When Justin Russell signed up as a resident assistant at the State University of West Georgia, he knew it wouldn't be easy busting alcohol-filled parties or mediating between squabbling roommates.
Still, Mr. Russell says he wasn't prepared when one student tried to kill herself in their residence hall after an argument with a boyfriend.
The student survived and got counseling, but Russell says the traumatic experience highlights the most difficult part of his job: handling students in distress.
Part mentor, part older sibling, RAs have long been known for a mishmash of responsibilities. They organize floor social events, educate residents about personal safety, and enforce campus rules.
Policing students your own age who still live next door even after you report them for discipline is never a simple task, resident assistants say. But as college counselors report that more students are arriving on campus with social problems, some of them serious, RAs are taking on the complex assignment of watching out for fellow students' emotional well-being.
That's a role encouraged by parents who are more comfortable than earlier generations with intervening in their kids' collegiate lives and who expect universities to step in too, college officials say.
Such added duties can put a heavy burden on these young part-time employees, who are juggling their roles as resident assistants with their own college careers.
"It's a very demanding job," says Robert Gallagher, a University of Pittsburgh psychologist. "And if you add into the mix an increase in the number of students with serious problems, it just exacerbates [the situation]."
College students come to campus with baggage beyond boxes full of computer parts and CDs. Eighty-five percent of college counseling-center directors surveyed by Dr. Gallagher this year reported an increase in the number of students with serious social and psychological problems whether depression, eating disorders, or drug and alcohol addictions. No one reason accounts for the increase, Gallagher says.
One explanation offered by resident-life directors is that new psychiatric treatments allow students who might not have made it in the past to enter college. Often, the strain of adjusting to college can trigger new problems.
Whatever the difficulty, college staffers say parents today aren't shy about calling up when their kids have a problem. Fewer parents expect their children to sort out issues as simple as a noisy hallway themselves, says Barbara Dyer, assistant director of residential life at the State University of West Georgia in Carrollton.
"The onus of responsibility for success of the students isn't 100 percent on the student anymore," Ms. Dyer says. "It's becoming more of a shared concept."
And it's into that gap that resident assistants must often step. At Ohio's University of Akron, for example, RAs broker written agreements between roommates fighting about sharing possessions or sleeping hours.
At many campuses, RAs are also expected to act as early-warning systems, listening empathetically to students who approach them with problems and spotting signs of trouble among those who don't. Anyone having mood swings? Missing class? Losing weight?
College officials insist resident assistants aren't supposed to act as counselors. "The best we can do typically is to help them understand and be aware of the signs and signals that persons who are in crisis emit," says David Stephen, president of the Association of College and University Housing OfficersInternational.
Still, helping students and knowing when to step back can be difficult. After all, many RAs say that their desire to lend a hand is what motivated them to sign up in the first place.
Mr. Russell, now in his third year as an RA, remembers a two-week period of regularly staying up until early in the morning to talk with one depressed student. "It hurt me to see him," says Russell. "He needed someone to talk to and vent to."
When the student's mood didn't improve, Russell finally referred him to campus counselors. "When we know we're in over our heads, we go to someone professionally equipped to deal with that," Russell says.
University of Miami RA Roger Montiel says he's careful to draw the line between discussing alternative actions and giving advice. Last week, for instance Mr. Montiel was approached by a resident concerned about a romantic partner, and by an athlete who said a competitor cheated in a competition. Montiel says he avoided suggesting any particular actions. "We're not their parents," says Montiel. "I just listen to them and lay out some options."
As resident assistants' responsibilities grow, so does their training in how to handle everything from homesickness to bomb threats. The topics can fill whole textbooks and semester-length classes.
RAs at Ball State University in Muncie, Ind., are required to take a one-credit course during the academic year. In recent years, Ball State switched the emphasis from programming events to mediating arguments and monitoring student progress, says Alan Hargrave, director of the school's housing and residential life office. As a result, resident assistants learn about team building, listening skills, and conflict resolution.
Most schools also pack in intensive training before students move in addressing such issues as potential legal liability. The stakes are high for both colleges and individual RAs, who may be liable in instances where they fail to act after being approached by a troubled student.
Michael Polcari, who trains RAs at Northeastern University in Boston, reminds them never to promise confidentiality. "We train RAs to be very upfront," Mr. Polcari says. "We don't want them to take on personal liability."
It's a lot of responsibility for students, most of them undergraduates, who get free or reduced room and board and stipends that rarely rise above minimum wage.
"We don't have enough training or get enough to deal with every situation that comes our way," says Annoushka Owen, an RA at the Wentworth Institute of Technology in Boston.
Concerns about wages led University of Massachusetts RAs to vote this spring to organize the first union of its kinds in the country.
Yet nationwide, RA positions remain sought-after jobs on many college campuses, with up to four students applying for every slot. As she starts her seventh semester as an RA, Ms. Owen says helping bring her students together and interact as a community makes it a job worth keeping. "It makes a dent in their lives," Owen says.
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Resident assistants at the University of Massachusetts Amherst got a new outlet for expressing grievances this summer: union representation.
In July, UMass became the first college in the country to agree to negotiate with a union representing undergraduate RAs.
Unhappy with their compensation, long hours, and disciplinary procedures, the RAs voted in March to join the United Auto Workers Union (UAW), which already represents 2,400 graduate students in teaching, research, and other jobs at UMass.
As the two sides prepare to negotiate a contract this fall, not everyone is convinced undergraduate workers should turn to organized labor for help.
The Association of College and University Housing OfficersInternational argues a union contract could hurt the students whom RAs are hired to serve by driving up the cost of room and board.
Currently, RAs receive an annual compensation package valued by the university at $5,325, including waived room fees and a $1,710 cash stipend.
UMass had maintained that RAs would wind up bringing not only on-the-job grievances to the bargaining table, but also concerns about financial aid and other issues not related to their jobs.
James Shaw, president of UAW Local 2322, rejected those arguments, saying, "We're talking about adults who are workers. They have a job and they want a voice on that job."
Both sides agreed to exclude all academic and student issues from negotiations.
With budget shortfalls looming and faculty accepting buyouts, university officials say the school simply can't afford the added distraction of battling the student's union.
David Synnott, who has been an RA for three years, says a negotiated agreement will ensure the university provides "fair treatment, a living wage, and a voice at work for all of us."