Evolving role of RAs
In the time since Carey Haddock was a resident assistant 10 years ago, the typical job description has expanded and the stakes are much higher.
“There’s definitely an increase in pressure and responsibility for RAs today,” says Haddock, who now trains and supervises RAs as assistant director of housing and residence life at Salisbury University in Maryland.
Parents and students expect RAs to solve roommate problems and ensure dorms are conducive to study time and sleep. But with an amplified national discourse on sexual assault, gun violence and mental illness—not to mention some high-profile campus tragedies in recent years—today’s resident assistants are on the front lines of a whole host of issues related to safety and overall wellness.
“Current safety and security concerns are likely fueled by our post-9/11 security environment, the rise in random acts of violence on college campuses and an increase in federal regulations related to campus safety, including the Clery Act, Title IX and the Violence Against Women Act,” says Virginia Albaneso Koch, director of residence life at Auburn University in Alabama.
For her doctoral dissertation, Koch surveyed 338 RA-training program designers and found the safety aspects of the curricula had intensified, compared to the training regimens covered by a similar study done in the early 1990s. For example, fire safety training was offered to RAs at 11 percent of campuses surveyed in the early 1990s study and 85 percent of RAs surveyed by Koch in the 2010-11 academic year (see chart, page 63).
With the serious issues facing college students ranging from substance abuse and mental health to gender-based violence, training needs to be very sophisticated, especially at larger institutions, says Kevin Kruger, president of NASPA – Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education.
“The actual outcome of having well-trained campus community leaders is a real asset to universities,” adds Kruger. RAs provide a critical “on-the-ground” resource so that officials can address issues at the source of the problem. And because students often respond to peers in a different way than professional staff, RAs expand the school’s ability to connect with students.
An inside look at RA training: Eastern Connecticut State University
Length of training: 2 weeks in August + 1 week in January
- RAs must also take time prior to training to read the manual and complete an assessment.
- The training time hasn’t increased, but less time is now allocated to nonworkshop activities such as staff bonding to make time for additional sessions.
Number of RAs: 70
Number of residence halls: 13, ranging in size from 90 to 380 students; total residential population of 2,648
Average resident-to-RA ratio: 37:1
Long-standing session topics:
- FERPA and confidentiality
- Bloodborne pathogen training
- Fire safety
- Conflict mediation
- Diversity training
- Communication skills
- Sexual harassment awareness and prevention
New/updated training sessions in recent years:
- “Active shooter training”: One-hour session during initial training facilitated by campus police using the video “When Lightning Strikes” and discussion
- “Response to sexual assault and interpersonal violence”: Updated content to a long-standing initial RA training session during initial training, with a follow-up additional hour-long online module with an assessment
- Session during initial training covering sexual harassment, sexual assault and interpersonal violence, and creating environments free of this behavior and sexual discrimination
- “Clery Act and your role as a campus security authority” : Workshop and hour-long series of online modules that must be completed by RAs annually. The session is to ensure that RAs are aware of what the Clery Act is and stands for, and the fact that they are viewed as mandated crime reporters.
Is your RA training program keeping up with the times? Take a look at some of the best practices for hiring and training RAs at schools across the country—and then decide if your program makes the grade.
As defined by the Clery Act, RAs—along with deans, directors, coaches and other individuals responsible for student activities—are considered “campus security authorities.” So, by law, RAs must report and disclose information about crimes.
“As all laws evolve—including Clery—training needs to be adjusted to meet the requirements. That’s something all RAs need to know and accept,” says Auburn’s Koch. “Even to those considering applying for the job, we talk about that responsibility. A lot of students see the fun things that RAs do, but not the more serious things that happen behind the scenes.”
The most recent amendments to the Clery Act included the Violence Against Women Act, regulations that expanded rights afforded to campus survivors of sexual assault, domestic violence, dating violence and stalking.
Institutions had until July 1 of this year to have updated policies and procedures in place (see Behind the News story, page 17).
Being an RA today might mean reporting sexual assault, referring suicidal students for help, or performing safety drills. “RAs are often viewed upon as staff or employees connected to the university,” says David L. Perry, president of the
International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators. “They have to be the extra eyes and ears for the safety component on campus, and they have mandatory reporting requirements,” adds Perry, who is also assistant vice president for safety and chief of police at Florida State University.
Choosing responsible students to take on the role of RA is vital, which is why many colleges have a fairly competitive and lengthy hiring process. While there is no national standard, students generally must maintain a certain GPA and be in good judicial standing, says Kruger of NASPA.
RA jobs typically go to upperclassmen with strong ties to the university, after a rigorous interview process where residence hall directors and coordinators, as well as fellow RAs, may be involved. “There is an understanding that it’s a complicated role,” Kruger says.
For Koch, who recently took part in a virtual roundtable on RA training offered by the Association of College and University Housing Officers–International, it’s really a matter of gauging which young adults are most ready to take on this massive responsibility.
“The process has always been competitive, but we’ve become more intentional about our selection criteria—higher GPA requirements, intercultural competence, excellent interpersonal skills, solid decision-making skills, maturity and conflict mediation skills. Generally, the RAs that we hire are rule-followers,” she says. “They want to do a good job. They want to do the right thing.”
In-depth, ongoing training
Once prospective resident assistants get past the initial interview process, the real work begins. At Salisbury, where currently about 62 RAs work in 11 residence halls, those new to the job must complete a six-week, one-credit course in the spring before beginning in the fall. Then, new RAs report to campus in August for a comprehensive two-week training.
“We go into how to handle situations, how to build community, what our protocols and policies are, how to document and follow up, and more,” says Haddock. Among topics included in the training are dealing with highly intoxicated/unresponsive students, unwanted visitors/intruders, smoking, cyberbullying, depression, Title IX situations and suicidal ideation.
“Our training is longer than when I was an RA, and has evolved over the years to cover and train on the current issues and trends we are seeing on college campuses,” says Haddock. Protocols, policies, crisis response and bystander intervention are all included. “We are more structured in our sessions and purposeful with our outcomes,” she adds.
Once the semester is underway, new RAs meet biweekly with their supervisors and weekly with staff in their individual buildings to go over how they are doing personally, academically and emotionally in the position. Student and staff issues, programs and activities they have planned for their residents, and upcoming deadlines are also discussed.
In addition, Salisbury implemented an RA field series focused on holistic development. The eight sessions focus on how to get the most out of the RA experience, how to handle mental health issues and how to increase community, Haddock says.
After all, RAs are students, too. With the added stress of looking out for their peers, these additional sessions help RAs feel more confident in their jobs and address their own pain points. A five-day January refresher training is also held.
At Eastern Connecticut State University, where there are approximately 70 RAs in 13 residence halls, the initial training program is intense. Then RAs take assessments throughout their tenure to ensure that their skills remain up to speed, says Paul C. Serignese Sr., assistant director of housing and residential life.
“We find out what each RA knows and what we need to cover again to be able to have them feel prepared and knowledgeable as they enter the school year.” One assessment is the “Standard Operating Procedures Game Show.”
Staffers are called up and asked how to deal with various situations. One example: What is the appropriate response when you are doing a round and encounter a room that smells like marijuana? The game show format reinforces protocol in a memorable way.
At Michigan Technological University, additions made in recent years to an already rigorous RA training program have included a 16-hour, in-person mental health first aid course, which is managed by the National Council for Behavioral Health. RAs learn warning signs and risk factors of mental health disorders—everything from panic attacks to suicidal thoughts—as well as how to intervene appropriately.
There’s also a greater emphasis on Title IX at the institution, which employs about 66 RAs, says Travis Pierce, chief housing officer and director of housing and residential life.
‘It takes a village’ mentality
Some of the departments that contribute to Eastern Connecticut’s RA development program include the campus police, the office of diversity and equity, and health services. RAs also attend workshops at The Women’s Center, which examines gender relations, body image, reproductive health and dating violence on campus.
“I think it is imperative to the success of a residential community for there to be collaboration with subject matter experts at college campuses,” says Serignese.
“We also speak with the administration and offices around campus during the spring and summer to make sure we are aware of potential policy changes and legislation, and are proactive in our training and ability to comply with mandatory training,” he adds. For instance, since RAs drive university vans for trips, they must now complete a Driver Safety module focused on road hazards, safe driving, defensive driving, common causes of accidents and what to do in the event of an accident.
At Florida State, Perry runs campus safety awareness sessions that cover the many available RA resources. “There is a critical incident response training that we want RAs to understand—an active shooter, a stalking situation, a crime in progress,” he says. “So we give them a session on how they should respond in the event of a crisis.”
At Michigan Tech, a police officer actually lives on campus in one of the residence halls, says Pierce, adding that residential conduct cases decreased by almost 60 percent in the year after the officer moved in. “If you walk through the buildings with our officer, he’s almost like a rock star. The students know him, and invite him to dinner and campus events, and he works closely with the RAs.” For instance, he collaborates on RA training and puts together programs for the students and staff.
In many ways, it’s become necessary to make RA training a campuswide initiative to address some of the newer concerns that have grown out of the tragedies, events, and legislative changes of the last few years.
Focus on a safe, healthy student body
Most campuses now have a number of care or intervention teams that operate cross-departmentally to help students with academic struggles, psychological distress or other issues. But it’s often the RAs who are the first to identify these problems, says Kruger of NASPA.
“The RA is important to create a larger picture. He or she has on-the-ground knowledge and intelligence. We’re not asking students to be counselors, but to be able to identify problems and make appropriate referrals.”
That infrastructure is in place at Michigan Tech. For example, much of the RA training is focused on how to redirect students who need assistance. “RAs may pass someone on to our early intervention team to get them the support they need a bit earlier. Or they can refer directly to counseling services if that’s what the student needs,” says Pierce.
Being prepared for emergencies and tragedy prevention has become increasingly important, but ultimately it’s what RAs learn to do on a daily basis that really has an impact on college and university success—and that’s develop relationships with students to build community and trust. “Resident assistants play a key role in retention and overall student satisfaction,” says Pierce. “In many ways, they are the backbone of the institution.”
Dawn Papandrea is a writer based in Staten Island, New York.