“The Resident Assistant (RA) is a live-in student staff member in the Department of Residence Education and Housing Services. The RA assists in supporting the academic community in residence halls and apartments and has specific responsibility for working with students on a particular floor or area. RAs are expected to provide strategies for, and assist residents with, multicultural development, learning, character building, community development and personal well-being.”
— Michigan State University Live On (MSU REHS 1)
Key words and acronyms:
ACD – Assistant Community Director
CD – Community Director
Duty Phone – The phone that the RAs on duty carry so anyone in the building can contact them in case of emergencies.
MSU – Michigan State University
On Duty – A day where a RA works from 7pm to 7am to insure the security and safety of all residents in the building.
RA – Resident Assistant
REHS – Residential Education and Housing Services
Resident – A student who lives on campus. These students are looked over by the RAs.
When I first started to research about the Resident Assistants (RA) on the Michigan State University (MSU) campus, I questioned how the role may have had changed the identities of those filling the position. After field work and archival research, the real question that needed to be asked appeared to me: How is fear used to manipulate the actions of the Resident Assistants when they are both in a professional environment, as well as a personal environment.
Fear can be a powerful tool to make people bend to the wills of a larger power. Dr. Ray Gasser, the Director of Residence Education and Housing Services (REHS), put it best. In a farewell speech he had given on April 24, 2017 at the End of the Year RA Celebration, “RAs really are the front lines.” Like any front line, the RAs are the most visible, vulnerable, and expendable of any other in the REHS department at MSU.
But who are the front lines? The RA body is comprised of mostly undergraduate students who have lived on campus for at least one entire semester (MSU REHS 2). However, students from the Law College, those who are completing a local internship, and some others, with exceptions, also count as part of the RA body. The front line consists of approximately 340 RAs across 27 residence halls and a now increasing number of apartments. These student are required to be in a full time amount of credits (12+ each semester) and are required to maintain a GPA over 2.75 cumulatively (MSU REHS 1).
This front line is glorified to the MSU students living on campus, through the massive amount of advertising that is done to inform students how to send in an application for the position. On average, only 27% of all applicants per year will get a job offer (Student Affairs). This is where the fear slow beings to creeps along the front lines. The RAs are made aware that they are the front line and the scapegoat, and constantly battle with the ever present feeling of making a mistake that will not only cost them their job, but also the place they call home. There is always the looming threat of instant replacement by the large pool of individuals selected to take the position of a RA who has left or lost their position.
The fear among the RAs is so intense that some of the RAs I have interviewed requested to have their name changed in fear of getting negative retaliation from their superiors, not only while they are fulfilling their role, but also in preparation for future employers inquiring about their time as a RA at MSU.
There is little information listed about the experiences of RAs on MSU’s campus, other than two videos on YouTube, dating from 2013 and 2014. The video played upbeat music as RAs from across the MSU campus described their joyful memories with their residents and skills that they have learned throughout their time in the position. While there was a quick mention of the work that the RAs do, there were no stories about working in the position or the responsibilities outside of resident interactions.
(Marketing video for RA applications. RAs explain what they love about being a RA.)
I set out to find RAs who could speak on the same topics as what was brought up in the videos. What I found was a dramatic difference in the attitudes and outlook when comparing the video to the RAs who had agreed to be interviews. I interviewed four current RAs about their position, and while at first I was asking questions about identity and the RA position, almost all the interviews came across and stayed on the topic of fear in the role. The overarching fears from all of the interviews I had conducted was not the fear of punishment, but the fear of immediate dismissal from the position if there was a mistake on the job.
This fear was so strong that while some of the participants did not want me to use their name, Jonathan and Chad (name changed) opted to do the interview in a private space, with fears of residents or their superiors overhearing their conversations with me. Vivian (name changed) had met with me in the back corner of a dining hall that was in the building she lived at 11 pm. Zachary and I had mixed meetings, the primary interview taking place in his own room while follow up meetings took place over dinner in a dining hall on campus.
None of these RAs had responded to a Facebook post I had made on one of the community RA Facebook groups, but after I asked one of the participates in person, the others felt more secure to talk to me. There needed to be a sure sense of security, whether that be a false name or meeting in private. Some of the RAs who were graduating or leaving the university felt more secure because they would not have to return to the RA position or REHS the next academic year.
Fears from Expectations
The dichotomy of living at work can upset the delicate balance between the professional and personal areas of life. The expectations MSU has on its REHS website only covers a small portion of all the aspects that make up the RA position. For some, the RA position, which pays for each RAs room and board fees to the university, is the only pathway to affording their education at MSU. Unclear work and social expectations can cause great fears in the RAs who desperately need the position.
But who enforces these expectations? Each building has a set of staff, commonly referred to as Senior Staff, in a hierarchical rank. One position above the RAs are the RA supervisors, knows as the Assistant Community Directors (ACD). At MSU, the ratio of RAs to ACD is typically 8:1. The ACDs are the individuals who manage a select group of RAs throughout the entire academic year. Their responsibilities, as it pertains to the RAs, are to hold the RAs responsible for any expectations or work that needs to be done. While they don’t specifically have the power to fire a RA, they can report one level above them and ask for the firing. The ACDs report to the Community Director (CD). This individuals run their allocated building or buildings, depending on building size. Because the CD has a large amount of responsibilities throughout their building, they generally get their information about the RAs from the ACDs. All of the RAs, ACDs, and CD live together in the same building for the academic year.
(Representation of the hierarchical structure. Not true to number of individuals in the structure.)
I asked this question to two RAs and they gave very definite answers. Jonathan, who will be graduating in May of 2017, (RA bulletin board)
has been on his RA staff for one year. “No, they left out the hard parts of the job,” he replied, “[Senior Staff] give large amounts of busy work.” Another RA, Chad (name changed), has been on his own staff for two years this spring. When I asked him if he knew all the expectations that he would be held to when he accepted the offer to become a RA, he shook his head and with a sad look of reflection on his face said, ‘I thought I knew but from what I know now I can tell that I knew very little.”
Zachary, who is a third year RA and is completing a teaching internship with the Lansing Public School District, explained that in the RA position, there are not a set schedule of daily tasks that need to be completed. He estimates that he designates about 20 hours per week to duties that the RAs need to completely on a weekly or bi-weekly basis. Some of these duties include creating and posting information onto a bulletin board, following a certain theme given to the RA from the REHS office. Other times, the RA does not get to create their own content, but instead post bulletin board information that was strategically created by the REHS office itself.
(Flyer for Hall Event put on by RAs) (Zachary explains the late policy and the affects it has on the RAs)
Other types of duties for RAs are to put on building wide events with a select group of other RAs from the same building. Each month, the REHS office sends out themes for these events to go by. For example, around Halloween is when the organization starts to really push alcohol awareness and safety onto the residence. Each RA team is expected to do the brainstorming, pricing, submitting budgeting requests, advertising, set-up, crowd controlling, greeting, educating, communicating to the vendors, and finally the janitorial team for each event it puts on.
When I asked if they felt like they were provided all the resources to appropriately fulfill the work expectations that were place on them, both Chad and Jonathan believed that they did not. Jonathan felt like he did not have the support of his superiors throughout the year. He also believed that most of the work that was asked of him had no substance to it, but was only busy work. Chad focused on the material resources to complete aspects of the job such as the bulletin boards or events for the residents. “REHS is exceedingly cheap and seems to care little about the RA’s that work for them.” While Chad agreed that he was not getting support from his direct superiors, he also felt as if the heads of the REHS organization only looked at the RAs as workers and not as students of the university.
There is an overarching concern about the real outcomes of the expectation assigned to the RAs. While all the participants agreed that most of the procedures RAs must follow are fair, there is a lack of the human element in a job that focuses around people. “…some of these procedures want us to take the humanity out of working with humans. [REHS] have one set protocol for each situation and this doesn’t work for most people. Protocols must be adjusted based on situations.” Chad had a look of pain when he said this. While every student is different, the RA protocols are set, leaving no room to work with the different situations that are presented to the.
The amount of visibility can be difficult to managing a personal life very difficult. While not every RA is on duty (an official work night) each night, they are expected to have their bedroom door open a minimum amount, ranging from 10-20 hours per week, Zachary told me, for residents to be able to ask questions and inform the RA of any concerns they may have. Zachary told me that knowing the social expectations were crucial because RAs live in a “fish bowl”, which he described as, “…the sense that we’re in there and we are constantly being seen. We can always be seen from where we are because we live with the residents and we live with our bosses. So it’s very much that everything we do is visible.”
(Vivian describes socializing with her residents and balancing that with her academics and the work expectations.)
The RAs bedroom becomes a gray area of private and public space. Residents should be able to go to the RA room whenever they need or want to, including when the RA is focusing on their academics. The RA is responsible for making their bedroom an open space for the residence to take comfort in, but also a place where the RA can use the space as a private bedroom. The RAs are required to give up that private space at any moment if a resident wants to talk with the RA.
Because of this, there are expectations when it comes to RAs socializing in their rooms with their private friends. RAs are expected not to have any private visitors in their room when the RA in question is not also present in the room. There is a fear that a resident may walk into the RA’s room, see the guest, and feel awkward, or that a resident may see a light on in the room, but when they knock on the door and no one responds, the resident could potentially feel ignored.
With such high expectations for socializing, the RAs find refuge in themselves. When I asked Vivian, a second year RA, about her social life, the first comment she made was, “Well right off the bat, I am handed 23 new friends.” This was a common theme throughout the answers of the interviewees. When I asked about their social lives, while they may have friends who are outside of the position, the majority of the RAs interviewed said that their closest friends were the other RAs on their staff.
Zachary described this concept as the RAs bonding because they are “…going through the fire together… I always forget that [The RAs] have outside friends, but I think we all consider each other our real friends.” What I found from these comments were not friendships that were based off of personality only. These close bonds between the RAs was a support system that was desperately needed. When separately asked, both Vivian and Zachary believed that this bond was so tight because only another RA could truly understand the stresses and concerns of another RA. Chad expressed his appreciation for his new friendships by participating in weekly social nights that the other RAs had put on as a way to destress. Jonathan also reflected on his appreciation for meeting and bonding with the RAs, which were people who he may have never met otherwise.
Fear from Threats of Replacement
“From day one, our jobs were threatened,” Jonathan explained to me via email. “I wanted to make a community like I had had once.”
To become a RA is to be competitive. At about 340 RA positions across campus that need to be filled. From the years 2011-2015, the average amount of application submitted for an interview hovers around 655. From there, on average 529 individuals are offered an interview, and out of those applicants, 143 get an offer for the position (Student Affairs).
In Zachary’s experience, the threat of losing his job came at the beginning of the 2016-17 academic year. “We were basically told that we were replaceable, on day one,” he explained, his voice raising in frustration. “I understand that a slight mistake can have massive repercussions…So I feel like I’m walking on egg shells a lot more this year than in the past because I understand that I can’t make a mistake. Even though I’m so close to the end of the year, anything can happen.”
On the topic of replacement, Chad had a very negative viewpoint of his superiors. “It seems like senior staff will threaten your position whenever they can.” What makes the sense of threat real is what is called the “alternate pool”. This is a group of individuals who applied for the RA position but were not chosen to fill a role. Instead, their applications were collected and held in the scenario that a RA were to leave their position. In my own experiences, while these replacements are typically meant to replace individuals who decide not to take the position, or those who left the position after a semester, the pool is also there to remind the RAs that their job is never secure, that there is always someone waiting to take the position. “I feel like I have very poor job security,” Chad finished with.
While writing this paper, I had helped one of the hall governments organize and put on a large scale event on a Saturday afternoon. I was helping deconstruct the event and recycling what I could when Zachary came up to me. “What is wrong? Did something happen at the event?” After my clear look of confusion, Zachary explained that he had received a call from the ACD on duty to come to the room where the event was held to clean up.
Zachary and I made our way to the classroom together. I entered the door first, looking towards the ACDs at the event and inquiring about the call to the RAs. “We are going to make the RAs on duty clean the rest of this up,” one of the ACDs replied with a laugh, not knowing that Zachary was behind me. As soon as he heard the laugh, Zachary came into the room. He inquired as to why the duty phone was called for something that was not an emergency and not part of the procedures or expectations that RAs on duty are meant to follow.
There was a great amount of passion and anger in Zachary’s voice, to an extent in which I had never seen from him. He continued, saying that the ACDs were abusing their power and position over the RAs on duty. When he was finished, he was received a quick, “You aren’t needed anymore. You can leave.” Even though he had been dismissed, he still tried to help clean, to which he received another dismissal.
Zachary and I had dinner the next day to follow up on the events of the night prior. The confided in me that he was finally starting to feel safe from the fear that had held him throughout the year. With only two weeks left, all he had to ask was, “What are they going to do, fire me?” The next day he had sent me a message saying that not only does he have to meet with the ACD who was on duty, but also with the Community Director of the building. This meeting will happen after this paper has been published.
The feeling of anger is not uncommon between the RAs. When I asked Chad why he wasn’t going to come back to be a RA for a third year, he simple said, “I despise REHS and the administration.” Jonathan shared similar feelings. “I am graduating, and if I wasn’t the job is awful. Senior staff is incompetent and the job is stressful.” The feeling of job security is also not available in the position, Chad told me. This was causing great stress and added another reason why he would not be returning to his position for the next year.
The question I started my research with was not the question I eventually answered. What started off as a light hearted search to discover the students who had become Resident Assistants at Michigan State University turned into a much darker and meaningful paper about the treatment of the RAs and the consistent use of fear to manipulate not only the work environment, but also the social lives of the RAs.
There were complications that were soon to come up once I took up my new interest in the fears of RAs. First and foremost, I am also a RA at MSU. I have been a RA for 2 years and will continue onto a third. I have seen the positives and the negatives of this position. With my experience in the position, I wanted to interview the other RAs as if I was an outsider, asking basic questions about the position and feelings towards it.
What I had come to realize was that the outsider perspective was not getting at the heart of the issue of fear. Each of the interviewees had told me that no body truly understands what a RA is going through unless that person is a RA themselves. This really influenced me to use my agency in the position to help bring a better understanding of the position to others. The challenge in this was to not use my agency to the point where my bias would clearly show through the research.
Another difficult obstacle that I had to overcome was with the interviewees who were the closest to me. While I could tell if they were being truthful or not, I also knew when they were holding back information. Visibly seeing the sense of hesitancy, discomfort, and fear wash across the RAs faces when I asked more in depth questions made me reflect on my own experiences as a RA. The individuals who had agreed to be interviewed considered themselves more vocal in their opposition of their senior staff. I have never had a large amount of issues with my supervisors, so hearing their stories shook my understanding of the position.
At the end of the RA Celebration party, Dr. Gasser expressed his appreciation to the front lines, and for those who will not be returning to the position. Dr. Gasser read a poem titled The Dash. The poem expressed finding meaning in the time between life and death, about appreciating the time that you had before your end. The poem was a final salute to the front lines, to the people who could no longer serve in the front lines. The poem, written as a funeral story, did not seem that way too many of the RAs, who saw this funeral as the death of their fears. The white carnations that were handed to them symbolized their good fortune, fortune to leave the fears of the front lines.
Follow the link to view the full poem: https://community.macmillan.org.uk/blogs/b/my_evening_walks_on_the_beautiful_yorkshire_wolds/archive/2011/03/12/a-most-beautiful-poem-the-dash-by-linda-ellis
“Chad.” Interviewed by: Madison Lovasz
Ellis, Linda . A most beautiful poem ‘The Dash’ by Linda Ellis – My evening walks on the beautiful Yorkshire Wolds – Blogs – Macmillan’s Online Community.
“Ignite Your Leader Within: Become a Resident Assistant at Michigan State University.” YouTube. MSU REHS, 07 Nov. 2013.
“Jonathan.” Interviewed by: Madison Lovasz
“Mental Health Bulletin Board.” Photo by: Madison Lovasz.
“RA Application Requirements and Conditions of Eligibility.” RA Application Requirements and Conditions of Eligibility | Live On. Michigan State University Residential Education and Housing Services.
“RA on Duty Board”. RA Emergency Phone Number. Photo by: Madison Lovasz.
“RA Selection Statistics.” Student Affairs. Michigan State University, REHS Communications.
“Representation of the hierarchical structure.” Image created by: Madison Lovasz
“Resident Assistant Positions.” Resident Assistant Positions | Live On. Michigan State University Residential Education and Housing Service.
“Sex on the Beach.” Sexual Education Building Wide RA Program. Photo by: Madison Lovasz.
“Vivian.” Interview by: Madison Lovasz
“Zachary.” Interviewed by: Madison Lovasz