can be done by RAs who excel artistically, in many cases, RAs may be dedicating a lot of time to create average displays when posting on the walls may not even be the most effective way to get residents’ attention. Digital outreach may have a larger audience, and whether it’s digital or physical materials, a single person or smaller group of people with experience in graphic design or marketing might create more effective displays.
- Educational programming “a la carte”: A well-attended event has the inherent value of bringing the community together, and active programming that is integrated into a curricular plan will always be a standby strategy that is only enhanced when student staff play a collaborative role in planning and facilitating. That said, having staff members create their own educational content to address a student need, particularly one that falls outside of departmental learning goals, is likely inefficient and ineffective. Unless the student already happens to be a subject matter expert, it will take them longer than an expert to design lower quality content. In short, addressing topics like study skills, career development, financial literacy, and physical or mental health is best done in collaboration with existing experts on your campus. Depending on the topic, the content may also lend itself better to a facilitation guide for student staff or even asynchronous delivery, like videos or modules students can use and even reuse as they need them.