What made your college RA great?
July 31, 2008 3:39 PM   Subscribe

What made your college RA great?

I'll be an RA this upcoming September at a large Canadian university. Tending to a co-ed 'house' of about 44 undergrads, my role will include community building as well as rule enforcement and support for individual students with whatever they need during the year. I did this job last year and was OK - things went fine, but I doubt anything I did was very memorable for the residents.

This year, I want to be more than OK - I want to be a great RA. So I'd like to hear the things that your college RA did that you look back on as especially helpful, that made your time in the residence more pleasant, or otherwise earned your appreciation.

Cautionary tales or general advice are also most welcome. On the residence programming front, I've already noted this Ask thread from a few years ago.
posted by Clandestine Outlawry to Education (35 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I think what was most useful about our RA's were that they were willing to share their friends. Its sounds silly, but it helped that there were a few other people around campus that we recognized. I ended up staying friends with a few, and it provided a little wider base than any one person/RA could provide.
posted by mercredi at 3:45 PM on July 31, 2008

Learn a few delicious/filling snacks and make them for house meetings and the like. (Winners: homemade mac&cheese, cinnamon buns, tomato soup & grilled cheese.)

And don't be a dick.
posted by phunniemee at 3:46 PM on July 31, 2008

The greatest RA I ever had stayed out of my business that did not affect other students, was engaged and outgoing as just another student, was aware of students rejecting planned community 'activities' when those activities were stupid and pointless, never forced or pressured students to partake in the aforementioned activities, realized that most rules set up by the school were BS attempts at controlling young adults and therefore ignored them, and realized that by subtly encouraging community spirit in the dorm there was no need for an RA to do anything outside of emergency situations for which that RA had learned the university's protocols and was ready to act on them as best a person could.

But then again, my greatest RA never actually existed.
posted by Science! at 3:50 PM on July 31, 2008 [6 favorites]

The greatest RA I ever had stayed out of my business that did not affect other students.

posted by Inspector.Gadget at 3:53 PM on July 31, 2008

Mine never interfered with my drinking and carousing, so that was good.
posted by trbrts at 3:53 PM on July 31, 2008

Overlooking the fully stocked bar we had going in our room.

But more than that - being someone that I could actually go to if I needed to. They weren't intimidating or stuck-up or whatever. They were nice and were sure to include EVERYONE as their peer or equal - even that weird looking kid down the hall with all that facial hair and annoying tic.

Oh, and learning everyone's name. Take the time to do that - and to use their names when you pass in the hall or on campus.
posted by Sassyfras at 3:55 PM on July 31, 2008

Agreeing heartily with Science! and Inspector. The point is, don't be petty about stuff. My RA was a great guy who didn't bust your balls unless you were being absolutely ridiculous, but there was an RA from ANOTHER FLOOR that would patrol our area looking for people to get in trouble.

An anecdote that summed up my RA: He collected all of us in the lounge for a meeting the day back from winter break, which was unusual for him since we all had expressed disgust at his first attempt at the beginning of the year and he had been OK with that. He informed us that the school had looked in our dorm fridges over break (to make sure they didn't have rotting food) and our floor had the highest number of alcohol violations of any floor in any dorm in the entire school. So instead of flipping out and telling us he was gonna be a hard ass, he said please keep the alcohol inside your rooms so he didn't get in trouble.

Since he was a genuinely nice dude, we all complied. He also didn't make me return two couches I had appropriated from the lounge from my dorm room either. Good guy...
posted by rooftop secrets at 3:59 PM on July 31, 2008

And the point of my post was to say that, if you're not a complete dick, people will be more likely to seek you out if they actually have a problem. This is, after all, what you're supposed to be there for.
posted by rooftop secrets at 4:00 PM on July 31, 2008

Nthing don't sweat the small things. Keep your sense of perspective.
posted by brain cloud at 4:05 PM on July 31, 2008

He didn't give us any shit about teh smoke, provided we toweled the bottom of the door.
posted by M.C. Lo-Carb! at 4:06 PM on July 31, 2008

I lived in college, which had a few blocks and each block had a Senior Resident - which does much of the same things a RA does. Often students move from block to block, and the SRs change every year (so even if someone stayed on as SR they'd be reassigned to a different block) so you'd probably meet a few different ones.

The first one I had was an absolute sweetheart! He welcomed me (and my mum, who came to help me move in) on my first few days in college. He's very smart and caring and everyone loved him. I still bump into him from time to time and he's still as friendly as before.

The second one (well, actually, 3rd/4th - I was in a block with 2 SRs for a short while but had to move because I was being harassed) was nice too, though he was far more of a partier than the first one (who was quite a hermit). What made him stand out, though, was how he supported me when I had a massive emotional breakdown last year. It got to the point where I didn't want to go back to my room and be lonely, so he let me bunk in his spare bed for a while.

So yeah, be nice and be there for them.
posted by divabat at 4:08 PM on July 31, 2008

divabat: "
So yeah, be nice and be there for them.

Perfect. Just remember that is some students are distant and cold the entire year it's probably not about you. They may have already assumed that you're like every horrible RA they've ever heard of. When you get the chance to help out a person who's been distant you'll earn ultracred with the rest of the residents.

However if someone is a genuine dick to you, despite your best efforts to be human and humane, and then needs help then you don't really have to go any further in helping them than the rules say you do. If you go above and beyond that, you're just being a really good human being and will be recognized for it by others.
posted by Science! at 4:15 PM on July 31, 2008

Trust your residents, but don't come down hard on people for violating that trust unless it's really warranted (which is, really, stuff you'd call the cops for anyway: actively destroying common property, going on a drunken rampage and punching four residents, dealing drugs out of their room).

At our first meeting, I started from the idea that if people want to live on campus and enjoy the conveniences of doing so, they need to realize that it's not exactly their place to treat as they see fit - in fact, the university is a demanding and pricey landlord! - so they need to respect their neighbors and follow the rules. That's pretty much all I had to do. I didn't knock on people's doors at 1 am on a Friday night looking for hookers and blow unless it was my turn to do rounds, in which case we'd go with the campus security folks anyway, who were usually laid-back and friendly. Where I encountered parties where there were, ahem, violations of policy taking place, I told them I was obligated - which they knew - to end the party (and, yes, trash the booze if they were under 21) and talked to the residents of the room, if present, afterward. It happened a few times during the course of the first term, but petered out after that. Residents were almost universally apologetic and didn't do it (or get caught) again.

First-time violations were pretty much about reminding people why something couldn't happen, but repeat offenders kept moving up the chain of residential life staff until they were evicted from campus housing (this almost never happened). Luckily my residents knew the whole process - it was posted on the wall - so there were no surprises or accusations of bias or whatever.

When I did have to tell people why something wasn't allowed, I tried to be as detailed and fair as possible; in the case of the "no toaster oven" rule, I actually went to the campus fire department and asked for the logic behind it, got a great answer about smoke alarms and insurance and a bunch of other things, went back to my resident who had hidden one into their room (though the toast smell gave it away!), and talked to them about why it had to go. They put it on Craigslist and it was gone a few days later.

You can also remind them that things could be a lot worse.

Oh, I also offered my services one Saturday morning a month where we got a van from the campus pool and went shopping somewhere like outlet malls or IKEA or something that would be a pain to get to on public transport. With notice, I was happy to drive people to the airport if they were heading home, or keep an eye on a houseplant for a few days. Being a good neighbor and leading by example was, I think, a good way to foment good behavior.

One more thing: learn their names ASAP! Flash cards, introductions, drawing a cheat sheet, whatever it takes.
posted by mdonley at 4:32 PM on July 31, 2008 [2 favorites]

My RA freshmen year overlooked anything that wouldn't come back to actually get HIM in trouble. That's all I really ever asked for/needed in an RA.
posted by BryanPayne at 4:38 PM on July 31, 2008 [1 favorite]

I'm with BryanPayne, your their RA, not their best friend. I can't really think of anything more you could do than just be out of the way, overlook stuff that can be overlooked as long as it's not dangerous. The RA's that were the most gungho about their jobs were usually the most annoying.
posted by BrnP84 at 4:44 PM on July 31, 2008 [1 favorite]

My RA played on our intramural soccer team. It showed she was willing to stick her neck (or feet) out for us, and actually spend time with us outside of mandatory meetings.
posted by kidsleepy at 4:55 PM on July 31, 2008

She wasn't bossy or nosy, and she turned me on to Joan Armatrading and magic mushrooms.
posted by ottereroticist at 5:06 PM on July 31, 2008

My RA said "If I don't see it, hear it, or smell it then I don't care what you do."

And we all loved him.
posted by Orrorin at 5:23 PM on July 31, 2008 [1 favorite]

basically, providing free food for no reason other than to be nice, and not simply to get people to show up for mandatory floor meetings or contrived community building. getting pizzas around finals or what have you.
posted by dahliachewswell at 5:27 PM on July 31, 2008

The "best" things about my RA's were the same things that got them fired from the RA program. So ask yourself if you want to the "the best" RA or a really good one.
posted by Ookseer at 6:02 PM on July 31, 2008

My first RA was great because he helped people to get to know each other and make friends. Some RAs are really bad at that.
If you want to be a bad RA, schedule activities purely because you're required to, and make a big eye-rolling deal about how lame your stupid activity is and how nobody in their right mind would want to go to such a lame meeting - including your very cool RA! - but he's obligated.
If you want to be a great RA, schedule something that you honestly would enjoy, even if it's as simple as playing a movie you really like in the lounge. Let them know that you'll provide food, invite people individually and sincerely, and treat your Contractually Obligated Activity like you would any other gathering of friends. This is what my first RA did, and it's not a coincidence that our floor had a fun vibe and a lot of interactivity right out of the gate. I have incredibly fond memories of that floor. (thanks, eric! wherever you are!)
posted by moxiedoll at 6:24 PM on July 31, 2008

The "best" things about my RA's were the same things that got them fired from the RA program.

Seconded. I was an RA (and not a great one, I'll admit it) and my best RA friend on staff got fired because he wouldn't enforce any rules on his floor, then sided with the residents rather than with the staff on rules issues. So yea, don't go so overboard on trying to be friends that you lose the ability to ever enforce anything. I wish I'd had some of the advice above back then.
posted by cabingirl at 7:15 PM on July 31, 2008

First, last and always: if this is in Ontario or one of the other neo-Puritan provinces with a drinking age of 19 then you're going to have many students who are underage, and many who are not.

I was 17 when I started. I helped get half my floor through first year econ. I gave people advice on everything from phone bills to course selection to traffic tickets. My twenty-four-year-old friend would routinely drink until he was comatose. He puked on one couch, and pissed on another. But in the eyes of the province of Ontario, he was mature and responsible enough to consume alcohol, and I was not.

Being underage, when so many of my friends were not, sucked. But it sucked a lot less than it could have because my RA wasn't a dick. If I put vodka in an orange juice container, I could sit in the common area and drink it (even if I winced as I sipped). He'd give us all a week's warning before conducting a room check.

Ontario legislators were stupid to pass the drinking age law. Don't compound their idiocy by enforcing it. You're not going to get in trouble for insufficient zealotry. So why cause trouble for your floor if you don't have to?

Your residents will respect you more if you can show that you understand the difference between necessary and unnecessary rules. Our RA let us slide on lots of little stuff. So when he did draw the line, we knew he meant it, and we knew there was a good reason. We listened.

Other than that... relax. People don't come to university for trust exercises or standing in a circle playing complicated clapping games or whatever other horseshit is in vogue this year. That's what eighth grade summer camp is for.

My RA was awesome because he was a legitimately nice guy. He sat in the common room and watched TV with us. He asked us about our classes and our families and our lives because he was genuinely interested, not because it was on some checklist passed out by Residence Services. He didn't impose himself on us, but if he was in his room playing X-box, then the door was open and we were welcome to join him. When we went to the gym to play pickup basketball, he joined us. But he wasn't the coach, and he wasn't the ref. He was just another player.

On-court and off, it was the right way to go.
posted by ewiar at 7:25 PM on July 31, 2008

Students will always be suspicious of you because regardless of how much "community building" you engage in, they will remember what you're really getting paid to do, which is police them. These are not rules that they had any role in creating, so your position is essentially autocratic. Instead of trying so hard to please them, just stay out of their way.
posted by limon at 7:26 PM on July 31, 2008

I'm not big on activities or cheesy stuff, but my RA was there for this city girl with the tweezers the night I came home from a trip to the woods with a tick on my stomach and I was totally freaking out.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 7:30 PM on July 31, 2008 [1 favorite]

Following up on Ookseer's comment:
I'm probably being a bad "former RA" (not fired, though) by admitting it, but in my experience, intervention/write-ups in response to policy violations is subject to a whole lot of discretion, varying from RA to RA.
As to yourself, though, try to be consistent. That is, to whichever degree you choose to be a hard-ass on university policy, stick to it. If not, those which you "go easy" on are likely to push, more and more, until you may end up having to try to explain your "discretion" to your higher-up reslife staff.
posted by cac at 7:58 PM on July 31, 2008

RA who?
posted by zengargoyle at 8:01 PM on July 31, 2008

My RA was all of the nice things people listed above, but he went one further for me one day: covering for me after I set off the fire alarm by blowing a sambuca fireball during a cold, snowy Thursday night warm-up party. He was a mensch.
posted by anthill at 8:25 PM on July 31, 2008

And I turned out alright, amirite?
posted by anthill at 8:25 PM on July 31, 2008

The best RA had a well-known open door policy, and would often have regular times where he just opened the door to his suite and go on about whatever he would normally have done. Watch TV, make dinner, listen to music. He was also very down-to-earth, but also firm on what he wouldn't tolerate. He wasn't above a nudge and a wink to either let you off the hook or to put you in the know before you did do something not so cool. He was in no way a narc. We had some hard core cases tripping balls now and again and he assured their safety.

He was also gay, made no big deal of it (this was the late 1980s), and was an awesome activist who inspired real progress in campus-wide attitudes about queer folks while helping to organize queer events.

And lastly, he had a great name that he shared with a 1960s musician! He would sometimes groan at the jokes, but he also used it as a litmus test to see if people knew their music history.

Good luck and have a great year!!
posted by kuppajava at 8:31 PM on July 31, 2008

- Introduce yourself to all your residents. Actually get to know them. Tell them where your room is. Send them an e-mail afterwards reiterating this. In my 4 years, I remember meeting 2 RAs. (And one of them lasted maybe two months before leaving school on mysterious terms.) I'm not saying you should be overbearing, but you shouldn't be anonymous, either!

- Be a good role model! One of my RAs flagrantly disregarded stuff like quiet hours, blaring horrible music (enough to make everything in my room shake) at all hours. We all hated him. Don't be that guy.

- Keep your door open when practical. Depending on the setting, you might encourage others to do the same: freshman year we'd leave our doors open when we were in our rooms, and we got to know each other pretty well. You'd walk by and, hey, are they playing Halo? And hey, isn't the kid across the hall in my Economics class? Did we have homework? (Do convey as an RA, though, that you'll have to bust them for things you see with the door open, and the importance of security and locking the door when they're not there!) Sadly, in subsequent years, no one on any of the floors I lived on did this, so we never had that sense of community. Even if you're the only one, though, it makes you quite approachable when your door is open.

- mdonley sounds like exactly the RA I wanted: one that wasn't out to bust people for trivial stuff, but that made it clear that they'd take egregious violations seriously. To my RA who I never met (even though there were only four rooms on our floor): that beer pong tournament that lasted hours in the hall? Yeah, that wasn't cool, since it was right outside my room, noisy, left the floors sticky for a week, and resulted in people peeing in the washing machine (?!) and stairwells. And as someone whose sinuses are acutely bothered by strong smoke (whether it's tobacco or weed), I also resented the RA who never did anything about the strong odors drifting down the hall. No one wants an RA who's really strict, but I think a decent number of people on your floor will actually appreciate it if you're serious about enforcing rules that affect other people.

- A quick tip: a "mandatory" floor program will have maybe 60% attendance, with 40% deliberately blowing it off and 60% there but annoyed at the inconvenience. A, "Hey guys, the school gave me money for pizza if you want to come down to the common room at 4pm" event will have a high turnout, and people will love you. The two events may have actually been the same thing, but a "mandatory floor meeting" will automatically suck. Holding a couple events (see below) might be cool, and a good chance to make sure people meet each other. Try not to call it a "floor meeting," though, and don't call it "mandatory" unless there's actually a compelling reason that every single person must be there.

- When we moved into an on-campus apartment (with kitchens), the RAs (one per floor) collectively organized a building-wide cook-off. It was totally optional, but each suite was invited to cook something, whether a meal, snack, or dessert, and a prize was given to the best. My roommates and I tended to be pretty secluded, rarely going to any RA-hosted events we didn't have to. Every single one of us was there, and every single one of us enjoyed it—delicious food, a chance to win a prize, and, indirectly, a great way to mingle with people we didn't even know were our neighbors.

- If you have freshman (or new students), go out of your way to be approachable and tell your residents that you'd love to help them through stuff, as a sort of mentor. I'd have loved to have had my RA give me advice on registering for classes, or on where the hell Lewis Hall (which is conspicuously absent from the campus map and nonsensically situated on the opposite side of a big parking lot) was, but he never offered to help us with that type of stuff, so I never asked. A friend was having trouble with his roommate, but didn't have an RA that seemed eager to help, either, so he ended up going to the Res Life staff, which probably ended up looking bad for the RA. You seem eager to help, so make sure that this gets communicated to them.
posted by fogster at 8:59 PM on July 31, 2008

Like many other people's, mine looked the other way when we were drinking provided we didn't cause other people problems, told us when the police were in the building, and didn't try to rope us into dorm activities.
Oh yes, and he shared his music/DVD collection with us. it was pretty cool.
posted by dunkadunc at 9:02 PM on July 31, 2008

Please please please try to help reinforce the fact that college is not a big party. It is the place where people get their degrees.
posted by kldickson at 10:01 PM on July 31, 2008

We only had RAs for freshmen. I think the most critical thing there was facilitating the second week of school "This is so hard and frustrating and lonely. I want to quit." hall meeting that will allow the freshmen to bond forever, form study groups, and stop being lonely.

Another nice thing our RA did was bagels and such in the early afternoon on a Sunday every now and then. Our dining hall had shortened hours on Sunday and it was easy to miss a meal. Plus when everybody's feeling sort of dopey/hungover and getting ready to start studying is sort of a nice time to chat.

The one rule for living in the dorms at our school was "Sleep/Study"--If someone tells you that what you're doing is interfering with their ability to sleep or study, you stop (there was an exception for parties that had gotten the proper permits and were formally announced). I've always thought that was a brilliant rule for a respectful community. It shows that you care about the health and academic success of students, but otherwise you're not going to interfere in their business.
posted by hydropsyche at 4:36 AM on August 1, 2008

Do make sure that if you let some things slide, that it doesn't affect the other students. Don't let the drunken idiots keep others awake or destroy other people's stuff. One year the girls next to me had a huge drug habit and with those thin dorm walls, soon all of my stuff was saturated in that smell. My RA would do nothing about it.

The worst RA I ever had, though, came into our room one night chewing tobacco and spit on our floor. Don't do that.

One cool thing that was actually useful was the year our RA organized a sharing table in the hallway. You could put anything that you didn't need or would use on it and take what others had donated. It was often covered in canned food, makeup samples, spare coat hangers, notebooks, paperbacks, etc. One time someone put a package of 200 flavored condoms on the table and they were gone within two hours.
posted by bristolcat at 7:58 AM on August 1, 2008 [2 favorites]

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