Successfully managing the transition from RA to RHD

“I’ll be a graduate hall director next year. The only difference between being a resident assistant and being a grad is having more one on ones and having judicial conduct hearings to attend.”

This is a real statement that a student who was considering going to graduate school said to me a few years ago. In my experience and those of my colleagues, the transition from resident assistant to graduate hall director was less smooth than one might expect. Unanticipated changes as new roles are taken within residence life often surprise many former resident assistants. The adjustments you might experience may be related to the organizational structure of your department, institution cultural differences, regional variations, social expectations, and basic role changes. Learning how to cope effectively with these changes can help you adjust in your new position.

Organizational Structure
The organizational structure of your new residence life department and that of your undergraduate institution may be completely different. “Raheel” was a Graduate Hall Director (GHD) in his first year at a new institution. According to him, his previous institution gave more authority and responsibility to graduate hall directors. Going into his GHD position, he expected to have more responsibilities than he actually received. However, Raheel said that, given his academic course load, he actually appreciated not having all the responsibility of managing the residence hall. Raheel valued having a live-in supervisor to whom he could still refer students and questions. The role of graduate hall directors varies from institution to institution. Just because it’s not done that way at “XYZ” school does not mean it’s wrong. Learning to appreciate that the uniqueness of each residence life system is based upon institutional and departmental history, residential student population, and facility issues is one of the first steps to becoming a professional.

Institution Cultural Difference
Another issue that often takes students by surprise is institution cultural differences. Every institution is a community with its own preferred methods of decision-making, communicating, and interacting. Members of the community are rewarded or penalized for conforming to or defying those expectations. “Chris” was a GHD who came from an undergraduate institution where independence was valued. When Chris designed and implemented a program for the whole campus, he expected his supervisor to praise him. Instead, his supervisor asked him why he did not collaborate more with other departments to present the program. Chris learned quickly that collaboration and teamwork were valued at his new institution. Campus cultures may vary based on institutional history, location, politics, religious-affiliations, and other factors.

Regional Variations
Many undergraduates apply to graduate schools across the country and interview with a diversity of institutions at the Osh Kosh Placement Exchange in Wisconsin each spring. At first, “Maria” was excited to move across the United States to an institution in a large city. Maria did not expect the regional differences between her new city and her former area. Compared to the people she met, she felt politically conservative and overly concerned about safety issues. Maria experienced what many graduate students underestimate- culture shock. The variety of perspectives on politics, religion, family, and multicultural issues is large, and sometimes, students generalize their previous experiences.

Social Expectations
Social expectations can be a difficult challenge for graduate students. “Kaitlin” was a 22-year old GHD in an upper-division student housing complex. Kaitlin felt limited in her social opportunities because few graduate students lived on campus and carried full-time course loads. She felt uncomfortable socializing on a personal level with undergraduates who were her age because of her authority “over them” as the GHD. Conversely, Kaitlin felt intimidated socializing with the professional residence life staff outside of work. One of the major transitions you may experience as GHD is navigating the social expectations at your institution. Expectations regarding hanging out with undergraduates and professional staff often depend upon not only the formal policies, but also “unspoken” rules on your campus. Observing more experienced GHD’s and your supervisor is one way to gauge these expectations.

Role Changes
The most obvious transition to anticipate is your role changing from that of a resident assistant to GHD. However, the changes that accompany it may be unexpected. The student who made the opening statement demonstrated his lack of knowledge about the role change. He did not realize the role of a GHD as a human resource manager, the budget responsibilities, the facility duties, and the number of meetings, in addition to one on ones, that he would be expected to facilitate to effectively run his area. “David” was a GHD who stayed at his undergraduate institution for graduate school. He understood the facility and residence life system well. However, what he did not expect was the way he would perceived in his new role. Resident assistants that he was formerly friends with were suddenly jealous and suspicious of him as a supervisor. The other hall directors had to adjust to seeing him as a colleague rather than as a subordinate. He even no longer felt comfortable going to his fraternity brothers’ parties. As a GHD, you will likely be supervising undergraduate students who are close to you in age, but the authority of your position creates unique dynamics. Understanding that others will perceive you differently because of your authority role, even more so than when you were a resident assistant, is an important lesson to learn.

Coping with Transition
For former resident assistants experiencing the transition into a GHD position, recognizing that expected and unexpected changes are going to occur as you move into a new position is key to successfully navigating the transition. Schlossberg (as cited by Evans, Forney, & Guido-DiBrito, 1999) suggests that one should examine the situation, him or herself, his or her support system, and develop strategies to cope during transition. The 4 S’s- situation, self, support, and strategies- provide a guide for managing transitions.

First, look at the situation. Consider these questions: “What has changed?” “How is my new environment different than my old environment?” “What behaviors do I see rewarded or penalized?” “How do undergraduate students, my peers, and professionals perceive the GHD role?” “Who do I interact with outside of school and work?” “What did I expect graduate school and the GHD position to be versus what am I actually experiencing?”

Second, examine yourself. Consider these questions: “Why am I in graduate school?” “What is my motivation to be a graduate hall director?” “What skills do I possess or lack?” “How do I feel about the changes in my life?” “Why might I be comfortable or uncomfortable in this new situation?” “What about my personality, habits, culture, etc are similar or dissimilar to those around me?”

Third, examine your personal and professional support systems. Consider these questions: “Who do I miss that I haven’t talked to recently?” “Who can help me understand my role or institution?” “Who is my mentor or who could potentially mentor me now?” “What support groups and/or organizations exist for graduate students on campus?” “What do I miss doing that I haven’t done recently?” “What activities, organizations, events are occurring off campus that I can take advantage of?”

Developing and implementing strategies to cope with the transition from resident assistant to GHD is the final step. After reflecting on the questions in the first three S’s, you need to identify actions you can take in a reasonable amount of time to ease your transition. These might include: working out, calling friends, developing a mentor relationship with a professional you admire, getting involved with an activity or faith community off campus, etc. The strategies you develop will depend on your individual needs. The more concrete the activity, the easier it will be to accomplish. For example, you might identify that you need to call home more often. To make it more concrete, look at your budget and determine how frequently you can call home and what days and times would be best for you to call. If you have reflected on your situation, yourself, and your support system, and have developed appropriate strategies, you will be able to then act on them.

The transition from resident assistant to GHD can be a challenging one. Unanticipated and anticipated changes will likely impact how you perceive your graduate experience, both inside and outside of the classroom. By analyzing the situation, you may be able to identify specifically what actions you can take to manage the transition more effectively. It can also help you learn to “let go” of what you can not control. Talking with others who have traversed the journey from resident assistant to hall director is a great way to learn more about the exciting path to becoming a student affairs professional.

Melissa Hutson¬†submitted this article as a¬†Resident Director at Loyola University Chicago. She has a bachelor’s degree in International Business from Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania and a master’s degree in College Student Personnel from Western Illinois University.

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