Lessons Learned: How to Avoid the Biggest Mistakes Made by College Resident Assistants
One of the most enriching, educational and challenging student staff positions on a campus is that of the resident assistant (RA). Each RA has an array of experiences which bring unbridled joy, personal satisfaction, episodic sadness, and periodic frustrations. Some RAs have experienced situations where one's personal behaviors, opinions, and ethics have been in conflict with those of their students and, possibly, with those of the university. While stresses and challenges are ever looming, most resident assistants enjoy the varied aspects of their work. Professional Staff all have former student staff members who tell us they still use "RA skills" in their careers, years after graduating from college. Many attribute their life-long friendships and partnerships and/or marriages to their positive experiences while living in campus residential communities. The education and training that students experience as RAs help them with ethical dilemmas, conflict resolution, team development, and program management in their professional careers. The successes of resident assistants results from good orientation and training programs, supplemented with good professional resources.
In Lessons Learned: How to Avoid the Biggest Mistakes Made by College Resident Assistants, John D. Foubert provides current residence hall staff members with a professional resource containing 38 stories featuring a variety of conflicts between the RA and her/his floor mates, peers, or supervisors. The book is divided into seven parts each containing four to six short chapters. The seven themes include community development, exclusivity, resident support, policy enforcement, students with psychological difficulties, compromising situations, and hall safety and security.
Each chapter includes a letter written by a resident assistant describing how he or she erred in a situation with students or staff members. Later, the RA describes what "advice" a professional staff member had given her/him to remedy the situation. In the following paragraphs, the RA describes the "lesson learned" and how he/she will try a new approach in the future. The story is followed by a series of discussion questions and tips for the reader to consider. Each chapter also provides a valuable list of resources related to the scenario. The most recognizable resources include Resident Assistant.com, Reslife.net, ResLifeLink.com, CampusBlues.com, and GoAskAlice!, all which will provide access to information twenty-four hours a day.
The evolution of job requirements and expectations for the resident assistant since the early 1960s has been remarkable. Early RAs dealt with intoxicated residents, roommate conflicts, noise complaints, and visitation violations. Later, the topics of alcohol abuse, drug education, social and cultural programming, physical and mental health topics, and emerging student development theories were added to staff orientations and training. Today, the typical residence life professional staff who are charged with creating training programs, face new challenges as RAs deal with designer drugs, cutting and self-mutilation, campus crime reporting, hate speech, "students at risk," [End Page 260] domestic violence, and issues within electronic communities. Our resident assistants are also expected to have a basic understanding of college normative behavior theory, service learning, citizenship, academic support services, cultural diversity, leadership styles, "the first-year experience," "the sophomore experience," and "the transfer student experience."
Lessons Learned provides resident assistants with a variety of topics to consider as they develop into experienced staff members. The author has offered a vast array of "errors" committed by RAs, with subsequent suggestions for improvements for future encounters and situations. Foubert provides scenarios relating to delegation, roommate conflict, racial assumptions, religious tolerance, loneliness, enforcement avoidance, confidentiality, parent contacts, suicidal comments, dating, and sexual assault.
While the author provided a variety of good scenarios for our resident assistants and professional staff, there are some challenges that need to be considered. As in each case, a professional residence hall staff member will need to review each lesson to determine if the provided advice is in accordance with the campus' protocols and policies. For example, Chapter 35 discusses the burnt burrito fire alarm evacuation scenario. The RA is admonished for not making sure that his residents had left the building. The policy of many residence life departments is to ensure that resident assistants leave the building in case of fire, ensuring that they are as safe as any resident.
The author calls for new stories for a future edition of Lessons Learned. Hopefully, there will be submissions that speak more directly to issues of LGBT students and students who feel marginalized for other reasons. Greater attention may need to be given to issues regarding how our students interact and interface within the electronic communities. Finally, stories showing how to more effectively celebrate floor residents' achievements and successes should offer positive suggestions for future resident assistants.
Lessons Learned will complement a resident assistant education, training, and development program. Some scenarios could be used in the popular Behind Closed Doors training program. Hall directors might find reviewing one or two stories during weekly hall staff meetings to be helpful. In a broader sense, faculty and staff could use Lesson Learned in an RA class as a supplement to other materials, such as Gregory Blimling's The Resident Assistant: Applications and Strategies for Working with College Students in Residence Halls (2003).
In its unique style Lessons Learned: How to Avoid the Biggest Mistakes Made by College Resident Assistants is a useful resource for those who work with resident assistants, community advisors, housefellows, and program assistants.