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My First Year as an RA: A Reflection

For so many reasons, this year was tough. This was the first semi-normal year of my college experience. I was a Resident Assistant (RA), classes were mainly in-person again, and I have an injury that complicated everything.

As an RA, I learned a lot. It was difficult navigating my first “real” year of college with 103 first-years. I did share these students with a co-RA, but he wasn’t very active in every regard. I struggled to do all of the tasks that were required of me as an RA with a relatively strict boss while maintaining my schoolwork, organizations, other priorities, and both my mental and physical health. I thought it would be interesting to reflect on my first year in this role after completing it and gaining some time away from it to let my heightened emotions settle down.

There is a TON of lingo you need to learn ASAP

If I’m being 100% honest (which is the point of this reflection) I kept a running list of the different acrostics and acronyms we had during training and for the half of the first month because there was so much to learn. Granted, I quickly caught on. Also, I found that PowerApps, which has all of the resources and protocols we may need while on or off duty, has an entire section dedicated to abbreviations. For brevity and  your sanity, I’ll give the three most important ones that I will use throughout this article.

  • CD: Community Director – are in charge of RAs and ACDs (below) as well as administrative things; this is who I call my “super boss”
  • ACD: Assistant Community Director – are in charge of RAs and provide support for them; they have more responsibilities, ie. run conduct meetings; they are typically graduate students; these are who I consider my boss(es) and my residents called them “Master RAs”
  • DEI: Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion –  this is the way we attempt (and sometimes succeed) at using intersectional feminism; it is being socially and interpersonally aware, and it focuses on our identities; you can read more about the office that handles this here

There are a ton of things that are required

The biggest thing I quickly realized, especially when we switched CDs before Halloween, was the number of requirements. My first-year RA was terrible, I didn’t see him besides when he briefly rode the elevator with me during move-in, so I did not realize how much was required. Now, my building was very strict and very excessive with its requirements, so this is not reflective of all of the other dorms or neighborhoods.

  • Bulletin board due roughly every two weeks; usually took about 20 hours each
  • 3-4 events per month; 2 individual, 1 floor, and 1 building-wide or community
  • Res chats; I usually spent 30 minutes on each, but all that was required was that it was done
  • Staff meetings; every Thursday from 6-8 pm
  • Duty shifts from 7 pm-7 am; varies how many each week, but I had roughly 15-17 shifts a month
  • Writing IRs; needed for every policy violation, facilities issue, or concern; I wrote at least 1 a week but usually 10-15+ that each takes a decent amount of time which varied based on the severity of the issue.
  • Answering calls, emails, texts, and GroupMe messages

Students love to test boundaries but they don’t like to be actually harmful

Students are ridiculous. I mean this in the nicest way possible when I say this, but students are assholes. They are mean, rude, and annoying, but they can also turn around and be the sweetest person when they realize something was actually hurtful.

One of my favorite stories was that my bulletin board was vandalized, again, and I had gotten really upset about it because this one had taken over 35 hours to create. I had gotten a little heated in the group chat begging the boys to stop doing it or letting their friends. Of course, they felt really bad about it, realizing how upset I had been. Later, the one boy sent a photo of another in a suit (except he was definitely not wearing pants) with an earpiece in front of my board with the caption “no more vandalism.” The kid pictured in the photo then responded “I got you @kattiah”. In the middle of the night, I heard a crash outside my room. I begrudgingly got out of bed and quickly checked if they were okay. A couple of the boys were standing there. The one said yes, one nodded, and the third said “Check the group chat in five minutes!” Then, they all sprinted down the hallway. I get the notification of a text stating “pov” with a video attached. The video is of these boys acting out the scenario. The one pretends to take down something from my board and the other body slams him onto the floor. I– I have no words for this. 

And they make stupid decisions

They also really love making really dumb decisions. For example, they love running up and down the hallway. All night. Just up and down, back and forth. Why? No one knows. They also love to smoke very obviously and break the rules, again, very obviously. My personal favorite? Hands-down that was when I found 10+ of them drinking fifths in the hallway. Guys, their rooms were right there. The doors were wide open. I have no idea. 

And they really love to drink

They love drinking. Of course, it is not a normal amount. Yes, I was absolutely worried that when I saw them go out every night (yes, Sunday through Saturday, every week) that one of them wouldn’t come back. One of my girls was telling me how much she had spent since college started (this was October, the second month), and let me just say, I don’t think my jaw could go lower than it did. But hey, no one died or got permanently lost on my watch, so that’s a win. I guess.

Supervisors do not tell you everything at the beginning

Housing did not tell me I had to clean up vomit. During training, we were told how to clean and scrape, yes scrape, and toss the vomit into a bag since facilities aren’t fully on duty in the middle of the night. If it wasn’t for some amazing co-workers, I definitely would have been cleaning up my own with the vomit I was supposed to be cleaning.

You will make some amazing relationships 

Speaking of co-workers, I made some really beautiful and, hopefully, long-lasting relationships. I am so beyond lucky to call some of these people my friends. I also made amazing friends with some of my residents. I genuinely cannot wait to have good, real friendships with them when we get back because I won’t be their RA anymore. I definitely could have been their friend, but I didn’t want to cross a boundary or have to do or say something later on. Also, my ACD taught me so much and I am beyond lucky that I got to learn and grow from him. He truly does not realize how much he changed my life.

And you’ll make some really awful ones

But, on the flip side, I had some really awful coworkers. I had some that would blatantly ignore me or would talk about the plans with all the other RAs (“we invited all the best RAs!” was the best one I was told on a duty round that was just her and I) or talk about a group chat I was specifically left out of. As much as I wished that things were different with these coworkers, I am really glad I got to know their true colors before I was too emotionally involved, and I’m glad I had my favorite coworkers and residents who would stand by, support, and rant with me when these things happened, which leads directly to my next one…

Take time for yourself, like actually

I’m serious. You need to find time to decompress. Find a hobby, a place to go to, and/or friends to be with when the really bad things happen. Also, you probably want to get a therapist, which is not in a “you need help way” but a “there are a lot of heavy things that can and will happen and you need a support person that is trained to help you through it.” I found that doing my nails, petting animals (shoutout to Her Campus’ mascot, Leo!), and finding my friends in other neighborhoods or roles (ie. InterCultural Aid (ICA)) within housing really helped.

You will hate Halloweekend. I’d suggest getting used to it now

My freshmen year, Halloween weekend (Halloweekend as it has come to be known ) was so, so much fun. Michigan State played the University of Michigan on Halloween for the first time  (October 2020), and we won! Our new coach, Mel Tucker, became the first State coach to beat UMich during their first season. Of course, East Lansing went wild. Everything was off the rocker, even though the majority of the school was still home due to the pandemic. This year, we won again, but everyone was on or close to campus and I am now a RA. I planned my duty to be that Friday and Sunday night so that I would be off for Saturday (hoping for a night game) as we are unable to work three days in a row. So much shit happened on that Friday night and much of it was very bad. A lot of it I am still struggling to deal with. On Saturday, I was so excited about the rivalry game, but I was genuinely still upset and scared from the previous night which definitely hurt my fun and excitement. With my luck, the game was not a night game so everyone crashed before 7 pm and the RAs on duty had a strangely quiet night with no incidents. Sunday was Halloween, so, again, everyone went crazy. Again, way too much happened that shouldn’t have that really messed with your head.

You learn foundational life skills 

You will likely hear this all the time, but it is honestly true, as much as I might not want to admit it sometimes. Here is a, albeit brief, list of things I’ve learned since stepping into this role:

  • Time Management
  • Leadership
  • Communication
  • Conflict-Management
  • Creativity
  • Listening
  • Interpersonal Relationships
  • Empathy
  • Role Model
  • Public Speaking

You quickly learn that everyone is struggling in some way

Absolutely everyone in this world is struggling in some way. I always say, everyone’s “worst” is different – not better or worse, just different. Someone’s worst could be a pet dying, a different person’s worst could be being kidnapped, someone else’s worst could be someone pulling their hair on the playground, another’s worst could be a car crash, their worst could be getting gum in their hair resulting in a much different cut and style, their worst could be an autoimmune disease, or their worst could be being punched in the face by a neo-nazi for being Jewish. Whatever the case, these are all bad for that person. Each of these situations sucks, and they all matter. It doesn’t make one “better” or “worse” than the other. Your worst could be my best, but we can’t compare because our experiences and feelings matter and are valid.

I learned this was even more true when placed “in charge” of a lot of students with very different backgrounds. One would come in and complain about only getting so much money for clothes, the next would ask how do you deal with depression, and the following would beg me not to tell before she spilled her childhood. Each and every one of these students’ stories mattered, especially to me. I stopped wishing I had their problems (like I very much used to do as a child to my friends) and focused on how to help them with theirs. I provided support and a shoulder to lean on, sometimes literally both. As an RA, judging others has got to go. And fast. If you weren’t before, you need to be a good person. Also, definitely learn DEI aspects on your own because the school likely won’t do it very well, and as much as you may hate to admit it, being an intersectional feminist is key to being an RA (and, you know, being a person). Speaking of…

DEI is really stressed… in theory

I really appreciate that our university tries so hard at incorporating the principles of DEI. We give students mandatory online modules; however, the online modules are easy to skip through, and since they aren’t in-person, the students that need to learn from them the most, aren’t learning anything. We really try to make sure every voice is heard and understood, but it definitely still centers on the privileged voices, not the marginalized ones. We have almost, if not over, a thousand student organizations, yet some of these orgs are extremely harmful to groups of people.

A stupid, but very common, experience and example is: we have all been harassed by one of the Wells hall preachers. Personally, I have been told I’m a “rotten, little whore” for wearing leggings and a tank-top in the early fall and “you WILL go to Hell” for just walking…? (I have no idea either). Since MSU is public property, they are technically allowed to be there, but since this is definitely harassment, they should be removed or asked to leave. Yet, as is a common thread, they don’t actually care about the safety of students nor the “diversity” in people’s religious freedoms. 

You realize most schools lack accountability 

I know that this is not a Michigan State-specific issue, so I will generalize this to most schools; however, this is known from my experience at State. Universities are pretty awful at accountability. They love to put all their time and effort into unimportant issues (the grass for instance) and completely ignore others.

As with much in life, the big issues – sexual assault and harassment, suicide, relationship violence, alcohol and parties in the dorms, and death – are typically swept under the rug. I know that this is getting much better with exposing and working on school and workforce violence, #metoo, and suicide prevention work. However, many of these issues are still quite frequently ignored or “dropped” and the cases that are clearly false or exaggerated are focused on. The “lesser” issues – COVID health and safety, vandalism, hazing, verbal and cyber harassment, bias, drugs and alcohol off-campus, and mental health – are often completely ignored. I’ve had a few of the former incidents and most were ignored after a little investigation, but for the latter? I have experienced and/or dealt with each of these and none of them were given, if anything at all, more than a “warning” – even after six or seven write-ups.

For an easy example, let’s use COVID. We were told at the beginning of the year how stressed COVID safety was going to be. We were asked to document every mask issue and every concern. We were asked to play “mask police” for the entire first semester. Personally, I am very careful as people in my family are immunocompromized, and I, for obvious reasons, don’t want or like to be sick; this was very easy for me to follow, and I didn’t mind playing “the bad guy” to ensure I would have a Mama and sister to come home to. My co-RA and I even created the game with our floor that they would have to stop whatever they were doing and do push-ups. Even if it was the shower. Even if you had class. Even if you were trying to get laid. It was fun, and most remembered. I wrote up my residents, and those I saw without masks or not following protocols whenever I saw it. I was multiple writing IRs daily. I asked my ACD if anything was happening, and he, who oversees some of the conduct meetings had not had any. Frustrated, I asked another CD (we were between at the time), but I was not given any answer more than “continue to follow protocol”. I then reached out to one of the residents I had written up a while ago but had recently gotten close to. She had not received anything. I asked one of my “frequent flyers” (probably 10+ write-ups), and he had not either. I, obviously, did not want them kicked out, but nothing? No, that’s just ridiculous. All of the RAs realized nothing was going to happen, so we just stopped writing anything up anything COVID-related unless it was very bad.

You learn that having that single room comes in handy

To end on a lighter note, that single room is really, really nice. First of all, you, obviously, have it all to yourself. Want to sleep on the floor? Full send. Want to have friends over? You don’t have to ask anyone. Want to cry on the floor with chocolate and ice cream? Who is going to question it? Want to have intimate relationships? You don’t have to coordinate it with a roommate or suitemates nor find a sock for the doorknob (I have no idea if this is a real thing or if Hollywood made it up). Want to wake up at 3pm and miss your classes because you feel hungover or sick? No one is going to question it and you don’t have to hear any other alarms or movements in your room. (However, you will definitely hear it from all the rooms in your hall.)

Also, more RA-specifically, it provides an honest, safe, and quiet space for your residents to vent or just be for a while. I definitely recommend chairs (I have a card table and chairs because I am midwestern and like Euchre) and/or a futon. Having a single was especially nice when my sister came to visit and I didn’t have to worry about a roommate or unwanted visitors. My residents would also sometimes come in groups and the space was nice for them all to fit, without a roommate being bothered by the crowd of ranting residents invading their space. 

Generally, I really loved being a RA. I loved the people I met, the residents that changed me (and hopefully vice versa), the skills and career-building connections I made, etc. Do I wish some things went differently? Yes, but I also don’t regret things in life, so I wouldn’t change any decisions I made. Do I wish my boss wasn’t so harsh with the looming threat of being “written-up” or fired constantly tossed around? Yes, with no ‘but’. That part was awful. Do I wish I did not have any of my residents? Absolutely not. They are little assholes who are way too excited about off-campus endeavors (drinking), which is what I have and will always say, but they are people who I cannot wait to see grow and learn throughout the rest of their lives, if I’m lucky enough. I watched them all grow so much this year, and for that alone, I wouldn’t change anything in the world. I don’t necessarily recommend being an RA. It truly takes the “right kind of person”, but I also think I’ve gained so much from this experience, even if some of it was trauma. I am excited to see how my returning year goes, and I hope that my first year really serves as a helpful, guiding tool.

xoxo gossip girl

Kattiah Richardson (she/they) is currently a student at Michigan State University double majoring in both English and Women's and Gender Studies with a double minor in Jewish Studies and in LGBTQ+ and Sexuality Studies with the hopes of becoming a professor in the future. They are a part of many student organizations on campus: Planned Parenthood Generation Action (President), Pad the Mitten (Education Chair), We are Queens (Vice President), Spartans for Israel (Liberal Outreach Chair), and, of course, Her Campus MSU (Writer, Editor, DEI Chair, and WHM Lead)! Kattiah is also a Campus Trendsetter through Her Campus and a Resident Assistant at their campus. Aside from university-related activities, they love activism, reading, learning more about their faith in Judaism, writing, dancing, and (badly) singing!
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