News | Administration

Under new leadership, Barnard ResLife enforces stricter RA responsibilities

In an effort to standardize job expectations for resident assistants, Barnard Residential Life and Housing has enforced stricter guidelines for what RAs must offer their residents.

In the past, RAs serving upperclassmen dorms were not required to host a set number of events or have one-on-one meetings with their residents. But this semester, all RAs are expected to host at least three events per month in their residence halls. Additionally, mandatory one-on-one meetings with a prescribed set of questions have been enforced.

The change comes after a period of instability for the office, which had been operating without an administrative head throughout last year. This semester, the office is being led by a predominantly new set of personnel, which includes Executive Director of Residential Life and Housing Alicia Lawrence, five new hall directors, and one new associate director.

Lawrence said that the change in expectations doesn’t constitute any new policy changes, but rather the desire to enforce consistency for RAs across the board.

“There has always been expectations for the role—it has just always been where you sort of didn't have to do that,” Lawrence said. “We're in a place now where if this is the job, this is what we've asked of you to do, we are actually asking you to do it.”

“What I'm looking at is holding everyone evenly accountable so that I can truly see what changes may need to happen,” Lawrence added.

But for returning RAs, the new expectations outlined this semester were not explicitly communicated last spring when they signed on to continue in their positions.

“We were shocked as upperclassmen RAs that we were expected to do that,” a current junior RA, who requested anonymity to protect their job security, said, adding that aside from the added burden placed on RAs, the increased number of events and check-ins weren’t services she believed her residents were looking for.

“As upperclassmen RAs, we need to be flexible with our population,” she said. “We can't treat them the same as first-years because they won't appreciate it and we are not going to have effective programs as a result because turnout will be low—and it has been.”

Students interviewed by Spectator on Wednesday said they didn’t necessarily want more RA programming either.

“I have an RA this year who's trying really, working really hard to provide community,” Rebekah Packer, BC ’17, said. “I really appreciate that a lot in theory, but in practice, I'm at a place now where I live with my friends in a suite and so I have community in a smaller place than I'm already living in.”

“I do appreciate the free food, but I'm not confident that it's a good use of ResLife's money necessarily,” Packer added.

Yassa Sogel, BC ’17, a resident in the 600s dorm, said that students typically don’t attend RA-thrown events because they don’t take precedent over other priorities like getting homework done, or going to club meetings.

“I personally have never been to a single RA-thrown event,” Sogel said. “Maybe that's simply because they're not high on my priority list.”

Lawrence said that she is looking to shape a “residential curriculum” so that students can benefit from these events and not just attend for the free food.

“It's not just going to be the ice cream socials because sophomores, juniors, and seniors don't necessarily need that,” Lawrence said. “If they do, they'll come down, they'll get their ice cream, and then they'll go—that doesn't really serve the same kind of purpose.”

Some examples of more effective events for non-first-years, according to Lawrence, would be an evening study abroad panel in a residential hall or opportunities for students to learn more about internships.

“Do I think that they [upperclass students] need the same sort of first-year focus experience? Absolutely not,” Lawrence said. “But I would like to see that we are providing things that are necessarily based on everyone's place developmentally at the college.”

Though there is and will be an increase in programming across all residential halls this semester, Lawrence declined to disclose how much funding was being allocated toward these events.

Currently, each residential hall is provided a budget based on the number of students being served. For example, the Quad—which houses Barnard’s first-year population—receives the most funding because of its high volume of students.

“The same sort of funds exist and always have existed for the RA programs,” Lawrence said. “I would like them [RAs] to think about how they use money, but I haven't cut anything, I haven't added anything.”

The focus on stricter expectations—without a change in compensation—speaks to what current and former RAs feel has been a move on ResLife’s part to treat RAs as traditional employees, rather than students.

“It’s becoming such an atmosphere of ‘just do your work, do it right, do it on time, and you will not be fired,’” Yousr Shaltout, BC ’17, said. “People are afraid of speaking up because they think that they will lose their job.”

Shaltout, who said she was fired shortly before finals last semester after being late to duty, said the emphasis on an “employee relationship” was detrimental.

Lawrence said that she viewed RAs as student employees for a reason.

“It is a job, and part of the emphasis for us is helping them to grow as professionals,” Lawrence said. “We would be doing our students a disservice if they worked for us and did not gain professional working skills.”

“This is a job, and I don't see it as an extracurricular at all in terms of an activity that you can choose in or choose not,” Lawrence added. “I do believe it is the student's responsibility to decide if they can't take on being an RA because it is a large commitment, so either you can, or you can't—I completely understand that.”

Current and former RAs interviewed said that while they understood and respected that the RA position was not a job to take lightly, the way its requirements were being enforced didn’t take into account the fact that RAs don’t get a significant break from their duties.

“They tell you that your RA role should be the first thing after academics … but they implicate it in a way that it’s the only thing after academics, and that’s just not enough for fulfillment in campus and fulfillment in your college life, to only be a student and only be an arm of ResLife,” Pooja Pandey, BC ’17 and a former Plimpton Hall RA, said.

“It's not a chill job; it's really not,” Shaltout said. “Being an RA takes a lot of effort from the individual, it takes a lot of time. You always have your RA hat, basically—you never stop being an RA, like, there aren't really certain hours to it.”

For former RAs, the perceived change in what it meant to be an RA didn’t align with what they originally believed the job would be, which was ultimately what led Pandey to quit.

“It was really, really hard for me to say no to free housing my senior year. But the point was, it was enough, and even my parents, who are the ones who pay my tuition, agreed,” Pandey said. “I’m really lucky that I was able to say no to the role.”

Lawrence said she understands that ResLife is currently adjusting to new management and that RAs will need to adapt to the changes.

“For the returners, it does feel daunting, I think, for some of them, because ... we are putting a little bit more clarification to what's already been expected,” she said.

Still, Lawrence said that after she observes a full year at ResLife, she will be able to implement appropriate changes to improve how things are run.

“Nothing's set in stone, nothing is not amendable, but at some point, this is the year to kind of see where things are in their current state so that we can really think about next year and the years following,” Lawrence said.

Yet the changes have proven too strict for some, and those RAs who have decided to stay are doing so primarily out of their dedication to their residents.

“At the end of the day, I will say this: When it comes to my relationship with my residents, that hasn't changed. I will always try to be there for my residents,” the junior RA said. “That is support I will never withdraw, no matter how discontent I am with the administration, with the bureaucracy—that will never change.”

Sharon Mathew and Esmé Ablaza contributed reporting.

jclara.chan@columbiaspectator.com | @jclarachan

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