by Matt Venaas and Cate Morrison
The role of the resident assistant in building community, fostering connections, and providing peer support has never been as integral as it is now. When campuses closed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, RAs’ efforts to engage their communities drastically shifted from the physical to virtual. When students do return to campus, it will be in a way dramatically unlike that in years past. As a result, higher education administrators are viewing the importance of connection and shared experience in a new light. More importantly, colleagues across the institutional landscape are looking to the RA experience as a possible model for new methods for engagement and online community building.
Residence life departments spend considerable time and effort recruiting, interviewing, hiring, and training RAs. Anecdotally, we know how valuable RAs are to students and departments alike, and we know it’s critical to have high-performing students in those positions. It’s not a position where one can simply hit the ground running on day one and be successful with little to no training. In order to expedite the process, adapt quickly, and prepare for these new methods of engagement and support, it becomes even more important to identify the traits that make for successful community engagement leaders and search for them in RA candidates. We have lots of memories, stories, and experiences with RAs, good and bad. And the anecdotes behind those memories are lasting. But if we pair our personal experiences and campus-level efforts with national data, the story around good RAs becomes more powerful.
What qualities do successful RAs possess? Fortunately, along with anecdotal evidence from student feedback, there are data to help answer the question. To tell the story of good RAs, we analyzed data from two national surveys: the ACUHO-I/Benchworks Resident Assessment and the ACUHOI/Benchworks Student Staff Assessment. During the 2018-19 academic year, the resident assessment was administered at 246 institutions in the United States, with 251,740 respondents, while the student staff assessment was administered at 41 institutions in the United States, with 3,389 respondents. The datasets pair two perspectives on student staff: one from on-campus residents on their perspectives of their own RA and the other from the RAs themselves on their experiences in the position. Using these perspectives uncovered seven key insights on student staff.
Two-thirds of on-campus residents gave a high score on the student staff satisfaction survey factor. This factor consisted of eight scaled questions related to resident satisfaction with their RA regarding topics like availability, treating people fairly, communicating rules, enforcing policies, organizing programs, and promoting tolerance. This experience aligns with what Trent Pinto, director of resident education and development at the University of Cincinnati in Ohio, has seen. “RAs who strike a strong balance between being a resource and connector to resources in their communities tend to find that residents are the most satisfied with their experience,” he says. “It has been my experience that the RAs who are most successful and have built the strongest communities have done so through building those strong connections from the very beginning.”
Additionally, only two factors on the assessment had a higher percentage of respondents with a high factor score: satisfaction with roommates and satisfaction with safety, both with 67% of residents highly satisfied. Not only were residents highly satisfied with student staff, they were also more likely to be satisfied with student staff than with nearly any other aspect of their on-campus housing experience.
Satisfaction with student staff had statistically significant relationships with most of the other survey factors on the resident assessment. That factor asked residents about their satisfaction with the variety and quality of programs in their hall or building. On-campus residents closely associate their RA with the quality of programs they attended in their building.
Other factors on the resident assessment were strong predictors of satisfaction with student staff, and those factors related to topics critically important to the fundamental on-campus housing experience: safety and sense of community. On-campus residents who reported high satisfaction with safety in on-campus housing were far more likely to report high satisfaction with their RA. For instance, about nine out of ten residents who were highly satisfied with their RA indicated that they felt safe in their residence hall building and their room. However, for those who were not at all satisfied with the RA, just half indicated that they felt safe in their residence hall building and their room.
Housing and residence life programs put significant effort into helping residents build community and make meaningful connections. Questions on the sense of community survey factor asked residents about the degree to which they trusted other students, respected other students, and felt accepted by other students. Overall, 54% of on-campus residents had a high score on this factor. Those residents were more likely to report a better on-campus housing experience and were more likely to report high satisfaction with student staff.
Nearly seven in ten on-campus residents reported interacting with their student staff member at least once a week, including 48% who interacted with their RA at least twice a week and 24% who had three or more interactions a week. Eight out of ten on-campus residents who interacted with their RA at least twice in a typical week were highly satisfied with their RA. In comparison, the percent of residents highly satisfied with their RA was 63% of those with one interaction per week and just one-third of those who didn’t interact with their RA in a typical week. “The RAs that struggle are the ones that do not take a deep dive into their communities but are simply ‘around’ if ‘stuff happens,’” says Pinto. “That's why building intentional interactions for the RAs to execute are so crucial; the evidence gleaned from those intentional interactions can come in handy at any point throughout the year.”
The analysis on data from the student staff assessment tool lends a different perspective to what constitutes a good RA experience. The factor that was the top predictor of overall learning and overall satisfaction of RAs was satisfaction with job demands and compensation. The factor measures satisfaction with topics like the number of hours worked, room accommodations, compensation, and being able to balance their job with their academic responsibilities. For instance, three out of four student staff who reported high satisfaction with the number of hours they worked also scored high on the overall program effectiveness factor, compared to 7% of those not at all satisfied with the number of hours they worked.
RA satisfaction with their experience extended far beyond job demands. Two other factors that were top predictors of a quality RA experience related to their perceptions of learning. These factors – self-knowledge and personal competencies – revealed the degree to which RAs felt their experience enhanced skills like communication, critical thinking, and self-confidence. Both factors were stronger predictors of RA satisfaction with their experience than were many other important concepts, like satisfaction with supervisors, supervision, and training.
Learning from the RA experience often requires the assistance of a supervisor or mentor. RAs need open and honest feedback as well as continual training to ensure that they have ample opportunities to reflect on their decisions and behaviors and learn for the future. Laura Jo Rieske, assistant director for selection and development in the residential life and housing department at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, says, “Self-efficacy is a major objective for resident assistants [at VCU]. Through continued training sessions, on-the-job skill development, affirmations from the survey data, and supervisor feedback and support, students grew in their competence and confidence in the RA job.”
Notably, RA perceptions of and satisfaction with others on their team were stronger indicators of the overall RA experience than was their satisfaction with supervisors. The collaboration with staff team factor contained eight questions asking the RA how well team members communicated with and respected each other, handled disagreements, and achieved goals.
That said, supervisor support remains integral to success in the RA role and ties back to the idea of accountability, a concept that is organically weaved throughout the themes of being a good RA. As Rieske says, “One of the most effective ways for supervisors to build relationships with and support their students is by establishing clear expectations. When an RA violates any expectations, we have a clear process for progressive discipline, intended to help RAs learn and develop in their role. Since implementing this structure for accountability, we have seen a decrease in RA staff turnover and an increase in retention of strong returners.”
Understanding what the data show about RA success, how can one use the findings to inform hiring practices? Based on the results, hirers should look for four key traits in candidates: a sense of accountability (to the role and their students); consistency in actions; an ability to connect to others; and a desire to improve competency and learning. Additionally, Pinto says that “some of the best RAs I've ever worked with are the ones who have overcome challenges in their life or academic career and applied those to the position.”
Having such an understanding is beneficial, as the majority of the traits desired in RA candidates are the so-called soft skills and thereby more difficult to assess in a traditional interview setting. Rebecca Bahe, associate director of residence life at North Dakota State University in Fargo, explains that her campus dropped the group interview process a couple of years ago. “We consider the skills that you can’t train students on, such as capacity to learn, flexibility, and grit. To be successful, you need to be able to figure out how to assess these skills in a short amount of time.”
There is no right method of hiring, but there are different options for assessing candidates. In addition to behavioral-based questions, staff may consider using empathy interview questions to gain further insight into the candidates. References, RAs, and students who have lived with your candidates for a semester can provide invaluable and deeper insight into their soft skills, especially in areas where a candidate’s self-awareness may not be fully developed.
Like any student-facing role, there are two opinions of what makes a good RA: the student perspective and the institutional or supervisor’s perspective. Much of the attention tends to focus on the student’s perspective because that is the opinion that is more difficult to change and also can significantly impact resident satisfaction. The institutional view is equally valuable, though, and likewise much easier to influence. Selection and training can prepare a team that is built for success, and ongoing development can transform mediocre RAs into good ones or good ones into great ones. Ultimately, none of this could happen without starting with the desired outcome, taking an honest look at what makes a good RA, and using that information to build recruitment, selection, training, and development processes.
Just as the student experience is likely to change in the coming years, so may the expectations for RAs. While it is unclear what the future holds for the RA role, we do know that RAs with the ability to adapt, the ability to connect, and the desire to learn will be viewed positively by their peers, residents, and their institution. As Pinto says perfectly, “No matter what field of study or career path an RA takes, they'll be able to reference back to an incident or training that they were a part of and credit their RA experience with giving them the tools necessary to be successful. I have yet to meet someone in their career field who was an RA and have them say to me ‘you know what, I've never applied anything from my RA experience in life or my career, it really was a waste of time.’ No, the RA experience cuts across all academic and career disciplines because it's dealing with real life. And those skills obtained to deal with real life are critical.”
Matthew Venaas is a research manager for Skyfactor and a past recipient of the Robert P. Cook Talking Stick Article of the Year award. Cate Morrison handles community engagement and outreach for eRez Life Software and previously was an assistant director of residence life for the University of British Columbia.