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Being a Private Dorm Resident Assistant: Background, Qualities, Expectations and Challenges

Updated on October 13, 2022
Leaving for College
Leaving for College

Going off to college and being away from home can be a huge adjustment for any eighteen year old. Adjusting to a new school, new city, roommates, new-found independence and having to time manage one’s schedule is a lot for most adolescent teenagers. They may be use to their own room where mom or dad wakes them up in the morning, makes sure they get some kind of breakfast, and then makes sure they get out the door and to school on time. For the past eighteen years, these students have been accustom to their mom doing their laundry, preparing their meals, reminding them of upcoming projects, assignments and tests, as well as overseeing their social calendar and approving who their friends are. They have lived most of their lives with the support and encouragement of family members. But all of that is about to drastically change.

Modern Day Dormitories and the Resident Assistant

Up until the mid 1960’s, most colleges and universities had functioned predominantly as commuter campuses, where most the students lived within walking, horseback, bicycle or driving distances. On campus housing was primarily offered to only male athletes and war veterans. Dormitories or Residence Halls have dramatically changed over the last half century from either all-male or all-female dorms in the 1960’s and 70’s where students had to sign in at the front desk and each dorm had “dorm moms”, to co-ed dorms of today which include both on campus and off campus facilities. As the number of college students has grown over the past 30-40 years, so has the need for dormitories and Residence halls to develop a position of Residence Assistants. Residence Assistants are usually juniors, seniors or graduate students who live in the dorm and help students with anything from personal problems to security issues and everything in-between.

In our world of multiple choices, many of today’s students have the choice between living in an off-campus dorm or an on-campus dorm. With the influx of more and more students applying to universities every year, the creation of off-campus dorms have been a necessity at many of the larger colleges and universities. In the past, most universities would require that all incoming freshmen stay in a dorm for at least one year. But many large state universities do not have the on-campus housing to accommodate the increasing number of incoming freshmen.

As a result, private, off-campus student housing is big business as enrollment outpaces dorm spaces at many universities around the country. The idea of living off-campus has become a popular luxury, especially among incoming freshman.

The Modern Private College Dormitory
The Modern Private College Dormitory

Then, in considering which off-campus student housing to choose, many prospective students look for a place that is well kept, has a really friendly and safe atmosphere, and is a place where the learning environment help the student succeed. The residential learning environment is an important vehicle for student learning. It focuses the student’s time and energy on college, as well as increases informal interaction with other students.

The High Calling of an R.A.

Many people do not realize all that is involved in becoming and serving as a Resident Assistant. When people hear the term Resident Assistant, some may think of a counselor or someone who saves the day, but for most college students, the term Resident Assistant and the initials R.A. refer primarily to one who sees themselves and act out the role of a policing cop. For those students who view college life in general and dorm life in particular as one big party, even the mentioning of those two letters together draws a huge frown from the crowd. The wild ones consider R.A.’s to be the “party-enders” who do not want anyone to have any fun.

The R.A. Misconception

This is a common misconception among a large group of students every year on most any campus in America. College students do not realize all the responsibilities that an R.A. has to do and that R.A.’s also have lives outside of their job.

In general, Resident Assistants are not out to be “Cosmic Kill-Joys” to the students in their hall and especially on their floor, but rather they desire that respect be the principle that governs students relationships between one another and between R.A.s and themselves. The R.A.’s major role is in setting the tone for the everyday atmosphere and thus, the perceived image of the given private dormitory.

The Qualities of a Resident Assistant

Serving as a Resident Assistant is a very high calling on those who are college students themselves. The ownership and management teams of most private college dorms are looking for Resident Assistants who can stand on their own and who possess an inner moral compass. An R.A. must be able to live outside the box and be prepared to be challenged and stretched in ways that he or she would never have imagined. One of the major tasks of the Resident Assistant will be in having to play many roles throughout the course of a single day, from leading to serving and doing all with a teachable attitude.

An R.A. must be prepared to handle any situation that comes their way whether it has to do with other co-workers or with the residents themselves. Each day will bring a new opportunity in learning and developing a new set of skills in dealing with the students, fellow R.A.’s, and in carrying out the dictated responsibilities of the job.

Throughout this entire process, the R.A. will get to know others, but most importantly they will get to know themselves in fresh and new ways never experienced before.

Different Roles of the R.A.

● Policing Officer

As a Resident Assistant, one will take on many different roles and wear many different hats. One of the primary roles is that of a policing officer. In the event of a party on your floor getting too loud or in the event of you catching someone bringing in beer, your job is to report it. That is just part of the job and one that is crucial at setting the tone and atmosphere of the entire dorm. The goal is not to be known as “the private, party dorm.” Rather, the goal is to be knows as a worry-free and safe environment that allows the student to focus on why they are at college.

● Walking Information Center

Another role of the R.A. is that of a “walking information center.” Whether the question is about the Dorm or the college, the residents are depending on you, their Resident Assistant, to be their source of knowledge.

● Designated Greeter

The R.A. is also expected to be the designated greeter when students come through the front door. After a hard test or long day of classes, your bright smile, warm hello or a big hug can make a residents day in ways you probably will never know.

● Event Planner

The R.A. is also an Event Planner. So, for those who have always wanted to be the big party planner, this is your opportunity. The social events planned are not just an end in themselves, but they are really designed to help facilitate community among residents. Building community is at the very heart of what the private college dormitory is trying to promote. These will be years of great memories as well as building relationships, many of which will last a lifetime.

● Counselor & Peace Maker

Being a counselor and a peace maker are crucial roles of any R.A. For if one tries hard and is intentional in building relationships with the residents on your hall, many will feel comfortable coming to you with their problems. Most often, the nature of these conversations and relationships is for the R.A. to just be a good listener to the resident sharing the problem. In the fast-paced and very loud world of today’s college student, very seldom does any one take the time to just listen. The best counselors in these situations are usually those who take the time to listen, to encourage and to walk the journey with those students that invite you to walk with them.

With the bent toward drama and with all types of personalities involved in a small amount of space, the R.A. has to continually play the role as peace maker. For there never seems to be a shortage of roommate conflict and the need for conflict management.

The Resident Assistant is all of these people wrapped up into one young student leader bearing down in the trenches wishing and hoping that they are making a difference in the lives of their residents.

An R.A.’s Three Major Challenges

An R.A. will face many challenges throughout the course of the year. A lot of issues and conflicts that come up will be ones with which the chances are good that he/she have never had to deal with before. The very nature of the job is living in an environment in which problems and conflicts are brewing just below the surface all around. An R.A. is there to help. The key is to learn how to handle the situation properly and professionally. The R.A. has the best opportunity to help students who are experiencing minor problems and to identify student who are experiencing major problems. The job of the R.A. is to help identify the nature of the problem, and to bring comfort and calm to the situation. The three major categories of these challenges are roommate conflicts, incidents and complaints.

● Roommate Conflicts

If one is an R.A., and there are people on the floor, then there are going to be roommate conflicts. The normal tendency when conflicts arise between roommates is that they will get other people involved in the problem and will have drafted those people onto their side. One of the best ways to prepare for such conflicts is to have been developing a relationship based on respect with the students on your floor. Students are more likely to respond cooperatively or to avoid a confrontation whey they respect you and your position. In such situations, an R.A. can serve as a peace maker who is both neutral and can seek a solution to the problem that in the best interest of all involved with calmness and wisdom.

The first thing that needs to be done is to separate the roommates and get both sides of the story. Once this happens both parties can be brought back into the same room and explain that since they are in a group living situation that they must respect each other and their property but to also be willing to compromise. If the problem appears to be irreconcilable and has been going on for a long time then both parties will have to fill out a Roommate Conflict Form and explain the problem. In a worst case scenario, if the problem is not resolved, then switching rooms will be the next course of action, but when this is not possible and the case is deemed too extreme, one or both parties will be asked to vacate the premises.

● Incidents

The occurrence of an incident is considered a major problem. So, just what exactly is an incident? The answer is that several criminal behaviors fall into this category including: damage to property, stealing, drugs and rape to name a few. The first goal of an R.A. in these incidents is to find a witness or to view the evidence on film of the act being committed. When someone is a witness to an incident, the R.A. will have to fill out an Incident Report and then the R.A. and the resident or residents will have to fill out a witness form. Depending upon the nature of the incident, both the resident’s family and police might need to be brought in to get involved.


Complaints could possibly be one of the easiest yet most annoying challenges with which an R.A. will have to deal. And the most common complaint is noise related. Though there can certainly be an issue of noise as it relates to the needed building maintenance, noise complaints are reduced during the weekdays not only because of school but also because most private dormitories have courtesy hours.

The resident that is being disturbed by the noise usually reports the complaint to the front desk to have the noise stopped. Once the call is received at the front desk, it is then that the R.A. takes immediate action!

At many private college dormitories, the protocol for such a complaint is as follows. When an R.A. gets a call about a party or someone’s neighbor is playing music too loud then the responding R.A. is to take either the Courtesy Officer or another R.A. with them. When the R.A. gets to the problem room, knock firmly and tell them that there has been a complaint and they need to stop their disruptive behavior. This step must be followed and repeated three times. If they have not responded to the request after three attempts, then it is the responsibility of the R.A. to write them up for this complaint. Each resident only gets three “Write Ups”. After the three Write Ups, they will be fined.

Toward a Conclusion

Though you may not feel that you have the personality type or leadership skills to be a Resident Assistant, but if ever given the opportunity, . . . Go For It!

You will be stretched and grow as an individual and the entire experience will cultivate both your leadership and relational skills. You will move from being just a spectator of life to being a participant, and you will be move equipped to face the next challenging chapter of life beyond college!


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