How Much Are RAs Expected to Handle?


Photo of the Whiting Hall Sign. Photo from: Champlain College Flickr.

The first time a resident came to her while having suicidal thoughts, Cara Benjamin, a resident advisor at Champlain College, knew the protocol. 

Even though she has a mental health first aid certification and some preparation to handle crises, it still is one of the toughest experiences she handles as an RA.   

“My residents all call me their dorm mom,” Benjamin said. “We’ve got this really big close-knit community, and it’s upsetting to have somebody come to you and say that they feel that way because it almost feels like I’m not doing my job completely.”

Despite facing difficult circumstances as an RA, Benjamin doesn’t want that to deter students from the position. It’s rewarding for her to help residents and establish a community in her hall. While these situations aren’t common for every dorm, Benjamin said it’s important for residents to feel safe with their RAs. The role of an RA is to be a community builder, resource gatherer and provider, and policy enforcer—and sometimes, it comes with an emotional cost when helping other students in crisis. 

“RAs can be in a very wide range of scenarios with their residents,” Ian Fournier, the Interim Assistant Director of Housing and Residential Life, said. “Some of those instances could be when their residents are experiencing the worst of the worst, you know, severe mental health, family loss, personal loss, and then there is an auxiliary trauma that happens from being somebody hearing about what’s going on.” 

Benjamin decided to become an RA in her second year of college after she had a tough time navigating her first year. Being from St. Johnsbury, Burlington is close enough to home for her—yet, she had difficulty transitioning into her new life at Champlain College. She said her “goal was to make it so other people didn’t have as hard of a time.” Ever since she has requested to work in first-year halls.  

“RAs tend to be the Swiss Army, like a multitool of resources for first years,” Fournier said. Compared to upper-year residents, who know the resources available to them, and use their RAs more sparingly. In his five years at the college, Fournier has overseen most of the halls on campus. Now, he oversees a staff of 12 RAs between 308 Maple, Butler Hall, and 194 St. Paul; and he is part of the recruitment, hiring, and training process for RAs. 

Being an RA makes for a tight-knit community, not just with residents, but with other RAs. Some of Benjamin’s closest friends are RAs from her sister halls. 

“A lot of the time, the events that you’re handling as an RA are confidential, so you don’t feel like you can just go to friends and be like, this it’s what’s going on,” Benjamin said. 

RAs handle sensitive information that has to stay in a very small window, Fournier said. Oftentimes this information stays between the supervisor and RA. Unfortunately, Fournier said, at Champlain College, the only two confidential resources the campus has is the student health center and the counseling center. However, it’s something area coordinators encourage RAs to access if they want to talk through or process a confidential situation. 

Charlotte Ide, a former RA, said the community established between the RAs has successfully come together within the last two years, which wasn’t necessarily the case before. 

COVID-19 took the choice to be introverted away from already introverted students. Fournier said he has seen an uptick in student involvement and connection with others. 

“But with the RAs, I do believe that there’s a tight-knit community that came from that, and recognizing that we made it through and now we’re on this side of it,” Fournier said. 

Ide became an RA in the spring semester of her second year. Her first semester as an RA was cut short when COVID-19 sent everyone home six weeks early. She stayed in her position for the following academic year when most classes were online. She was an RA for Hill Hall with around 16 students, compared to 36 pre-COVID, and ended the year with 11 students left. 

The residents of Hill Hall ate every meal together. “When I say every single meal together, I mean, we did not have dinner unless it was with each other,” she said. Her residents were clingy, but not in a bad way, she said, they continued to stay friends. 

COVID-19 made students miss the involvement and community that campuses offer. Fournier said he knew of one hall that didn’t have a designated community space. To get together in some capacity, they projected a movie down a long hallway, and students sat in the hall socially distanced to watch it together. 

“I think that it’s really important for them to have not only a professional but a personal relationship with you,” Ide said. She understands that it’s not every RA’s preference but believes it helps build trust and create a healthy environment—and allows residents to see their RAs as safe people for them to go to. 

“It is a fine line to tread,” Fournier said. It can feel easy for residents and RAs to become friends, but every year he emphasizes the importance of boundary-setting in training. Residential life wants RAs to be friendly with their residents but discourages people from being friends. 

Oftentimes, Fournier said that setting boundaries is the hardest part of being an RA. People want to interact and develop relationships with others, and nobody wants to be seen in a negative light, he said. 

“Do you want to be put in this position where you have to hold your friends accountable for their actions?” Fournier asked. 

“I challenge the concept of being the dorm parents because, again, I think that bleeds into misconstruing what your boundaries are, what your expectations are, and you’re putting a level of responsibility as a parent on yourself,” he said. 

Ide said that’s hard to avoid. She doesn’t know whether she is supposed to feel an innate responsibility for the residents in her hall, but she does. She continued, “But it’s not our fault. At the end of the day, if students mess up, you do feel like a parental figure sometimes in the dorms.”

Last year when Ide was close to her residents, she had her first drug incident. 

“I was so disappointed in them because I trusted them so much up to that point,” she said. 

Like Fournier, Ide understands the importance of setting healthy boundaries. She believes that RAs need to take an inventory of what they’re comfortable with. She thought it was valuable to get meals with her residents so they could see her outside of her RA role. 

Ide went out of her way to encourage some of her residents to stay at Champlain College. One of the residents ended up dropping out, and it stung, she said.  

“At some point, it feels like you’re responsible for them, whether that’s the case or not,” Ide says. “And then sometimes they choose not to (come back) and it’s nothing that you’ve done necessarily, but it still feels like you failed somehow.”

Georgia Warren, a second-year student and RA, realized how important active listening was when she first became an RA. She learned how to better communicate with others during her RA training but didn’t realize how important it was until she sat down with a student who was struggling socially, mentally, and academically. She was able to sit down with the student and make a plan for them to get back on track. 

“I don’t think it’s anything more than an older sibling would feel,” Warren said about the level of responsibility. At the same time, she recognized that she has a level of responsibility to keep them safe. “If I don’t then I have to live with the fact that it was my job.”

While most of the time, Warren says everyone is okay, many of the students who attend Champlain College have difficult backgrounds. Being an RA, “you have to be prepared to deal with anything that they might have dealt with and be able to respond accordingly and not overwhelm yourself,” she said.

Warren compartmentalizes difficult situations to manage the emotional toll, which she said is the hardest part of being an RA. Her area coordinator explained to her that RAs are the first people residents come to when they need help. 

“As long as I got to bed knowing that I did all I could, now it’s in the hands of professionals, not a student. That helps me,” Warren said. 

Warren’s area coordinator has been supportive but firm with her during the difficult moments. She said in the past year she experienced multiple incidents in her personal life, and her area coordinator has helped her map steps out to manage her situations. 

“I think I’ve cried to like three of them, and they’ve all been like, ‘it’s okay,’” she said. Her area coordinators are almost always available, and she said they’re responsive, timely, and supportive.  

There are times when support for residents isn’t available. Ping Melchior, a second-year student, was an RA for 371 Main St, where a student came to her on a Saturday night for help. The student was transitioning and struggling with rumors being spread about them. 

No one was available for the student and nothing Melchior could have personally done, which she said is hard for RAs. 

“We’re students,” she said. “We’re not licensed adults to help these people.”

Jumping into the fall semester after having her entire first year online was a challenge for Melchior. Knowing her academic schedule was getting tougher the following semester and struggling to live at 371 Main St., she decided to stop being an RA. 

371 Main St., is located on Main Street in Burlington and is one of the furthest freshman dorms from main campus. The area has no emergency blue light call boxes, which are placed throughout most of the campus. On the dorms side of Main St, there are no street lights, and a UVM frat house is located across the road. 

Living on Main Street not only made Melchoir feel isolated from her peers, but it also made her feel unsafe doing her rounds at night when she would check in on her co-halls. 

Jumping into the fall semester after having her entire first year online was a challenge for her. In addition to that, her academic schedule getting challenging, and feeling isolated from her peers by living on Main St., she decided to stop being an RA. Melchior said she felt supported by residential life as an RA, however, she has trouble reaching out for help. 

RAs are not alone, Fournier said. He emphasizes that they have support from their peers and area coordinators, and their work isn’t as personally driven as some people may think. Area coordinators make it a point to meet with RAs individually and within their co-ship, and they offer spaces for RAs to ask for help and work through difficult situations. 

While RAs are supposed to be a support and resource for their residents, Fournier said, it’s within their limits. RAs are students themselves, navigating their own mental health and academics.

“I’m a big proponent that they are our RAs, but before they’re an RA, they’re a student,” he said. “Just as much as I’m wanting our residents to succeed, I want the RAs to succeed, because they are also a student of Champlain College.”