As a freshman, I never thought I’d be a resident assistant. Watching my freshman dorm RAs in action, I thought the demands on their time and personal space were more than I could handle. Now a senior, here I am, halfway through my year as an RA in a row house, and the job has been fulfilling yet challenging in nine ways I didn’t expect.
1. You’re not needed 24/7, which is both a pro and a con.
Staffing in an upperclass house means that my residents are sophomores, juniors or seniors. They’ve already been through a year of Stanford and have — for the most part — found their groove, which means they don’t need an RA to show them the ropes as much as a frosh might. I assumed staffing meant constant knocks on my door to help a resident in dire need, but most of the knocks come from people locked out of their rooms. I thought I’d feel validated if I were needed in big ways, but small things matter just as much. There’s also satisfaction in answering a simple question or connecting someone to an advisor.
2. There’s rarely a correct answer to a given situation.
Staff training has prepared me for a lot of the job, but definitely not everything. I’m prepared for a lot of worst-case scenarios like mental health crises or emergency evacuation protocol, but dealing with smaller-scale situations isn’t as clear-cut. Even after consulting with my staff, definitively correct answers don’t emerge from the conversation. Instead, after discussion and weighing pros and cons of one choice over another, sometimes I have to make a decision and trust that I’m acting in the best interest of the house or residents.
3. You’re not going to become best friends with all your residents.
This was a big one. I’ve heard from different sources that the best parts of staffing are the late-night conversations and bonding with residents. There are some residents I’ve chatted with late at night and some with whom I share only short “How are you?” conversations. I’ve had to stop myself from feeling lesser just because I don’t know everyone on a deep level and some residents are closer with other staff members than with me. That’s how friendships work in real life; we gravitate toward some people more than others.
4. A simple “How are you?” goes a long way.
Sometimes I avoid asking my residents how they’re doing if I’m in a rush because I’m afraid of getting into a deeper conversation that I don’t have time to sustain. Now I’m realizing how ridiculous that is, because I always feel cared for when someone takes a couple seconds to ask me how I’m doing in addition to saying hello. There are many days when a short, sweet interaction with a resident uplifts my mood. It’s nice knowing that someone cares about you enough to ask how things are going, even if they’re heading out the door in a couple seconds. I’d rather show that I care than avoid asking someone how they’re doing out of a fear of getting stuck in the conversation.
5. Setting boundaries is important.
Last quarter, I spent many late nights working in the dining room because I wanted to be present in the house and engaged with residents. But I know that I don’t get much work done in that setting because I inevitably stop to talk to whoever’s around. I’d sit there talking and trying to work until it was four in the morning and everyone else had gone to bed. Then I was left alone to complete my work. It was tough to accept that sometimes I have to prioritize myself by retreating to my room early enough to get things done and, if I’m lucky, squeeze in some downtime before bed. This quarter I haven’t been around the common spaces as much, and I’m still trying to find that balance between being present and being productive enough for my own wellbeing. I’ve had to recognize that I’m a student, too, and taking this job doesn’t mean that my other responsibilities suddenly disappear. Setting boundaries is so important when there are various things competing for your time and attention — spending time on one thing absolutely means you have less time for something else.
6. The most important ingredient for staffing is caring about the community.
It’s been wonderful working with a staff team that cares a lot about seeing our community flourish. We all bring different energies, personalities and strengths to the team. There’s always someone willing to take up the slack if something slips through the cracks. More important than the skills we bring to the table is our shared commitment to doing a good job and fostering community, which means that we’re all willing to improve where we can and help each other out when needed. It’s really a dream team when everyone cares.
7. Being an introverted RA means being pushed past your limits sometimes. I’ve had to become comfortable with that.
There are nights when my desire to retreat to my room and curl up in bed is as strong as my desire to spend time with people around the house. I enjoy joining someone in the kitchen when they’re grabbing a late meal and seeing the group grow as other people stop to chat. I know that my social energy is being drained by the minute, but I don’t want to miss the opportunity to bond. I try to tune into the conversation while plotting how and when I will announce my exit. It’s a new level of discomfort and dissonance because the introvert in me wants to be alone while the RA in me wants to connect. Sometimes the introvert in me wins, but it’s more of a victory when I push past the discomfort and let the RA win.
8. In-person communication trumps everything else!
I’ve heard a million times that the key to a strong romantic relationship is communication, and this definitely applies to every type of relationship. I’ve had to hold myself back from sending a text when I know I can walk down the hall and knock on someone’s door if I have something to communicate. And the results are always better when I see someone face to face and we have a real conversation. I’ve seen how much easier it is for a message to be ill-received or misconstrued over text than in person. For someone who doesn’t like confrontation, this is hard; I have to psych myself up for in-person interactions sometimes, but it’s completely worth it.
9. Staffing is an opportunity to shape someone’s university experience.
Occasionally, it dawns on me that our dorms and houses are our home bases at college and your residential experience can really influence your overall college experience. If I think about this too much, I begin to question whether I’m doing a good enough job. But every so often it’s nice to be reminded why this job is so meaningful. I have so many good memories tied to places that I’ve lived. Now, as a staff member, I hope I can help create a positive residential experience for others.
A couple weeks ago we had our house Special D, and it was amazing to see residents enjoy themselves at the event. All our hard work — moving tables, decorating, getting ingredients, ordering tablecloths — had paid off. Pictures from that night show people dancing, laughing, smiling and eating together. Moments like these are highlights of my quarter and they remind me of what an honor it is to be an RA.
Contact Astrid Casimire at acasimir ‘at’ stanford.edu.