'Life in the fishbowl': Resident Assistants have one of most demanding jobs on campus - and they love it
BERKELEY - UC Berkeley junior Rakesh "Rocky" Gade, age 20 and a political economy major, has about 60 children. So does senior Molly Ann Cundiff, 21 and an integrative biology major, except one of hers is twice her age.
"It feels like we're their parents," laugh the two Resident Assistants, who work and live at Unit 2's Griffiths and Davidson halls, respectively. "We're always talking about 'our kids.'"
Those kids can get up to some crazy stunts: turning the top of the hall vending machine into a sitting area, complete with furniture, or knocking on Cundiff's door to ask 'how long So-and-So's been there?' — pointing to a young man writhing on the floor, foam coming out of his mouth in a simulated seizure.
It's all part of the job. Gade and Cundiff belong to the student brigade of around 150 Resident Assistants (RAs), Program Assistants (PAs), and assorted other staff — like security coordinators and monitors — who serve UC Berkeley's seven residence halls. In exchange for room and board during the academic year, they put in a minimum of 20 hours a week providing an ear for any troubled student residents (or a shoulder to cry on); conducting community-building programs; and enforcing rules such as no smoking, underage drinking, or playing soccer in the hallway.
Not included in that 20-hour minimum are the duty shifts. RAs are on "night duty" an average of five to six weeknights and two to three weekend nights per month, plus two to three weekend "day duty" shifts per semester. That's when they have to clear their schedule and strap on a pager to take charge of the whole hall from 5 p.m. to 8 a.m., or if it's during the day, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.
"Mostly you deal with lock-outs, letting people back into their rooms," says Gade, although there's occasionally an emergency like an alcohol infraction. "Early in the semester, you get woken up several times a night. They're freshmen, and they're just getting used to their freedom away from mom and dad." Fridays and Saturdays are, not surprisingly, the rowdiest duty nights, although "Thursday has become the new Friday," jokes Cundiff.
"This job requires incredible time management," says Susan Madueno, a combined PA and RA for the Women In Science and Engineering (WISE) theme program. "I have never managed my time better. Every extra 10-minute gap I have, I use it to talk to one of my girls or make a call about a program."
A sense of community
So why do these students do it? There have to be easier ways to earn the $10,000 to $12,000 that covers a single room and basic meal plan.
"When I was a freshman, my RA wasn't there at all," says Cundiff, who is now on her third tour of duty as an RA. "I wanted to make the transition easier for people like me." After two years guiding freshmen at Clark Kerr, Cundiff now helps Davidson Hall's junior transfer students transition to Cal. "They've lived away from home by now, so they're more mature. No vomit in the bathroom, which is nice," she says.
Gade had a better experience with his RA freshman year at Foothill, but then he moved off-campus into an apartment. "I really missed the sense of community," he says. "The dorms are where you make most of your friendships at Berkeley, because outside them it's so huge."
Anyone who's seen the older high-rise Units 1 and 2 might think dorm life presents just a slightly smaller version of that challenge. Approximately 5,000 students — 70% of them freshmen, 23% continuing students, and 7% transfers — live in the seven undergraduate residence halls each year. Unit 1, Unit 2, Unit 3, Clark Kerr Campus, Foothill, Bowles (all male), and Stern (all female) are further subdivided to bring down the scale. And within the individual buildings, students can choose to live together in Theme Programs that unite those with similar backgrounds or interests: in addition to WISE, there are ones for African American, Asian Pacific American, Chicano/Latino culture (called Casa Magdalena Mora); and Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender students.
The WISE program at Foothill, for example, is restricted to 35 female students taking at least two courses in science, math, physics, or engineering. WISE was created as a learning community for women to offset their often small numbers within their individual departments. In exchange for a one- to four-hour commitment per week, the WISE students have access to special tutoring, seminars, one-on-one meetings with professors, and female mentors.
A re-entry student majoring in molecular biology, Madueno wants to help her "girls," as she calls them, find sources of academic and moral support to help them through their stress. In addition to the four ACTS programs (Academic, Community, Transitional, and Service & Leadership) that every RA has to organize each semester, Madueno must come up with 10 Community Development activities. These range from movie nights to scheduled dinners with faculty/staff such as Vice Provost Christina Maslach, who talked to the WISE women about the challenge of raising a family while pursuing a science or engineering career.
'I hate my roommate' — and tarantulas
Whether their residents are freshmen, junior transfers, or theme program participants, there's one common complaint that RAs hear over and over.
"It's 'I hate my roommate.' Roommate conflicts take up half my time," says Cundiff. "They always do. But that's an important part of the dorm experience, learning to get along with people with different lifestyles and backgrounds and to communicate effectively."
The other serious troubles that arise can be a little trickier to navigate: depression (usually about fitting in at Cal or not making friends), eating disorders, stress-triggered panic attacks. After all, these young men and women are usually only a few years older than their charges, if not the same age. They do receive two weeks of extensive training before school starts, in which current RAs re-enact crisis situations and demonstrate how they handled them. (This year Residential and Family Living is actually requiring prospective RAs to take a weekly, two-hour seminar before they begin work the following semester.) By talking to their Resident Director, a full-time staff person, they also learn to identify when they're in over their heads and should refer students to the Tang Center or other counseling service.
But by far the biggest challenge about being an RA is trying to maintain both friendships and order. "Lots of residents think that we get on this power trip when we have to crack down on them, but we're just applying the rules," says Cundiff. "You have to be a positive role model, but they're always watching and testing your limits."
After three years as an RA, she has many stories of the imaginative ways that students try to bend the rules. She has dealt with arson, strippers, alcohol poisoning, the aforementioned seizure-fakers, and some unwanted furry friends. There are no pets allowed in the residence halls except fish, and only in a tank beneath a certain size. One of her former residents had a tarantula. "He argued that it was lower on the phylogenetic scale than a fish, and its tank was within regulation size," says Cundiff. "But I had to make him get rid of it."
WISE's Madueno says that she knows from talking to other RAs that her experience is quite different. "I hardly have any issues with rule violations," she shrugs. "Because my girls feel so challenged academically, they don't have time to do bad things like drinking or parties. The worst thing I have to deal with is their stress. I know more girls here who don't sleep - they're pulling too many all-nighters. And sometimes it just gets to them and they run down the hall screaming."
The RA as rock star
Not everyone would be able to disarm a student with a tarantula or calm down a sleep-deprived, screaming engineer. Although the printed requirements for becoming an RA seem minimal — they need only a 2.3 grade point average, to have lived in the residence halls or equivalent (co-op, fraternity, or sorority) for at least one year prior, and to be a full-time student — there are several written essays and an interview process designed to shake out the gold from the sand.
"You live where you work, so being an authority figure all the time is hard," says Gade. "You have to separate busting them with the friendship you might have. It's about applying the rules consistently while also understanding where they're coming from."
Another important quality, Raub says, is self-confidence: "That's what carries them through the unexpected crises. They have to have faith in their own abilities and decision-making."
They also have to be comfortable with the scrutiny of their charges. "Being an RA is like being a mini-celebrity," says Cundiff. "You may never remember having seen someone before, but they've visited your floor and they know you're an RA. They watch you."
"I tell new RAs that it's life in the fishbowl. No matter what you do, people know you're the RA," says Raub. "There's a lifestyle adjustment. If RAs are out on campus, at parties, everyone knows who they are. The only other people who can understand this feeling is another RA."
Watch them grow
The RAs do develop strong bonds with their fellow staff members, but they also form lasting friendships with their residents. "I am really close to my girls," says Madueno. "I go to their rooms to talk about classes and relationship issues. They see me more as a big sister than as an authority figure." That feeling can also turn into the kind of responsibility that a different job wouldn't demand: "Sometimes I want to go away for the weekend, but I can't because I know one of my girls is having a crisis and might need to talk to me," Madueno admits.
Madueno, Cundiff, and Gade all say that the intangible rewards of being an RA outweigh the financial component, although they do enjoy having their own rooms equipped with free microwave, refrigerator, and phone service. (And now that the Crossroads dining complex has opened near Unit 2, Cundiff and Gade say they are much happier to be on the meal plan.) The programs they plan can be a headache — trying to get their residents to sign up for a field trip or just show up for a mixer — but the process has given them some valuable skills.
"Doing the programs has taught me a lot in terms of publicity, recruiting, and about making them fun as well as educational for 30 to 40 people," offers Cundiff, who says her most successful community-building project was a chartered bus trip to the Great America amusement park, complete with box lunches. Gade cites the example of a Thanksgiving dinner he and his residents cooked, took to a homeless shelter in Oakland, and served. "Being at the shelter was a really interesting experience for them. It was such a different environment than anything they'd ever seen."
The satisfaction these RAs derive, it seems, is akin to that of a parent. "I love watching the freshmen grow," sums up Gade. "They go from being these immature kids to responsible adults in such a short time. Well…at least some of them do."