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Being a Resident Assistant: What’s Your Motivation?

By Matthew R. Shupp, M.S., N.C.C., Coordinator of Student Life, The Restaurant School at Walnut Hill College

What would possess any undergraduate student to want to become a Resident Assistant? If you have not taken the time to think about this question, do it now.

A Resident Assistant wears many hats. The RA is an event coordinator: planning and implementing social, emotional, and educational gatherings. The RA is a conflict mediator: helping to calm roommates ready to do battle over who took who’s laundry detergent without asking. The RA, although sometimes the least liked role, is a police officer: monitoring floor behavior and documenting offenses to the code of conduct. The RA is a tutor: often putting aside his or her own studies to help students pass that impossible mid-term exam. The RA is a caregiver: always needing a hug, but giving one away instead because someone else needs it more. The RA is a medic: almost always the first “person of authority” on a scene that would make the most seasoned professional’s heart skip a beat.

The Resident Assistant is all of these people wrapped up into one young student leader bearing down in the trenches wishing and hoping that they are making a difference in the lives of their residents. More often than not, you will never know if, when, and how you impacted your residents. A majority of the time a “thank you for doing your job and documenting me last night because I really learned a lot from this experience” rarely is heard. Obviously you are doing it for some reason, and I would think that there is more to your rationale than possibly the pay check, the single room, a free meal plan, the close parking space, or any other perk that your institution may provide.

I want to share with you my story of becoming a Resident Assistant, which has ultimately led to my profession in higher education.

When I was a child growing up, my mother worked for our family doctor as a registered nurse. I would often go into the office early in the morning and pretend that I was helping her. Watching her help others was an important part of my childhood. Her caring and compassion for others became a model I wanted to emulate. As I grew older, I knew that I, too, wanted to be in a position to help others. I began to consider a career in medicine. Throughout my adolescence, the idea of a medical career took root. When it came time to make a decision about college, I chose to pursue a career in medicine. I enrolled in Shippensburg University as a biology major and seemed set on a course that would lead to medical school. During my sophomore year, I was hired as a Resident Assistant, and I accepted the position for all of the wrong reasons: the pay check, the single room, the free meal plan, the close parking space, etc…Fate intervened, however, and an opportunity arose for me to spend a year studying abroad with the internationally known Up with People program. This experience changed my life in ways I could not have imagined. I spent a lot of my time throughout that year in classrooms, daycare centers, homes for the elderly, homeless shelters, and soup kitchens interacting with people, spending time with them, and getting to know them. My experience with Up with People made me realize that there are many ways of helping people, and for the first time, I entertained the possibility of a career outside of the medical profession.

Upon my return to Shippensburg University, I began my second year as a Resident Assistant. This year, however, proved to be different. I found the experience of working in residence life to be completely different than I had perceived it before. I realized that I had a unique opportunity to help people. There were other ways to help, heal, and make a difference in people’s lives than by becoming a doctor. This was a chance for me to affect young adults’ lives and their college experience in a positive and creative manner. I found myself being a role model, a listener, and an advisor, as well as an event coordinator, conflict mediator, police officer, tutor, caregiver, and medic.

I discovered a way to educate the minds of others outside of the traditional classroom. I was very successful in building a sense of community in my residence hall. I earned the respect of residents who felt comfortable coming to me to help with sensitive situations that they were experiencing. I worked on a healthy choice floor and became a programmer in such areas as alcohol awareness, becoming a team player, communication, gay/lesbian/bisexual issues, and building leaders of character. I soon realized that this was a profession that would give me the fulfillment and satisfaction that comes from helping others. I knew that I had found my future.

Since my time as a Resident Assistant, my primary goal in life has been to gain experiences that will make me a much stronger person in the future. Change is the only constant in life and I want to constantly grow and develop as a human being. I have been most able to grow as a person through my various positions in higher education. As I develop and enhance my skills to help those with whom I interact, I, in turn, want to be touched by them. A mutual exchange of ideas is the most effective way to communicate with one another, break down barriers of misunderstanding, and build community.

Building a strong relationship with the people I interact with is very important to me; yet another lesson I learned from being a Resident Assistant. Through perseverance and never giving up on any one individual, change can occur. Every person who is on this planet is a good person with wonderful gifts. Often times, individuals lose motivation and drive simply because they doubt a lack of interest from others. Unfortunately, many individuals are never really told that they are important or special. My goal, because of my experience as a Resident Assistant, is to simply let those individuals know how important they are. We can positively affect people’s lives with the gifts that we possess.

The action we take today dictates the life that we lead. You have a tremendous amount of responsibility as a Resident Assistant. But you have also been given a wonderful gift. Please do not take it for granted. You can affect great change in your life and the lives of your residents. Through residence life, I wanted to be a model of understanding and respect that others could follow. You may not hear it from many of your residents, but know that what you do is vital to their development and the missions of your respective institutions, and that we (professionals in higher education) appreciate you immensely. Remember, students do not simply learn by reading from a textbook. Rather, it is a process; a permanent change that goes on deep within a person.

My goal is to be part of that exciting change that goes on within each person I interact with. What’s yours?

About the Author

Matthew R. Shupp is currently the Coordinator of Student Life at The Restaurant School at Walnut Hill College overseeing the daily operation of the Residential Life and Student Activities programs. He received his M.S. in Counseling with a concentration in College Student Personnel as well as his B.A. in Psychology with a minor in Biology from Shippensburg University. He is certified through the National Board of Certified Counselors (N.B.C.C.) as a Nationally Certified Counselor (N.C.C.). Matthew was also a Resident Assistant for 3 and _ years as well as a Residence Director for 3 years at Shippensburg University. He currently resides in West Chester, PA.