‘The job wasn’t worth it’: the stressful world of resident assistants

While being a resident assistant (RA) at FAU means you get an hourly pay on top half-priced housing, their workday never ends — and the stress has a powerful impact on their mental health.

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‘The job wasn’t worth it’: the stressful world of resident assistants

Photo by Alex Liscio

Photo by Alex Liscio

Photo by Alex Liscio

Photo by Alex Liscio

Kristen Grau, Managing Editor

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On Andrew Archibald’s first day as a resident assistant in Spring 2017, he woke up at 4:30 a.m. to a phone call. It was the front desk at Innovation Village Apartments (IVA) telling him ambulances arrived. 

Archibald said his job was to “make sure nothing else terrible happened.” The first terrible thing: A student’s heart condition flared up downstairs. 

He went to the student’s dorm. There were paramedics swarming the room and a stretcher in the hallway. He wasn’t allowed inside the room — so he just recorded what happened and talked to paramedics. Archibald went back to his room feeling “powerless” just as the sun was coming up at around 7 a.m.

“You see this kid in possibly serious pain and you can’t really do anything about it … But it is hard,” he said. “You look out for people and when you’re an RA, you’re in the business of making sure people are happy. And if they’re not happy … it can get to you.”

The student ended up OK, but Archibald wasn’t after his unnerving first day. That’s when he realized his job would be more demanding than he’d imagined. 

Resident assistants are students assigned to one floor of every residence hall, either by themselves or in pairs. Depending on the building, RAs can oversee as many as 90 students. They’re the ones you can find decorating their halls or inspecting rooms for drugs and alcohol — but their jobs are often more complicated than that.

Many former RAs have stories similar to Archibald’s. They may not be of residents’ hearts giving out, but they’re other high-pressure situations like breaking up fights at 4 a.m. or handling a suicide in the building. With those circumstances on top of their heavy workload and full-time class schedule, many RAs have said the job was taxing on their mental health. But when some couldn’t afford to live on-campus without the salary and housing discount, they were stuck. 

RAs ‘have to keep the ship from sinking’

RAs have a wide range of responsibilities. They can be menial ones, like changing the floor’s decorations, or replacing keys that don’t work. Or they can respond to emergencies like Archibald’s.

Two other residential life members who aren’t undergraduate students are meant to help with these tasks in the building: a full-time residence coordinator and a part-time graduate assistant (assistant residence coordinator). But some semesters, there are no residence coordinators in certain buildings, some RAs said — which gives the RAs more responsibilities.

Jayde Cowan was in that situation during her time at Indian River Towers. She was an RA for three years starting from 2016.

The job wasn’t worth it. The pay wasn’t worth it. The stress wasn’t worth it. ”

— Brittany Mead, former resident assistant

About halfway through one of her years, her building’s residence coordinator left — leaving only a graduate student as her supervisor. 

“That put a strain on the RAs because the RAs had nobody to talk to. The pro staff [residence coordinators] are the only people we can really talk to as far as issues within the position,” Cowan said, “so the RAs have to keep the ship from sinking.”

According to Larry Faerman, FAU’s interim vice president of Student Affairs who currently oversees housing, residential life’s department is currently full — meaning there’s a residence coordinator and a graduate student working each building. Faerman acknowledged there were residence coordinators that left the university, which created vacancies, between August 2018 and June 2019. He also said it was “not uncommon” for those full-time positions to be filled for only one to three years.

However, there’s currently no official director of housing, only an interim one. Once the university hires one, that will make three housing directors in the same number of years.

Olivia, whose name has been changed to protect her identity as she is still affiliated with the university, was in a similar situation. She was an RA at the IVA complex for a year, starting in 2017. Because of the high number of residents living at IVA, there are two RAs per floor. Her partner quit, so she was left to look after the whole floor herself — which forced her to solve intense problems on her own. 

Living where one works creates a space in which one is never able to be ‘off duty.’”

— Larry Faerman, interim vice president of Student Affairs

At 4 a.m. one morning, she said she responded to a situation in her building where a woman’s boyfriend locked her out of her room. Neither her residence coordinator or the assistant residence coordinator were able to assist her, according to Olivia, so she jumped into that conflict alone. 

Had another resident assistant been there, she said she would have been more comfortable.

Amy Timmerman, an assistant residential coordinator for Heritage Park Towers, has experienced working in a building with no full-time residence coordinator, and said she had to handle the workload of a full-time staff member. 

The job was “more intense than what I had originally pictured,” Timmerman said. “So when you think of grad school, you think of the grad school work and then your assistantship [housing work] on top of it. And a lot of times we joke … when people ask me about school, I think work immediately, because it doesn’t really come to mind first.”

When there are vacancies, “It’s like having a TA [teaching assistant] but no professor,” said Cowan. 

‘What about the resident assistant?’

This year, FAU recognized how stressed RAs can get. So Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) launched an RA-specific support group last Spring semester. 

“This program was initiated over the past 12 months to assist student staff in addressing some of the fatigue that can occur when assisting resident students with whom they live,” said Faerman. “Living where one works creates a space in which one is never able to be ‘off duty.’”

RAs couldn’t say much about the contents of the talks because of strict confidentiality rules, but Cowan said it was a much-needed outlet for RAs.

“It was the first time I’ve had working in three years that I’ve ever had a chance to talk about my mental health or my care,” she said. “Yeah, we could have always gone to CAPS, but we’re not looking out for us because we don’t have the time to do that. It just always felt like everything was resident, resident, resident. But what about the resident assistant?”

Brittany Mead was an RA for a year starting in 2017, but said she knew early on in the job she wouldn’t be applying again the next year — despite the financial support it brings. 

She worked in Algonquin Hall, but RAs there oversaw students both on their floor and assisted with Heritage Park Towers. In total, she was in charge of about 100 students, she said. So one of the most stressful parts of her job was completing Owl Chats. 

Owl Chats are mandatory check-ins with every resident, every two weeks. (Two weeks was the typical deadline, but it varied.) Archibald said this effort came in Spring 2017 when housing was looking for qualitative ways to measure residents’ housing experiences. RAs have to track down all their residents and talk to them about their grades, finances and mental health, among other things — then log onto Owl Central and record everything they talked about.

If RAs failed to meet that deadline, they were subject to being written up. 

“It’s hard to create that many relationships that go past saying, ‘Hey, OK, bye,’” Mead said. “You can’t sit down with 100 people. That was stressful because on top of your schoolwork deadlines, you had to meet these deadlines.”

Archibald, who was an RA for two and a half years, was under the impression that RAs were supposed to bond with their residents organically, not through mandated conversations. 

Completing Owl Chats “was really difficult, because you have to fill out individual forms for every single one of those [residents],” he said. “And doing that several times over is really difficult when, you know, you’re a full time student — you’ve got to take care of literally your entire life, and also be a resident assistant beyond putting in forms.”

Mead admitted she felt she had no choice but to fabricate many of her Owl Chats to keep up with her many other responsibilities. 

“The job wasn’t worth it. The pay wasn’t worth it. The stress wasn’t worth it,” she said.

She decided not to apply again after her year-long contract ended partly because working the “24/7 job” worsened her existing anxiety struggles. The range of resident situations she handled — from physical conflicts to mental breakdowns — felt out of her scope, particularly the latter. 

It just always felt like everything was resident, resident, resident. But what about the resident assistant?”

— Jayde Cowan, former resident assistant

“I would have people come into my room crying [while] talking about their roommate situation. One time I had one of my residents come in and he opened up about how he was feeling depressed and he was having a lot of anxiety … I didn’t feel comfortable dealing with that on my own,” Mead said.

Living where you work

RAs are in a unique situation. They’re not full-time employees. Their on-call shifts, which means they’re the main RA in charge of their building, on weekdays are 12 hours, and 24 hours long on weekends — but part of their job is tending to their residents at any hour.

One of Olivia’s worst days as an RA wasn’t during a traditional workday, it was a Saturday. Saturdays at IVA during home football games were always hectic for RAs. 

She was on-call when FAU played their home opener in 2017. RAs on-call at IVA, the apartments next to FAU Stadium, are required to check everybody into the building and check their IDs. Home football games typically start no later than 6:30 p.m., but Olivia had to work that day much later than even the players did.

“I had so many incident reports to write [that day] that I was awake until 7 a.m. without a wink of sleep,” she said, “because I was working.” 

Olivia said she wasn’t allowed to disclose the specifics of those cases, but said they were related to drugs, violence and alcohol. 

For Olivia, “It just got to the point where I was consistently just considering quitting,” she said. “And then it becomes a situation where you feel pressured to not be able to quit, because your housing is contingent on it.”

Housing has upped the RAs’ pay from $10.50 per hour for only 15 hours a week from last year to what it is now: $13 an hour for 20 hours a week. 

Cowan was an RA before and after the pay increase, and she said that their responsibilities and tasks increased along with their pay. She said she found ways, after getting used to the job for three years, to cope with the stress. 

“If there’s anything I learned from this job, it’s that I have to maintain boundaries,” she said, “and protect my mental health before my job.”

She said she always had to be ready to jump into a situation — and in 2016, one of those situations was a resident’s suicide. 

During Fall 2016 In Indian River Towers, she was waiting in the lobby to talk to her friend who was working the front desk that day. They went upstairs briefly to let in the person who was there to fix the dorms’ WiFi. When they came back downstairs, she told Cowan they had seen a body in the room because of a suicide.

So Cowan — on a day she wasn’t on-call — called the police, and stayed at IRT for seven hours until the body was carried out on the stretcher at 9 p.m. to make sure nobody was entering the building. Her supervisor told her she could leave, but she wanted to stay and help since other RAs were unavailable.

“[It was] very, very stressful. You have to be on your toes for something like that,” Cowan said, recalling that day. “If you’re a regular resident, you can ask questions, you can be curious, but you go about your day. But as an RA, I cannot ignore it. I’m an official. I have to do something about it. So I have to take on that extra pressure.”

Neither Cowan nor Archibald expected their job would involve seeing students out on stretchers. But they did — and because they lived where they worked, there was no time to unwind. 

“If you’re working, you have a bad day at work, you can’t really escape that,” he said. “You walk to your room, and that’s all your escapism is. It’s just that door.”

Hope Dean contributed to this report.

Kristen Grau is the managing editor of the University Press. For information regarding this or other stories, email [email protected] or tweet her at @_kristengrau.