Sunday, December 25, 2011

"So, Are You Still an RA?"

Every Christmas holiday, I prepare myself for the onslaught of personal questions asked by my relatives: How are classes going? When do you graduate? Are you still an RA? And, every Christmas holiday I repeat the same phrases: I’m NOT in class anymore. I graduated awhile ago. I’m NOT an RA. Despite my attempts to explain what I do, no one in my family really understands what a Hall Director does.

Tonight was no different. As I hungrily dug into my mashed potatoes, Uncle Harold inquired as to when I was going to “stop fooling around in college and get a real job”. Without putting down my fork (I was starving after all), I told him I don’t go to college, I work for the college, and I don’t live in my residence hall, I own it. Before I got myself in trouble with an even snarkier comment, I quickly shoved by oversized bite into my mouth. The only response I got from Uncle Harold was a smirk and a “humpf”—he didn’t get it.

Additionally, after all gifts were unwrapped and the living room looked like Santa’s Workshop exploded, I gathered up the candles and hot plate my parents bought for me and prepared to ship them to less fortunate twenty-somethings without a proper collection of scented votives. However, my mother intervened and demanded to know why I wasn’t bringing them home with me. With a heavy sigh, I explained (again!) that I live in a residence hall and candles are not permitted according to the student handbook, which I am required to follow. I even quoted the specific paragraph and cited the exact passage number. She just glared at me with a hand on her hip as I made my usual piles, items I can take home and items relegated to the realm of regifting.

One of these days, one of two things will happen: my family will finally understand what I do for a living and take it seriously, rather than assume I am a lost college student-wannabe who can’t give up the life of residence halls. Or, I will find another job that pays terribly, offers no free apartment, and requires me to commute. In their eyes, this would qualify as a “real job”, and they would stop harassing me about whether or not “I’m still an RA”.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Redacted Asshat

Come on, admit it. There are times, when in the heat of a testy incident, unprofessional language and behavior creeps into the scenario. Sometimes the confrontation is the last straw and even the most seasoned and stone-faced Hall Director cracks under the weight of anger and frustration. Maybe it is the resident who is constantly coming home intoxicated and blasting Flo-Rida at 3am on a weekday. Or maybe it is the fifteen smokers you have documented for standing right outside your apartment and you are tired of fighting the lobby crowds and the below-zero temperatures to get to them. Or maybe it is simply that your supervisor refuses to take your concerns about repeat offenders seriously, and you have been called, once again, on the duty phone to handle the troubled room.

I confess. I am not perfect, and I try to keep my cool when I document students; however, there are times when my steely exterior crumbles to the ground and the fire within explodes into the faces of defiant residents. For example, while standing in the lobby one evening speaking with the Hall Council President, I was interrupted by a sharp rap on the front doors. I motioned to the anxious resident that he needed to use his ID card, because I was not going to allow him access to the building without a swipe. The resident, “Grover”, shook his head and continued to bang on the door until an outgoing resident held the door open for him.

Refusing to let Grover pass by me without a lecture, I stepped in front of him and demanded to see his ID card. He made a million excuses as to why he could not show me his license (his hands were full with books, he needed to get upstairs before the game started, his friends were on their way down to meet him, etc.). However, I remained firm and once again required him to present his ID. Finally, he pulled out his ID and flashed it at lightning speed so that I could not read his name, I flipped out.

As I started to harangue him on how our doors are locked 24/7 for the safety of his friends and all other residents, Grover walked away, muttering “fuck you” under his breath. I replied, “Don’t be an asshole, you asshat!” This garnered the shocked stares of several residents, a few RAs, and the Hall Council President who was standing next to me. I did not care if the entire building gossiped about my outburst. My temper had snapped and my professionalism had walked out with Grover.

However, this is not where the incident ends. Grover was only upstairs for a few minutes before returning to the lobby where he faced an irate and aggressive Hall Director…me. Against, my better judgment, I followed him outside, screaming at him the entire time. Eventually, he grew tired of me berating him as he walked to his adjoining residence hall and turned around. Grover handed me his ID, but not without several demeaning expletives flying my way. It did not matter; I got his name, which meant I could write an incident report.

Did I include my “asshat” comment in the incident report? No, it was ‘conveniently’ omitted for the official record. Was that wrong of me? Yes, probably. Looking back at how I behaved, I get that it was unprofessional and I should have never let a 19-year-old brat goad me into screaming and swearing. Would I suggest that other Hall Directors make this behavior a habit? No, we’d all get fired if caught. However, it sure felt good!

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Why So Glib? Alcoholism, Suicide, and Other Tragedies about Which RHDs Joke

Too many times, I have heard a Student Affairs professional jokingly proclaim, “I need a drink after the duty week I’ve had” or “if I have to write another RA evaluation, I’m going to shoot myself in the face”. Once upon a time, I would have never thought twice about what these hyperboles mean to those around me and would have never second guessed whether I should be repeating them. However, since working in Student Affairs, I have realized how powerful these ‘innocent’ phrases can be to the students and staff who surround us and look to us as role models.

Just because we are role models to a couple hundred students, does not mean that we are perfect or that we should be perfect. It simply means that we must be aware of what we say and be intentional in what we do. For some college students, alcohol abuse, suicidal ideations, and other tragedies are real ordeals they struggle with each day. Hearing a hall director joke about needing a few shots of Jack to handle another week of live-in duties may make a student dealing with alcoholism rethink their decision to ask for help. They may shy away, believing that their hall director will never understand how the one beer on a Friday night has snowballed into binge drinking three times a week.

The same can be said when we exaggerate about how bad our day, week, or semester is going and we utter the phrase, “Just kill me now”. According to the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry “suicide is the third leading cause of death for 15-to-24-year-olds” (, which makes it possible for not only our college students to have suicidal ideations, but for professional staff to either struggle with these same destructive thoughts or to have had a friend commit suicide. I’d like to think that most of us are not serious about ending our lives over a stressful night on-duty; however, we need to reconsider how this comment, made in passing, may affect which course of action a depressed student takes. Additionally, think about how cutting your comment can be for a peer who has lost a friend or relative to suicide or who may have attempted it before.

When I was a senior in high school, a classmate killed himself allegedly over drug use and depression. In college, I drank too much and had bouts with self-mutilation. When I hear my peers make light of suicide, depression, anxiety, and alcohol or substance abuse, it diminishes what respect I have for them. Granted, they do not know my background or what I have gone through in my earlier years; however, their comments make me reluctant to share these raw details about my life out of fear that they will not be taken seriously.

Remember, if you are a live-in professional, administrator, or a parent, you have the responsibility to be a supportive role model for your students, your staff, or your children. It takes courage to admit an addiction or to ask for help with a mental health issue. By poking fun, professional staff members are adding another obstacle over which the student must climb in order to reach someone who can support them. Our job is to make things easier for them, not more difficult.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Lazy RAs: “We are the 99%”

There are times when even the most cynical and overworked Hall Director (i.e.: BadHallDirector) is pleasantly surprised by the creative ideas of their RAs. Earlier this month, several members of my staff identified the need for a diversity program focused on how discriminatory players can be when immersed in video games. Since Call of Duty was recently released and many of their residents have been consumed with killing alongside their virtual friends, they felt this would attract a lot of people and be a timely topic to explore.

The program was advertised as a COD tournament with free food and prizes to be won during the night. For the first half, the RAs had participants play a brief round while they monitored the comments made throughout the game, which they noted for future discussion. Once the round was complete, the residents were asked to sit in a circle and enjoy the refreshments, while the RAs read off a selection of comments overheard during the tournament. A few participants snickered while the RAs repeated, straight-faced, “die fag” and “you’re such a pussy”. However, there were a few residents who showed surprise or embarrassment that they, or their fellow players, had made such sexist/homophobic remarks. For the remainder of the program, a few quality conversations were had. Overall, it was successful.

This event was a welcomed respite from the stale Diversity Ice Cream Socials that too many RAs fall back on when they rush to complete their programming requirements. These programs usually flood my desk in November and April, the last month of programming, at which time they are scrambling to finish their checklists. Despite our department’s lengthy training and brainstorming on creating programs that not only entertain, but educate residents, my staff seems content to recycle the same seven every semester. To counteract this problem, I spent several staff meetings having them come up with ideas that had never been done in our hall. With these programs, I created a “recipe book”, which gave every RA at least 25 ideas from which to draw. Yet, I still heard the same excuse, “I don’t have any ideas for [insert category or requirement]”. Too much whining and not enough thinking.

What is my point? Too often, I am nonplussed by my staff and their apparent laziness or lack of creativity. Sometimes I think they have given up and are just buying time until their contract runs out. However, as evidenced by the video game program, there are times when I am happily amazed at what a little imagination can do for a program. My, what stimulating and deep conversations can happen when RAs take the time to think—imagine that!

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

A Message for Senior Housing Officials

Since I created my Twitter account, I have seen an uptick in the number of Residential Life-related accounts (BitterHD, LousyRA, etc.), and I have to wonder if this is a sign that the voices of ResLifers are being silenced or at least being ignored. Is the reason that there are more Twitter accounts being used as venting outlets because we are not getting the same support at our home institutions? What does this mean for the field? Are we unhappy? Are we unsure of our professional direction? Why do we search the Internet for a place to complain, decompress, and receive affirmation that we are in the right career field?

In my humble opinion, I think it stems from the ideal that Residential Life is a utopian world wrapped in a rainbow sprinkled on top of an ice cream sundae, and any disruption to this perfect vision is seen as an attack (and a personal one at that). Of course, there is no job or career that is perfect and without problems. Every paycheck we receive in any field will be accompanied by grumbling and the occasional feeling of dread when the alarm clock blares. This is normal. I get it. Nothing is perfect; however, when a field, in general, makes it tantamount to murder to complain about your job, it creates an environment of secretly miserable workers.

If we are not permitted to have the rare bad day and have an honest conversation about why we are unhappy at this moment, we will learn to channel it in other areas—healthy or not. It may be drinking alcohol, bitching and gossiping with fellow HDs, or turning to the Internet for anonymous venting. Although therapeutic in the short-term, none of these stress relieving methods reach the root of the problem: we are not happy right now and no one wants to listen. My supervisor would rather call me a negative influence on the staff than to identify the issues within the greater Residential Life system. He would rather reminisce about his past HD experience through rose-colored glasses than to admit maybe he had a bad day or two.

Dear Senior Housing Officials, Do you want my unsolicited advice? (Too bad, you’re getting it anyway) Supervisors of live-in professional staff—and their supervisors—need to cultivate a Residential Life department that encourages proper ways of developing work/life balance and actually encourage it! Just saying you want your staff to be balanced does not make it so. You have to actively create that atmosphere by both words and your own actions. Plus, it needs to be okay to complain about a bad day without the risk of your live-in staff feeling like they are the worst employee since Peter Gibbons at Initech.

When I was a newbie HD, I sought out my supervisor for feedback on how to handle the bad days; however, I quickly learned that his vision was obscured by his own experiences that he defined as the “perfect, good ole days”. In his mind, there were no bad days in Residential Life. How could I have an honest and supportive conversation about noise in the lobby at 3am when he bragged about the three-bedroom, two-floor suite he lived in for four years as a new HD? My boss refused to leave himself out of the equation, which made me unable to seek his assistance from that point forward. He may label me as a “bad role model” for the other HDs, but I know that I speak the truth—the truth he is unwilling to acknowledge. Now, I just vent to the few co-workers I trust, my spouse, and as BadHallDirector.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

The Twelve Pains of ResLife

While sitting in a coffee shop a few days ago, the radio was playing the “Twelve Days of Christmas” parody, “The Twelve Pains of Christmas”, and I realized that there was a need for a Hall Director version. If you want to sing it out loud in your office, don’t worry, I won’t judge.

The Twelve Things of Reslife that are Such a Pain to HDs…
12 judicial hearings
11 contract breaks
10 one-on-ones
9 hall council meetings
8 diversity programs
7 duty calls
6 housing reports
5 flooded floors
4 residents arrested
3 RAs fired
2 many hours
And all that documenting

Friday, December 2, 2011

Does Sleeping with your Staff Count as a Community Builder?

With the two sexual scandals in the college athletic sphere continuing to grab headlines, it is necessary to point out that Residential Life is just as guilty—or at least my department is. Thankfully, I have not heard of any my peers molesting young children; however, there are plenty of stories, both rumor and truth, of Hall Directors having sex with their staff and residents. I would love the chance to ask the professional staff members why they did it. Was it for the power? The sex? The companionship? What made them do it?

Two years ago, our department discretely fired Edgar, or let him quit on his own, depending to which rumor you subscribe, because he admitted to sleeping with a resident in his first-year building. Okay, this student was 18 years old, past the age of consent in my state, but our employment contract clearly states romantic and sexual relationships with students and staff members under our supervision are strictly forbidden. Why was he compelled to risk his job for a fling? Was this an ego trip? Was he lonely? In addition, did Fannie feel she had the right to say no? Did she love the idea of having a taboo relationship with someone who held all the power? Were they in love or were they just in it for the sex?

Plus, this was not the first time Edgar was caught in a compromising position. The year before, he openly discussed how he was giving out his personal cell phone number to residents he had counseled for domestic abuse and alcohol addiction, and would visit them at their room in the middle of the night when they would call him. Edgar claimed he was just a supportive shoulder and that he did not want other professional staff members involved. Again, does a first-year student who is dealing with a traumatic experience like being beaten by her significant other have the frame of mind to push off an advance from someone she sought out for help? Should the peers who knew about this behavior contacted Edgar’s supervisor sooner? And, like Paterno, Edgar’s supervisor sat on the information for a good while before acting—what should happen to him?

Another issue arises when you consider that some Hall Directors or Graduate Assistants are only a year or two older than staff or residents. In fact, one of my Grad Assistants awhile back was a year younger than my oldest RA. At what point is the line crossed over from tight-knit bonding, which is required as a Residential Life team, to harassment or an inappropriate relationship? The nature of our positions is living with our staff and the students we counsel, yet how can we stop emotional attachments that are just plain creepy from forming? I am not advocating for more HD/RA relationships…yuck! But, what I am pushing for is a more open conversation about how the Residential Life position almost encourages unhealthy boundaries to be created.

We are expected to be friends with our staff and be available for our residents in their time of need. Can we really be surprised when a few relationships develop? Of course, can we really be surprised when the older professional does not take the responsible role and say no? Where do we draw the line and how can we identify these issues sooner?