What is The Future of RAs? – Is The RA Role a Square Peg in a Round Hole?

What is the Future of RAs

This blog series features different writers responding to the prompt, “What is the future of the RA role?”

Guest Post by Justin Mason, Professional, Georgetown University

Do you remember waiting in the doctor’s office as a kid? Can you recall any of the toys they typically had out to keep us entertained? I fondly remember a few—the colorful metal bars forming spiraling paths that wooden beads would be pushed through like an obstacles course, the puzzles so large they were no more than a few pieces, but you could never find them all anyhow, and the colorful 3D shapes you placed into matching slots on a board, but usually were more of a drum set for me at that age.  I am sure these toys have been reimagined since my time in the waiting room, but I know their usefulness in that environment undoubtedly remains the same–as resources to stimulate formative young minds.  When I think about the RA role and whether it remains relevant in the current college climate, I see a connection with these childhood toys–albeit a slightly more mature one.  In essence, the time spent in college is like that of our years in infancy—a critical period for our development and formation of skills and knowledge. If you follow this imagery and envision the RA as a resource to facilitate the growth of others, then the question centers less on the RA’s relevancy and more about what learning college aged students nowadays may need in relation to in years past.

It goes without saying that navigating the past couple of years filled with political and health crises has shaken many institutions to their core and higher education is no different.  Much like the “real world,” many positions on college campuses sit vacated or function as a revolving door leaving the staff and students who remain in a state of disarray.  To the disgruntled folks who choose to stay, the problem of staff attrition—both professional and student–can easily appear to be what the job’s scope is, what it does or does not offer in compensation, or the hiring process itself.  But have we considered if the these are not the root, but branches of a larger system?

Think about it. Not only were organizations, government, and the like impacted, but there was a fundamental shift to the human experience.  To our sense of normal, our ability to feel safe and our trust in established systems that all started to crack and crumble under pressure. For our students, the manner in which they engaged in learning experiences and formed community with others took an unprecedented shift the likes of which we have not seen for at least 2 years While this may appear to be a short blip in a historical timeline years from now, the disruption to traditional in-person learning has undoubtedly left an indelible mark on the current generation of students.  

We see this in the University environment when you consider the sharp increase of mental health incidents students are having, the decline in their ability to talk to others on their own when grievances arise, and the overall lowered threshold to be in a state of discomfort longer than a day.  I’ve seen this firsthand in a weekly meeting I attend to review students in distress and identify the best next steps to provide intervention.  Originally these meetings involved a few extenuating circumstances, but over time, the list has grown exponentially to encompass hardships and challenges that traditionally would have never been discussed in these spaces because before, they were deemed manageable by entry-level staff or an RA.  And while our staff remain able to engage in these conversations and to provide support, it is clear that our students are less equipped to navigate these challenges prior to arriving to campus, which in turn, requires staff on all levels to expend more resources and support for individuals that may not yet be prepared to “return to normal” in terms of a college experience that predated the pandemic.  

Given these realities, I question if we have set our RAs up to be successful by ensuring our metrics for success, engagement, and learning match the new type of student we house; students who likely were able to learn in the comfort of their childhood home, who did not have to leave their own bubble to engage in the classroom, who’s familiars were not necessarily peers they attended class with, but family and life-long friends.  If we are hoping that the traditional preparation to onboarding and training an RA will meet the needs of an untraditional population, then I fear we are forcing a square peg into a round hole.  Perhaps, like the waiting room toy, the answer is to redesign the structure while staying true to its purpose.  Specifically, by reexamining our role as Residential Housing staff and considering what we can and should reasonably aim to impart on to our students as a result of living on campus, we might be able to ascertain what roles still add value to the lived experience of our residential students.

How do we do this?  Time is undoubtedly a luxury given the state of the job market. Fortunately, what is available to us 3 years into the pandemic are datasets through various forums.  For instance, the findings from the Skyfactor Benchworks assessment or a home-grown equivalent could illuminate where we focus efforts to facilitate student acclimation and well-being in their living environment.  Furthermore, reviewing cases from Conduct and threat-assessment databases (i.e. Title IX, Hate Bias, etc.) could point to new benchmarks in the moral development and education of our students. Lastly and maybe the most important, creating space to dialogue with Juniors and Seniors on their experience for the past 3 to 4 years could tell us a story that we are still in the dark about. While it is easier said than done, perhaps the path toward solutions for our pressing issues–endless hiring cycles, disgruntled staff, and student readiness—hinge more on a deep review of the systems themselves before a values assessment of a specific student staff position.

For anyone juggling the pros and cons of the future of the RA role, know that this is a decision best made collaboratively with key stakeholders and university leadership. By involving others in the conversation, we allow for a process that considers various perspectives and experiences that may better inform the end result.  Here is how this process could look…

  • Residential Living compiles and reviews historical data spanning pre-pandemic to now to mark any emerging trends.
  • Key campus partners are invited to think tanks to review findings, offer insight from their position within the campus, and assess what needs are the most pressing for college students.
    • Wellness: Counseling Center, Health Center, Threat Assessment Teams
    • Academics: Career Center, Academic Planning, Tutoring Centers, Registrar
    • Engagement: Student Activities, New Student and Family Programs, Conduct, Campus Police
    • Identity Development & Formation: Identity Centers
    • Student Leaders:  RHA, NRHH, SGA, RAs
  • Once a shared framework for student needs is established, Think Tank participants review what touch points exist or need to exist within each representative office to support today’s student.
  • Residential Living takes the findings and potential ideas from these conversations to determine how the RA position may best be positioned to serve students or if the position itself has run its course.
  • Residential Living presents their proposed staffing model for student support to focus groups and university leadership for feedback and buy-in.

While these steps will look different for each institution, engaging in a collaborative process to update our goal posts for student learning and development universally gets us closer to answering these questions–Is the RA a square peg in a round hole?  Or is Residential Living, Student Affairs, or Higher Education the misshapen figure in the equation?  Maybe, the pieces are fine, but the structure itself looks different.

It’s evident that something has changed in the college environment and if our goal is to remain a formative experience for our students in their time of critical reflection, growth, and development, we might also need to undergo a similar process to determine the best response.

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