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
The RA role as we know it has been a staple for residential living for over a few decades. Since the 1960’s, college students living on campus could be a leader, mentor, and role model to peers to help facilitate a smooth transition and acclimation to the university which served as their home away from home. However, could the saying, “all good things must come to an end,” ring true given the current state of higher ed 3 years into the COVID-19 pandemic? The answer to that question is complex, but what better time is there to consider innovations to the practice of providing care to students calling a college campus their home. In this read, I will share 3 ideas on how could see the RA role staying relevant with the changing times.
What if… RAs Were Staff/Faculty
From its origins in the 13th century, supporting students in lieu of parental figures was a tradition for higher education that largely fell to University staff. At that time, faculty took on the role to not only provide academic instruction, but religious and personal guidance as well for those who called a college campus their home. Over time, colleges and universities proliferated to the point that caring for the student shifted to resemble early versions of Student Affairs divisions with the formation of dean-like positions in the 18th century.
So if Student Affairs initially involved University faculty, what if the modern RA reverted to its beginnings? Surely the prevalence of Student Affairs came into existence for a reason—but what could be gained by having the role of advisor for residential students shift back to individuals who were more established in their personal life and career? In terms of personal wellbeing and support, I see advantages in having advisors who have successfully navigated the college experience to be the ones advising students on their journey. That’s not to say that adults have all the answers, but the impact of the COVID- 19 pandemic has shown a spike in mental health issues as well as a degradation in social well-being. So is a more tenured student the best equipped to be giving advice and support if they too are finding their way through it? As faculty and staff, we have a level of training and ongoing compliance required of us to hold our positions so could our years of preparation and training outweigh the resources and staffing put into the process of hiring, onboarding, and supervising upwards of 50 student staff who turnover every 6 to 12 months?
Secondly, the expansion of Colleges and Universities may have increased the number of schools and staff we see, but low salaries for educators remain a hot topic that has potentially resulted in losing stellar candidates to higher-paying jobs or fields altogether. Could the typical perks of the RA Job such as housing, proximity to work, discounted or free parking, and meal plans be enough to attract educators back to campus? I think the answer to this question a few years ago would have been “unlikely,” but I am not so sure on that anymore. The current job and housing market has made it harder for middle-class earnings to afford the same levels of comfort it used to, so if a job opportunity existed in which basic needs were met at a free or reduced rate, which in turn allowed one to focus earnings on building wealth or managing debt, would you take it?
What If… RAs Were a Group Endeavor
Another staple in the residential living experience is the presence of themed communities that connect students living on the same floor or building based on a shared experience to better facility belonging, learning, and connection in the University amongst each other and with faculty and staff. Most commonly known as living learning communities, its presence in the lives of college students has demonstrated a positive impact on student’s curricular and co-curricular experience compared to those whose living environment is based mostly on roommate selection or room style preferences. If the residence hall functioning as a community over a residence has greater impact on our student’s experience, what if the RA role itself were a shared role as opposed to the responsibility of a few? In lieu of selecting individual student staff to oversee a floor or two of students, could neighbors and floormates be intentionally placed and asked to work together to form their own sense of community and establish expectations and needs for one another and hold each other to those standards? Could living and working together lead to a sense of identity and belonging because no member outranks another? Could engagement be a product being in community with one another rather than attending a formal program? A decade ago, I would have said that is too tall an order but given the resurgence of Restorative Practices in Higher Education, maybe that no longer holds true.
Restorative Practices can be thought of as a set of tools one employs to create social capital and achieve social discipline in a community. It is a proactive and inclusive way for a group to build connection amongst its members while also providing structure to navigate and resolve instances of harm or shame. If done effectively, communities will develop relationships that not only reduce instances of incivility but increase a sense of ownership for all members over the community they share.
Could the living learning community’s focus on shared and integrated learning paired with the tools of restorative practices empowering students to see residence halls as a communities comprised of various members whose safety and well-being matter be a viable update to the RA position? While I don’t see this shared responsibility being a true form of employment (compensation, contract, etc.), it could be a selling point to market the on-campus living experience for college students by essentially affording them leadership development opportunities the RA position affords.
What if… RAs functioned as a Paid Internship
The college curriculum does not come easy to everyone and the time students spend in class and extracurriculars can often mean that jobs or leadership positions come second at best. As a tenured Residential Living professional, I have seen this all too often with RAs who either want the job but cannot balance their time or seek the job out for the benefits; both of which often end up in subpar work, presence, and attention to the community as a whole. If maintaining peer leaders is the best model to usher our students through their college years, but time and availability for a high-touch role is a challenge, what if the RA role functioned as a semester or year-long internship instead?
I had the unique experience of working at Northeastern University which employs a curricular model involving “Co-Op” learning. Co-op can be thought of a full semester dedicated to working full-time locally or abroad as a form of praxis for your major. While it does extend the typical graduate to closer to 5 years, students gain real-world experience and connections prior to graduating. So could we use such a model to have the RA role be considered a form of field placement for students who could benefit from developing skills around things such as leadership, conflict resolution, organization and planning, and counseling?
A cool benefit this model could grant Residential Living is having student staff who can dedicate their full attention to the communities they serve because they are competing with little to no classes. How might programming, engagement, and connection be enriched if the person in charge of it had twice the amount of time? Furthermore, the RA position is considered to be a “high-impact learning experience,” so how might students interning as an RA be better prepared to navigate post-college life compared to folks who interned outside the institution? Lastly, could the additional time given by each intern reshape the work of full-time staff who may regularly have their weeks occupied by duty calls, late-night meetings, or roommate conflicts? Instead of being preoccupied by administrative muck, our full-time professionals could dedicate more time to developing their teams and their skillsets while the inters focus their time into forming and sustaining a community.
I fully acknowledge that all three “what if” scenarios come with many systemic implications that are potentially said than done. However, are we failing to seize an opportunity to propel the RA Role into the future by adhering to potentially outdated
structures and norms? I surmise that the willingness to think creatively and openly will land us at a better solution, whatever that means for our respective institutions.