The Resident Assistant (RA) position is often noted as a premier leadership opportunity on many college campuses. The RA position centers community building, peer support and skill development as some of the unique opportunities for students in the role. While undoubtedly an important institutional position, such a role is a complex one. In this case study, Victor (Resident Director) navigates challenges, impacts and considerations that RAs Cameron and Rachel have experienced, and as the RD begins to question how RAs these student staff members might be resourced and supported as a means of responsibility and care for RAs.
Keyword/Phrases: Resident Assistants, Residence Life, Mental Health
Victor (he/him) – Serves as a Residence Director (RD) and has been in this role for five years. This job is Victor’s first full-time position since completing his graduate program in student affairs/higher education administration. Victor has been on staff in residence life positions since his undergraduate career, serving as a Resident Assistant (RA), Assistant Complex Director (ACD) during graduate school and now as an RD. Victor is a cis-gender, queer, able-bodied Latino man.
Cameron (they/them) – Serves as a Resident Assistant (RA) and has been in this role for three years. Cameron has the highest seniority among the RA staff and is one of a few returning RAs. Cameron will be a graduating senior this spring and is currently studying for the LSAT to enter law school. Cameron is a Black, gender non-binary, pan-sexual, able-bodied person with a learning difference.
Rachel (she/her) – Serves as a first-year Resident Assistant (RA). Her placement is in a first-year residence hall. She is involved in various organizations on campus and is currently a student government senator for the Women and Gender Advocacy Center. Rachel is a first-generation college student and came to the institution from out of state. Rachel is a multi-racial, cis-gender, heterosexual, able-bodied woman. She is also an independent student who has no contact/communication with parents/guardians.
This case is set at a regional, comprehensive, liberal arts public institution enrolling 24,000 students (19,000 undergraduates, 5,000 graduates). It is an emerging Hispanic Serving Institution with roughly 22% Latinx/a/o/e enrolled students. The institutional mission states, “The university’s diverse and inclusive learning and living experience, distinctive in its rigorous intellectual engagement and its global and experiential learning opportunities, leads to a life of meaning and means. The university prepares graduates who support and create positive change in their communities and the world.” There is an on-campus residential population of 10,000 students.
The Residence Life Department includes 72 resident assistants (RAs), and six resident directors (RDs). The RDs have two weeks of summer training followed by another two weeks of training with and for RAs. During the semester there are weekly full-time residence life staff meetings at the departmental level. There are also monthly all staff meetings that include the RA staff. The compensation for the RA position is room and board.
Victor, a current Resident Director, threw himself down in exhaustion on the sofa in his on-campus apartment. Reflecting on an already busy semester, despite only six weeks in, he had a strong sense of concern for a number of RAs he supervised. In a meeting today with Cameron, a returning RA whom Victor supervises, it became apparent they were struggling not just to manage the workload of the position but more specifically, the impact of student incidents on their personal well-being.
Reflecting on the semester thus far, Cameron highlighted the issues they and the team had navigated already this term. There had been a steady number of Title IX reports, a missing student case, hostile RA conduct meetings, a racial bias incident, and ongoing roommate conflicts. Cameron, a dean’s list student, indicated they were having trouble focusing in class because they were constantly thinking about all of the issues and the students who were by these situations. Because of this, Cameron had mounting anxiety related to future on-call situations.
Victor listened and affirmed Cameron’s feelings. Victor in some ways was feeling the same stress but did not let it show. Victor confirmed that Cameron felt adequately trained and had the resources to uphold the RA responsibilities. Cameron shared that they were appropriately trained and had the resources they needed to help students. What they were feeling was something beyond that.
The meeting with Cameron was similar to a conversation Victor had with a first-year RA, Rachel. Excited to build community, a team-player and a wonderful ambassador for the institution, Rachel hit the ground running. Victor noticed that her happy-go-lucky disposition began to fade over the last two weeks. During Victor and Rachel’s one on one meeting, Rachel shared that she was not expecting the RA position to impact her general well-being as much as it had. She shared that she loved working with students on her floor and getting to know other RAs but noted the interpersonal violence incident she responded to recently in her community put her in a bad place mentally and emotionally. Victor could understand because he still struggled with incidents involving violence despite having worked professionally in Residence Life for five years. Rachel hesitantly shared that despite her initial excitement to be an RA, she was not sure she would come back the following year and was considering potentially leaving the role next semester.
It was becoming apparent that the string of intense student and community concerns was having drastic influence on the well-being of a number of RAs. Victor and the rest of the professional Residence Life staff always advocated for and supported RAs utilizing the Student Mental Health and Counseling Services on campus along with prioritizing self-care. Outside of those two options, there were not a lot of direct institutional or department resources available to RAs to address the mental, emotional and physical well-being.
Victor thought back to the summer training before the fall term began and felt like there was an honest conversation about the realities and difficulties of the position but recognized the shortcomings of such training in navigating the reality of the position. Victor reflected and acknowledged the RA position can be difficult and demands a great deal from students. He balanced that reality with a strong sense of obligation for the well-being of Cameron, Rachel, and other RAs both as residence life staff and as people.
As Victor picked up the TV remote and clicked the power button, he said aloud “There has to be something else we can do.”
- What additional information might Victor need to determine next steps?
- How might the roles of RAs in crisis situations be different based on both social identities and the intersection of these social identities?
- Given the realities of secondary trauma – “the stress resulting from helping or wanting to help a traumatized or suffering person” (Figley, 1999, p. 10) – how can Residence Life practitioners better address the ‘secondary traumatic stress’ RAs endure as a result of responding to traumatic incidents?
- How can supervisors help identify indicators of burnout in an RA before it becomes a serious problem?
- While most RA positions are marketed as a great leadership opportunities, how might the Residence Life department address the challenges of the position in the recruitment, selection and on-boarding processes?
DuBose, D. R. (2022). Burnout in college resident assistants: Indicators of emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and personal accomplishment (Publication No. 2599) [Doctoral dissertation, Liberty University]. Scholar Crossing.
Figley, C. R. (1999). Compassion fatigue: Toward a new understanding of the costs of caring. In B. H. Stamm (Ed.), Secondary traumatic stress: Self-care issues for clinicians, researchers, and educators (2nd ed., pp. 3–28). Lutherville, MD: Sidran.
Harris, C. J. (2021). Differences between resident advisors and undergraduate residential students on resilience, mental health, burnout, and perceived stress [Doctoral dissertation, The University of North Carolina at Charlotte]. ProQuest Publishing
Lynch, R. J. (2017). The development and validation of the secondary trauma in resident assistants scale. The Journal of College & University Student Housing, 44(1), 10-29.
Roland, E. (2021). Institutional support and black women resident assistants across environments. Journal of Student Affairs Research and Practice, 58(5), 507-519.
Hermen Díaz III, Ph.D., (he/him) is an assistant professor in the Higher Education Administration Department at SUNY-Buffalo State College. He received a B.A. in Psychology from Grand Valley State University, an M.S. in Student Personnel Administration from SUNY-Buffalo State College and a Ph.D. in Higher Education Leadership from Colorado State University.
Shelbymarie Amos, (she/her) of Buffalo, New York holds a B.S in Childhood Education from SUNY College at Buffalo. She is currently in the process of obtaining her M.A in Higher Education Student Affairs Administration. With her “student centered philosophies” and many years of experience working with students, Shelbymarie strives to be an equitable student affairs practitioner.
Jasmine Samano, (she/her) is a second year graduate student at SUNY- Buffalo State College in in the Higher Education and Student Affairs Administration program. She received her B.S. in Human Development and Family Science from Oregon State University.
Carly Livingston, (she/her) is a current second year graduate student in the Higher Education and Student Affairs Administration program at SUNY-Buffalo State College. She is currently a Graduate Assistant Student Life Coordinator at Villa Maria College. She received a bachelor’s degree in psychology from SUNY-Oneonta.
Andres Vasquez, (he/him) is a second-year graduate student in the Higher Education and Student Affairs Administration program at SUNY Buffalo State and currently works in the Residence Life department. He received his undergraduate degree from SUNY Purchase.