Blurred lines: College life vs. RA life

    Amid a flurry of purple T-shirts, crying parents, suitcases and giant boxes, one group stands poised and ready on move-in day: Resident Assistants. Colloquially know as RAs, these students are responsible for decorating residents’ doors with crafty nametags, planning floor-wide trivia nights and banging on doors when the music gets too loud. Yet, besides these occasional encounters, few people actually know what the rest of the job entails.

    Students choose to be RAs for a variety of reasons, but few truly know what to expect until their residents arrive on campus. Resident Assistants must fulfill responsibilities and expectations that could often make it difficult to experience college life as other students do.

    “There seems to be a dichotomy between what Residential Services expects and wants of its RAs and the reality of college living,” Weinberg sophomore and former RA Matt Cowen said. “Policies are written in black and white and the world is grey.”

    RAs are obliged to uphold all university policies, as are all Northwestern students. However, if an RA is caught breaking a rule such as dating a resident or consuming alcohol or other illegal substances, he or she can be fired immediately.

    “Residential Services is very strict,” Cowen said. “Sometimes what you think may be right may not be what the employers think is right. You have to learn what the employer is looking for.”

    According to the official RA position description, Residential Services expects its employees to fulfill nine distinct “general responsibilities and duties,” including getting to know residents, reporting frequently to supervisors, planning community-building programs and responding to “both emergency and non-emergency situations,” in addition to their regular weekly tasks, such as meetings and paperwork.

    “They say it’s like a 20-hour per week commitment or something,” Communications junior and current RA Justin Shannin said. “But a lot of it’s not structured time where, ‘at this time I do this.’ A lot of it’s just being present and part of your community.”

    In exchange for doing their jobs, RAs receive a single room in addition to a 14-meal per week plan.

    “I thought that being an RA would be good for me in terms of building community and leadership skills. The other reason is that you save a lot of money,” said Cowen.

    Since Resident Assistants do not have to pay room and board, their cost of attendance is nearly $15,000 less than that of the average student. This price reduction is especially beneficial to students who would otherwise be paying in full.

    Weinberg junior and former RA Vedanta Goenka said that he chose to be an RA solely for the money. “I’m doing such little work and I’m getting $5,000 a quarter. As an international student, I’m not getting any sort of aid,” he said.

    However, students can still receive financial aid in addition to being an RA. "The financial aid office makes every effort to maintain the level of scholarship assistance a student would receive if they were not Resident Assistants,” according to the RA Financial Aid information page.

    Cowen’s other primary reason for applying: RAs are expected to foster community by reaching out to each of their residents and planning bonding activities that allow the residents to get to know each other, such as floor dinners and events. They are expected to be an authority figure among their residents, but also a source of advice and companionship.

    “A lot of it’s just general hanging out and providing resources, et cetera,” Shannin said. “I’ve played so much Super Smash in Chapin,” he added, laughing.

    Assistant Director of Residential Services Gonzales explained that community development is a major component of being an RA. She said that the role of an RA is to provide a sense of community among the residents on their floors and to ensure that they feel safe, comfortable and supported.

    “I was surprised by how friendly I became with my residents,” Goenka said.

    While an RA, Cowen improved his communication, leadership and crisis-solving skills, in addition to learning the importance of acknowledging his residents’ points of view, even when they made mistakes. “I learned to remember the value of intent versus impact of action,” he said.

    Yet, both Cowen and Goenka expressed disappointment with the system that employs and oversees Resident Assistants.

    When Cowen was fired, he felt that his learning experience had been unfairly cut short. “Clearly to me, whatever mistakes were made shouldn’t undermine or shouldn’t completely outweigh all the good that was done,” he said. “I guess my only regret would be that I’m no longer an RA, and that wasn’t my decision.”

    When an RA violates the rules, he or she is sometimes forgiven “on a case-by-case basis,” Assistant Director of Residential Services Tiffany Gonzales said. “If they can show us that learning has occurred and they are able to articulate that, we are willing to give them a second chance.”

    But according to Cowen, when he met with his supervisors after learning that his position had been terminated, they told him that he had committed “a serious offense and that there shouldn’t be a second chance for it.”

    “The entire system is flawed,” Goenka said. “If I did rounds or didn’t do rounds, nobody got to know. If I did programs or not, nobody got to know. If I know my residents or not, nobody got to know.”

    Goenka admitted that it was easy for him to neglect his responsibilities. Cowen explained that he had learned of his fellow RAs frequently violating rules, but the students were only punished if Residential Services was explicitly made aware of the transgression.

    “It’s a job, and you have to treat it like one,” Cowen said. “But you also want to be a college kid. And it’s sometimes difficult to balance those two things.”

    Still, many students have positive experiences as Resident Assistants. According to Shannin, being an RA has been the most meaningful things he’s done on campus. “I just love knowing that I could have helped someone have a better time transitioning into life at Northwestern,” Shannin said.

    After all that has happened, Cowen also still appreciated getting to know his residents and does not regret applying to be an RA. “I could always help out and be a positive influence. It was great to be able to build relationships with a lot of students,” he said.

    Though RAs may not experience college life as other students do, they make sacrifices for the sake of their residents and, as a result, campus housing feels a little bit more like home.


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