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What I’ve Learned As a Freshman RA

Moving into a dorm is one of the biggest adjustments for freshmen living on campus. As if rooming with a stranger and sharing a single bathroom with a dozen other girls aren’t tough enough, you also have to deal with that darn RA who always seems to be busting you for something and butting into your business. You know, that stranger you met on the first day who greeted you with a cheesy smile, helped you move your stuff in, answered your parents’ barrage of questions, and repeated five million times to let her know if you needed anything.

Yup, that’s me. I’m currently an RA in an all-freshmen building at the University of Rochester. It’s definitely been a crazy, entertaining, and interesting school year so far, and yes, I’ve been through it all: being woken up at 4 a.m. for lockouts, mediating roommate conflicts over boyfriends staying the night or food being stolen, and knocking on doors to break up parties, only to wait in the hall for five minutes to the whispers of “Shoot guys! It’s my RA!” and the clinking of plastic cups and ping pong balls.

Being an RA has, of course, involved enforcing school policy as well as serving as a resource for my residents. But what have I learned from them (besides the fact that wearing your ID card on a lanyard around your neck is the equivalent of tattooing FRESHMAN on your forehead)? What does an RA get out of living in a building full of freshmen? Here are some of the most important, and unexpected, lessons I’ve learned, and the true stories that went along with them.  

Don’t take everything so seriously.

As a second semester junior with graduation requirements to squeeze in, and grad school and job applications on the horizon, it’s so easy to get stressed and caught up in the chaos of figuring out exactly what it is I’m doing with my life. Taking classes all day with other juniors and seniors in the same position doesn’t help either. But whenever I’m around my hall, whether I’m on duty, hanging out, or just stopping in between lab and marathon cram sessions in the library, there’s always bound to be something fun, funny, or just unexpected going on that reminds me to not be so disillusioned by growing up. Being silly every once in a while is still important and necessary, something only my freshmen could’ve shown me.

Here are a few of my favorite cases:

  • As I was finishing up rounds one night, I walked past what used to be my hall lounge. Instead of seeing the ugly gray carpet and ripped blue couches, I stood before a huge fort made from white bed sheets draped from the fire sprinklers and ceiling tiles, chairs from people’s rooms arranged neatly inside as tables for chips and dip and soda, mounds of pillows on the ground as makeshift mattresses, and colorful blankets stretched across the walls and windows. Allowed? No. A complete fire hazard? Yes. But creative and totally awesome? Definitely.
  • My sister RA and I sent out an email to all of our residents requesting ideas for a new hall theme. One resident, replying to all 44 residents, suggested: “Penises. They are not only unique and inventive, but passers-by will stop and say, ‘Look at Gilbert 2 West, they have penises all over their wall.’” A week later, he followed up with “Have we decided what theme we’re going with? I’m only asking because there’s a special on skin-colored mural paper down at Crafts ‘n’ Shafts.” Inappropriate, but hilarious, and if anything, inside jokes like this amongst halls are always good for bonding.
  • For my twentieth birthday, one of my residents lovingly bought me a dinosaur coloring book from the dollar section at CVS, complete with two full pages of dinosaur stickers. It was quite thoughtful and actually the perfect gift, you know, since I’m a studio art major and all.

Having a kitchen can be either really good or really bad.

Freshman dorms are not equipped with very many luxuries. While freshmen are required to live on campus at my school, the nicer apartments and suite-style buildings are open to upperclassmen only. We make do with what we have though, and definitely take advantage of the communal kitchen, which is shared by two freshman halls. Even though it’s tiny and without a fridge or dishwasher, it’s still pretty convenient and nice to have. (You’ve got to cook those Ramen noodles somewhere, right?) But because college is the first time many freshmen have actually had to cook and clean up in a kitchen by themselves, it’s not always pretty.

There have been several lessons I’ve learned, besides the fact that our smoke detectors work quite well and will conveniently go off at 2 a.m. when someone forgets about their food on the stove, for example:

  • Follow your nose. Since freshman halls are so cramped, it’s impossible not to smell the aroma of cookies or brownies or some other delicious concoction brewing in the kitchen. I’ve discovered that those are the perfect occasions to just happen to realize that I need to fill up my Brita water pitcher. The kitchen sink is the easiest place to do this of course, and this gives me an excuse to casually mooch off of whoever’s cooking. After all, food is a great way to make friends and sharing whatever you make is great for keeping the freshman 15 off!
  • Some things just can’t be explained. It amazed me last semester, and still confuses me to this day, how an entire bottle of dish detergent that my sister RA kindly bought for everyone to share managed to be completely used up in one week, while piles of dirty dishes with mold, fungi, and other unidentified microorganisms growing in them were still sitting in the sink and on the countertop each and every day. I don’t know where all that soap went but it clearly was not being used for dishes.

  • A dorm kitchen can be a danger zone. This is an actual text I received from one of my residents: “Hey just a heads up, our hall kinda smells like burnt food and smoke right now because i was trying to warm up a cookie in the microwave and it caught on fire and started smoking.. :( we read the ingredients and the second ingredient in the cookie is iron! Poisonous cookies.. :(“ This type of thing happens quite often and isn’t that big of a deal as long as the fire alarm doesn’t go off, and walking back to a hall of smoke just becomes another reminder that I live in a freshman hall.

Rules were meant to be broken… or at least, it seems that way.

There are the classic rules that go along with living in a dorm: no vandalism, no hall sports, no obnoxious noise during quiet hours. We all know these are broken on a regular basis, but sometimes freshmen are extra creative. When encountering these problems though, I remember the same exact things happening my freshmen year, so I can’t really blame them. Plus, if I didn’t run into these sorts of things, I’d feel like some crucial aspect was missing from my entire RA experience.

  • At my school, freshman RAs get help from two other upperclassmen assigned to each freshmen hall to promote hall spirit. They create amazing hall decorations and door nametags while the RAs are in training over the summer, and transform the drab old white hallways into a cozy and festive home. My hall’s theme last semester was outer space, complete with an entire decked out solar system, but two weeks into September, half of the decorations were either ripped or laying on the ground, and inappropriate body parts were drawn onto each of the aliens and astronauts in permanent black Sharpie.
  • Hall sports are always extremely popular, especially in Rochester where winter lasts about six months, and banning them just makes them that much more tempting. Though soccer is a favorite (and the fastest to cover up) I did have a run-in with a lacrosse game once. After hearing some loud thumping in the hall, I opened my door to see what was going on, and found two of my residents, each holding a lacrosse stick in their gloved hands, with kneepads and goggles on. One of them quickly spit out, “We were just beating out our rug. It’s pretty dirty and we didn’t have anything else to use besides our lacrosse sticks.” First of all, it was the second week on campus and I had helped his mom move in that BRAND NEW rug. Second, the rug was nowhere in sight. My response? “Okay. No hall sports.”

  • Oh, 24-hour quiet hours, how I miss you. Why must you only be during finals week? Quiet hours are the most frequently broken rule, but also the most flexible. I’m not going to bust people at 12:01 a.m. on a Tuesday night when quiet hours begin at midnight, but sometimes freshmen forget how thin the walls really are, even though they frequently complain about their own loud neighbors. On multiple occasions, I’ve been woken up by people talking and yelling at 3:30 in the morning, and they’re not just down the hallway or in the lounge. For some reason, the middle of the hall right outside my room (which has five name tags on it, two of which are clearly labeled “RA”) seems to be a popular socializing spot. I remember being told by my freshman RA to be quiet too, so I can’t blame them, but I do look forward to the return of 24-hour quiet hours—in May.

Stay classy.

Incidents with drunk freshmen need little explanation. All freshman dorms are dry buildings at my school, so beer cans and bottles themselves are hidden pretty well for the most part. But the residents who consumed them and stumble back to their rooms early in the morning? Not so much.

  • Upchuck alert: The weekend before classes started, I was greeted by vomit in the hallway right outside my door two nights in a row, and then once more the weekend after. It was always around 2 a.m. and though I wasn’t technically on duty any of those nights, and was informed that neither was anyone in the maintenance department when I called, I had to clean up the messes, whipping through most of the can of Lysol I’d brought to last the whole year (note to self: bring twice as many cleaning supplies next year as anticipated). Then I waited until Monday for the carpets to be sanitized.
  • Pregame peek-a-boo: At one of our staff meetings, we reviewed an incident involving a girl who was busted for a party in her room. When the RA knocked and found 10+ people in the room, most clearly inebriated, she literally covered her face with her hands so she couldn’t see the RA on duty, under the assumption that the RA couldn’t see her either, and ran into another person’s room down the hall. The RA followed, knocked on the door of that room three times, and waited for a few minutes to no response. When the girl finally came out, she ran down the hall past the RA, covering her face again, into another person’s room. At this point, the RA, who is not a fan of hide-and-seek, had already gotten her name from her friends and simply went back to her room.
  • Open Party: A laptop was found in one of the lounges in my building, with a Microsoft word document open saying “PARTY IN ROOM 386. GOING ON NOW TIL 2AM. SEE YOU THERE.” Good advertising, poor execution.

You never know what to expect, and that’s the best part of the job.

Despite the general craziness and sometimes unbelievable incidents that come with living in a building full of freshmen, it’s an incredibly rewarding and valuable experience. There are so many connections and everyday interactions with my residents that make the other incidents seem trivial compared to the friendships and lessons I gain. I’m not their teacher or boss or mom, though sometimes I feel like it, and at the end of the day, it’s so nice being part of a community with people who I can go to for laughs, fashion advice (there are definitely girls in my hallway more skilled in this department than I am), venting about common professors while giving advice about them, and pizza party study breaks.

With more than half of the semester still left to go, I’m looking forward to more hilarious, crazy, and unexpected experiences to top off the year, and I’m sure my residents will not disappoint.

Nan Zhu is a junior at the University of Rochester, class of 2012, double majoring in Molecular Genetics and Studio Arts with a minor in Spanish. She escaped her hometown of Farmington, Connecticut to pursue a combined program in medicine at UR, but balances out textbooks with canvases and study sessions with studio time. She works as a Resident Advisor for a freshmen hall that always keeps her on her toes, Head Studio Assistant at the art center on campus, and a Teaching Assistant for the Biology Department. During those rare moments of free time, you'll find her laughing at any and all corny jokes, experimenting in the kitchen, and spontaneously brainstorming new art projects. Next on Nan's list of life goals are learning how to surf and traveling to Italy and Spain.
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