Parents often dread those final minutes of move-in week—the emotional last goodbye—but Amanda Peterlin loves them.
Peterlin, a fourth-year resident assistant (RA) at Haynie Hall, watches as parents drop the helpful-but-cool act, and students stop pretending their first night living on their own isn’t a big deal. There are a lot of tears –even from the guys—and that’s when Peterlin gets to work by reassuring the families.
“I always just kind of say, ‘Don’t worry, I’ll take good care of them,’” Peterlin said.
Nearly 6,000 students move in this week to Illinois State’s residence halls and Cardinal Court apartments. For the University’s 107 RAs (residence halls) and 12 community assistants (Cardinal Court), move-in is just the start of a challenging but highly rewarding student leader position that is, by all accounts, life-changing.
Peterlin and two other veteran RAs sat down with STATEside last week, during the tail end of a weeklong training blitz. It’s that training, which continues into the academic year, that prepares them to be the unique combination of mentor, leader, event planner, and shoulder to lean on that the position requires. In other words, it’s a lot more than just bulletin boards and pizza parties.
Peterlin, a senior mass media major who graduates in December, watches over around 40 students on the fifth floor of Haynie. She wanted the position after hitting it off with her own RA as a freshman and seeking leadership opportunities on campus. (The perk of free room and board doesn’t hurt either, she said.)
It was tough at first, because she was a sophomore RA with residents around her own age. But seven semesters later, Peterlin says the position has honed her time-management skills, made her more outgoing and straight-forward, and put her into networking situations with some important people on campus.
Plus, RAs say all that experience with confidentiality and paperwork will look good in a job interview later on.
“It’s putting you in a situation where you’re getting ready for the real world,” said Peterlin, who hopes to get a job in marketing and/or social media after graduation.
There are headaches, of course, but the RA life can be a lot of fun, said Khamille DeLara, a second-year RA in Watterson (second floor of Smith House). DeLara’s favorite part of that first year was getting to know her residents, tapping into her outgoing personality—and her “corny jokes”—to build lasting bonds with the floor. In fact, a lot of her residents from last year are coming back to Smith 2 this year.
Now paired up with a new RA as part of a “buddy system” during training, DeLara says it’s important for first-year assistants to have fun with their residents too. (That’s when those pizza parties come in handy.)
“As RAs, you learn that residents take a lot of your cues,” said DeLara, a junior finance and international business major. “It helps to be easygoing, but strict at the same time. You don’t want to come back to your floor and find there’s vandalism all over.”
Senior Ana Diaz is entering her third year as an RA for the International House in Manchester Hall. The Chicago native had a difficult time finding her place at Illinois State as a shy freshman, with few friends and a reluctance to fully embrace her Mexican heritage—even to speak Spanish regularly.
But now as an RA, she’s helping her residents face obstacles they encounter related to their own backgrounds, with a mantra of respect for one another, no matter the cultural differences. And there are a lot of cultural differences among the 100 or so residents in the International House melting pot, Diaz said. (Even the Spanish is coming in handy as Diaz communicates with her residents from Brazil, who speak Portuguese, a similar language.)
Her residents have put Diaz’s own obstacles in perspective and taught her how to be open-minded and think globally, she said. The RA experience even inspired Diaz to pursue a civic engagement minor and plot a career in student affairs after graduation.
“It taught me to not take for granted that I go to ISU, and that I’m able to learn in such a safe environment,” said Diaz, who is now majoring in marketing and management.
There are challenging days as an RA too, and those can be the most memorable. During her second semester as an RA, Diaz received an emergency phone call while in Chicago that something had happened to one of her residents. She raced back down to Normal to reassure her other residents, meeting with them individually.
“I knew I was an RA before anything else. My whole floor needed me,” Diaz said. “This experience has truly, truly changed who I am.”
Ryan Denham can be reached at rmdenha@IllinoisState.edu.