At American University, the role of a Resident Assistant (RA) is often misplaced, misconstrued, and misunderstood. More importantly, it’s indefinable though it appears to be definable. AU has its official definition, complete with qualifications and requirements, but it does not prepare students for what they’re getting into: the job is infinite.
Most of what RAs do is not subject to a written description. As an RA, I found it hard to put it on my resume because I could not put into words what I experienced, so I just more or less paraphrased AU’s definition. On the school’s website the RA position is summed up quite nicely; if I could put a bow on it I would.
It notes that RAs fulfill vital roles in the residence hall system, “helping students integrate learning experiences gained from both inside and outside of the classroom.” An RA’s duty, it says, is to “facilitate interpersonal relationships and to create living situations that maximize the opportunities for students to learn and grow.”
It looks and sounds good, right? It’s a great description of a leader and a great resume booster. However, as an RA I can tell you that I fulfilled not even half of the school’s description. Does that make me a bad RA? Maybe. But does that make me a failed or unsuccessful RA? Not necessarily.
AU breaks the job into categories: administration, community facilitation, role modeling/policy compliance, team membership, facilities/operations, and student learning. Over half of these categories describe the surface level of what an RA does and what everyone else THINKS they do. The closest category that is honest on this page is the ever dreadful “other duties as assigned” category that RAs hate to hear but probably best describes what they actually do.
“The nature of the RA position does not allow for all duties to be explicitly described,” says the website. ”There will be times when hall staff are requested to assist in an emergency or other unforeseen circumstances. These situations will be presented as thoroughly as possible at the time of need.”
In other words: the unknown, unpredictable, and indefinable situations. Most of the time after an incident occurred, I could not explain what happened because either I was bound by privacy laws or I just could not find the words to explain it. That’s the downfall of being an RA: dealing with things you thought you would never have to deal with and not being able to explain how they affected you. It’s frustrating, stressful, and most of all exhausting.
Also frustrating, stressful and exhausting is the bureaucracy that comes with the job. My first year, I focused too much on the things I could not change. I could not change my staff or my supervisors; I could not change people. But what I could change was my attitude. I could change how I approached each day. More importantly, I had to let go of what I could not change, and that was the hardest part. Focusing on the negatives meant missing the whole point of being an RA: having an impact on certain people, the people that made this job worth it at the end of each day: the residents.
My residents that first year were probably the most interesting (positive and negative connotation may apply) people I’ve ever met and I can truly say I learned as much from them as they from me. I may not have enhanced or even “complimented their classroom learning experience,” as AU might have wished, but I gave them the most honest advice possible when it came to my own experiences in the classroom, on and off campus, and how those experiences shaped what I thought of AU as a whole. I never sugarcoated anything and never lied to my residents. I became an RA known for my sarcasm and bluntness, and above all, honesty. I could not be more content with that reputation, because it is who I am as a person.
And that’s the word I would describe RAs: honest. Other RAs, former and current, who I talked to had different adjectives—“confidant”, “impactful”, “aware”, “compliant”, “omnipresent”, “able”,, even “hellish depending on the day/if you’re on duty”. The variety of responses helped make one stand out to me in particular: “indefinable”. RAs have so many different experiences that it’s impossible to nail down the position to one word. That’s what makes the job unique and frustrating.
Like any job, there are ups and downs. Good experiences as an RA involve giving advice to residents and seeing them actually following it (which rarely happens). Good experiences are dealing with an incident and successfully concluding it. But bad experiences involve seeing things that you cannot unsee. RAs are trained to respond to the most difficult situations: suicidal ideation, sexual assault, depression and homesickness. When people are at their lowest point, RAs are the first responders. The problem is that two weeks of mandatory training often isn’t enough. This job is about experience. We have to experience it to learn to be good at it.
Which means we will make mistakes. Our first experience tackling a real life crisis is not always the best but we learn from it. I like to think of advice my dad gave me: “good judgment comes from experience, experience comes from bad judgment.” You have to go through a situation, beginning to end, and deal with the consequences in order to learn.
RAs are constantly bound by responsibility 24/7. They do not clock out; they live where they work. Almost every RA is burnt out by the end of the year. We are exhausted. And after juggling classes, part-time jobs, internships, and our residents, who wouldn’t be? We never stop being students. We never stop being human.
So who are RAs really? We are just people, and every person isn’t perfect, isn’t definable. And we need to acknowledge that this is okay. Just like with any other job, an RA needs to feel respected and recognized by their residents and their university. This job is taken day by day and experience by experience. An RA is not definable but being able to define something is not a measure of understanding or success; being indefinable is part of who we all are.