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TRANSITION: From RA to RD

By Michael Stark
Area Coordinator
Hiram College

Grandma: Johnny, you are about to graduate, right? What is your degree again?

Johnny: It’s History, Grandma.

Grandma: Are you going to teach high school, or go for your PhD?

Johnny: Actually, I think I want to become a Resident Director.

Grandma: What is a Resident Director?

Johnny: A Resident Director supervises Resident Assistants. I’m a Resident Assistant and the Resident Director of our building is my boss.

Grandma: Why do you want to be one of them?

Johnny: Well, I have had a great time being a RA. I really liked helping my residents enjoy college, and helping them work through problems they may have.


Making the transition from paraprofessional (RA) to professional (HD, RD, etc) can be tricky. Regardless of whether you think you are ready, the first year will probably be rough in some places. Don’t let the rough places discourage you; in fact, use them to help you grow. One reason for a rough transition may be that you have not thought long and hard about the difficulties inherent when beginning a new job. The difficulties of change come in three categories: 1) Illusion, 2) Commitment, and 3) The Box. The three categories mentioned above, to me, embody the true transition that must be made between the RA and RD positions. Yes, the three categories even translate well when you consider applying for the RA position. The difference here is the urgency associated with the thought process.

Illusion is that which we believe our job to be, and what it is not. To a greater or lesser extent, this concept is usually correct. When we become blinded by what we hope the job will be, we are opening up ourselves to disappointment. Some common illusions are: 1) I only have to work until 5pm, 2) The weekends will be my time only, 3) I only have to worry about my building, 4) All I have to do is make sure the RAs are doing their job, and 5) All positions are the same.

If you believe any of the above illusions you may want to reread a position description. Rarely does 5pm signify the end of your day. More commonly it says, "Hey, go to dinner," and then you can do some more stuff outside the office. For me, I go to dinner around 5pm and then either attend a student function or go home to work on a bulletin board.

The weekends should be your downtime, but do not expect it to always be so. You cannot place a time limit on helping students. Schedule time to relax and take it easy, just make sure that you are around and checking your messages periodically. The weekends are a good time to bond with your residents. Go to a student function, spend some time in the main lounge, or invite them to dinner. Downtime does not mean "no contact."

If the only building you worry about is your own, then how are you supporting the mission of the institution and your department? The RD needs to think about all of the students who live in the residence halls. Any student may become one of your residents. Would it not be nice to know what kind of environment they are coming from, or even what environment they may move to?

All I have to do is make sure the RAs are doing their job. Do not ever take that statement as fact. You must read deeper into your role. Do you remember when you were an RA, how you would try to put off paperwork or a program because you had something you would rather be doing? What makes you think that the RAs will do what you tell them? You need to be working to motivate and shape your RAs’ outside experiences also.

There is more to the RD position than making sure RAs are doing their job. What about Hall Council, do you advise a student group? There are quite a few other tasks you will be completing along the way, such as: programming, furniture inventory, needs-assessment, teaching a course (awesome!), advising student groups, and one-on-one contact with the residents of your building. Very rarely is anything as easy as it seems.

Lastly, all RD positions are the same. Regardless of the position title, the RD has different responsibilities at different institutions. Sure, the main tasks are the same, but read the specific departmental duties. Did you find the "other duties as assigned" clause? Ask what types of duties are often included at that particular institution.

The institution plays a big role in your job. For example, one huge difference is size. How many students does an institution house? How many co-workers will you have? Every institution has the same core requirements of their RD staff. The difference lies in the number of "other duties" per the number of RDs. Do you have three RDs, so that each RD works fairly autonomously on a project; or do you have 13 RDs that work in small groups? Ask yourself what style you most prefer.

Commitment is the next category. The committed RD must buy into the mission of the department and the institution; that does not mean the RD blindly accepts everything as perfect. "If it is not broken, do not fix it" has no place in the lifestyle of the committed RD. Improvements can always be made, and should always be suggested. Does this sound like what is expected of RAs? It is true.

Commitment is a quality that overlaps both positions. The difference lies in the degree of commitment. RDs are really expected to give feedback and suggestions. Simply griping about a problem is not accepted as proper behavior. The committed RD, for example, must be willing to carry on conversations with students who do not share the same point of view as Residence Life, and do so in a constructive manner. RDs must never forget that they were once RAs.

RDs must contribute in a wider arena. The RD will be asked to sit on Student Life committees, university committees, and even local partnership committees. Even more than the RA, the RD is an ambassador for the department and institution at any function.

The big transition from RA to RD is how committed you are going to be. You can do what needs to be done; or you can be active and grab hold of opportunities that present themselves. Are you willing to spend time out of the office, stay up and attend student functions, say, "yes" to new experiences, and provide mentorship for RAs and residents? All of those mysterious things that were done when you were an RA; like the RA selection process, the staff training process, and the housing re-assignment process; will now be done by you. In summation, the RD works harder, quicker, and continues to learn at a rate different from the RA.

The Box is the final category. Simply put, The Box is what the RD must strive to think outside of. The Box is an illusion. As you make the transition from RA to RD you need to remember that there is always more than one way to accomplish a goal, or reach a student. More than likely you are now a professional RD at a different institution, and their policies and procedures may seem strange to you. Keep an open mind, but always speak up if you have questions or suggestions.

The world continues to change, students especially. If you want to impact students you must continue to read, learn, and experiment. Just because you have a job and are a "professional," it does not mean that you know the best way to do everything. Stereotypes are your enemy! Reading, learning, and experimenting will help you make informed and logical decisions.

In summation, the RD is much more than a higher paid RA. The job is more stressful, more rewarding, and pays more money. J If you can successfully battle Illusion, Commitment, and The Box, your transition into the RD position will be that much easier.

Hey, if you have any questions or comments contact me at starkmj@hiram.edu.