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More Than a Job

By Daney Daniel Kepple
Photography by Jay Adkins

To attract the very best people, employers can make an open position sound like heaven on earth. The Residence Life Office at Rhodes, though, doesn’t. That’s because Res Life, which hires resident assistants (RAs) makes it clear that expectations are high, the job can be grueling, and only top students need apply. Yet every year the Res Life staff attracts a stellar group of young people to fill the 37 RA positions.

Williford RA Tyler Turner ’11 about to sink one in the Voorhies social room, to the admiration of Katie Stich ’13, Voorhies RA Bailey Romano ’12 and Nick James ’14. They live and work with other students in the dorms. They are counselors, friends and sometimes enforcers. Considered to be the support system for residents, RAs are expected to put their jobs ahead of everything—except academics. That’s the first sentence in their job description, followed by: “The resident assistant is responsible for fostering an educational and comfortable residential community that supports residents’ academic goals and provides for their safety and well-being. The resident assistant is also responsible for the explanation and enforcement of college policy.” These expectations are followed by 14 others, not to mention the usual “additional responsibilities as assigned” clause.

There are two full-time Res Life staff members, director Marianne Luther and associate director Regina Simmons. Two graduate assistants from the University of Memphis, Becky Taylor, who is pursuing an advanced degree in counseling, and Brent Owens ’06, a Ph.D. student in higher education administration, serve as assistant directors. Four head RAs have leadership roles: seniors Woody Lawson and Tyler Turner, and juniors Bailey Romano and Kelsey Smith. The 33 other RAs round out the program.

They are bound together by common responsibilities and a strong work ethic, but all similarities end there.

“We don’t have a cookie-cutter mold,” says Luther. “The RAs are representative of the student body. We have athletes, Greeks and non-Greeks, people from all types of involvements, majors and socioeconomic backgrounds. The one thing they all have in common is an understanding that being a resident assistant is more than a job.”

The RAs themselves agree that there’s no particular “type” that guarantees success.

“We’re not necessarily all extroverts,” says Physics major Anne Wilson ’12, RA for second floor Trezevant. “It’s good to have a mix.”

Woody Lawson ’11, a History major who works with students in the Spann Place townhouses and next-door Stewart Hall, agrees. “You can be introspective or outgoing. Both types do really well as RAs. But you do have to get outside your comfort zone.”

There are other words that come up a lot, beginning with “responsible.” English major Liz Moak ’11, second floor Robinson, offers “approachable,” “understanding,” “selfless,” “open-minded,” “objective” and “trustworthy.”

History major Kelsey Smith ’12, first floor Robinson, says, “You have to have a caring personality.”

Drew Wagstaff ’11, an International Studies and History major who’s on first floor Townsend this year, adds, “You have to have a willingness to engage people and you have to be proactive.” He notes that RAs have to have the ability to “balance what residents want with what they need.” And yet, he says, “There’s no job I would rather do.”

Robinson RAs Kelsey Smith ’12 (left) and Liz Moak ’11 in the Robinson laundry room These students are employees of the college, unlike many other student workers. The Human Resources Office, rather than Financial Aid, processes their applications for employment and their paychecks, which are not opulent. They receive a single room for the price of a double and they are on call around the clock. What motivates them?

Most talk about a desire to give back to the college and the satisfaction they receive from helping others. Interestingly, most current RAs report that they had wonderfully supportive, mentoring RAs their first year in college.

Moak recalls, “I came here knowing only one other person, my cousin. My RA made me feel like I had a friend. I want to do that for others.”

Wilson says, “Seeing the residents interact and become friends is very rewarding.”

Smith recalls opening her door on a February 14 morning and finding Valentines, what she calls a “big pile of love by my front door,” from her residents. She also notes that, as the oldest sibling in her family, “I like being the one who’s responsible. I know that if I’m in charge I will do it as well as I can.”

Moak says, “I love being a resource for people.”

And “the people” appreciate it.

For example, Stan Badger ’12 says of Woody Lawson: “Woody doesn’t follow the RA stereotype of simply policing his residents. He sees his job as helping us have a fun college experience while staying safe.”

Adds John Wells ’12: “I’ve been very fortunate to have Woody both as a fraternity brother and a friend. People know that they can talk to him in complete confidence, and he is always fair with his residents. I know if I have a problem, I can go and talk to him about it.”

Alex Nicholson ’14 jokes about Drew Wagstaff, but in a good way: “Drew may seriously lack skill with video games, but he makes up for it by being really good at life. That is why he is an effective RA.”

Townsend RA Drew Wagstaff ’11 (left) and Charles Walker ’14 in the Townsend social room In addition to friendships they develop, RAs find another major draw is the residence life community itself. Smith quotes a former RA friend: “He said being an RA is like having a prescreened group of friends who are fun, responsible and kind.”

Lawson reports, “There’s a bond among the people who share the same responsibilities and sacrifices.”

Wilson refers to the “strong support system in the RA community.” The job has plenty of difficult moments, but the RAs are almost universal in their dislike of the “enforcer” part of their role, which Luther estimates takes less than five percent of their time.

Wagstaff says any difficulty diminishes if the RA is careful to be consistent and fair. “I’ve even had people volunteer to get written up,” he says. “My residents know I’m not out to get them.”

Wilson notes, “I thought I would have to deal with a whole lot more than I have.”

The RAs give high marks to the training they receive, which certainly doesn’t end when the semester begins. “We get constant refreshers,” Smith reports. “We’re never really done.”

Luther says the staff tries to make the training both enjoyable and worthwhile. “They receive continuing training from the Counseling Center—how to deal with homesickness, which warning signs to watch for, how to encourage a resident to get help. Another thing we try to get across is that so much of the job is common sense and instinct. We try to show them that they already know a lot.”

Apparently the high aspirations pay off. “On a certain level you can’t be prepared for everything, but you can have a good understanding of the available options and how to react appropriately,” Wilson muses. “Knowing you are as prepared as you can be builds confidence.”

“It’s good to know where to get the answers,” Wagstaff agrees. “Everything from ‘rush is going wrong,’ to ‘where do I park my bike?’”

Spann and Stewart RA Woody Lawson ’11 (foreground), Sarah Bacot ’13 (doorway), Stan Badger ’12 (top window) and John Wells ’12 (bottom window) in front of Spann Place Lawson reports, “I worked with another residence life program over the summer and ours is so much better. We receive excellent training in everything—how to build relationships, how to head off problems, what to do in a crisis. It’s all top-notch.”

The high morale and esprit de corps pay off for the college when the RAs have to go even more extra miles than usual. One such occasion arose when it was time to find housing for the record class that entered this fall.

Various tactics were used. Social rooms were converted to bedrooms, singles became doubles and doubles became triples. And some RAs were asked to take roommates. They were unfailingly gracious about the request.

“I volunteered to take a roommate,” says Moak. “I knew the request was a last resort and I really didn’t mind. I didn’t want a student to miss out on the opportunity to be here because I just love Rhodes.”

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Shemika Harris February 21, 2011

I love it:-) Great job, guys!