The secrets behind closed doors
To be as transparent as possible, last year I was a resident assistant (RA). I quickly have to ask you to let the narc comments fall to the wayside, as they’re largely undeserved. When you tell people you’re an RA there’s a certain type of answer you become trained to expect.
“Really?” Was a big one for me. Hell, even I felt that way applying and getting hired. My presentation on why I wanted to be an RA was titled: “Me? An RA? Sure!”
Then, you’re usually met with a comment somewhere along the lines of “I could never be an RA. Sounds like so much work.” Maybe this was just me, but I couldn’t help but think: If only I knew what I was in for.
Perhaps this comment comes from those who had a good relationship with their RA, to the point where their RA would tell them the laundry list of things they had to do for their resident director (RD) or the Office of Residential Life, to the point where they would be shocked at all an RA truly does. Odds are, if most people knew even a fraction of what RAs had to do for ResLife—their residents and their RD—they might be a little more understanding towards their or other RAs.
RAs all sing a similar song at Ithaca College—for the shared experiences, frustrations and stressors are the notes to a similarly frustrated tune. I became an RA for the Fall 2018 to Spring 2019 semesters—before I stopped. It wasn’t a split-second decision to leave… the desire to leave the RA position for me was already strong after three months into the job. The money that came with being an RA was the most attractive thing about it, and the friends that I made along the way that have made an impact on my life for the better were a priceless bonus that went on to shape the way I looked at college.
One of those people, thankfully, is Jake Cattalanotto. Jake was already an RA for a year when I met him and was a valuable mentor in the way I looked at the job and working with other students as a whole. For the three semesters he served as an RA, Jake lived in East Tower. I recently sat down with him to get an understanding of his perspective and experience as an RA. Pretty early into our conversation Jake shared with me the feelings of isolation that he felt.
“Honestly it was incredibly lonely at times,” he said. This loneliness was compounded by the fact that his friends outside of the RA role were moving into upperclassmen housing together. “Living with each other and living with friends—going home at the end of the day to people they enjoy being around, to peers, and being able to unwind after a really stressful college day—your average stressful college day—and having to go back home to essentially work. To not know when your hours were and when you could fully be alone… and living with people whom you respect but at the end of the day you’re a resource for them and not the other way around was incredibly stressful and isolating.”
Jake’s feelings of isolation were catalyzed by a lack of support and the constant stressors of the RA role. While the RA role differs from college to college, at Ithaca College, RAs are expected, to a certain degree, to be on at all times.
“This feeling of always having to be ready for anything, whether it’s just sleeping with pajama pants and a shirt on when you otherwise wouldn’t just cause someone might knock on your door at 4 a.m cause they’re locked out, or at 8 a.m because they need an earring put in—people will go to you for their personal things. Or because, you’re genuinely scared that someone’s going to almost die tonight and you’re going to have to take care of someone who might get wheeled off to the hospital on a stretcher because of alcohol poisoning or self harm. The weekend isn’t less stressful than the week, it’s where the bad shit happens if anything.”
Jake was not alone in feeling anxious towards his job responsibilities. I also sat down to talk with Diana Castillo, another dear friend and mentor, who was my RA Buddy when I first started. RA Buddies are a way for returning RAs to lend support to new RAs and Diana, was an answer to my questions, a person to lean on when I felt the most alone and most importantly a friend whose support became crucial to keeping my head above water those first couple of months.When I asked her about her experience in the role, she shared that the hardest part of the role was her encounters with mental health concerns of her residents.
“The amount of mental health incidents that I would be confronting. There can never be a training that prepares students to help other students in situations that could be life or death,” Diana said. “I didn’t expect to confront as many mental health incidents where it was very scary. I didn’t feel that I had the proper training nor do I think it should be put on students, that should be a counselor or therapist or someone who has the degree. I don’t think that was talked about enough at all.”
With the people I spoke to support became a throughline of our conversations. Being a resident assistant is a very specific job that contains within it a plethora of responsibilities for a full-time college student to take on. From an outsider’s perspective, it can seem like a relatively simple job; bulletin boards, door tags and events are some of the more tangible responsibilities that RAs do for their residents and clusters.
In a video published by The Ithacan titled “#ICHowItWorks: Resident Assistants,” Alexandra Adams and Clare Nowalk, who were RAs at the time of the video being filmed, listed some of the responsibilities of RAing. Adams discussed “provid[ing] for the well being of residents,” “staff meetings,” “keeping everyone informed.” She also discussed “always having the phone on” and always being “on the clock.” Clare Nowalk said that outside of the responsibilities that Adamas listed that RAing also involves “a lot of paperwork,” “throwing events,” and “making bulletin boards.” When I spoke to Diana, she added checking her mailbox “almost every day” for posters and flyers to hang on bulletin boards, One on One meetings with residents, that she had spaced out an hour of time to do for somewhere around “twenty to twenty five residents,” lockouts, Judicial responsibilities, floor meetings and office duty. She elaborated on the events process; adding that planning, budgeting and shopping for the event added extra time to having an event on top of throwing the event– she also mentioned that shopping for events was challenging because she didn’t have a car.
To all the people I spoke to, the amount of time that they had dedicated to the job seemed to be indeterminable. Jake said it was: “Really hard to define,” because the hours that were more concretely scheduled and defined (like staff meeting, two hours every week) conflict with things that are not concrete, like interactions and the arts and crafts of bulletin boards and door tag making. Diana said it was “Hard to put a number to it because you live in your job.” Diana also mentioned that in her experience, residents became so comfortable with her that they brought their friends of other buildings to her so that she could help them.
Something that wasn’t touched upon in that video was but everyone I spoke to mentioned was duty. RAs perform duty almost every night of the semester from 9 p.m. until 6 a.m. the next morning. perform duty. Duty responsibilities include having the duty phone and going on rounds. The duty phone is the phone number you call when you get locked out or when you need any other assistance. One RA is responsible for answering it for the entire night.
Through all of this, ResLife’s main method of support for their over one hundred student staff are Residence Directors or RDs. RDs are ResLife’s professional staff members that supervises an entire cluster of residents and their RAs. You may have met your RD, or you may not have. Either way, their presence in the cluster is of the utmost importance to RAs. RDs are RAs’ direct supervisor, they offer to their RAs a lot of what RAs offer their residents in terms of emotional support. Every other week, one-on-one meetings take place where RAs and RDs discuss the job and if you have a good relationship with your RD, the effect that the responsibilities are having on RAs as people and students. RDs offer advice—when an issue with a resident comes up that you have to address, your RD can give you some of the most direct instructions for how to address it. RAs need RDs as much as RDs need RAs.
When your RD is inexperienced or apathetic it can be extremely challenging to do your job as an RA. When the relationship between an RA and their RD is good, things go smoothly. But when the support is not there, the consequences seem to fall back upon RAs.
“There are a lot of responsibilities on an RA and some of them are as simple as clerical duties and some of them are managing the mental health of college students,” Jake said. “And the mental health of college students, especially freshmen, is not an easy thing to handle. Sometimes you’re dealing with really serious life or death situations and you are kind of on the frontlines. Being guided by someone who also has no idea what they’re doing, who can’t give you the answers you need after an encounter ends—you still have to deal with it in a lot of ways.” Jake said.
Jake went on to explain that to his residents, he was the face of ResLife. When Jake did not get the support that he needed from his RD, it fell upon him to find the solution himself, with the help of the other RAs on his staff. A vicious circle begins, students supporting other students who don’t necessarily have the resources or training to support those students.
It seems to come with the territory—that’s what you signed up for when you decide to become an RA. It’s what is expected of you in order to receive compensation. The RAs that I spoke to were RAs for 2017-2019 academic years and they all said that compensation was a big part of why they decided to become an RA. Diana needed compensation in order to stay at Ithaca College.
“I had heard that RA compensation was about $12,000 and change and I knew that that would significantly bring down my bill and the school was expensive as it was my freshman year so during the year I was looking for scholarships and ways to decrease my bill so I could come back for a sophomore year.”
Diana isn’t alone either. Taylor, an RA who worked during the 2017-2019 academic years, and would also prefer to remain anonymous also needed compensation to remain at IC. “It was 75 percent of room and board that I got. I got a single, but I still paid to live in that single.” Taylor stated that while an increase in compensation was part of the reason why they stayed, they also couldn’t leave the job as they wouldn’t be able to attend IC.
RA Compensation isn’t a fixed number, but rather it’s a percentage of room and board that IC pays for upfront. The number has been marginally rising over the years, but during the 2017-2018 academic year it was 75 percent of room and board for new RAs (People who have been in the job for less than two semesters) and 90.1 percent of room and board for returners (RAs that have worked for more than two semesters). “I was still paying to be an RA.” Jake said.
The increase in compensation was a huge motivator for all of the RAs that I spoke to. Though they felt that it wasn’t necessarily justified. Diana said “There’s not a huge difference between the responsibilities of a new and returning RA.” The only tangible difference is that returners are paired with a new RA as an RA buddy. “There’s a difference in responsibility in the beginning but afterwards it’s the same thing. We have the same deadlines, the same stuff to do in general.” Diana felt that new RAs may even work harder because they’re eager to prove themselves. The 15.1 percent difference serves more as an incentive to remain in the position than it is a justifiable difference in the job.
The following year returning RA compensation rose 1 percent and for the first time since the 90s, according to The Ithacan for the 2019-2020 academic year RAs finally accomplished full room and board. However, the only RAs that receive full compensation are yet again returners. While full compensation was granted for returners, new RA compensation rose to 80 percent. While the gradual rises between both are excellent for RAs still working, the discrepancy between new and returning compensation has also drastically increased. The discrepancy went from 15.1 percent to 16.1 percent to now 20. Still, responsibilities for the two have not changed, except for the addition of Orientation duties. The overarching sentiment echoed by the RAs that I spoke to was that a lack of full compensation led to them not feeling valued by the college. Though out of the role, this song sounded all too familiar.
“It’s a twenty four hour job and that’s something that people don’t really talk about,” Devon said. Devon was an RA also during the 2017-2019 years and they’d prefer to stay anonymous. “I could be in class and a resident could text me. I personally had a rule where I would not respond to that sort of thing unless it were an emergency.” It’s common in the RA role to hear that you’re a person first, a student second and an RA third. This hierarchy of responsibilities is a practical way to manage the responsibilities in and out of the role. Though, Devon felt that the RA role constantly interfered with their academics. “There would be some nights where I had a bulletin board and three other things due the next day for the RA role–but I also had a five page essay and needing to make a choice between the two. It’s easy to email my RD and ask for an extension but needing to make that choice is something that’s very common for RAs. And it’s not always something that you can put off—sometimes you have this five page essay but then you have this student that comes up to you and says: ‘Hi—I am in crisis and I need immediate help.’ And that’s not something you can put off.”
Taylor felt similarly: “If I actually did everything by the book as an RA, I wouldn’t get my work done. I had to constantly half-ass all the things I did so I could get it all done. I never did my readings for class I would just show up and listen to everyone and get the gist from the readings because I didn’t have time to do the readings because of all the things I was doing as an RA. Sometimes I would slack in the RA role or slack in academics—it’s one or the other, but most of the time both.” These words too, sounded all too familiar.
On the hierarchy of needs established for RAs, many of the people I spoke to felt that their personal needs and desires were constantly in conflict with the RA role. Many mentioned “normalness” in college and how the RA role did not allow for the average college experience. Mostly they mentioned an interference with the social life that they lived before they became RAs and how the RA role impacted the way they moved about campus.
Among Jake’s “loneliness,” Diana’s “caution,” Taylor’s “anxiety” and Devon’s conflict between their friends going out and maintaining the responsibilities of the job. This all centered around one thing: the fear of being fired.
“I think when you’re a first time RA, it is because they almost scare you. They have that training with boundaries, but it comes off as ‘here are the things that will cost you your enrollment’ possibly for a lot of people.” Diana said. Devon said that the fear of being fired for them was constant. “Even when I was doing absolutely nothing wrong I was worried that I was somehow forgetting something or I would make one misstep or literally anything—they would fire me. I was constantly so stressed about that: knowing that if I was fired mid-semester, my compensation would be changed and suddenly I’d have to come up with that money for school. That reality was terrifying and so I felt that ResLife had a huge power imbalance over me. They know that they could just fire you and there’s nothing I can do about it. They know that RAs are replaceable. Because school is so expensive and housing are is so expensive, there’s is an incredibly long list of people that want to be RAs. I know that if I slipped up even the tiniest bit, they could fire me and get someone new and it would not be hard for them at all.” Devon said. In the hiring process, there is also an alternate pool where certain applicants are placed, in case an RA that does have the position leaves or is terminated from the position.
Each RA I spoke to mentioned the “Life in a Fishbowl” training, where the RA role is examined through “The Fishbowl Effect,” which according to the University of Miami’s Office of Residential Life is “The idea that your residents look up to you pay attention to what you do and take queues from your actions… We’re role models wherever we are, similar to how a fish can always be observed in its bowl.” The message to a new RA seems to be clear, however nerve wracking: you’re always being watched.
This all sounds too familiar, a melody I’ve heard before and associated with a distinct memory. Upon hearing it all again, it all comes back. Long nights, indeterminable hours, stressing for my residents and for myself, feeling unvalued by the college despite all that I was doing, strains in my social life, communication errors with my RD, debating whether to lose sleep doing RA responsibilities and homework, anxiety that the duty phone would ring on my desk, feeling watched and above all just wanting to be a “normal college student.” RAing, was to me, a battle I could never win, a puzzle I could never solve and a song that played ad infinitum, on loop.
Though I did learn a lot undeniably, about myself, about the world, about interacting with others. I made my closest friends and found my most trusted confidants in the RA role and they’ve stayed with me long after I left the position.
As my first conversation with Jake came to an end, I shared with him—still probably subconsciously seeing him as a mentor—my concern of how this article would be perceived. Stepping up like he did in my first semester, he said: “RAs feel like they’re in between the organization of Ithaca College and students. Students most of the time just look at us like cops: people just trying to get them in trouble. It’s really hard for them to connect with us—to see that role—yes, gets them in trouble sometimes—it’s can also be horrible for us too.”
And he’s right. It can be.
Mateo Flores is a third year Writing for Film, TV and Emerging Media major and they are off duty. You can reach them at [email protected].