Leadership the RA Way
By Eric Chuk
“In the interest of public safety, pest control, sanitation, and general welfare, DO NOT pack pets, bed lofts, waterbeds, firearms, explosives, or illegal drugs.” Fair warning about what to leave at home from the University of Central Florida’s Department of Housing and Residence Life. It’s the kind of plain language that students might expect to hear from an established campus authority figure, like one of the housing directors. But from Tiffany Chuk, John Nohlgren, or Judith Vera, some of their fellow students?
Possibly—all three served as 2003-2004 resident assistants. RAs have a tough job at any school, balancing both leadership and non-leadership roles. They oversee the activities of their peers, act as friends and mentors, and enforce the rules all at once. Clearly, RAs are the people who students turn to and may occasionally run from. But in fact, RAs don’t often find themselves in positions of absolute authority. Their leadership is tempered by their own status as students, and in some cases, of a class-standing lower than those under their supervision. Chuk joined the RA ranks in the fall of 2003. As a 19-year-old sophomore, she’s the resource residents can turn to when they need a friend or an authority figure. And for the most part, even residents who don’t try to befriend their RAs have an awareness of who they are, if not all the responsibilities they bear.
According to Nohlgren, who started the job at the same time Chuk did, “There really is no typical day, but there are some consistencies.” Every week, RAs must attend group meetings to discuss their performance and must be “on duty” one night a week to handle resident calls that come in. These might have to do with anything from alcohol busts to lost keys. One unfortunate norm that Vera admits to—“I’ve been locked out so far eight times, and the year isn’t over yet.” RAs experience a lot of the same things their residents do, which naturally makes them more understanding and sympathetic leaders.
Another of Vera’s weekly responsibilities is planning and coordinating community programs. She usually makes the flyers and bulletin board materials in the RA office after a day of classes and then returns to her apartment to do homework afterward. The programs range from simple to serious—one week might involve inviting residents to watch a movie and eat pizza, while another might have them listening to a police officer talk about safety.
Most of the RAs believe that they have the skills to handle the position. Vera and Nohlgren cite past personal experiences with family responsibilities and office in high school clubs as having helped them handle the leadership demands of their current job. “RAs definitely get adequate preparation during the week of training. New RAs are given a manual of UCF resources and practice scenarios and are instructed on what to do in each case,” Chuk says. Part of the training week found some of the RAs with beer cans in hand, singing along to loud music. No, they weren’t abusing their authority—they were acting as underaged partygoers who the other RAs had to bring back into line. RAs enjoy the lighthearted training week as a time to get to know other students who will be role models in their respective communities.
Although they might not always look like leadership training, these role-playing and skit activities also simulated other difficult situations RAs might encounter in the course of their jobs. For example, during a dispute among roommates, a resident told Chuk that he wouldn’t listen to someone younger than himself. Training aside, RAs have to know when it’s time to call on a higher authority—in this case, when the shouting match of the dispute couldn’t be defused and escalated into threats. Chuk asked her area coordinator for help with the situation. Each living community or group of adjacent buildings at UCF has its own coordinator to listen to RA frustrations, approve their program proposals, and take further disciplinary action on residents when necessary.
“The RAs are the ‘first line of defense,’ living with the residents on a day-to-day basis,” says graduate assistant Adam Schwartz. “But the RAs come to the area coordinators when they need advice, a new perspective, the voice of experience.” And the coordinators do bring greater experience to the housing setting—they serve in full-time positions, most of them packing a master’s in higher education, educational leadership, or even divinity. Chuk tried to help the roommates resolve their dispute peacefully as a peer mediator rather than the one in charge and used the resources available to her. Today, she feels more prepared should a similar situation arise again.
“They tell us at the beginning of this job that school is the number-one priority,” Nohlgren says. “But sometimes, classes do take a backseat.” Sometimes, near-deadline assignments have to be done while on the job. Juggling busy class and work schedules is part of what makes the RA position so tough. Chuk has been a team leader for the Burnett Honors College’s Freshman Symposium and serves as a member of the orientation team that welcomes new students. Surprisingly, even with these qualifications, she says, “I wouldn’t consider myself a leader when it comes to academics. Although I try my best, I don't place all of my effort on studying and doing well in school. I have a 3.8 GPA, but there are just some things that are more important and more rewarding to me than grades.” However, this isn’t to say that her studies are unimportant, and her academic standing is far from a weakness. Although RAs don’t have to be top-notch scholars, they do care about their schoolwork. The university holds RAs to the same academic standards expected of any other student.
Getting to know almost 50 people, keeping up with classes, and sometimes even working separate part-time jobs when they can, RAs are left with few extra hours each week. Florida’s universities have a particularly large number of residents in comparison to other states. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, four Florida universities make the list of the top 20 biggest schools nationwide. At UCF, RAs are employed both on campus and off. In school dorms, the assignment can be as few as 20 residents, but in university-affiliated places not on the main grounds, it can be 60 or more. In the Lake Claire Community, Nohlgren and Chuk each deal with 45, a large group but only a fraction of the 3,752 total available on-campus contracts.
Despite these numbers, Vera says she visits her residents almost every week. “I think I’ve been able to have a personal relationship with most of my residents. I know what’s happening in their lives and offer my support and advice to them.” Nolgren adds, “I think every RA has those 10 to 15 residents who they connect strongly with. Some of them I talk to daily about a problem, some I talk to weekly, and some I talk to only when they have a problem.”
Indeed, RAs experience a lot of variety in their work, if not all the possibilities outlined in the Community Living Guide. As student leaders not so far-removed from those they’re leading, RAs have unique perspectives on what it means to be role models and to be responsible for the well being of others. Chuk, Nohlgren, and Vera often do their jobs without being recognized as leaders. After all, it’s not every day you hear those in charge giving speeches about pets and waterbeds affecting public safety and general welfare. But UCF’s RAs have no problem saying what needs to be said, conducting themselves in their own brand of leadership. “We spend most of our time either on school or trying to improve the lives of our residents,” Nohlgren says. “We may not have a long ‘who’s who’-style list of things that we have accomplished, but I think we have done things that can’t really be measured or even easily identified. How do you measure how many lives someone has touched? How can you assess the quality of making someone’s college experience better? I don’t think you can.”
Contact Joe Pollock, assistant director of Housing and Residence Life, at 407-823-4663.
Copyright © 2006 Oxendine Publishing, Inc. All rights reserved