Depending on where supervisors are working, their perceptions of the Resident Assistant (RA) role may differ from those of their colleagues. Some see the RA as a bastion of community, while others view these students primarily as policy enforcers. Many institutions even vary in their terminology, calling these ambitious young people “Resident Advisors,” “Community Assistants,” “Senior Residents,” “Floor Mentors,” etc.
But regardless of where they work or what their institution calls it, student affairs professionals can agree on one thing: the RA role is hard. Very hard.
While the job is compensated relatively well (typically by way of room and board), the comforts of a private room and cost-free housing are rarely enough to keep these students motivated. In this role, RAs at most institutions are expected to oversee a community of students, carry out administrative duties, satisfy demanding programming requirements, enforce policies against their peers and friends, and do it all while meeting the demands of their coursework.
Some students thrive under these demands. Others suffocate from the beginning. However, the most challenging students to supervise are often those who land somewhere in between. How do we manage the students who begin as superstars, then gradually fizzle out? Perhaps one of the most effective ways is to identify the potential for this burnout before it happens. We need to be proactive in the management of these students rather than reactive.
The following five are my own motivationally-at-risk favorites, which have a tendency to teeter on the fence between being enthusiastic about the RA role, and completely deflated. Further, many staffs have their fair share of them, meaning that their performance could make or break your school year.
However, these students have a tendency to put up warning flags early, presenting an opportunity for proactive intervention. Other supervisors will likely recognize these same students from their own experiences, and will have valuable insight on what has worked (or not worked) for them.
The Seasoned Veteran
- Key Identifiers: Students with a classic “been there, done that” attitude, with a bit of a know-it-all bravado. In their minds, there’s nothing that they haven’t seen or done.
- Breaking Points: Things aren’t as they used to be. Their old tricks don’t work on new dogs, and they may not be able to circumvent certain duties that they’ve skimped on in the past. They may also hit a point in which they feel like they’ve paid their dues, and feel entitled to coast out the remainder of their time in the role.
- Plan of Attack: Be proactive in identifying them as experienced leaders. Acknowledge their experience, while making it clear that things may not be the same as last year. Encourage their assistance with new staff. Push them to reinvent themselves.
- Key Identifiers: Plans everything ahead of time, with extraordinary attention to detail. Control over process is important.
- Breaking Point: Losing control over the process, or obtaining an end result that differs from what was envisioned.
- Plan of Attack: Help these students to develop realistic expectations. Highlight successes in the evaluation process.
- Key Identifiers: These students are VERY intrinsically motivated, with a desire to bring change to the world around them. They have a tendency to sport rose-colored glasses, even in the darkest of nights.
- Breaking Points: A struggle ensues when meager resources limit huge ideas, and when ideas lack the support of others. They are also discouraged when told by others that something simply won’t happen, notwithstanding their efforts.
- Plan of Attack: Listening to ideas (no matter how ambitious, outlandish, or unrealistic) will make all the difference. Emphasizing that these ideas can still lead to really great, smaller-scale outcomes can be a key to success for these students.
- Key Identifiers: These students always have their riot gear on standby. They demonstrate an intense focus on policy enforcement, and seek out violations. They could also be overly zealous in handling student situations.
- Breaking Points: A lack of “action” may deflate the ambitions of these students, for better or for worse. Their enthusiasm may also be dampened by the limitations on their authority, and by resident defiance.
- Plan of Attack: Emphasize that RAs have a much larger role that extends beyond mere policy enforcement. Further, the RA’s role in policy enforcement is to report violations as they present themselves, rather than to go looking for them.
- Key Identifiers: This student is involved in no less than 152 different organizations and activities and serving as the President of at least half of them, and taking 37 credits per semester. (Perhaps an exaggeration… but you get the picture) These students also tend to be people pleasers, with difficulty turning down requests for help.
- Breaking Points: Finally reaching their limits (which they didn’t know existed), with a tendency to allow performance to falter in everything at once, rather than dropping one or two activities.
- Plan of Attack: Be aware from the start. Get to know your RAs on an individual basis, and become familiar with their other extracurricular activities, class rigor, outside employment, etc. Checking in regularly with one-on-one meetings is also critical for these students.
While it is important to proactively address many of theses issues, supervisors should also bear in mind that many of these same characteristics and tendencies are tremendous assets as well. They may even be the reason that the student was hired to be a Resident Assistant in the first place. The key to success lies in capitalizing on the good, while mitigating the bad. When managed successfully, these students will bring results, and will remind us all of why we chose a career in student affairs.
> BONUS <
Podcast With Dean Kenneth Elmore on Student Engagement Efforts