Recently I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what the role of an resident advisor is here at Wesleyan, in how it is described and imagined by ResLife, how it is viewed by residents, and how it actually feels and manifests as an RA myself. These three depictions of the job are all so different, and it can be hard for others to understand exactly what it’s like to wear this particular hat on campus.
Here’s some things you may have not known about RAs: RAs are almost all low-income students who have to take up this job because of a lack of alternatives, which leaves us at the mercy of the institution, whose rules so many of us disagree with. While resident advisors are paid more than in any other student job, it’s still not enough. The income for an RA here at Wes doesn’t even fully cover the cost of the comprehensive living fee, as it does at so many other schools, which leaves many of us working second, third, and even fourth jobs to try to make any sort of “take home” money that doesn’t just go directly to tuition.
Being an RA is hard. Sure, being on duty until midnight on the weekdays, and 2am on the weekends can be challenging; having to take care of residents, as a peer who’s just as scared as the friends who call on you for help, is emotionally taxing; and having to wake up at any hour and let students into the their rooms keeps me yearning for a regular sleep schedule. But what’s truly hard about this job is the way that students often come to perceive RAs, as enemies, members of the institution out to get them, and the farthest thing from a likeminded peer. This is, by far, and most frequently stated as, the single worst part of the job.
The hate that so many RAs are subject to on this campus, comes from the requirement of our job that forces us to write students up for any perceived illicit activity, as defined by the institution. In training this past January, it was almost unanimously agreed upon by student staff that writing students up more often created a hostile environment between RAs and residents, didn’t help the drug or drinking problem, and could be seen as making the issue more dangerous, as students engage in these behaviors in increasingly sneaky ways.
In most scenarios where I have had to write students up, I’ve gotten the question “can’t you just act like you didn’t see it?” Personally, I’d love to act like I didn’t see it, I’d love to not have to assume the role of the police in my own living space, I’d love to have an environment where I could actually help students engage in these activities in a safe way, instead of preaching outdated policies of abstinence, which, mind you, have never ever worked on any college campus. Nonetheless, I can’t escape the broader awareness of my own financial predicament, and the need to keep this job because my only alternative is to leave Wesleyan, which is not exactly worth the risk of turning a blind eye.
Thankfully, for all of us residents of Wesleyan, there is a group of ResLife student staff currently working with the heads of ResLife to address the many problems with our current system, with discipline being a central focus. However, there’s a long way to go, and it’s hard to say when these goals will be achieved.
My ideal vision of a Wesleyan RA is someone who serves as a friend and mentor to their residents, who helps to assure their safety without having to enforce university policies that feel ineffective, and as someone who upholds the values of the community that we all want: respect for all, caring, fun, and inclusion, among so many others. The RA job is so important and crucial for a positive residential experience, yet the RA is so underutilized in the community building aspect, and overburdened as a mere enforcer.
I originally came into this job with the hope of interacting with all sorts of students, helping to give advice where I could, and create a fun and positive atmosphere for my residents. I still have this hope, but it feels like the walls between my residents and myself have become too tall, given the increasing number of times I have had to interact with them in ways we both didn’t enjoy.
The single biggest flaw of the residential life program at Wesleyan is that the onus of community building and development falls almost entirely on the RA, instead of equally on all members of the community, as I believe it should. I hope that eventually, we as a student community can own the values we want to live in, and by, and transform this system for the better. But most of all, I hope that we can recognize that RAs are not here to punish you, nor do they want to, RAs want to connect with you, they want to hear how your doing, and they want you to check in with them too, because we all need someone to listen, and be there, through the good times, and the bad. To take a step toward real inclusion at this school, and to create a community that is defined by its students, we must all recognize that RAs are people too.