Life of an RA: When work follows you home

Most people look forward to coming home from class, kicking their feet up and enjoying a few moments free of responsibility.

For sophomore Michelle McDonagh, that sense of responsibility does not end when she arrives back home at Belvin-Buchanan Hall; rather, a new sense of responsibility starts. As a hall Resident Advisor (RA), she is always prepared to step up to the plate and handle business, no matter what curveballs come her way.

“It’s not a 9-5 job, you do it every day,” McDonagh explained. “You’re on all the time. One of my boss’s favorite things to tell me is that we live in a fishbowl. We have a fishbowl effect, wherever we are, we represent the university. You very much feel a sense of responsibility in this job.”

Sam Houston State University RA’s are held at an extremely high standard, one that McDonagh takes seriously. She discussed the qualities that she feels make or break a good RA.

“Patience is a huge thing in this job, and it’s one of those things people don’t think of,” McDonagh said. “Another good quality in an RA is tolerance, because I know there are certain situations where tolerance is called for. Openness, making sure you’re there for your residents. As an RA, you need to make sure your residents know you’re there for them. Whatever they need, you make yourself available for them. That’s one of the main reasons you’re an RA, to make sure you’re there for them, and to help them succeed in their goals.”

At 12-years-old, McDonagh moved to Austin from San Carlos, California. She knows a great deal about trying to make yourself feel at home in a foreign environment, and it is something she tries to help her residents with.

“I love planning programs and making sure that the hall is happy here in their home away from home,” McDonagh explained. “I just love making my residents happy here, because I know it’s difficult being away from home for so long, and struggling with classes. If I can make their day just a little bit happier, then my day is made.”

As an RA at Belvin-Buchanan Hall, McDonagh is a vital part of the Fine Arts and Mass Communication (FAMC) living community in the dorm. Even though she is a history major, she works to keep up with the extensive creative environment and residents surrounding her.

“Because I’m an RA at Belvin, people expected me to be some sort of theatre major or mass communications major,” McDonagh said. “As a history major, it’s kind of weird because I’m kind of the fish out of water. This isn’t my element, but I feel I’ve made it my element.”

Her freshman year, McDonagh lived in a dorm in Baldwin House. She temporarily roomed there with an RA, who she still finds inspiration in.

“My freshman year I was placed as a temporary roommate with an RA,” McDonagh said. “I saw what she did, and it inspired me. She kind of became a role model for me, and now, as an RA, I aspire to be like her.”

Her RA duties include having weekly “office hours,” being on-call every night she’s scheduled to, keeping an open line of communication between her residents and herself. These, along with innumerable other duties, make for a fairly high-stress job, one that she believes gets a negative reputation.

“Some people have this assumption that we are here only to fine you,” McDonagh said. “Our job is to make sure residents are following the rules. We are not police, and we are not looking for trouble. We’re here to make sure you’re following the rules. If you’re not following the rules, of course there are consequences.”

To be selected as an RA, there is a rigorous interview and application process one must undergo. After being assigned a residence hall, it is up to the RA to make the job their own. Some unique things McDonagh does as RA are organizing monthly floor bonding events and sending out weekly emails to keep her residents updated on the happenings of SHSU.

“I think the main thing is to obviously understand policy, but overall you need to make this job your own,” McDonagh said. “You need to not let this job consume you. You need to make sure you have some sort of outside life from this job. If this job takes over you, then you’re not in the right place.”

Her advice for residents is to get to know their RA’s better. Once someone can look past the stigma of the dutiful RA, it’s easier to see them for the hard-working students they are.

“A lot of us are pretty cool,” McDonagh said. “We’re pretty nice. We go through a very vigorous interview process to get this job in the first place. We have been selected for a reason. You might not see that reason, but we are here for a reason, and we’re here to help you.”

For McDonagh, going above and beyond is routine. Even if it’s just saying hello to residents in the hallway, stopping to ask someone about their day, or sitting down for lunch, she finds the time to be available for them.

“I think the main thing in order to go above and beyond for your residents is just interacting with them,” McDonagh explained. “I send my residents a weekly email, and they all really respond well to that. Whenever I see residents in the hallway, I will always say hi, I will always stop what I’m doing and ask them how their day is, and ask them about their recent test that they had that I remember them telling me about. It’s that kind of persistence that helps me bond with my residents.”

McDonagh says the difference between a good RA and a mediocre one lies in their reasons for taking the job. It is the difference between wanting to make people’s lives better and just getting a paycheck. For McDonagh, it is all about improving the lives of those around her.

“A good RA makes it known that they are there for their residents, and makes it important to bond with the community that they’re in. They make sure their residents are ok,” McDonagh said. “Being an RA allows me to do what I love the most: help others reach their full potential.”

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