‘The RAs Always Pay the Price’: Former and Current Resident Assistant’s talk about what really goes on in Res. Life

Image+retrieved+from+uwlax.edu.

Image retrieved from uwlax.edu.

Anna Fischer, Social Justice Reporter

The University of Wisconsin-La Crosse has 10 different on-campus residence halls, all of which are run by three different groups of people: The Office of Residence Life (ORL), Hall Directors, and Resident Assistants (RAs).

There are 10 faculty working in ORL, 10 Hall Directors, and when fully staffed, 114 RAs. The RAs work directly with the residents, most of whom are freshmen, and new to the college scene. They are expected to check in with their residents and enforce numerous policies and rules, all while attending UWL as full or part-time students.

Many RAs have felt overwhelmed by the workload of this job and have not been met with understanding by the Office of Residence Life.

Vang Xiong, a junior, has been an RA for two years in two different residence halls. Xiong said, “I feel like there is a really big disconnect, and like RAs don’t really have a say in much. Those who work in Residence Life say that ‘we are here to support the students and hear their voices,’ but from what I’ve experienced, that’s just not true.”

Xiong is a Seed RA this year, meaning they help educate their team on things relating to social justice. Xiong’s passion for social justice was tested after an incident within his hall last semester.

“There was a situation with police racially profiling students, and we tried to talk to Res. Life about the police and their policies to see if it could be changed so that students and staff, particularly students and staff of color, would feel safer. Res. Life would always say ‘yeah we’re looking into that,’ but we still have never received any updated policies. They also said, ‘why don’t you take it up with them yourselves,’ and what we needed was their support, which they did not give us.”

Xiong and Cora Fitterer, another current RA, also spoke about issues relating to the suicide training they received at the beginning of the year.

“They teach it like it’s an equation, like methodology. Like it’s a step-by-step process, and to me, it kind of takes the human element out of it. I know that we need to be taught wide-span care and how to treat everyone, but as an RA having been in those situations, I wouldn’t naturally react the way that we were being trained to react. Res. Life poorly trained me to defuse these kinds of situations.”

Fitterer is a junior who was previously an RA in Angell Hall but is currently an RA in Wentz Hall. Fitterer said she became an RA for a couple of reasons:

“There’s a huge financial aspect to it with all the benefits that come along with it. But also, I knew that I wanted to. This is something I thought that I would be good at, I want to try it and just see, especially with all those benefits. I also met a lot of really good RAs my freshman year and they inspired me to try to make the change that they were making in my hall too.”

Fitterer and others also have issues with their RA contracts which they sign upon their employment.

“These contracts are ‘at will,’ which means that they can change anything they want on them as long as they let us know; but there’s no negotiation, you know, whereas when you sign a contract with a ‘normal job,’ what’s on that contract is what’s going to stay on it throughout your job.”

Fitterer said an example of how this “at will” contract affects RAs is with something as simple as their laundry money.  “My first year they gave us laundry money to write to our account. Then this year, without letting anyone know beforehand, they gave us money added onto our stipend, which comes later. People that don’t have the financial means are having to wait for this. They could’ve said ‘Please let us know if this doesn’t work for you, this is what we’re doing, etc.; but it was more of ‘It’s in your contracts now. Deal with it.’”

Ken Kobayashi, a junior who was formerly an RA in Coate Hall, describes the relationship between RAs and ORL as “terrible,”, especially during the height of the pandemic.

“In terms of COVID, they handled the situation poorly in that they didn’t listen to us for feedback at all. They created all these policies but never actually thought about what goes into implementing and enforcing them. For example, one of the problems with masks is that Res. Life asked us to enforce masks within the dorms. And that makes complete sense because in every building, masks are required. However, what they told us is if students aren’t wearing masks, you can give them a verbal warning, but you can’t write them up. And to us, it seems weird because you’re telling us to enforce a rule that has no enforceability at all because there are no consequences.”

When it comes to informing ORL staff of these issues and having them resolved, Kobayashi said he and others have been very unsuccessful.

“I don’t even think they receive the feedback, so it’s like a one-way road because we can’t send anything back, and then when we do send something back, they act super surprised like they never expected this. I loved being an RA and I loved my residents, but it’s very hard to work in that field because I feel they don’t actually care about the students. They care about the business part of it, which is cool. I get that. That’s their job. But that’s not what I want.”

Kobayashi said that “ORL treats us like staff until it comes to information management or requesting more transparency, then we are ‘student staff.’ We are expected to work like staff, but we are not being treated or respected as such. It’s a failed system.”