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Pros and Cons of Being a Resident Assistant (RA): The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly of Working in Residential Life

Updated on December 3, 2014
University of California, Santa Cruz, where I was an RA
University of California, Santa Cruz, where I was an RA | Source

What is a Resident Assistant? What does an RA do?

The "Resident Assistant," or RA, goes by many names at different Universities: community assistant, residential adviser, community adviser, resident mentor, peer adviser and more are all names for the same position. While the RA does different things on different college campuses, there are some basic tenants to the job which are consistent. RAs are responsible for enforcing University policies, planning events, and acting as mentors to younger students. But what exactly does a Resident Assistant do, and what are the pros and cons of the job? As a former RA who held the position for two years, I'll share some of my experiences and insights about the job, and take you through the good, the bad, and the ugly of working in residential life. If you are thinking of becoming an RA, curious about what it takes to be an RA, or just interested in learning more about exactly what and RA does, read on!

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Pros and Cons of Being an RA

Here is a quick list of the pros and cons of being an RA. I will spend time diving in to each point below.

Cons:

  • The "compensation"
  • The lifestyle
  • Lose friends
  • High stress
  • Lose other opportunities

Pros:

  • The compensation!
  • Leadership development
  • Make friends
  • Networking opportunities
  • Unique resume building opportunity

Read on for explanations and insights related to each point, based on my personal experience as an RA.

RAs Have a Unique Lifestyle, to Say the Least

Pro of Being an RA: The Compensation!

While compensation packages vary from school to school, the details of the package I received while being an RA was fairly typical, and most campuses will offer something similar. As a Resident Assistant, you are not paid an hourly or salaried wage: instead, you are given a package deal to thank you for your time that usually includes a large reduction in the cost of attending the university you are working for. My package consisted of room and board, meaning that for being an RA the university paid for my housing and meal plan costs. Talking to RAs at other schools, I can say that this kind of awesome package is fairly typical, though some campuses offer tuition discounts or work study grants instead of in-kind packages like I received. Overall, the value of the compensation package I received was close to $15,000, which made it financially possible for me to attend University and broke down to the best money I have ever earned when I calculated how much I made/hour of RA work.

RA Theme Song #1

Pro of Being an RA: Leadership Development

Being an RA is a unique chance to develop your leadership skills, which is an important part of attending college and will assist you in whatever career path you take. As an RA you serve as a mentor to your "residents," or (typically) younger students who live on your floor or in your area, and as a mentor you must constantly embody what it means to be a leader and role model. Additionally, your managers know that leadership is important to being an RA, and many schools have special leadership development opportunities for Resident Assistants like extra classes, group workshops and events, and other formal and informal training and development opportunities. The leadership principles that will be drilled in to you as an RA will help you in the post grad world immensely.

My RA team from 2011.  I am still close with many of these people.
My RA team from 2011. I am still close with many of these people.

Pro of Being an RA: Make Friends!

There is a definite social and community aspect to being an RA that can manifest itself in a variety of ways. First, you can become friendly with your residents while you are an RA, and these bonds can develop in to genuine and long lasting friendships once they aren't your residents anymore (being bff's with your residents while you have authority over them isn't recommended, but your RA manager will talk about that). Second, you will inevitably become close to the other RAs that work in your college or area; you will be planning a lot of events and working as a community with other RAs and will build a good working relationship. And since you are going through something unique and at times taxing (more about that in "cons") with your co-workers, genuine friendships are bound to form. I met my current girlfriend of two years when we worked together as RAs, and have a number of close friends that were RAs with me.

RA Theme Song #2

Pro of Being an RA: Networking Opportunities

Residential Education can be a rewarding career in itself, and as an RA all of my supervisors and their supervisors and their supervisors were RAs at one point, meaning that if you really love the work and being part of a college student community, there is a lot of opportunity to turn your student job into a post-grad career. Even if you don't want to be an RA for life though, there is a lot of opportunity to network while working as a Resident Assistant. Guest speakers and presenters that you coordinate with for events will be useful contacts in a variety of fields. People that work at your University, from administration to professors and everything in between, will be happy to chat with you about potential career paths and will be very beneficial for you to start adding to your contact book while you are an undergrad. In general, being an RA gives you a sense of professionalism that many of your college aged peers may lack, and will allow you to start the important work of networking while you are still in school.

The skills you can develop while being an RA will make your graduation a lot more valuable and your transition to professional life a lot easier.
The skills you can develop while being an RA will make your graduation a lot more valuable and your transition to professional life a lot easier. | Source

Pro of Being an RA: Resume Building

As an RA, you will be doing a lot of different things: from event planning, to enforcing university policy, to acting as a mentor, there is a lot of detail work and responsibility that goes in to the job. As a result, you will have a lot of opportunity to develop skills that you can put on your resume. Things like "crisis management," "themed event planning," "community building," "collaborative project design:" the list goes on. By working as an RA, you will have the chance to hone these skills and others, and have a great opportunity to gain professional level skills that will give you a big leg up on the competition come graduation time. This is something that I have been able to leverage quite successfully as I have transitioned from student to professional life, so feel free to ask me about putting RA things on your resume!

RA Theme Song #3

Con of Being an RA: The "Compensation"

While the compensation package that comes with being an RA is enticing to some, it does have it's drawbacks. First, the value of your compensation is taxed, which comes as a surprise for some and may mean you owe the IRS money at the end of the year. As a side effect of the taxable nature of your package, your financial aid package will likely be lower in the future as well. Second, you won't be making any cold hard cash as an RA, which can be a major downer. RA management often makes it a requirement that RAs not hold any outside jobs, so you may not have any cash coming in at all while you work as a Resident Assistant, which will make it difficult to socialize and buy necessary things in college. Third, the nature of your package as a stipend and not an hourly or salaried wage means that you don't have a lot of worker rights, so your managers can do things like require you to be on duty (holding a "duty phone" or being on extra patrols in your community) for days on end. Finally, the packages are usually non-negotiable, and if you get a lot of grant money or financial aid money that would usually cover things that your RA compensation package covers, you may not get as great of a deal out of the job as it first appears.

As an RA, you can kiss your weekend keg rituals goodbye
As an RA, you can kiss your weekend keg rituals goodbye | Source

Con of Being an RA: The Lifestyle

Overall, the total hours that you will work as an RA probably won't be too many considering your compensation, but the nature of the hours and the work can still have a HUGE impact on your lifestyle. Most RAs have a required amount of time per year or month where they are required to be "on duty," which means they can't leave their community area, usually have a phone and are "on call" for any number of community issues, and generally can't do anything other than be an RA. This has a huge impact on friendships and academics. Additionally, a lot of the events that you are required to host and coordinate will be on weekends or other times when you would rather be social, and you will be forced to organize and staff these "programs" instead of enjoying the usual social benefits of college. Finally, as an RA you are usually an upperclassmen, and the fact that you have to live on campus and eat campus food for another year may not be appealing. The RA lifestyle can really wear a person down, and I had several RA friends quit the job because they hated the sacrifices that came with it.

RA Theme Song #4

Con of Being an RA: Lose Friends

While you will make new friends while being an RA, you will likely lose some previous college friends and acquaintances as well. The strains on your life style mentioned above will put stress on even the closest friendships, as people complain that you "can never hang out anymore," and for the kind of college friendish-acquaintances you will make your freshman year aren't likely to remain your friends if they don't see you at parties, etc. Plus, since it is your job to enforce university policy, you probably can't attend on campus social gatherings where drugs and alcohol may be present (um, all of college?) so you will push away a lot of people. Of course, it could be said that any friend that won't stand by you isn't worth it in the long run, but the shedding of friends and acquaintances that comes with being an RA can make a person feel lonely and isolated and like they are missing out on the college experience.

You may want to pull out your hair as the stress of being an RA takes its toll
You may want to pull out your hair as the stress of being an RA takes its toll

Con of Being an RA: High Stress

In addition to the general emotional wear and tear that comes with the RA lifestyle, there are a lot of high stress situations that you will be thrown in to as a Resident Assistant. From breaking up parties (not as fun as it sounds) to giving CPR to your passed out residents (this happens more than you may think...) to responding to 4am calls on the duty phone, you will be in some stressful scenarios. This "crisis management" aspect of being an RA can be good experience, but it can also wear a person thin, and cause some serious emotional damage. I had RA friends who started the job with a smile and left at the end of the year in tears because they had one too many people throw up in front of their door or get in a fight on their floor, or had one too many 911 calls involving their residents.

Con of Being an RA: Losing Other Opportunities

While there is a lot about being an RA that can advance your future career and add to your college experience, it isn't the only way to get experiences at a University by a long shot. College is all about seizing opportunities: from forming a band to making lifelong friends to working in a lab to starting your writing career to enjoying some of the best parties you will ever be able to attend, there is a million memorable and unique things that attending a university will allow you to do. However, as an RA, you won't have a lot of time to do other things, and may give up a lot or all of these other opportunities. Of course, you won't be able to do anything while in college, and being an RA is still a good opportunity, but overall you will be giving up a lot of other experiences while being a resident adviser and the trade off won't be worth it for some.

Everyone Has Met a Super Corny, "Kill Me Now" Inducing RA

Resident Adviser: Great Opportunity, but Stressful and Not All That's Out There

On the whole, I enjoyed my time as an RA, and it allowed me to afford college and gain some great experience. The good? The importance of developing your professional skills while still in your undergrad can not be over stated, and being an RA gives you a chance to work on a lot of valuable career focused resume points, from networking to honing applicable attributes. Plus, the compensation can be quite good; in my case, the room and board stipend kept me afloat, and I wouldn't have been able to attend University without it. Finally, you will have a great chance to be part of a community while being an RA, and will make lifelong friends with your residents and co-workers if you keep an open mind.

RA Theme Song #5

Of course, there are ALWAYS negatives. The bad? For starters, that compensation package which looks so appealing is taxable, may screw up your financial aid, and isn't cold hard cash which you can spend on beer or books. And the friends you make while working as an RA will of course be great people, but may be replacing friends you had before becoming an RA that can't or don't want to adjust to your new lifestyle. Speaking of which, being an RA can be demanding, take all your time, and force you to forego other opportunities: you may not be able to take that lab internship which will help your career and lead to a dream job if you are working as an RA and your manager is concerned about you taking outside commitments.

And there are some very dark sides of being an RA that many who haven't held the job won't be able to understand fully. The emotional toll of constantly acting as a front line for community crises can put a person on edge, make you feel exhausted, and impact a lot of other aspects of your life. You will likely feel isolated and alone at times as an RA since your job is unique and many of your friends don't know what you are going through, and the high stress combined with the disconnected feelings that come with being an RA can lead to major depression and emotional hardship. The toll can be too high for some, and it was disheartening for me as an RA to see some of my peers wearing thin and obviously coping with very challenging things emotionally and psychologically

However, I don't regret being an RA in the least, I would do it all again if I started college over, and I do recommend it to anyone who has read this guide thoroughly and still wants to give it a try.

Questions About Being an RA? Ask in the Comments and I'll Answer Based Upon My Experiences!

Thanks for reading!

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    • Cassidy Kakin profile image
      Author

      Cassidy Michael Kakin 2 years ago from San Jose, California

      @Doris: Thanks for the compliment! I tried to highlight the cons as well as the pros, and overall I did quite enjoy the job.

    • doris and me profile image

      Mohammad Tanvir Ibne Amin 2 years ago from Dhaka

      Well every coin has two side. I'm personally a RA of a university. I found advantage rather than drawback. Good research.

    • Thelma Alberts profile image

      Thelma Alberts 2 years ago from Germany

      Congratulations on the Hub of the Day! Well done! This is the first time I have read a very informative article about RA. Thank you.

    • Cassidy Kakin profile image
      Author

      Cassidy Michael Kakin 2 years ago from San Jose, California

      @mySuccess8: yup yup, every job is different, and the "same" job is vastly different in different areas. As I have been thinking about this fact a bit and reflecting on my many odd jobs and random work experiences, I decided to write hubs about the different positions I have held, and I have a few more published about other jobs I have held if you are interested in my thoughts on other employment.

      @tilsontitan: Thanks! I would recommend you tell your granddaughter to check in with her supervisor as well as the financial aid office of her university. The "taxable" aspect of an RA's compensation is not widely publicized, and took me by surprise my first year.

      @aesta1: Thanks! Glad I inspired a bit of empathy, being an RA can be a rough gig for some.

      @Ruby H Rose: Thanks! Let me know if you have any other questions about college life. I graduated recently and have a LOT to say about the many aspects of college

    • Ruby H Rose profile image

      Maree Michael Martin 2 years ago from Northwest Washington on an Island

      This is great to know ahead of time when trying to make decisions for college. I will be passing it on. Very useful and helpful information.

    • aesta1 profile image

      Mary Norton 2 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      Congrats. It is interesting to know what RAs do and with better understanding, I will be more sympathetic next time I encounter them.

    • tillsontitan profile image

      Mary Craig 2 years ago from New York

      First, congrats on the HOTD! It is well deserved since you have covered this subject in depth.

      My granddaughter is an RA and though I knew a bit about it I really didn't know a lot. Reading this comprehensive hub has taught me a lot. I'm wondering if she knows about the "taxable" part? Thanks for all this interesting information.

      Voted up, useful, and interesting.

    • mySuccess8 profile image

      mySuccess8 2 years ago

      Every job has its pros and cons, and its ups and downs. Each job experience can also be uniquely different for each person based upon each personal skills and experience, and the working environment. I had been a resident at different University halls for a few years, and you have correctly highlighted some key pros and cons of being a Resident Assistant, based on your first-hand experience. This serves as a useful guide for future aspirants to get a better understanding, and to be aware of what to expect before committing to the job. Congrats on Hub of the Day!