Letter to my old non-RA self
What I wish you had known before you became an RA
Hey Jake in August 2016,
As soon as you stepped foot on campus, moved into Wolman and met Lindsay (your freshman-year RA), you knew that you were going to become an RA one of these days. And after months of actively thinking about the role, going through the selection process and fretting over whether you’ll get it or not (despite low-key being pretty confident that you’re going to get it, or perhaps reckless enough to not look for any off-campus housing), you eventually got the RA position. You said goodbye to your three suitemates — people who for the first time gave you that feeling of a tight belonging — and moved on to deal with the fact that you won’t be living with your friends anymore.
Now, you moved into your new room in old Commons. Having spent a year there with your friends, it still feels so familiar, yet different. You’ll find yourself forgetting about your new room and walking down to where your old room is. Don’t worry, blame the identical floor plan of the St. Paul tower. On one late night, you’ll even try to key open the room that doesn’t belong to you anymore and quickly run away realizing you don’t live there anymore.
You’ll learn, grow and gain so much from being an RA. You’ll find yourself in a new community of outgoing, engaging, kind people. You’ll gain invaluable friendships along the way. You’ll learn to deal with a variety of uncomfortable and untimely situations. You’ll grow as a person by learning from and through all these different people, experiences and responsibilities you’ll bear.
But I should warn you. You don’t yet fully comprehend the downfalls of being an RA. You hear what they’re saying — fishbowl, social media, blah blah blah. And you’re probably thinking “Hey, I’ve already gone through all those as a prefect and a DC (Discipline Committee) member. It’s nothing new.”
Except it is, in a way. You’ll find yourself spending more time dealing with emotional issues than any other college year. You’ll be criticized or judged for every small action that you make or not. You’ll be able to connect with many new people, but you’ll also be isolated from those very connections and others, prohibited from constructing relationships on the dimensions you hoped to. The tune of the RA life won’t be played all in a cheerful major key like you expect.
So, here are some things you didn’t realize, and a few pieces of advice.
Be careful what you express (or not). Your words, actions, flyers, bulletin boards, social media posts are all expressions of yourself. And self-expressions inherently harbor intentions. Your intentions, however straight they may be, can and will be misunderstood by some people, and their judgments can and will be spread to many other people who didn’t even know you before that. And sometimes, unfortunately, that judgment will be the way even strangers choose to judge you.
Don’t forget how to not be an RA. Just as being a prefect was, being an RA is a 24/7 job that never stops, even when you’re off-campus (which you never are). Being an RA has positive implications, but also don’t forget to how to just be yourself, instead of fixating on how you’ll establish a connection with the person in front of you and thus focus only on them. Don’t forget that you’re a person too — with your own preferences, quirks, passions, characteristics, needs, thoughts and desires. Don’t let the job consume you, because it has affected me deeply in my capacity to build or maintain truly meaningful, lasting, barrier-free relationships outside of my position in the context of both friendship and romantic relationship. Turn off the RA-mode sometimes.
You’ll realize you’re being a bit too naive in your aspirations for your job. At the end of your very first floor meeting, you will say that your goal for the year is to learn at least one thing about every resident that people couldn’t learn from a superficial everyday interaction. But you have 60 residents, and you don’t have that much time to take away from your own personal pursuits and ambitions to accomplish that with everyone.
On that note, realize that most people just don’t need the type of RA you want to be for them. I know you want to be that meaningful presence to everyone that Darren was to you in sophomore year of boarding school. But you need to accept the fact that most people don’t need or want that presence. You won’t be able to connect with all of your residents the way you wanted, but just know that 95% of the time, it’s not because of any fault of your own.
Make time for yourself. You’ve so fully adapted the “work-life integration” strategy, that your work is life. That strategy has served you well so far; you’ve done well until now. But now, you need time to think — about next steps, about the bigger picture, about higher and more abstract things and about yourself.
Lastly, stop closing the cognitive dissonance. I know you’re adept at justifying your decisions post-facto. After all, one does not willfully decide to leave home at the age of ten to study in a completely foreign country and live with complete strangers. One does not then decide to leave his country yet again at thirteen to seek a better life, while your family disintegrates then implodes. So I know you have some ballsy decision-making process, and a shitload of neurons dedicated to closing cognitive dissonance. But I’ve learned after a degree, you’re only fooling yourself. As my dear friend Ronann (BTW I’m excited for you to meet him) would say, “Never play yourself.” Rather, be bold in making decisions. If you’re willing to close any dissonance post-facto, you won’t fight for the things that matter when they matter. As Emerson said, “Once you make a decision, the universe conspires to make it happen.” Some decisions are worth sticking to, even bearing the risk of later regret.
MSE has already closed, the mass exodus to Brody-side has already happened. So that’s all I got for you tonight.
Despite the torment of mixed feelings and ambiguous thoughts, I know you would never have it any other way. After all, this crazy way of living and dying is still the way for you to live the fullest and happiest life. You of all people understand that happiness is not achieved by ridding unhappiness. Rather, happiness is closer to the feeling of achievement, the sense of growth and self-improvement. And most of all, long-term happiness necessitates rich human connections, and the journey you’re about to embark on will certainly provide that — as long as you’re wise about navigating your life and maintaining balance. I wish you the best of luck, and I trust you’ll make the most out of it.