By GINNY BIXBY
At the end of UMW alumna Monique Klinger’s only semester as a resident assistant in the spring of 2018, she had to perform a task she never expected she’d have to complete.
“My area coordinator made us do some things that we never should have been doing as RAs. Residents moved out at the end of the semester and left a ridiculous amount of trash in the hallways and common areas, our area coordinator told us to get rid of all of it, he didn’t give us gloves or trash bags so we had to come up with our own,” said Klinger.
“We were touching nasty things that we were not trained to touch, like [medicine], syringes, sheets that had nasty bodily fluids making them stick together, period stains, etc. It took our staff six hours and we didn’t even finish getting rid of all the trash, we just said we were done and left.”
Klinger already knew she was not returning to her job, but said this incident only further confirmed she was making the right choice. Klinger is not the only RA who quit their job with the Office of Residence Life. Several RAs who spoke with the Blue and Gray Press are not returning to their jobs, citing poor communication and a lack of transparency from the Office of Residence Life, as well as alleging that they are being overworked.
About 75 percent of resident assistants, more commonly known as RAs, who are returning to campus next year are returning to their posts, according to a Board of Visitors report obtained via Freedom of Information Act request.
As the RAs interviewed indicated that they are expressly prohibited by the Office of Residence Life from speaking to the Blue and Gray Press, the editors have granted anonymity to current and former RAs interviewed who feared retaliation from the Office of Residence Life if they spoke out.
“They always say ‘you’re a person first, a student second, and an RA third’ but that was not how they treated us at all,” said Klinger, whose primary complaint was what she called a “lack of respect” for RAs from the Office of Residence Life.
Klinger became an RA after her boss at the Center for International Education suggested she apply, since there was going to be a shortage of RAs that semester.
“I was interviewed and put on the RA waitlist, a list that the Office of Residence Life pulls from to replace RAs that leave their jobs.”
Klinger said that initially, there were some positive aspects to being an RA, and she loved being able to have her own room.
However, she quickly became frustrated with the job.
“ResLife was very disorganized, no one ever could give you a straight answer for anything. ResLife [administrative] staff was very inconsistent with what they expect from RAs, so coordination with other staffs was difficult,” said Klinger.
A lack of transparency and limited communication was the primary complaint among all RAs interviewed, who voiced a similar sentiment to Klinger’s.
“We would barely get any notice that we had to be somewhere [or] do something and [that] our participation would be mandatory,” said Klinger. “Basically they say things are mandatory to bully staff into showing up to things. Other staff members had important things they missed because they were too afraid of getting in trouble.”
One former RA cited an incident in 2018 that solidified her frustration with the Office of Residence Life. The heat stopped working in her building, and her residents complained to her about it, saying they were too cold at night and did not have enough clothes and blankets to keep warm. She immediately alerted her area coordinator, and she said nothing changed for two days. She said she believes that it was parent complaints that ultimately resulted in the heat being fixed. The experience caused her a lot of anxiety because she felt responsible for keeping her residents safe and healthy and this was not possible with her concerns being ignored.
One former RA claimed that her contract changed from when she first accepted the job to when she actually began the job in fall of 2018. She said that while the initial contract did not say that RAs would have to stay on duty over Thanksgiving and other school breaks, the new contract had a clause that said they would. The Resident Assistant Job Description on the Office of Residence Life and Housing webpage states that for the 2019-20 school year, RAs will be expected to take turns covering shifts over breaks.
Three of the RAs that were interviewed complained that they were uncomfortable performing Eagle Chats with residents due to privacy concerns. According to the Board of Visitors report obtained via FOIA, Eagle Chats are mandated conversations that RAs have with residents on “topics related to residents’ understanding of how their actions impact their community.”
The RAs interviewed said that these conversations had to be recorded on report forms and sent back to the Office of Residence Life. These reports had to include the resident’s full name and the exact details of what was discussed in the conversation, however, the resident is not allowed to know that their RA is writing a report on the conversation. They did not feel that this was ethical and that this was an invasion of privacy on behalf of the residents. Three former RAs, including Klinger, confirmed that they knew of other RAs who fabricated information on these reports so as to not provide revealing details about their resident.
“Eagle Chats are supposed to be a secret among RAs. Sometimes the quarterly Eagle Chat is something natural like ‘hey how are classes going?’ But they can also be ‘let’s talk about diversity and how you feel about that?’ So, imagine trying to track down residents that don’t want to talk to you and then you have to somehow try to bring up something so random naturally with them. It gets weird. Everyone fakes them,” said Klinger.
Potential Eagle Chat topic questions listed on the Board of Visitors report included “in what ways have you been involved with your community (on or off campus)?”, “are there any changes to the community standards you think would help our community this semester? How can I help the community implement those?”, and “how do your personal values influence the ways that you view/interact with your community?”
Two former RAs said that while some questions like these were posed as potential topics, they were also asked to bring up more sensitive topics like politics, racism and sexism.
The RAs interviewed also found conducting Eagle Chats to be difficult, with one RA calling them awkward and saying they were not beneficial to either party.
“RAs have to do Eagle Chats twice a semester, so there was a lot of chasing after residents to try and get them to talk to us,” said Klinger. “[The] Eagle Chat concept is good, it’s to make sure every person is being checked on, and that’s very important because otherwise people suffering in silence might never feel like they have someone to talk with. But the prompts can be ridiculous and awkward. Most RAs follow the policy that ‘I talked to my resident and they’re doing alright so I’m [going to] write in the non-sensitive material or just completely [make up] what my resident and I talked about,” said Klinger.
But the sensitive discussions were not limited to Eagle Chats. Klinger said that she had to fill out forms to aid weekly one-on-one discussion with her area coordinator. On these forms, she says she was required to discuss her personal life and emotions, choosing from a checklist of emotions and feelings to submit.
“I’m super private so I’d always select ‘random’ and ‘obnoxious’ feelings options,” said Klinger. “They wanted to know everything. My area coordinator once asked me how my love life was going. I was so shocked I just responded with ‘it’s going’.”
Another RA noted that while she was only responsible for 20 residents, an RA colleague of hers had 50, and therefore had to conduct 100 twenty minute Eagle Chats per semester. She noted that all RAs, not including Senior Resident Assistants (SRAs) are paid the same, and therefore her colleague was expected to perform significantly more work than she was, while still being paid the same.
The same RA also complained that if an RA quit and nobody was hired to take their place, the other RAs were expected to pick up that RA’s work without being provided additional compensation. She emphasized that she was not unhappy with her stipend, and acknowledged that she knew what she was getting into in terms of compensation when she applied for the job. However, the inequity in amount of work and number of residents among RAs who were all being paid the same bothered her.
According to the Resident Assistant Job Description on the Office of Residence Life and Housing webpage, during the 2019-20 school year RAs will be paid an academic year stipend of $4,100 and a room credit of $475 per semester.
One former RA said that she quit her job with only three weeks left in the semester because it was becoming detrimental to her mental and physical health. She cited an excessive number of last minute tasks interfering with her schoolwork and personal well-being and, while she enjoyed working with her residents, they were not the problem. It was the lack of support from the Office of Residence Life staff that made her feel as if she was being encouraged to put her job before her schoolwork. She said that they could have tripled her pay and it still would not have been worth it to her.
All of the former RAs interviewed said that while they were mostly unhappy in their jobs, there were positive aspects and they learned a lot from being RAs, and they all concurred that while they often were frustrated with the Office of Residence Life staff, they enjoyed working with residents and other RAs and found this to be the most rewarding part of the job. One former RA said that the skills she learned from being an RA were invaluable and that she is ultimately grateful for the opportunity, although she would not want to work the job again.
“Your RAs have your back no matter what for the most part,” said Klinger. “The support and friendships that grew during my time as an RA will stick with me forever.”
The Blue and Gray Press made multiple attempts to allow David Fleming, the assistant dean of Residence Life and Housing, to respond to the claims made by the RAs who were interviewed, but did not receive a comment in time for publication.