Working as a university residence assistant is about personal development as well as helping others
“Students were motivated to become an RA by their desire to help other students navigate what they had found difficult themselves”
Residence life – the US-led programming of activities and support for students in university accommodation – is taking off in the UK and Ireland. At its heart are the students who work as residence assistants (RAs), usually for pay or subsidised accommodation. But the benefits of being an RA reach far beyond the financial, and money is rarely the motivation, as the recent Residence Assistants Panel at the CUBO Residence Life Conference revealed.
The RA panel was part of a two-day professional development event for residence life professionals. It featured five of the eight students awarded a 2019 CUBO RA Award for outstanding services as residents assistants, including Shiyi Xu, aka Agnes, from Hong Kong.
Without exception, these students were motivated to become an RA by their desire to help other students navigate what they had sometimes found difficult themselves – the transition to living away from home in university accommodation. RAs are recruited from returning students and given intensive training in event organisation, health and safety, active listening, mental health first aid and other practical skills. It’s a very broad role and one Agnes found difficult to explain to her parents, who initially thought she was a security guard! Residence life works because students relate best to other students so will more likely seek their help or join the social activities they organise. It matters because happy and involved students study better and are more likely to complete their degree.
As the panel described their experience as RAs, it was clear they had not only changed other lives but undergone a personal transformation too. The work experience alone is valuable: designing and running events programmes, marketing, social media, attending meetings, liaising with other departments, writing reports and other administration. But they had also gained in confidence and personal skills and attributed their better time management, social skills and motivation to study to be an RA too. They felt better skilled at listening, handling problems and diffusing situations.
“It was clear they had not only changed other lives but undergone a personal transformation too”
Though Agnes is the one international student among this year’s RA Award winners, she is one of many international RAs working in the UK and Ireland. She brought a unique perspective to the panel. Reluctant to use the phone when she started as an RA, she is now confident to take and make calls and sensitive to other students’ anxieties about communication. Being an RA brought her out of her room to try new things and meet people, and friends say she’s now more outgoing. Through her experience of cultural difference, she has come to an inspiring understanding and acceptance of all difference, or as she put it, being nice and kind to everyone.
Balancing work, study and living (shopping, cooking, laundry, social life) isn’t easy and RAs need to take care of themselves as well as others. So not surprisingly, time management is one of the main challenges of this rewarding work, along with dealing with mental health cases. RAs are there to provide “first aid” support, but signpost students on to other professional services. The group agreed that finding your level and limit in individual cases can be tricky, but support is there. They all also felt that universities and private accommodation providers shouldn’t judge the success of an event on numbers, as smaller, niche events suit particular students who would otherwise not engage.
“RAs are there to provide “first aid” support, but signpost students on to other professional services”
The students’ finished with their vision of residence life in the future. What would they improve? They wanted students to be listened to and seen as individuals, not numbers. They felt residence life needed better funding, to allow more creativity in programming as well as equal opportunities and experience for students in different residences – current provision varies. Most of all they pictured the whole campus as one big community, where everyone feels included – a place where you’re not judged and can just have a good time.
About the author: Jan Capper is Chief Executive of College and University Business Officers, a professional association for senior managers of university commercial and campus services.
View a gallery of photographs from the second annual CUBO RA Awards here.