Photo: Timothy Archibald

Trouble At School? These Guys Have Your Back.

Worries, fears, struggles with college — resident assistants hear it all, and do their best to help.

By Mike Vangel

Although there is no time when Stanford’s campus can be called quiet, exactly — even in the dead of night — from late January to early March it is positively humming. During this roughly six-week period, more than 800 students cram the few slivers of free time in their schedules with applications and meet-and-greets, followed by multiple rounds of interviews with administrators, faculty and fellow students. From that elite and motivated 12 percent of the undergraduate student body (composed entirely of sophomores and juniors, no less), a complex combination of matchmaking, vetting and algorithmic magic whittles the pool down to the 233 to be offered positions as resident assistants.

Among the hopefuls this year was Amit Pasupathy, a sophomore from San Jose. Like his peers, Pasupathy spent those weeks traversing campus for 17 interviews at different dorms, trying to convey why he wanted the job. His motivation stemmed directly from the positive influence the RAs in his freshman dorm, Soto, had on him.

In most respects, Pasupathy’s story is typical of other Stanford freshmen. He arrived at move-in weekend excited but not knowing what to expect; his parents attended college in India, and he would be the first in his immediate family to attend in the United States. When Pasupathy walked up to Soto the first time, the RAs called to him by name, part of a cherished Stanford tradition aimed at welcoming new students. That was exciting but kind of unnerving, Pasupathy recalls, much like the RAs themselves: “I saw these people and I was like, ‘They must be super smart. . . . They have an aura of knowing what’s going on.’”

Over the course of New Student Orientation, the RAs came to seem like regular people as they shared stories about themselves, and led conversations with the residents about what the community valued — for example, “We respect people for whoever they are” — and how to make Soto a home, Pasupathy notes. But even as he settled into a comfortable place in his dorm, that same veneer of perfection painted the rest of the university. “Everyone has this moment that imposter syndrome gets them — like, do I belong here?” he says. “For me, that was week two.”

Amit Pasupathy (Photo: Jeffrey Yu, ’18)
Amit Pasupathy points to a conversation with two RAs as pivotal in his coming out to friends and family.

Student government had been his primary extracurricular until then and a big part of his public persona. He hoped to continue that at Stanford and ran for a position in dorm government. But in a close race for dining hall ambassador, he lost.

Looking back, Pasupathy acknowledges that losing the election seems like a small thing, but the crucible of freshman anxiety, combined with what felt like a lost piece of his identity, left him reeling. So he went where he felt safe: to his RA’s room.

“They allowed me to vent about my electoral loss or whatever, and from there, led the conversation to, ‘Why does that matter so much to you?’” Over the course of several hours, he and two RAs discussed everything from Pasupathy’s worries about belonging at Stanford, to what he thought his identity was, to “‘What do I value?’ And eventually, ‘Hey, I’ve been questioning my sexuality for eight years.’ It was a hell of a conversation.” They were the first two people he’d ever told, and would remain his confidants over the next several months as he worked toward coming out to his friends and family. That one night, he says, they helped him begin to come to terms with his identity. Now, he hopes to do the same for future students as an RA.

Over the past few decades, residential life has grown into a defining component of the undergraduate experience at Stanford. It is what prospective students seek — the dorm system enjoys premium placement on the first page of the “Stanford Preview” admissions brochure — and what many alumni remember best about their student years. And of the hundreds of staff members who help run Stanford’s 81 student residences, nobody is more important than a resident assistant in helping make a dorm feel like home.

A typical dorm has five to eight student staff members; in addition to RAs, that includes the peer health educator and the resident computer consultant. The student staff are overseen by resident fellows, who elect to live in a dorm for at least four years, in an arrangement created by former president Don Kennedy to reinforce the dorms’ educational nature and strengthen student-faculty understanding.

While almost 98 percent of Stanford undergraduates live all four years within the Residential Education system, that hasn’t always been the case. Prior to the 1940s, students had the option to live in campus housing, but the majority did not. As with many American colleges, though, the return of servicemen after World War II and the passage of the G.I. Bill brought a wave of new students to the Farm. Stanford committed to housing 75 percent of the newly inflated student body. A decade later, in 1957, the Stanford Study of Undergraduate Education articulated a vision of a “student-faculty society that is relatively small, residential, and coherent — a society in which living arrangements, social activities, counseling, and curricula combine to form an integrated, meaningful whole.” It took another decade and a second study, when the 1968 Study of Education at Stanford recommended creating a system to house every undergraduate, to begin working toward that vision of residences as spaces where students might incorporate classroom learning with self-exploration.

Before that can happen, though, students often need to feel a base level of comfort in their surroundings. Junior RA Ryanne Bamieh explained that, for her freshman year, “having a firm sense of place in my community and in my dorm was really important.” She credits her RAs with helping to foster that feeling in their everyday interactions, but it was another member of her dorm staff, the peer health educator (PHE), who truly made her feel at home.

Ryanne Bamieh (Photo: Timothy Archibald)
Struggling with the anniversary of her sister’s death, Ryanne Bamieh credits an informal dorm meeting as the moment she felt “I had a home at Stanford.”

“Fall quarter very much felt like summer camp,” Bamieh explains. There was a rush of new people and activities, the 10 weeks flew by, and then she was right back home with her high school friends, with whom she had more complex, meaningful relationships than she had developed at Stanford. After winter break, she returned to Stanford “and was feeling very angsty about this.” The other reason she was anxious was that January marked the 10th anniversary of her younger sister’s death, in 2005, from cancer. “I’d never been away from my parents for that [anniversary] before, and I hadn’t told a ton of people at Stanford about it. I think I stayed in my room the entire day.”

That night happened to be the night of Tea with the PHE, a weekly event in some dorms where residents are invited to decompress in the PHE’s room about whatever is on their minds. At the invitation of her roommate, Bamieh showed up to find a handful of other people had gathered, and “they were sharing their difficulties they had transitioning.” After a while, she says, the group noticed she seemed upset, “and I ended up sharing everything with them. I remember that moment really feeling like I had a home at Stanford.”

Deborah Golder, associate vice provost for Student Affairs and dean of ResEd, sees this sort of interaction as crucial to student development. “Relationships [are] at the center of what we do,” she says. “And that [staff-resident] relationship facilitates the deeper, richer learning.”

The concept of what that relationship should be is somewhat unique to Stanford and has changed over time. When Golder started at Stanford, eight years ago, she recalls many RAs viewing their role in one of two ways. The first “was almost like a camp counselor, like, ‘It’s my job to help you have fun in college. And I’m here if you need me.’” The other, she says, was as a superhero. But “it’s not [the RA’s] job to solve other people’s problems. It’s [their] job to work with [residents] so they can solve their own problems.” ResEd trains RAs to see themselves as “facilitators,” there to guide residents through the maze of specialized services the university offers, engage students in conversation about school and life, and help them find their respective places within the dorm and Stanford communities.

For RA Catherine Goetze, ’18, her relationship with residents is almost familial. “I’m the oldest of four kids,” she explains. Since age 2, she’s been “in a big sister role: Do whatever you can to help organize the team, get shit done.” She points to the delicate gold bracelet dangling from her wrist: “I wear this bracelet every day. It says ate,” the Tagalog word for “older sister,” used as a sign of respect for older siblings in Filipino culture. “In many ways, I view what I do as being the big sister of 88 kids.” She acknowledges that there’s probably a spectrum of buy-in to the idea of a “dorm family,” but many students interviewed for this story described the relationship similarly, saying dorm staff came to feel like older siblings, and the dorm itself a home.

In all the talk of relationships and community, it’s easy to forget the graver aspects of the RAs’ role within the houses. (“We can sound like gummy bears and rainbows if you don’t get to the deeper nuance,” Golder says.) Chief among their responsibilities, after all, is ensuring residents’ safety. ResEd does its best to train RAs to handle anything that might occur, although some scenarios defy preparation, such as when a resident returns to the dorm with a serious injury. “And then what do I do,” says RA Jack Pigott, ’18, “when, while I’m treating the wound, somebody else calls me [and says], ‘I am not at the dorm and I have a friend that needs to be transported.’” Thankfully, Pigott is a certified EMT, and he helped determine that the injury didn’t require a trip to the ER. The transport (campus lingo for an alcohol-related trip to the hospital), however, speaks to a crucial issue that RAs face routinely.

In 1966, Stanford adopted an approach to student drinking that placed the burden of responsibility on the students to comply with the law. Since ResEd was established in that context, the RA position evolved in a particular way. “RAs at Stanford are not enforcers,” says Pigott. “We are not going to go through your room and search for alcohol. That’s what the RA is at so many of my friends’ colleges: a scary authority figure.”

Most of the students interviewed for this story echoed that same point and agreed that that philosophy is critical to establishing trust in the RA-resident relationship. Rather than searching rooms and writing people up, says Goetze, they try to create “this sense of, your RAs have your back no matter what. That level of trust is cherished.”

Jack Pigott (Photo: Courtesy Jack PIgott)
Jack Pigott’s EMT training was useful when a resident sustained an injury.

Changes to Stanford’s alcohol policy last year — banning all hard alcohol at undergraduate parties, as well as prohibiting undergraduate students from having bottles of distilled spirits containing 750 milliliters of liquid or more — elevated fears among many RAs that they would become de facto police. (A Stanford Daily survey of RAs found that 86 percent of respondents were against the new policy.) But those concerns have been mitigated by emphasizing safety and education, says Golder. It is still important and necessary to watch for problematic drinking in the dorm communities, she says, but the RAs approach it from an “ethic of care.” In other words, they are encouraged to approach the destructive behavior that the policy is intended to correct not from the perspective that the resident is simply breaking the rules, “but coming from a place of, ‘I care about you, and I want you to be better.’ That does not preclude the reality that accountability for concerning behavior, particularly when there are patterns, is a part of the process for alcohol and many other serious issues.” Oftentimes, she notes, alcohol abuse is rooted in something much deeper, whether it’s family troubles, an identity crisis or the overwhelming pressure of being a student at Stanford.

Broadly speaking, the RAs train for a number of issues that, because of the age, composition and environment of an undergraduate community, tend to manifest year after year. In addition to a few weeks of programming before school starts, that training takes place in a 10-week course the previous spring (a program introduced in 2012), which consists of readings, discussions and role-play scenarios for the types of situations RAs can expect to face. These range from small things like homesickness and school stress up to mental health problems and sexual assault.

In recent years, however, sensitive issues have roiled the campus, adding a new layer of complexity to the RA’s role. Today’s students are more politically engaged than they have been in decades, says Golder, engaged by a thicket of thorny political topics, whether Black Lives Matter, divestment movements or gender identity issues. The challenge to the RAs, then, is: How do you still create a sense of community?

Olivia Peeps (Photo: Timothy Archibald)
Olivia Peeps says her freshman RA “did a really good job of trying to create spaces where people could have conversations about difference.”

Olivia Peeps, a junior RA in Castaño, says her freshman RA “did a really good job of trying to create spaces where people could have conversations about difference.” Peeps’s freshman year coincided with a wave of campus activism in the months after Ferguson; in that time, she realized how different the world was from her vision growing up in Palo Alto, but also how little she knew about what other students were protesting. Her RA began holding regular meetings in her room, where residents could have tea and discuss anything from the experience of low-income students to the campus activism. Peeps says her RA was open and vulnerable with residents about her own stake in those issues, which encouraged them to question their beliefs and assumptions.

“She [fostered] that conversation in a way that didn’t feel like not knowing or not understanding was somehow morally wrong,” Peeps says, which helped her feel comfortable discussing these delicate and inherently uncomfortable topics. “It takes vulnerability to admit your ignorance, and she [created] an environment where that was OK.” This exemplifies how Golder believes RAs promote the university’s educational mission: “Students are desperate to have these real conversations. They want to talk about the hard stuff — they just need a little structure.”

Of course, it helped in that instance that Peeps was interested in exploring those conversations and open to changing her mind.

In the past, RAs have mostly had to worry about managing this complex web of relationships within the physical space of the dorm. That’s still the main thrust of the job, given most dorms’ open-door cultures. But lately, there’s been an added challenge: the downside of ubiquitous digital communication. Today’s students interact with one another from the remove of their devices, and a growing body of scholarly research suggests that an overreliance on texting and social media has compromised this generation’s ability to interact face-to-face, as they’re forced to in a dorm. What’s more, social media has altered all sorts of traditional interpersonal boundaries, so residents may now have access to a far more intimate view of their RA’s party habits or political views than they would have had even 10 years ago, and vice versa.

Catherine Goetze (Photo: Glenn Matsumura)
“In many ways, I view what I do as being the big sister of 88 kids.” — Catherine Goetze

Goetze was particularly worried about navigating this dynamic after she’d accepted the job. Since her freshman year, she has documented her personal life as a Stanford student in minute (and sometimes intimate) detail on her blog, Cath in College. The candid blog entries and videos she posts are popular fodder on the Facebook pages where admitted Stanford students get acquainted before starting school. Though that has boosted Goetze’s page views, it’s also meant that many freshmen — including some of her residents — arrived on campus feeling like they already knew her and that she was their friend.

Thankfully, she says, “the RA [role] is one hundred percent the defining relationship” with her own residents. She’s found that it’s students from other dorms who will test that boundary. “One rule we have is no alcohol in common spaces, so [sometimes] I’m like, ‘Hey, man, I see you holding that beer, you gotta get in a room.’ And [they’ll] turn around and go, ‘Hey, I know you. You’re from Cath in College!’” In these moments, she says, her residents step in and reinforce her authority. “They’ll be like, ‘Hey, you gotta listen to her.’ They back me up a little bit.” It’s a small thing, perhaps, but illustrative of the ideal kind of relationship that the residential system tries to establish: one built on mutual trust and respect.

The reality is that while some students will have transformative conversations with their RAs, big moments that alter the course of their Stanford careers and even their lives, most will not. As Pigott said, the relationships are built “over time, out of countless interactions that you don’t even remember.” They’re a by-product of leaving the door open, knowing people’s names and noticing how they’re doing. Helping them get to know one another and learn how to understand people from wildly different backgrounds. The process is slow, tedious, unhackable. It involves what Golder calls “things that seem like basic human skills [but that] need practice.” Overwhelmingly, interviewed students reiterated the fundamental importance of the RAs just being there — one thinking, feeling person face-to-face with another.

It’s the simplest of things, but the results can be profound. Current students and alumni reported keeping in touch with former RAs and residents years after the fact (Justin Turner, ’07, said he still turns to his old RA for advice on everything from marriage to family planning). You can also tell what the relationship means given how many people put in the requisite hours just to apply to be an RA: It’s more than a two-month slog, and for every person offered a position nearly three applicants are turned away.

For one of those applicants, the morning of March 10 brought a piece of welcome news. Amit Pasupathy, whose Soto RAs inspired him so much his freshman year, received an offer to be an RA — in Soto. He can’t wait to meet his residents. •