The RA. Resident Assistant, Resident Mentor, Resident Adviser; whatever name the institution gives them, most residential college students come across these figures at one time or another. As a student, you may aspire to be one; or, on the contrary, deplore them completely. The RA seems to be one of higher education’s great experiments: giving a student great responsibility over a number of other students. However, the role of the RA is something of a paradox, one that causes the strong feelings some students’ express.
In general, RAs seem to serve two purposes: One, they are an arm of the administration to enforce college policies, procedures, and, often, values. Two, they serve to (rather vaguely) “build community” through educational programs and forms of teambuilding. These sound like admirable responsibilities and goals, however, a problem arises: these two goals often directly contradict each other.
The issues with this paradox rarely come from the personality of the RA. Most of the RAs I have encountered come with good intentions and high hopes. However, when one becomes an RA, they become an employee of the institution in most places, losing personal ability to disagree with policy. More than one RA has said to me that although they do not agree with the policy they are enforcing, it is their job. That is not a way to positively build community. Although RAs have the best of intentions, the enforcement of rules would seem to make community building more difficult, no matter what kind of programming that goes on.
The paradoxical relationship between community building and rule enforcement hurts both goals. This becomes especially true at smaller liberal arts colleges. If the RA is already a member of a small tight-knit community, then it is even more difficult for them to separate their professional and personal roles.
It may well be time for colleges to reevaluate their residence life programs and the role students’ play. Is it appropriate for students to be busting their peers? Not everyone will agree, but I say to create a community of trust, no. To create a trusting community, colleges must evaluate their residence life programs not by lofty ideals, but by their successes and failures. Until then, the RA will continue to be a great paradoxical experiment rather than successful figurehead.
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