On the cover of the 2019-2020, “Residence Life Assistant & Commuter Peer Assistance Guide Book” is the picture of a phoenix rising from the ashes. The text towards the top left states “Together We RISE” and towards the bottom is a scroll of words reading, “Resilient”, “Impactful”, “Self-Aware” and “Empowered.”
In the 2021-2022 guidebook, Niquita Dietrich, associate director for leadership & formation in the Office of Residence Life states in her opening letter, “You, in your leadership serve as a reminder of Fairfield’s highest ideals because in your role, you are an influencer of change and you live out the Jesuit Mission of Men and Women for others. Through this journey, you will be required to uphold the highest standards of ethical behavior. This is not always easy, but as a student leader, you are not alone in your leadership journey.”
She continues that “Along with your team in the Office of Residence Life, you will find numerous partners to work with across campus who are cheering and supporting you.”
Yet, for many of the RAs that have now graduated from Fairfield, or those that still work for the Office of Residence Life, they don’t feel that support Dietrich mentions.
Alumna Allison Smolinsky was an RA from 2018 until she decided to do her final semester remotely before graduating in December of 2020.
“It’s incredibly difficult to understand the RA role from the outside perspective because you are under constant scrutiny by the Office of Residence Life, the University and your peers, while still maintaining a strict GPA, trying to have your own college experience and handling any distractions that come from home,” Smolinsky states.
She adds that “The financial compensation of the RA role comes at the price of your own well-being and mental health.”
“There are countless hours spent on meaningless meetings and trainings that take away from studying for next day midterms, sleep or getting general assignments done,” Smolinsky states, adding that, “The office has a clear lack of accountability and time management and often deflects blame onto the RAs – like they forget we’re students.”
The RA Guidebook from 2021-2022 highlights this point, “While you are a Resident Assistant, don’t forget that you are also a student first! Some staff members may experience fluctuation in their academic performance after starting the position. If you find yourself having trouble in some of your courses, you may need to adjust your course load and other time commitments so that you can balance your staff responsibilities and your academic responsibilities.”
Senior Sam Santos, an RA in Dolan Hall, said that despite the challenges involved with going back to in-person classes after the many asynchronous classes last year, ResLife expects the same level of engagement from pre-pandemic times, “They’re expecting the same amount of programs and community engagement, whether or not that’s a good thing is a personal debate.”
He adds that he doesn’t think it makes sense to require RAs that work with underclassmen and those that work with upperclassmen to have the same program requirements. “For example, I did a ‘Freshman Area’ Sophomore year and this year I’m doing an Upperclassmen area, but they still expect us to do the same number of events even though no one comes to events in upperclassmen areas.”
When asked if he thinks he’s supported as an RA, Santos replied, “Oh God, no. They leave a lot of things up to us and that usually doesn’t work out too well because not only do we have to plan programs, we also have to make time to buy stuff for programs.”
He adds that they’re no longer able to use the designated Residence Life vans and they don’t get reimbursed for gas if they use their own vehicle. Santos adds that it’s hard to get your hands on the Procurement Card ResLife wants the RAs to use.
Santos continues that, “The only events that they will support you with are big scale events, events they’re using for advertisements.”
When his event was designated as a First-Year Experience “Thrive Event”, one of the types of events that first-year students have to attend in the fall of their first-year, only then did he have support. The support came from the Dean of Students, William Johnson Ph.D., who helped with a speech on toxic masculinity.
Santos was asked if there’s any support in making sure the RA’s aren’t overwhelmed and are mentally and physically well, Santos states it depends on the staff member.
Though it depends on the staff member, his Graduate Residential Coordinator has been largely helpful this year due to her “open conversation policy.” But, Santos adds that when it comes to “higher-up aid” the support is “kind of lack-luster.”
“They tend to say, ‘Oh yeah we have RA support groups and you’re students first’, but when it comes to programs and duties, they don’t practice what they preach.”
Smolinsky adds that there was one time she felt specifically not supported by the ResLife office.
“One time specifically, I broke up a townhouse party and a student slapped me on the back of the neck while he was leaving. Instead of reprimanding the students for laying a hand on me, I was told that reporting the student was aggressive and that he ‘did it by accident.’”
She adds, “I know this situation would’ve been drastically different if I was just viewed as a student and not the RA that broke up the party, which is pretty concerning.”
Senior Jakob Matala is the third President of the Resident Assistant and Commuter Peer Assistant Council and RA in 42 Langguth Hall.
He states that the RACC is an advisory board to the Office of Residency Life, providing an advocacy channel for RAs and Commuter Peer Assistants.
“To be frank,” Matala says, “When taking up this position and being the 3rd RACC President, I found it difficult to see how RACC can have an impact for the role of RA/CPA.”
He adds that “I have found that we are able to make some changes as well as have a seat at the table in the decision-making process of the Office of Residence Life that has either not been given to us before or went away because of COVID.”
RACC is advised by Sonya Alexander, associate director of Residence Life for Living and Learning and Community Partnerships, but Matala adds that RACC is run primarily by RAs/CPAs through the RACC Executive Board as well as the committee it participates in and oversees.
“In my capacity as a third year RA, former SRA, and the current President of RACC, I frankly feel overwhelmed at points with this role for tasks that did not seem so overwhelming in the past.” Matala states, adding that there seem to be organizational-culture issues, “that stems from RAs/CPAs being unhappy and not supported.”
He adds that he wants to use his job as RACC President to push for things the RA/CPAs staff need to keep doing the role.
“We have been afforded a lot of opportunity to have a voice at the table in the office of residence life, however the way the Professional Staff and Central Staff disseminate the information and feedback we give will show how much respect we have as employees of the university, as employees of Residence Life, and even as students of the University.”
Santos states that the introduction of RACC has helped a lot in having the RA’s voices heard on campus. But even now it takes a while for anything to get done.
“For example, for the longest time, RA’s have been asking for staff parking passes because we’re treated like staff, we’re expected to reach the same rules and regulations as employees, yet we don’t get the same benefits.”
He adds that he thinks this is reasonable because it’s not like they’re getting a stipend, they’re just not getting charged for housing.
Santos notes that one thing he wants to add is that he wants ResLife to treat the ACs and GRCs better. He mentions that there’s a better way because “…it doesn’t make sense, the turnaround time that they have for pro-staff.”
He points out that the longest-running Area Coordinator has served in that position for just a year, and there’s a possibility that the lack of longevity and quick turnaround time means ResLife isn’t investing enough into their pro-staff.
Matala added that with regard to the Area Coordinators, “… [they] are deeply understaffed so it is difficult for them to take on the extra work like extra duty, committees, one on ones, etc.” and adds that they don’t feel supported.
The Mirror reached out to Charles Sousa, the senior associate director of housing operations in ResLife regarding the RA issue and he stated he had no comment.
The Mirror also reached out to Dietrich who didn’t comment in time for publication.