RA Success
M. Lee Upcraft of Penn State University has authored several books in the area of student affairs and is a nationally recognized authority in higher education with over 40 years of experience. Here he has answered some questions about success as an RA.

Q. First year college students face a wide variety of challenges, opportunities and changes. As Resident Assistants, we are able to participate in this exciting stage of these residents’ lives. What advice would you give RAs as we seek to enable these students to “survive and succeed?”

First of all, what are a few things that RAs should realize about the transition process that first year college students are going through?

A. The research is very clear and consistent: traditional students are most worried about (1) succeeding academically and (2) finding friends; a peer network that provides support. Historically, RAs have focused on this second issue: helping new residents with social relationships, roommate relationships, getting them involved in campus activities, educating them on important social issues such as sexuality, alcohol/drugs, diversity, etc., building a floor environment that is orderly and supportive, conflict management, and other social/interpersonal issues.

RAs have historically been much less involved in helping students succeed academically. That issue is seen by many RAs as a faculty role, or the role of academic assistance professionals (academic advisers, tutors, etc.) to whom students may be referred. If the integration of students’ in class and out of class experineces contribute positively to their academic success (and there is abundant evidence to support this notion), then RAs need to get more directly involved in providing support and services/program that enhance residents’ academic success.

Q. Secondly, with this understanding in mind, what are some ways that RAs can help these students in their academic and personal development?

A. I think our current efforts to promote personal development, as stated above, work well. What is needed is an all-out effort to make residence halls conducive to students’ academic success. It starts with helping residents create an orderly and quiet place to study. It continues with educational programs specifically targeted to students’ academic skills, such as test taking, time management, how to read critically, and other study skills. It means RAs should know much more about the academic progress of first year students, either from interpersonal contact, or though access to mid-semester grades or early warning systems. It means more involvement of faculty in residence halls, and more living learning options, such as interest houses, learning communities, freshman interest groups, course clustering by residential assignment, etc.

Q. Any other thoughts, comments or suggestions for resident assistants?

A. I believe we have overloaded the RA job with all kinds of expectations that are not very realistic, given that most RAs are undergraduates studying full time. We should have RAs concentrate on building floor involvement and helping individual students succeed. We should not expect them to be diversity experts, career development experts, alcohol/other drug experts, sexuality experts, etc. Those issues are best handled by involvement of or referral to professionals inside or outside the academic community. The RA role should be student relationship based, and we should stop demanding that they be all purpose experts on every new developmental issues that comes down the road. Stick to the basics: the relationship of the RA to his or her students, and the development of a positive floor climate. I also believe that RAs should be aware that their jobs may be transformed by technology. What happens to floor interaction when there are computers in every room? Can technology (email, the WEB, virtual floor meetings, floor chat rooms, etc.) be used to enhance personal development, floor communication, and sense of community?

Lee Upcraft, Assistant Vice-President Emeritus for Student Affairs, Affiliate Professor Emeritus of Higher Education, and Research Associate, Center for the Study of Higher Education, Penn State University

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