This blog series features different writers responding to the prompt, “What is the future of the RA role?”
Guest Post by Gabe Puente, Undergraduate, Peer Advisor
The term “RA” is a thing of the past at my university because it implies a certain level of strictness, unwillingness to engage, and generally makes residents feel like the staff member is just checking boxes during 1:1’s, hall meetings, etc. My institution, many others included, believes in the term “PA”, meaning peer advisor, because residents are not just residents but our peers who are living on campus. Our job is to make their college experience something absolutely unforgettable by being a mentor and giving guidance to residents that will help them navigate the next four years of their life. The way the RA position changed over time was to adapt to the overwhelming need for students’ emotional and personal well-being. A reimagined RA role would be connecting RA’s with employers to begin fostering student connections, as well as stabilizing a curriculum all RA’s should follow for first year students to give them applicable life skills such as cooking, cleaning habits, etc.
The role of an RA has evolved significantly. Outlined in an article from The Journal Of College And University Student Housing, the position saw a radical shift with 3 events: (1) the Murder of Jeanne Clery, which made RA’s responsible for reporting all crime, (2) the Seton Hall Fire of 2000, which added guidelines on how an RA should respond to campus fires, and (3) the Virginia Tech shooting of 2007, which made RA’s focused more on how to handle active shooting situations. The current shift stems from how mental health awareness is more prevalent, and how residents come to university with issues that are not just about academics. This coincides with the same trends in higher education, and society as a whole, which focuses on this generation having mental health support and resources to provide students with any help they may need in that area.
Universities now showcase their student counseling centers and QPR (Question, Persuade, Refer) suicide prevention resources as a highlight of their school. This was extensively covered in my training, as the RA role evolves towards students’ emotional and community needs versus the old rule-oriented hall leader. This can be clearly seen with the RA selection process at my school, which asks questions about how we mentor students in specific cases and how we would mediate roommate conflicts. This shift in the position is why I believe the RA is that much more crucial, because many students have a difficult time with going to counseling on their own, and could be introverted to the point where no one but the RA knows how they are doing and faring in their mental health. In this instance, the RA serves as a stepping stone for guiding the resident to resources, following up with the resident to make sure they have some coping mechanism, and giving the resident options such as walking with them to a counseling session.
While the position does a great job of providing mental health support, enforcing policies, and creating community via programs, the main change I see would be giving RA’s connections to career resources and have RAs focus more on preparing residents for post-college life. In regards to building connections, one radical change in the RA position should be to focus on career readiness. This could include connecting RAs to campus recruiters, providing information sessions with companies, and facilitating networking. Networking is one of the most fundamental skills a first year student can begin to develop. At a recent networking session I attended, they stressed “it does not matter how many degrees or what talents you have, if no one knows who you are, you can never grow in your passion.”
Another change I see for the RA position is formulating a structured curriculum that fosters life skills to prepare residents for when they have their own place. In terms of my institution, we have a residential curriculum that is incredibly helpful in reaching students in many areas via 1:1’s, specific programs, and resident engagements with goals of fostering community and identity development. This curriculum could go further to teach students important life skills. Some skills that would be applicable would be teaching students how to cook a broad amount of foods, what specific foods to buy as we become a more health-minded generation, what cookware and utensils are needed, and how to establish routine cleaning habits. While all of these things fall on parental responsibility, many parents fail to teach good practices in these areas, and many kids come from entirely independent backgrounds, like myself, where they had to look elsewhere for these things to be taught. These skills could be incorporated into institutional resident outcomes to help students prepare for life beyond their first year. Creating a central curriculum guide for all RAs to follow and giving RA’s the means to share their school’s network with residents would be helpful changes that will keep the position relevant.
Overall, the RA position is an incredible student staff position that develops leadership skills and a goal-oriented mindset beyond any other job on campus. The RA role is vital for students in communal living because it can build a community feeling that helps develop students for life after college, or as a lifeline for students going through any number of issues (something that is becoming increasingly common). The RA position has seen radical changes and continues to evolve now with emphasis on mental health support. While it can be undeniably excessive at times, it is perfectly manageable for all those who choose to be in the position, given that they understand the time commitment and have a way of keeping track of deadlines such as a calendar or planner. The position itself is manageable for one student, and actions like reducing responsibility or breaking the job into multiple roles only add confusion and fewer obligations to the residents, which is something I believe the position does not stand for. The future of the position lies heavily in mentorship by providing networking opportunities and helping students with transition which is something all students may agree to be a positive change.