With plans to hire a counselor for RAs in the works, RAs discuss pressures of the job

With plans to hire a counselor for RAs in the works, RAs discuss pressures of the job

Photo Credits: KIYOMI WATSON / AGGIE

New positions will be introduced next year, budgeting in process for hiring on-site counselor

Resident advisors (RAs) have a significant role in helping first-year students acclimate to college. The work they do, however, can be particularly challenging and emotionally exhausting, sparking a discussion of whether increased mental health services should be available to them.

RAs are trained to deal with homesickness and high stress situations including instances of sexual abuse, drug abuse, alcohol poisoning and suicidal tendencies. 

“Any RA may go through a situation that can be particularly distressful for the residents involved as well as the RA having to deal with the situation and having to process that afterwards too,” said Breanna Rodriguez, a fourth-year psychology major. 

Director of the Office of Student Development Branden Petitt is working with Director of Counseling Services Paul Kim to design and find money for a full-time counselor in residence who would be hired by the Counseling Services but would be assigned to have an office in the residence halls to provide follow-up with residential students who are having a crisis as well as support for the RAs assigned to deal with those issues.

Petitt is currently in the budget process for this and has submitted the request for funding. He says that if they get the funding, they plan to move forward quickly.

“Obviously, that can be a significant amount of money, and being stewards of university funds and student money, I want to be cautious of hiring a position like that [since it] certainly can be a cost for the students too,” Petitt said. “But in my opinion, it feels like it’s pretty important at this point and valuable for our community. I think it’s just always an ongoing effort on our part to make sure we’re being mindful of what the issues are and trying to address them along the way.”

This past summer, during RA training, many RAs brought up the topic of mental health. Rodriguez said they are encouraged to talk to coordinators about high-stress situations, but second-year biochemistry and molecular biology major Chloe Tannous said she’s unsure if that’s the best way to approach it. 

“We’re always told, ‘Oh yeah, talk to your supervisor about it,’” Tannous, a current RA, said. “But you don’t always feel comfortable — it’s one of those things where if you were to open up to your supervisor about it, some people might think, ‘If my supervisor thinks I’m struggling dealing with this, are they going to fire me?’ I don’t know how comfortable most people feel about opening up to their bosses about their mental health and how situations affect them.”

A professor for one of Tannous’ classes planned to hold a review session for an upcoming midterm on one of two days. One of those tentative times was scheduled for the same time as her staff meeting. Tannous sent an email to her supervisor saying that she might not be able to make it because of the session.

“Basically what he [asked] me was, ‘If you could only miss one staff meeting for the whole year, would you miss it for this review session?’” Tannous said. “From my perspective, I don’t know how I feel about the staff actually supporting RAs with their time management skills because in that situation, I didn’t think he was realizing that I am here to be a student, not to be an RA.” 

 The review session ended up not coinciding with the staff meeting, but Tannous said she realized how difficult it was to put being a student first when there were such high expectations from supervisors.

Tannous will not be an RA next year, largely because of constraints — RAs are approved to participate in 10 hours of outside activities, Tannous said, and they are not allowed to have other jobs. Other restrictions include not being allowed to take classes after 6 p.m. and not being allowed to go over 16 units.

“I guess that is Student Housing’s way of making sure that you put yourself first as a student, and so you have time to focus on both your schoolwork and being an RA,” Tannous said. “But I also think it’s important for Student Housing to realize that most people are able to make those judgments for themselves.” 

Tannous hopes to get more involved on campus and with her major, perhaps by joining a clinic, and doesn’t think that she would be able to as an RA. 

“One thing that [RAs] talk about is getting burnt out,” Tannous said. “A lot of people get burnt out and they don’t reapply because the job can be — it is — kind of draining.”

Despite some of her issues with the position and decision to not be an RA for the following year, Tannous said she has enjoyed being an RA.

“It’s really fun being an RA, I really do like it,” Tannous said. “I like meeting the residents and bonding with my staff. I just don’t think it’s the right decision for me.” 

General responsibilities for RAs include being regularly available for their residents as well as weekly duties such as making rounds, being on call and monthly event planning. In order to manage their time effectively, their schedules are meticulously planned and RAs make plans far in advance.

“Without Google Calendar and my lists, I would be lost! I’ve learned incredible time management skills in this job,” third-year biopsychology major Priyanka Shreedar said via email. “We have so many deadlines, due dates, meetings and reports to complete within a week that you really need excellent calendar-keeping skills.”

Whereas Shreedar applied for the job because of her good experience with her RA as a first-year, Rodriguez became an RA in her third year after living off campus the previous year. She didn’t have the best experience during her own first year, and she wanted to help students like her who weren’t necessarily social. 

“Being a freshman in college is a difficult experience and it really helps to have someone looking out for you, checking in on you and encouraging you when you feel down,” Shreedar said. “My philosophy as an RA is to introduce myself as a policy enforcer but to really emphasize that I’m here to support them as a friend, confidant, advisor and “big sister” figure. I strive to make sure that college really does feel like a home away from home; I give a big hug to every one of my kids each time I see them and make it a point to remember names, when their midterms are and the highs/lows of their week.”

Rodriguez discussed the unpredictability of the job — after returning from a three-day weekend, a number of her residents wanted to chat, and she ended up talking to them for about five hours. Sometimes, such conversations can get in the way of the work or studying that she had planned to do. The social interactions, however, are one of Rodriguez’s favorite parts about the job. 

“A lot of people come from places where they don’t get a lot of experience of diversity or new clubs,” Rodriguez said “[Seeing my residents] get more educated on a lot of topics and finding real passions are probably the coolest things that [I] get to see and also get to help influence.”

Petitt talked about changes being implemented by Student Housing next year to help with work-life balance for student staff. Instead of an RA, there will be a community assistant (CAs) and after hours assistants (AHAs). The goal of these new positions is to structure hours such that the CAs can concentrate on their floors instead of doing rounds and similar work. 

“It’s a win-win, because it reduces stress and is a more meaningful job for the CA,” Petitt said. “And at the same time, the students living with us are getting more personalized attention and have direct access to someone.”

Fourteen AHAs have been hired for the 2020-21 academic year. They will be split between the three residence areas and The Green at West Village, they will be the first-responders to help with facilities issues and they will also serve as extra customer service from 11 p.m. to 2 a.m. to help with lockouts and other issues that may arise during that time.

In regards to mental health, Petitt discussed the reimplementation of the live-in resident director model. Staffers have direct access to professional staff members living in the building. 

“I think UC Davis is not unique in the sense that all campuses nationwide seem to have a hard time keeping up with a lot of the mental health concerns for students, student staff and the like, even professional staff,” Petitt said. 

Written by: Anjini Venugopal — features@theaggie.org