Susan Chang says she’s always been a “mother hen,” the person her friends go to with their problems. So, becoming a resident assistant (RA) in the University residence halls her sophomore year seemed like a natural fit. She also welcomed the opportunity to serve in a leadership role.
“I really appreciated residence-hall life my freshman year,” she says. “I tended to be an introvert, and my RA got me involved in the campus community. She encouraged me to join the UI Choir, and I’ve been a member ever since.”
Chang decided to make her own mark on first-year students and apply for one of about 50 open resident assistant positions. Several hundred students applied, but she made the cut. The experience was so positive that the senior journalism and psychology major from Downers Grove, Ill., now is in her third year as an RA in Mayflower Hall.
RAs are student staff members employed by University Housing who live in the residence halls and help students adjust to life on campus. They provide information about school activities, events, and policies, and assist with roommate conflicts, homesickness, and academic concerns. Each RA also plans educational and social programs for students on his or her floor.
Training for the job is intense. RAs are required to take two five-week classes, one in the spring shortly after they are selected and one in the fall as they begin their new duties. They also arrive on campus about 10 days before classes start in August and put in 12-hour days preparing for the semester.
“We learn everything from emergency procedures to dealing with residents going through traumatic experiences to how to mediate roommate conflicts,” Chang explains. “But we also learn to balance our time between work and our own studies.”
Kate Fitzgerald, assistant director of residence life in University Housing, admits that the job is demanding, but notes that each year her department retains approximately half of the more than 100 RAs.
“We aren’t looking for cookie-cutter RAs,” she says. “We want students who can relate to many groups of people. Candidates need to have a desire to help new students, to be a positive role model, to have the ability to handle pressure, and to have the ability to have fun with a job that never goes away.”
Cameron Coker is up to the challenge. The junior journalism and accounting major from San Jose, Calif., returned this fall for a second year as an RA in Hillcrest Hall. The job isn’t easy, he says, but it is worth it: in addition to free room and board and a $5,000 paycheck that is split into 10 installments, the camaraderie he has experienced among RAs and the acquired leadership skills make the job invaluable.
“Everything I’ve learned here will be useful later on in life—how to get along with different kinds of people, how to address difficult situations, how to get people involved,” says Coker, who plans to pursue a career in entertainment, either in broadcasting or the music business.
Chang says she never considered not returning to campus each fall as an RA.
“I get to come back and work with my friends,” she says. “And I love helping students get a good start in college. This job has made me feel like there’s no situation I can’t handle. It’s made me more confident and, in turn, more helpful to my friends.”
by Sara Epstein Moninger
Students can access RA application materials on the University Housing web site, http://housing.uiowa.edu. The application deadline is 5 p.m., Dec. 29.