One rainy night last March, Slater Residence Hall resident assistant Jaime Olson had to think fast. The power had gone out and it was almost completely dark, save for a dim glow of the hallway emergency lights.
Olson whipped out her battery-powered radio and a skill she picked up in high schoolreading palms. She quickly rounded up the women on her floor and they gathered near her room. Armed with flashlights, they lip-synched to the tunes of Barenaked Ladies, Lauryn Hill, and Hole and had their fortunes told, an activity that continued after the lights came back on 40 minutes later.
"All of the electricity on the west side of campus had gone out and it was raining. Instead of having people screaming in the halls, I had them line up to have their palms read," Olson says. "I wanted to keep them busy, because it was impossible to study."
Resident assistants, most commonly referred to as RAs, are student staff members who assist your students as they adjust to college and residence hall life at The University of Iowa. There is one RA per floor in each of the nine residence halls on campus. In addition to easing the transition from high school to college, mediating conflicts that inevitably arise at times between roommates, and improvising in emergencies, RAs plan social and educational activities and provide information or referrals.
Olson, a senior from Illinois, has served as an RA for three years. Knowing only a few people on campus her freshman year, she decided to get involved in residence hall government, and she became the president of her floor. Olson met a lot of people that year, including her boyfriend, whom she got to know while planning a social exchange between floors. She signed on to be an RA her sophomore year and has been doing it ever since.
"I really enjoy working with freshmen and sophomores and showing them whats available here," she says. "Its fun to see how they change throughout the year."
Homesickness has never been much of a problem on Olsons floors. She says she tries to get people out of their rooms, and if that doesnt work, she arranges to meet privately with them or to eat meals together.
Students who are shy or nervous about being in unfamiliar territory should take advantage of the abundance of social activities scheduled on campus during the first few weeks of school, says Shane Wiley, a senior from Muscatine and an RA in Daum.
"Even if the event is something that might not interest you, you should go anyway," he says. "I think youll be glad you went, because youll get to know people."
RAs are required to schedule at least one social and one educational activity for their floor per month, but most RAs schedule them more frequently, says Wiley. Popular events include guest speakers, debates, Family Feud tournaments, and Super Bowl parties.
Wiley hasnt encountered many cases of homesickness either, but he emphasizes the need for students to communicate with their RAs.
"The RA is here for them," Wiley says. "We are trained to deal with a wide array of problems. If the students are willing to talk, we have the tools and the means necessary to take care of their concerns."
In fact, the new RAs are carefully selected each year and then must complete a rigorous two-week training period before the start of the fall semester. According to David Coleman, assistant director of residence life, the RAs chosen are typically upperclassmen with at least a 2.5 grade-point average. The new staff members are trained in subjects such as drugs, public safety, and UI services and are taught communication skills. They also discuss how to deal with situations involving homesickness, psychological problems, and medical emergencies.
Andrea (Andi) Wikert, a senior from Grundy Center, recently completed her second year as an RA in Burge. She has found that mini-workshops on financial planning, including income taxes pointers and résumé-writing tips, are very helpful to the women on her floor.
Wikert says she decided to become an RA because she liked the leadership role it presented her and also because she enjoys being able to help people. She has coached junior high girls softball and was a representative in student government her freshman year, both of which helped prepare her for the position, she says.
"This year Ive developed quite a few friendships that I know will carry on next year. We will stay in touch," she says. "The relationships Ive formed are more than just RA-student relationships, theyre friendships, too."
Tara Burmeister, a senior from Davenport and an RA in Burge, says strong ties are bound to form among students living in the residence halls, noting that 75 to 80 percent of the women on her floor will live together next year.
"Youre surrounded by people going through the same things as youyou can lean on one another," she says. "The students definitely make strong friendships in the residence halls, and theyre definitely glad they came here."
By Sara Epstein