The RA Link

RAs Lacey Murdock and Christian Quiñones.

RAs Lacey Murdock and Christian Quiñones.

Credit: Penn State Behrend

Resident assistants support students, create community, strengthen bonds to college

Think back to your first week of living at college. Who was your resident assistant? Chances are you can remember his or her name quickly or at least recall a face. RAs are unforgettable because they play an important role at a pivotal time in our lives.

Moving away from home and leaving behind all the things you are familiar with—your bedroom, a beloved pet, your siblings, and your high school friends, not to mention childhood itself—is intimidating for even the most adventurous young adult. Fears about fitting in, finding your way around campus, and struggling through Physics 101 creep into every first-year student’s psyche.

Without parents for guidance, first-year students tend to look to their peers, particularly those who are a few steps ahead of them on the road of life. Enter the resident assistant.

Forging connections, fostering community

RAs are a vital link in the chain of student life at Penn State Behrend.

“First and foremost, they are a resource for their residents,” said Kelly Shrout, associate director of student affairs. “They are there to help residents with their needs, be that personal or academic, and to explain the options available to them.”

To that end, Shrout said Behrend’s forty-seven RAs are among the most knowledgeable members of the campus community. As students and RAs, they know the college inside and out.

“Not only do they know how to develop programs and host events, but also they understand risk management, they are aware of university policies on things like parking, and they know who—and when—to call for support,” Shrout said.

RAs don’t just sit back and wait for residents to come to them with problems, though. They are encouraged—and, in fact, required—to be proactive in building relationships with, and between, their residents to foster a sense of community and thwart potential problems.

Must love people

It’s a competitive gig. More than 100 students apply to be RAs, sixty go through training, and fewer than fifty are chosen to fill available positions.

The largest benefit for RAs is free housing and food, but they receive a small stipend, too.

In return, they must attend regular training, hold weekly office hours, keep up with necessary paperwork, and develop and host frequent programs and events for their residents.

“You definitely have to be a people person to be an RA,” said Christian Quiñones, a third-year RA at Niagara Hall and a senior majoring in Biology. “You have to be able to relate to your residents and be willing to get involved and listen to them.”

Quiñones, who plans to attend medical school and be a psychiatrist, said being an RA not only suits his personality, but provides him with hands-on learning opportunities, too.

“I’ve been able to apply some of the theories and techniques that I learned in my psychology classes in interacting with my residents,” he said. “I’ve learned so much from them.”

Living in the RA fishbowl

The residents are learning and watching, too, something that Lacey Murdock, a third-year RA at Perry Hall and senior dual-majoring in Project and Supply Chain Management and Marketing, said she is keenly aware of.

“At some point, I realized that as an RA, I was a role model and I needed to carry myself with confidence and self-assurance because my residents were looking to me for cues on how to handle things.”

Both Quiñones and Murdock say they prefer first-year residence halls.

“I think I’m able to really make a difference in their lives,” Murdock said. “Older students are more independent and don’t need as much help.” Quiñones echoed Murdock’s sentiments. “It’s the most important year,” he said. “They have so much to learn about college and life, and I want to be sure they learn it right from the very beginning. It’s like teaching a person a second language; it’s just easier to do when they are young. I want to be effective.”

RAs are students, too

It’s not all sunshine and roses, of course. RAs must remind students of the rules and occasionally report incidents or deal with roommate drama. It can be time-consuming and overwhelming.

“Sometimes I want to remind my residents, ‘I’m a student, too. I’m only a year or two older than you,’” Quiñones said. “I don’t know everything.”

Shrout says RAs are not expected to have all the answers.

“They just need to inform their residents of what their options are and where to go for help,” Shrout said.

Labor of love

Despite the occasional hassles and headaches, Murdock and Quiñones both said they love their jobs as RAs.

“I feel really lucky to have had this experience,” Murdock said. “I love making connections with people and being a part of a community.”

Shrout said the feeling is mutual among the college’s administrators.

“We are thankful every day for what our RAs do to help the 1,700 students who live on this campus become wellrounded, mature, and civic-minded individuals.”