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Preparing For Success: Tips for the New And Seasoned Resident Advisor

By Alvin Sturdivant, Residence Director
Syracuse University

After months and months, possibly years and years, you have finally decided to take the plunge. In the coming year, you will be a Resident Advisor, and though you have asked every question you can possibly think of, your tensions are still at an all time high.

Or perhaps you’ve spent time on the job, and consider yourself a "seasoned" staff member.

In either case, in just a few short months, you will be back on campus going through training, and before you know it your residents will be checking in. As someone who supervises Resident Assistants, I want your R.A. years to be the best years of your college experience.

Through my personal experiences, I have had the opportunity to work at a number of institutions of higher education and with a number of resident advisors with various backgrounds and experiences. Having been a Resident Advisor myself for two years and having supervised Resident Advisors for the last three, I have learned a great deal about what it takes to be successful as an RA. The following is a list of those tools for success that I myself have identified and also those that I have gathered from Resident Advisors and residence life staff at a number of different institutions across the United States.

If you are a new staff member take time to familiarize yourself with the concepts outlined in this article. If you are a seasoned staff member, spend time reviewing the list and reflecting on what your doing well, and what you need to work on for your next year on the job.

Accuracy: When passing along information to others, make sure you cover the 5 W’s and the H – who, when, what, where, why, and how. Make sure fact is stated as fact, and opinion as opinion.

Availability/Visibility: Your schedule will dictate just when and how often you are available, but you should be as visible as possible. As time allows, practice management by walking around. A visible Resident Advisor can be a successful one.

Communication: Straight talk should be a constant focus. Do not play verbal games, but instead use open and honest communication. Keep others informed, and work to maintain trusted lines of communication. If you are not sure whether to inform someone of something, do so – They can always decide what to do with the information. Most people do not like surprises, so if you have news to pass along, do it as early as possible.

Confidentiality: Open communication must be balanced with confidentiality as necessary. Except for information that needs to be passed to others, what is discussed in meetings (especially personal matters) should not go beyond the staff.

Conflict: Challenging each other’s ideas is healthy for the group and prompts growth. Obviously there are appropriate ways to do this. While you need to remain consistent with your actions, it is OK to agree to disagree. Conflicts with another staff member should be negotiated and resolved.

Consistency: Residence Life/Housing and the University have set forth a number of rules and guidelines for behavior. Most often, it will be essential that you implement these policies and that they are consistent building-wide. Maintaining this consistency is essential. You will not always agree on matters, but you must agree to move forward together on them. Some situations may call for flexibility, but please be very judicious in making these decisions – they can be precedent setting.

Customer Service: Students are our customers. Customer service is our # 1 priority. Students are not an interruption or necessary evil of our jobs, but the purpose of it. If helping students is not a main priority for you, this may not be the job for you.

Decision-Making: When you need to make quick decisions (and those times will arise), consider the following points:

  1. Is there already an established policy or procedure covering this situation? If so, follow that.
  2. What precedents have been set for the situation?
  3. What are the positive and negative ramifications of your various alternatives?
  4. Who will be affected by your decisions and how?
  5. What would your supervisor say or do? Will he/she be able to support your decision?

Diversity: Having and demonstrating an appreciation for differences among residents and staff is critical to creating a healthy environment for everyone with whom you interact. Modeling your commitment to diversity lets residents know that you really care about them. Look for ways to show residents that you are sensitive to and recognize the value of difference among them.

Effort: Expect that mistakes will be made. Mistakes due to lack of information or experience are OK (provided you learn from them). Mistakes due to lack of effort are far less acceptable. No one is forcing you to do your job; if you agree to do it, give it all you have got. Your results will be a direct reflection of your efforts.

Ethics: As an RA you have been placed in a position of leadership that will require that you honor both formal and informal rules regarding relationships and your interactions with others. Please remember that whether you like it or not, you are an RA from the very second that your contract starts until the very second that it ends. Consider the potential pitfalls and ramifications associated with your decisions when you make them. How does drinking with or dating residents affect you, that resident, other residents, your staff, your community, and your ability to do your job? I can not provide you with the answer, but please do consider these things prior to engaging in any of these behaviors. Most importantly, keep your supervisor informed of any situation that is liable to have any effect on your performance of your specified duties.

Feedback: Your supervisor will work at providing you with regular feedback on your performance. Sometimes it will be positive, which makes everybody feel good. But sometimes, it will be negative, which is much tougher to give and receive. Please be assured that criticism is intended solely to help you improve your performance. Your supervisor would be remiss in their supervisory responsibilities if they did not share with you your shortcomings. Your positive response to their feedback will make it more comfortable for them to provide it and will allow them to do so in a more regular and honest manner. Likewise, you should also expect to provide feedback on the performance of your supervisor and to level with them on areas of needed improvement. Although it may seem risky to critique your supervisor, I think you will find them quite open and receptive to your feedback when given in the appropriate manner.

Fun: I believe we are just not paid enough to continue in our jobs if we are not having fun. I would recommend you resign your position before encouraging you to continue if you are not enjoying what you are doing. Look for opportunities to make things fun for yourself and those around you.

Humor: Humor can be wonderful and is an integral part of how many of us operate. Many love humor and encourage it in their interactions. But a word of caution: be very careful about what and whom you joke; sometimes there is a fine line between appropriate humor and bad taste.

Individual: Remember you work with individual students, not some collective group called "residents."

Initiative: There are two types of undesirable staff members: those who never do what they are asked to do and those that do only what they are asked to do. I am sure there is plenty that needs doing around your hall and campus and not everything is in someone’s job description. Recognize needs within your hall and act on them. If there is a need for a new procedure, form, or system, please consider it an opportunity to make your mark within your hall.

Involvement: Always work towards getting the residents involved on their floors. Involvement has a direct and a positive impact on students’ success in college.

Loyalty: Just as you will want and hope for loyalty from your peers, they will expect it from you. While most do not expect blind loyalty (and in fact encourage different ideas), we do expect you to support decisions that are made – whether or not you personally agree with them. See conflict above.

Meetings: Staff meetings and one-on-one’s serve several purposes: to disseminate information, discuss matters for decision-making purposes, and to interact as a team. They will be most successful when everyone participates. Please attend these meetings on time and prepared (i.e. with something to write with and on, ready to discuss topics as assigned, etc.).

Motivation: What is your motivation? While it is true that not everyone is in the position because they have a genuine interest in the needs of students, please be true to yourself and recognize why you yourself are in the position. Go into the position with recognition of what you hope to gain from the position and also what it will take to keep you motivated for the duration of the academic year. Your motivation or lack thereof will have an impact on your residents and your staff.

Organization/Attention to Detail: In whatever you do, it will be expected that you are well organized and that you dot every I and cross every T. Be thorough. The quickest way to make someone question your competence is to be sloppy in how you go about your job.

Professionalism: In general, you should present yourself in all that you do on the job in a manner befitting your position. This is a great place to develop professional habits that will get you places in the future. Remember your responsibilities as a role model.

Reliability: Your supervisor will like to know that they can count on you to get the job done. Being irresponsible in completing your duties will create a lack of confidence among everyone with whom you work and will gain you a reputation as someone who can’t be trusted with important matters. Be sure to establish a pattern of reliability and responsibility.

Respect: Ideally, your supervisor can be your friend and your supervisor. But if you can only like or respect them, by all means respect them. They expect to earn that respect. Whatever your personal relationship may be, it is imperative that you maintain a solid professional one.

Team: Your hall cannot operate successfully without all of you coming together as a team. This means support, trust, respect, courtesy, compromise, and caring, among other things. Team building is not a passive phenomenon but an active one. It is accomplished in dozens of small ways: assisting each other on duty nights, chatting before and after staff meetings (and contributing during them), sharing ideas or written materials with one another, sharing words over meals, and on and on and on. You do not have to be best buddies, but there should be a full commitment from all of you to function as effectively as possible while working together.

Timeliness: We will always attempt to give you reasonable timelines for job tasks, but you will learn early on that sometimes schedules get thrown out as a result of the day-to-day happenings in the halls. If a deadline seems unreasonable let your supervisor know. If you do not discuss an extension with them for assigned work, they will expect it on time. You will be responsible for the timely completion of tasks by your residents as well. Be a stickler for timeliness and encourage your staff and residents to be the same. If you are having trouble in this area, try to work with your supervisor to improve it.

Training: While it is ideal that you will get all that you need during training, it is not often the case. It is your responsibility to ensure that you are adequately trained to perform your responsibilities. If you need more training or supervision in an area, let your supervisor know. They are there to assist you in whatever way necessary.

Writing: Some of your communication with your staff and with others will occur in writing. Please take the time to write in a manner that will not suggest to readers that you are careless or less capable than you really are. Please let your supervisor know how they can help you if you wish to improve your writing skills.

While we hold meaningful jobs, this is not brain surgery. Let’s keep our success and (especially) our failures in their proper perspective. Remember, too, that we won’t be any good to anyone if we don’t enjoy what we’re doing. Let someone know what he or she can do to make this a fun and positive experience for you and your best year ever. This is not and exhaustive list of those things that will help you be successful in your position, but the list contains suggestions from Resident Advisors past who have had wonderful experiences in Residence Life. Finally, I wish you good luck and hope that next year is filled with memories, laughter, fun, and above all else, success.

About the Author

Alvin Sturdivant is a Residence Director at Syracuse University, currently serving in his first year. He received a BA in Psychology and a M.Ed. in Higher Education Administration from North Carolina State University. Effective July 1, he will be promoted to Area Coordinator for South Campus at Syracuse University. Alvin is also heavily involved in CSPA of New York State-Heartland Region.