This blog series features different writers responding to the prompt, “What is the future of the RA role?”
Guest Post by Sonora Hernandez, Professional Staff Member
In the words of television star, the illustrious Moira Rose, “We are not those people anymore, John.”
We are afraid of change. In a world where things have been changing constantly, we ask ourselves more often than not, “why does this have to change?!” Like Johnny Rose, we are so desperate to get back to what we know that we forget to see how irrelevant that is now or even how we’re not the same people as before. We have talked a lot about how higher education is changing and how we need to adapt and pivot over the last 10 years. We have started doing more assessment, we’re recruiting more students with intersecting identities, recruiting from more rural areas, trying desperately to hire staff of color, so it’s interesting that we have hardly looked at changing the Resident Assistant position. What’s even weirder is how people get frustrated with the idea of the RA position changing. People will say, “Well, when I was an RA we didn’t even THINK about asking for a paycheck” or “ when I was an RA, we went to the dining hall and that was our food and we were content.” That’s all well and fine, but a decade ago, getting free room and board took care of your tuition and housing and dining costs and usually gave you money back. Now, students are barely scraping by and students have real adult bills.
Students of today are different. A decade ago, students had more confidence in what it meant to get a degree. They had connections in the community. They had people that they could look to. They had friends, parents, family, people that they looked up to having college be promoted to them. They had programs that were set up for academic success to the point where we almost didn’t need academic programming because students were able to maintain high GPA as they were self motivated. They were so self-autonomous. They advocated for themselves, and we had to think of new ways to engage with students because they were doing so well.
Then… the fire nation attacked… or rather we entered into a global pandemic and everything changed. Everything that had been “an emerging issue” for the last 10 years came to fruition. The energy of students changed. The ability to pay attention, think critically, and the social and emotional development of students changed. The K-12 system was overwhelmed with the inability to teach their students intentionally and properly. We went inside, we started making whipped coffee, started baking our own sourdough, started learning new dances, and millennials learned what Tiktok was (you’ll never be Vine). We started learning self-care as professionals, but left our students to figure out how to educate themselves in a system that has been crumbling for a long time.
The data shows that we were set back approximately ten years for the kind of critical thinking, and emotional and mental development that students are expected to be at. Ten years in ONE YEAR. Talk about one step forward, ten steps back. Today, students on campus are not who they once were pre-pandemic. That means our student leaders are not who they used to be.
When you think of an RA, what comes to mind is someone who builds community, someone who’s excited and enthusiastic. There are ample movies about silly, over-the-top college RAs screaming “WELCOME TO CAMPUS! I’M YOUR RA!” while you’re just trying to unload a box of stuffed animals to put on your bed.That doesn’t really exist anymore. I think we pretend it does because we want it to. We want the fun, we want the engagement, we want the excited extrovert that is going to take you to every game and boost you up in the middle of the night and have deep “who am I really” talks with you. But in reality, what we have are people who are pseudo-mental health professionals but without any of the training or resources. They are sitting in rooms having conversations about how students want to end it all because they got a D on a test. They’re watching students lay passed out in bathrooms because they drank too much and their friends left them facedown in the bathroom. They’re not here building community and coordinating fun programming, they’re here trying to help people live.
They are filling in the learning that the K-12 system and parents didn’t have time to teach the students before they got to college while also learning how to exist themselves. So, the RA position doesn’t need to and quite frankly can’t exist the way that it does.
The position in and of itself is not equitable. People who are strong in administrative skills, most of the time or a lot of the time rather, are not super comfortable being constantly accessible to residents who need them and those who are excellent at building community aren’t always the strongest administratively. This creates a push and pull of what strength is needed more. Supervisors are trying to find different ways to supervise so that their students don’t fail. We want well-rounded top notch students with all the time in the world to be in their buildings, but to also be involved in clubs because they are students but to also be highly academic achieving students and be so emotionally well that they can support their peers, but they’re not even mentally fully developed. AND, supervisors do not have the capacity to keep up with how students are changing. Supervisors are drowning trying to navigate the politics that comes with higher education while also trying to be supportive of their RA who is like, “sorry to bother you, but Samantha just messaged me and is falling apart.” If supervisors are burnt out, how can they effectively support and teach these young people to effectively support and teach other young people?
The RA position cannot exist as it is any longer. Professionals are tired. Resident assistants are tired and they are leaving college and the RA position without awareness of how their skills learned in the position transfer into the job that they want to do. The RA position needs to be one that is focused on student needs and on what is not being taught in the classroom as it had started out many many years ago. We have to go back to basics. Students don’t know how to be social with each other; they don’t know how to communicate face-to-face. They don’t know how to talk to the roommates when one roommate hasn’t taken the trash out in three days and the other passive- aggressively looks at them, and then posts on their private snapchat story about how gross their roommate is.
The RA position needs to exist to enhance the student experience, not hand hold students. The RA position should be one about fun, building connections, connecting people to alumni, connecting people to campus, connecting people to each other- not being mental crisis advisers. Now, the position typically draws people who are more naturally inclined to be empathetic, and who are more naturally inclined to go into a field that deals with psychology, social work, teaching, which are really high touch positions, but that’s not sustainable for a college student and I don’t think should be expected just because someone has a passion for it. This position needs to be one where people feel that they are supported and connected and know how to cope. The biggest skill students need to learn as they enter college is what it means to cope, and I think resident assistants should be the role models. They should not be expected to teach it, necessarily, but as supervisors, we should be able to equip them with how to cope themselves and how to access and enhance their creative minds to encourage others to think beyond what new chronically online take there is on TikTok. I don’t know what the future holds for this position. I think that this is one of the biggest questions that colleges are facing today. What I do know is that our students are tired and our students crave connection in a way that is different from what we craved ten years ago. They are the most connected- disconnected generation. This generation needs intention, purpose, and care.
I think the RA position should be one focused on connection. They are like surge protectors- they can have a lot of things connected to them intentionally and with an understanding of capacity that protects from fuses blowing. They connect to different people, to each other, to the community, to people who will help them be successful, and quite frankly to themselves. They are community connectors. That’s what they should be, community connectors to the campus community and to the greater community as a whole.