BY JUSTIN TONEY
Last week, a focus group of five Resident Assistants, one of whom will be a Head Resident next year, met to discuss with the Bullet what working for Residence Life meant. They entered into the discussion as if they were asked to explain themselves, which, in a way, they were.
Most other students do not know what being an RA really entails, and according to the focus group, their voices lack volume with the Residence Life professional staff that oversees them.
To the larger community of Mary Washington, this leaves an important population of student workers virtually unexplained. Given a microphone and a listening ear, though, and they opened right up.
Senior Emma Clarkson is a biology major and self-professed “damn good RA” in Arrington Hall. Last fall, she and close to a third of the RA and HRs from 2007-2008 were rehired. This rate of return has been regular for at least the past three years, prompting a question, among others: what is being an RA like?
“I think a lot of my residents forget that I’m a student too,” she said, walking past a resident who didn’t seem to notice her.
“When you’re a resident, you don’t think about that whole aspect of Residence Life that people are here trying to give you safe fun,
alternatives to make your college experience more,” Clarkson said.
“You know, as a freshman, I was drinking and spending a lot of time off campus, and now that I’m graduating, I’m really sad because I feel like I missed out on that dorky college experience.”
The biggest reaction RAs meet from other students is an assumption that they will report any misconduct they see or know about. The focus group admits that though such RAs do exist, they are the vast minority.
When Clarkson becomes aware of residents drinking underage, she will write an incident report but insists that she does not want what is meant to be a deterrent for drinking to become a deterrent to drink in the dorms.
“I would rather have the residents not feel afraid of me as some strict rule enforcer so that they feel comfortable in coming back to their rooms when intoxicated rather than putting themselves into a dangerous situation off campus,” said Clarkson.
Sophomore Alison Coleman, an RA in Custis Hall, had a slightly different take.
“For me personally, community is the most important thing that I wanted to establish in my dorm, but for other RAs it’s—not secondary—but not even on the front burner,” she said.
The other members of the focus group and many members of Residence Life hold to the mantra of community and safety—not necessarily to strict rule enforcement. In every discussion of the topic, alcohol is brought up.
Clarkson said that next to noise violations, alcohol violations were the most common on her hall.
She added, “That’s one thing you have to understand as an RA. You can not expect people to follow that rule. They will drink, and if you’re an a— about it, it’ll just get worse.”
“We usually know when things are going on. We usually know, but we have to prove it,” she said.
As an example, Clarkson points to her window where she says she smells pot smoke drifting into her room semi-often. In another instance, she walked into a stairwell in Alvey Hall that had just been used to smoke marijuana.
Clarkson has never written anyone up for smoking marijuana but she says she wouldn’t hesitate if it came to that.
“I’m not ‘the Man,” damn it,” she said. “But a lot of people think I am which sucks. I guess they need to think so, though, for me to have any credibility as an RA.”
The focus group couldn’t answer why their peers assume only negative aspects for RAs. This unrepresentative reputation may stem from the inability of RAs to share their experiences outside of each other. In order to speak on the record with an employee of Residence Life, members of the community must first go through the Director of Residence Life Christine Porter.
Porter has been working in Residence Life for 22 years, and is in her 10th year at Mary Washington. As its head, she is the voice of Residence Life.
Just as RAs can not perform life-saving first aid or CPR because Residence Life would become responsible for any accidental mistreatment that might occur, they can not speak on behalf of Residence Life policy or confidential information they are privy to.
“They can’t say, ‘As an RA, I think that policy’s unfair,’” Porter said.
The non-disclosure policy—limited to subjects concerning their jobs—has frightened some RAs into avoiding public comments altogether.
Junior Taja Winston, a RA in Westmoreland Hall, expressed her anxiety.
“There’s always this fear that you will speak as an individual, and one of the [professional staff] will be like, ‘Well, you spoke as an individual, but people know you’re an RA, so therefore people will conceive that you spoke on behalf of Res. Life,’” Winston said.
To their knowledge, however, nobody in the focus group has ever heard of such an incident.
Porter swears, “In the ten years I have been here, I have never fired an RA for talking to [reporters for] the Bullet. Ever. Ever. Ever.”
Next year, Porter expects to more than double the rate of return for RAs, which she attributes to difficulties in students finding jobs at home during breaks.
Clarkson, who became an RA before the economic crisis, already holds a second job at Panera Bread.
Last semester she was hospitalized for a heart condition. Doctors diagnosed her with neurocardiogenic vasovagal syncope, a heart condition that causes her heart to palpitate uncontrollably in response to extreme stress.
Stress—like the kind that comes from working two jobs, taking 18 credits and applying to graduate school—caused her to suffer a cardiac incident resulting in her hospitalization.
Now she takes time to go for runs or ride her bike, to “smell the roses” and otherwise not work so hard.
“Even if it’s 20 degrees outside I still bundle up and go for a run. I don’t know why. It just helps me,” she said.
Even still, Clarkson refuses to go at half-pace. “I believe in doing a job 100 percent,” said Clarkson.
Outside her door is a huge construction paper cut-out snowman with carrot nose, top hat, stick-arms, buttons and a purple scarf blowing in the wind that she spent over an hour constructing.
“I feel like, if I’m working this hard, other people should be working this hard to make things happen. It’s just not fair.”
She says that it’s easy for RAs to put minimal effort into the job and get paid as much as others. Typically, HRs require their RAs to decorate hall bulletin boards every month and host at least three hall program activities per semester at which no less than two residents have to be in attendance.
Although nobody has ever been fired for being behind on their bulletin boards or activities, Clarkson spoke about an individual who was asked not to return from last semester because of their general lack of effort, which was visible in an especially bland, uncreative bulletin board.
“You just have to take a big deep breath and deal with it,” she said. “There are frustrating things, but there are perks, like $366 pay checks.”