The Secret Life Of Your College RA

I was trained to handle these situations and many more, in addition to learning basic counseling, conflict mediation, and mandated reporting. But sometimes training, practice, and vigilance just isn’t enough.
Publish date:
September 29, 2013
college, RAs

Unless you or a friend were ever Resident Assistants (RAs) in college, you might have thought of us as a minor nuisance -- somebody that would always show up at the wrong times to make you pour your beer down the sink, or to yell at you when you were in the middle of an innocent game of hallway football. However, when we wanted you to attend our programs and events, that persona would somehow flip and we would magically turn into a peppy social butterfly from your worst nightmares. Where was that signature ingratiating cheerfulness when you actually got in trouble?

A common misconception about RAs is that we like to play campus police and we enjoy the power trip. Contrary to popular belief, though, your various dorm shenanigans were usually of no concern to me whatsoever, as long as you didn’t dangle them in front of my face and nobody broke any limbs. If my building and the people inside it were safe and secure, I was happy to ignore whatever harmless tomfoolery might be happening behind my back. If I went out actively looking for trouble -- another common assumption -- I would basically be digging my own grave in terms of the paperwork and the obligations that would follow. The meat of what we really did as RAs occurred behind the scenes, obscured by a wall of confidentiality.

If the RA job as we currently define it didn’t exist, I can’t even begin to tell you how many average college nights would have turned into nightmares. Without our health and safety inspections, a gun found under a bed could have become evidence instead of being quietly confiscated while everyone was in class. If we hadn’t kept an eye on a certain student in the building, his under-the-radar overdoses and blackouts may have turned fatal -- especially if he didn’t have a roommate. If we weren’t listening for those cries for help, the rare attempts might have become successes.

Out of sheer necessity, I was trained to handle these situations and many more in addition to learning basic counseling, conflict mediation, and mandated reporting. But sometimes training, practice, and vigilance just isn’t enough.

No amount of role-playing with empty kegs and bad acting could have prepared me for the visceral fear of being “jokingly” threatened by a suite full of drunk male athletes. Some of them weren’t even students. The general protocol for those situations was to stand by the open door for safety and call for backup, but that’s easier said than done -- especially when the residents in question were all big, loud, abrasive, and weren’t listening to a single word that came out of my mouth. Unsurprisingly, calling a male coworker for backup would always solve that problem. Training never prepared me or any of the other female RAs for the absolute rage and embarrassment we would feel in those situations.

Nor did the countless slideshows and handouts from training dampen the helplessness I felt when residents confided in me about rape, sexual harassment, and domestic violence, happening right there in the halls I had come to love. These women wanted to talk to me and may not have been ready to speak to a school counselor, but I was bound by the mandated reporting regulations put in place by the university. To a person in such a sensitive situation, being denied total confidentiality by someone you trust is essentially a betrayal. The reasoning behind this policy might have made administrative sense, but it also defeated the purpose of what I personally hoped to accomplish as an RA. That well-meaning red tape created an impossibly thick barrier between me and the people that needed a friend the most, and I regret that to this day.

Because I tend to look at life from a feminist perspective, those particular moments and events are the ones that stood out to me the most while writing this piece. But there’s a lot that still bothers me, and sometimes it overshadows even the positive memories and experiences. Every life-altering decision that I made, the people that I counseled, and the stories I heard during those influential years will always affect me for better or for worse -- especially since I always seemed to make the right decision and do the right thing. But what if I had made different choices? What if I was never aware of my own mistakes? What if a seemingly innocuous action on my part changed someone else’s life in a fundamental way, and I never even noticed?

A part of me shudders to think of myself, as a future professional, ever giving young college students the kind of responsibilities I once had. On the other hand, being an RA is how I learned true accountability, sensitivity, and inclusiveness. Through unadulterated experience, I realized that an easily overlooked emotional concern could one day manifest itself as a serious problem, and that even one mistake on my part could cost another person their life.

For those reasons and many more, working on a college campus was a sharp, double-edged sword. Being a good RA meant that I had to balance my job responsibilities, academics, and the conflicts of interest that so often popped up in my social life. I did end up losing a few friends, but in return I gained the kinds of friendships and relationships that made my college experience so very valuable.

So, for you current and future students, next time you see your RA staring off into space looking bored (or even busy!), go say hello and donate some cookies to the cause. Because if your RA makes even half the impact on your life that you will eventually make on hers, you’ll pretty much be set for the remainder of those difficult college years. For the rest of you that have already left this all behind, I hope I was able to give you some insight on a very powerful but often misunderstood experience.

And of course, please feel free to share your personal RA stories in the comments: horrifying or heartwarming, I’d love to hear them all!