For many students, college is the first time living away from home—away from the support and guidance of their parents. It’s an exciting time, but all new experiences bring a certain level of uncertainty.

There is, however, structure in place to ease that uncertainty—whatever residence hall your student ends up calling home, there are resident assistants (RAs) in place to help make it a home away from home.

But what is an RA and why are they important to your child’s college experience?

What do those letters mean?

The exact title varies from school to school—resident assistant, resident advisor, community assistant, community advisor—but the concept is the same. An RA is an upperclassman who lives in the residence hall with fellow students and provides leadership and support.

“An RA is an excellent on-campus resource for students living in residence halls,” said Margaret Morgan, a senior at Illinois State University in her third semester as an RA. “We work to build community on our floors, plan programs, provide useful information for residents, enforce rules in the dorms, and we are the person residents can always come to if they need anything.

“I always tell my residents not to worry about making friends at college because I’m their automatic friend—here to help them out, here to assist. If I don’t know the answer to a question they have, we figure it out together.”

Students play foosball in residence hall

RAs are not just responsible for reacting to problems, but also for promoting a positive living environment.

What does an RA do?

There are a multitude of responsibilities, ranging from administrative logistics like planning social events to oversight such as enforcing hall rules to mental support for students often living away from home for the first time.

When your student moves in on campus, there’s a good chance an RA will be the first point of contact, providing a connection between students and staff at the university.

Many schools have RAs on each floor of a residence hall to answer questions and maintain a safe environment. If something’s wrong, an RA can step in to handle issues so your student can focus their energy on academic success.

And it’s not always about fixing problems. An RA’s job is also to facilitate a positive experience at college and make sure students have the support to deal with stress.

“We make sure things run smoothly in the dorms and that our residents have a positive experience,” Morgan said. “Above all, we work to build a community on the floor. In today’s world, it’s easy for students to close their doors and sit in isolation, but RAs plan programs and host socials in which residents can get to know each other and make friends.”

Whether it’s a floor dinner, game night, pizza social, or Super Bowl party, RAs often enable relationship building that helps students feel more at home and enhances their success at college.

Morgan sums up the job quite simply.

“The job of an RA is to make college life easier for students on campus.”

Make sure you and your student are aware of important dates when it comes to selecting housing and dining options on campus. For example, at Illinois State housing contracts open in mid-February.

What are the benefits (for everyone)?

Student residents clearly benefit from the presence of an RA—it’s a live-in support system. There’s no replacing the presence of a parent, but a resident assistant can at least provide support for questions that arise during your student’s time living at school.

It also happens to be a mutually-beneficial relationship, with RAs reaping the rewards of the position.

Some of those benefits are tangible. Many colleges waive room and board for students who take on RA responsibilities, while some offer perks like a single-occupancy room or some type of financial stipend.

There are also intangible benefits, as taking on the role of resident assistant offers opportunities to build personal relationships, develop leadership skills, and hone real-world problem-solving techniques.

“It forces you to step outside of your comfort zone, step into a leadership role, and grow in several areas,” Morgan said. “It requires social skills, planning, time management, keeping up grades, creativity, leadership, conflict resolution, and much more. The job has given me confidence and made me a more well-rounded person.”

You can learn more about RAs at Illinois State and find out about your student’s home away from home as a Redbird.

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