(Originally published by Stanford News Service)
Undergraduate resident advisers (RAs) for the 2012-13 school year will start thinking like RAs sooner than ever before, thanks to an RA course that will launch next spring and inaugurate a new system of RA hiring and training.
The change comes after extensive research and discussion conducted by Residential Education administration and staff and an advisory board made up of current RAs.
“We are hoping to create a more comprehensive learning process for our students and staff,” said Jenn Calvert, associate dean of residential education. “That is partially driven by feedback that we’ve gotten from our resident fellows who want our staff to be more prepared to lead the house, and feedback from students living on the Row who want a more comprehensive experience in every house.”
Currently, RAs are hired in spring quarter for the following academic year. They return to campus two weeks before autumn quarter begins to attend training, move in and set up their dorms.
Under the new system, hiring will take place in winter quarter and the one- or two-unit course will be held in spring. RAs will most likely return one week before school starts to settle in.
Calvert said assessments of the RA training process have been ongoing for the last five years. Based on the feedback, it was clear that adopting a course model currently in place for other student staff positions would be beneficial for RAs as well. For example, a similar model already is in place for peer health educators, residential staff whose primary focus is on issues of health, counseling and safety.
“Our RAs have articulated that they don’t feel prepared, that we had addressed crisis issues but not how to lead in the house,” she said.
Cisco Barron, assistant director of residential education, conducted much of the research that led to the change. He interviewed resident fellows (RFs), RAs and other staff and found little opposition to the idea of enhancing the RA training process.
“RFs found a difference in the quality of RA applicants over time, and were asking whether or not we were best preparing our students,” Barron said. “[The class] is hard to argue against.”
In fact, there used to be a course called “Issues in Leadership” in the School of Education, offered once a year from approximately 1995-2000, that RAs could take. However, it was not mandatory and was intended for undergraduates in a variety of leadership positions.
Barron said that the current change is only a matter of further improving an already competent system.
“It’s easy to say [RA training] was broken and now it’s being fixed,” he said. “It wasn’t a question of being broken, but being the best of its kind and making it world-class.”
The details and curriculum of the class are still being worked out. Calvert said the class will likely incorporate some type of lecture and a discussion section. Students may view podcasts of resident fellows or other speakers covering a variety of RA-related topics and then reflect on them through journal entries and small group discussions led by residential education staff.
“We’re hoping to help residential staff think about the very rich stuff of leadership,” Calvert said. “How do I help create relationships between these people that are meaningful? How do I use leadership for the betterment of this community?”
Linda Paulson, associate dean and director of the Master of Liberal Arts program and RF in Stern Hall’s Donner house, and Corinne Thomas, RF in Crothers Memorial, approached Calvert with the idea of creating an RA class. Paulson said she noticed that her Peer Health Educators were better prepared and more confident in leading and advising residents after taking their required course.
“RAs needed to have more than just an afternoon thinking about how to counsel students,” Paulson said. “I don’t think RAs like to admit they have any insecurities about it, or they don’t like to admit the depth of their insecurities, and I think it would be a relief to them to address some of those things they are inexperienced at, give them the experience and understanding in dealing with them, and make them powerful house leaders.”
Concerns about the class have centered on its logistics. The RA advisory board, as well as Paulson and Thomas, wanted to be sure students studying abroad in spring quarter could still take the class, and that it would not get in the way of other classes students might have in their schedules.
Barron and Calvert said that although exact logistics have not been set, there will be options for students who cannot physically attend the class in spring. Ultimately, they said, the class will be diverse in its teaching methods, accommodating and effective for everyone who wants to take it.
In addition, RAs did not want to completely eliminate the training period traditionally held immediately before school starts. According to the RA advisory board’s Stephanie Garrett, management science and engineering ’12, who was an RA in Trancos last year and will return as an RA in Haus Mitteleuropa this year, the two-week residential training has been a valuable way for fellow RAs to meet and connect.
“You go through so many things that only another RA can understand, and you’re making those bonds during RA training, especially the Row RAs since they’re the only RAs in their house,” Garrett said. “Getting to know each other, and during the year being able to rely on each other, is a huge thing, so one thing we were really emphasizing with [residential education administration] is that we wanted to keep some aspect of that.”
Garrett said the administration was receptive to the advisory board’s input. Indeed, the small-group exercises and pre-move-in training period favored by RAs (though reduced to one week) will likely be incorporated into the new system. The quarter-long class also is meant to reduce the “intense pressure” some RAs felt in the old system when delving into more serious issues, such as suicide prevention, in a few days.
Thomas said more comprehensive, reflective training will result in more informed RAs and, in turn, a better dorm experience for residents.
“There are so many components to being an RA, everything from event planning, community building, disciplining, catching people who are having problems and helping them,” Thomas said. “The more information you can have and the more help and support and education that you can have to do that will benefit students in ways they will never know.”