Count On Me: Resident Advisors Train for Every Situation

Posted: August 31, 2009 at 1:04 am, Last Updated: August 28, 2009 at 11:45 am

By Catherine Ferraro

RA training. Photo by Evan Cantwell

Keith Cunningham, emergency coordinator of fire safety for Environmental Heath and Safety, leads an RA training session on Safety Day. Photo by Evan Cantwell

Moving into one of Mason’s 40 residence halls can be daunting for students trying to get back into the swing of a new academic year—whether they be freshmen or upperclassmen returning for a new semester.

Thankfully, for these more than 4,500 residential students, there is a group of 130 trained individuals who have the job of offering guidance and support every step of the way. These Resident Advisors (RAs), students themselves, are paraprofessional staff members employed by the Office of Housing and Residence Life to support the educational experience of living at Mason.

RAs are assigned to almost every floor of the residence halls, and each oversees about 35 students. RAs are concerned with the growth, development and safety of each individual in his or her community, as well as the overall floor community.

Although each community will have differing needs, the RAs are expected to ensure the well-being of each of their residents by fostering community development, coordinating activities and programs for students, offering advice and listening to concerns, attending to administrative tasks and being a source of information, communication and resource referral.

“Although we expect a lot from the RAs, it is important for them to understand that they are role models and leaders on campus,” says Christina George, assistant director for staff and student development in the Office of Housing and Residence Life.

“As trained individuals, it is their responsibility to reach out to their residents and make them feel like they are living in a safe environment and are part of a community.”

Transforming into a Resident Advisor

Becoming an RA is actually quite a challenging process. For the fall semester, the deadline for submitting an online application was early February.

Prospective RAs must have achieved sophomore status by the time of employment, have a 2.5 or higher cumulative GPA, be enrolled full time and be in good standing.

Students must also successfully complete a background check and drug screening, be available for all training sessions and enroll in the University 300 class during their first semester of employment.

Students are expected to commit to the job for an entire school year.

The selection process is also rigorous, since more than 200 applications for the fall semester were received. Christina George and Ashley Racine, resident director in Presidents Park residence halls, led a team of other staff members from the Office of Housing and Residence Life to set up individual and group interviews with qualified applicants. During the group interview, eight applicants worked together to solve a variety of problems and discussed different issues that might arise during their time as an RA.

This year, about half of the 130 RAs have previous experience as an RA and half are new to the job.

Let the Training Begin

Bill Brown, fire inspector supervisor for Environmental Health and Safety, far right, watches an RA practice extinguishing a fire. Photo by Evan Cantwell

Bill Brown, fire inspector supervisor for Environmental Health and Safety, far right, watches an RA practice extinguishing a fire. Photo by Evan Cantwell

Once the RA group was chosen, George and her team began planning the RA training sessions.

“This year we really wanted to focus on how to communicate effectively with this new generation of students,” says George. “My team and I do research and analyze trends and incorporate training activities so that the RAs will know how to deal with a situation.”

Intensive training that began early in the morning and ended well into the evening started on Monday, Aug. 17, and ended on Wednesday, Aug. 26.

Students and Office of Housing and Residence Life participated in activities focused on building community in the residence halls and team building among staff members, themes that continued throughout the training.

Right off the bat, students learned helping skills and duty and emergency procedures. Students participated in Mason CARES, a suicide awareness and prevention program, to educate them about why people attempt suicide and the warning signs of suicide.

Several RA training days were devoted to alcohol and sexual assault awareness and what do to if a resident has a problem related to these issues. Students also learned about the administrative responsibilities associated with working at the desks in each residence hall.

On Safety Day, the students learned about fire prevention and how to use a fire extinguisher. Students performed mock health and safety inspections, looking for candles, extension cords and any other items that might pose a threat of fire.

As training came to a close, students practiced making rounds of their floors, learned about programming and resources available on campus and were warned about the dangers of stereotyping associated with race, class or economic status.

After making final preparations for the beginning of Welcome Week 2009, students were rewarded with a “commencement” ceremony honoring their hard work and dedication to the training and the upcoming experience and responsibilities of being an RA.

“The type of training students receive during the RA training not only helps them during their time overseeing residents, but also in the real world,” says George.

“They can walk away from this experience with leadership skills and knowledge about managing activities and dealing with crises.”

Write to mediarel at gazette@gmu.edu