Residential Life

By Tom Poulos

Residential Advisors and the Residential Life staff are obviously necessary aspects of dorm life. God knows the mess we (those of us living on-campus) weren’t accountable for any rules or regulations. In fact, learning how to have a good time (with a little liquid help, of course) in the dorms is a really fun bonding process, especially as freshmen. I distinctly remember the elaborate fanning systems or duct tape mechanisms set up to prevent that certain smell from getting into the hallway (which in Dupre is quite a task). Of course, it wouldn’t always work out, and sometimes you’d end up get written-up. You’d simply get a warning, have to take an online assessment, or write some b.s. essay about what you learned. But hey, it was all part of the crazy lifestyle of college students, right?
It might’ve seemed that way at first, but now that it’s gotten to the point where I have at least two friends who jump into the nearest closet every time the word “R.A” is muttered or any time a door-knock sounds particularly forceful, and a friend who was suspended for a semester. It seems like for myself and a number of other sophomores, the attitude towards Res. Life has transformed from something you had to be mindful of to something you legitimately feared.
Like I said before, I recognize the necessity of Res. Life, but when it gets to the point where RAs are viewed as authority figures that are out to get you, much like the cops, something is not right.
Personally, I’ve been lucky enough to have great RAs for both years that I’ve been at Mac. They’ve made efforts at building community, establishing a relationship of accessibility and reliability, and addressing problems regarding dorm life. These, after all, are the functions of a Residential Advisor. From what I gather, most people are pleased with their RAs as well.
Still, there are always those who are too overzealous in the enforcement part of the job, destroying any hope of a community (with as a part) springing up on the floor. How can we root out “bad” RAs? A first step is taking personalities into account to make sure that people who tend to gain satisfaction from being in a position of power and authority are not hired as RAs. This sounds controversial, but I think the selection process needs to become more personal. I understand that the demand for RAs far outweighs the pool of students applying to become them, so that most people who want to be RAs are given the job. However, maybe more people would be willing to be RAs if there wasn’t such a stigma attached to them. Maybe if students had RAs who were more community-builders than enforcers from the very beginning of their experience at Mac, more people would consider becoming RAs.
I’ve encountered several RAs that act more as enforcers than as community-builders. There is no doubt in my mind that this tendency correlates to their personality types, or at least their general style of interaction with other human beings. Speaking from my experience and intuition, overly authoritative people tend to be people be lacking in empathetic capabilities. This isn’t to say that RAs that strictly follow the guidelines are crazy sociopaths, but simply that we have to be careful about who we give power. I’d also like to see a larger emphasis on community building than on rule enforcement. Being both an enforcer and a community-builder is tough. They’re diametrically opposed roles in that they require two entirely different ways of approaching people. When the role of an R.A. becomes that of an enforcer, a power dynamic is created that is deleterious to the types of relationships essential for a community. Inherent in the notion of a community is the notion of equality. We don’t need dictators who get off on power trips. Thus, when an RA is forced with choosing between the role of an enforcer and the role of a community-builder, I ask that they almost always choose community-builder.
For example, on a friend of mine’s birthday, a group of about 10 of us and I went to her room at 12:00 a.m. to sing her happy birthday. A few people had some drinks, but for the most part, it was a sober occasion meant to last no longer than a half an hour or so. At about 12:04, after singing her happy birthday, we get a knock on the door from an RA who proceeded to write up everyone in the room for noise. Then, he made my friend empty our what must have been about a dozen bottles of alcohol (I’m not sure how much money that is, but you can do the math), including the ones that were out of sight (he made her open the refrigerator). Luckily, she was able to save the bottle of Kalua that her mother sent her for her birthday, after extensive pleading and what amounted to an upright refusal to give up the bottle because of its sentimental value. I think I can safely say that her birthday was ruined, and that the RAs actions weren’t exactly conducive to community building. For now my friend and all the people in that room have that vision imbued in our minds, one in which an RA actively, and in my opinion unreasonably, acted entirely as an enforcer and in no conceivable way as a community builder.