Letter to the editor

Editor’s Note: The author of this letter is a resident assistant in Pollock Halls. This RA was previously interviewed for The Daily Collegian’s article “Residence Life holds mandatory RA training on Penn State’s first intended wellness day,” in which the RA was referred to as “Steve.”

Steve’s real name has been omitted to protect their identity. Steve’s status as a Penn State student and RA has been verified through The Daily Collegian’s fact-checking process.

Disclaimer: I write this letter to the editor of The Daily Collegian as an individual and not a representative of the university nor the Department of Residence Life. I have at least one semester of experience as an RA in the Pollock area. This letter is published anonymously to prevent potential consequences from the Department of Residence Life.

While attending an institution offering a great breadth of courses with such diverse topics as Invertebrate Zoology and the Craft of Comics, it can be hard to think that there is a near universal experience shared by Penn State students. The idea of a resident assistant (RA) is almost inseparable from the college experience, even more so at Penn State. An RA is a live-in staff member within the Department of Residence Life and is responsible for building community, connecting students to campus resources and enforcing policies within the residence halls. The Department of Residence Life focuses on providing a co-curricular component to a student’s application. Formally, the department’s co-curricular goals are to enrich a student’s understanding of:

  1. Equity & Inclusion (formerly Diversity & Inclusion)
  2. Community Expectations
  3. Bystander Intervention
  4. Conflict Resolution

In short, the department is focused on supporting students in residence halls (and those off campus in certain situations). The department employs some of the most diverse and high-achieving students at this university, but seldom does it take advantage of its human capital. The first thing a potential RA is told from department representatives is that “RAs are students first;” however, this is far from the experience I’ve had. Prior to COVID-19, the department regarded RAs as easily replaceable assets rather than student leaders and employees. This attitude can be seen in almost every aspect of the RA role, from the process of becoming an RA to remuneration.

In a typical year to become an RA, an undergraduate student must first apply to a written application, successfully complete two interviews, and finally earn a space in the course (HIED 302) to even be considered for placement as an RA. It may be surprising to hear that only the written application of this two-semester process is fully accessible to all students. The interviews take place exclusively during times when students may have classes — historically on two Tuesdays and one Wednesday a semester — and are selected on a first come, first serve basis. RAs and professional staff from the five housing areas participate in this interview process that in theory offers more than enough time slots to accommodate each candidate, but logistically clash with high-achieving students’ classes or other commitments.

Should a candidate proceed through the process past these interviews, they must wait for weeks as candidates are selected to move on and are enrolled in the course HIED 302. During these weeks of waiting, most students are scheduling their own courses and often have conflicts with the HIED 302 class, which only has one section. Woe to the STEM students with labs and lectures encompassing the entirety of this class period. Woe to the arts students with studios and workshops.

Presently, there is no alternative to proceed in the process without successful completion of the HIED 302 course, meaning that if a student wishes to proceed in the process, they often must sacrifice or delay taking another course, which can have serious consequences for future courses with strictly gated prerequisites.

This course is facilitated by Residence Life professional staff members, often Residence Life Coordinators (RLC), who are tasked with running a section of the course on top of their other job responsibilities. These RLCs often struggle to find the time to grade and give feedback on candidates and their assignments, which can negatively impact the candidate’s ability to get picked up as all of the materials used by other RLCs to build their team of RAs come from the facilitator of the class.

But even after taking the HIED 302 course and a semester’s investment, there is still no guarantee of placement as an RA. During the weeks of waiting for the RA roster announcement, students often must make alternative plans for housing — including signing leases for off-campus housing or requesting an on-campus housing contract. This necessary alternative planning can have serious financial ramifications for students whether they are “picked up” or not.

If a candidate is chosen and has already signed an off-campus lease as a contingency plan months ago — possibly before they even began the process to become an RA — the candidate must find a way out of the lease, attempt to find a sublet or bear the financial burden to become an RA. If a candidate is not picked up, they may have to pay for a more expensive on-campus housing contract as they did not attempt to secure an off-campus lease because they knew they wanted to become an RA.

This selection process isn’t considerate of a student’s scheduling or financial conditions, and is justified by citing the fact that until recently, it has worked fine. This process sets a dangerous precedent that RAs are subject to months of waiting, the expectation to quickly and drastically change plans, or overly accommodate to better serve the Department of Residence Life.

These inflexible standards and attitudes may play a part in the fact that the department is struggling to recruit enough RA candidates to even fill the HIED 302 course, and accepted every candidate who submitted the written application into the course. RAs and RA candidates are told to have “grace and patience” when waiting for guidance, as has been the case with COVID-19 policies in the residence halls, or our remuneration. How much longer will the department continue to willfully ignore its practices and methods for RA recruitment are not only incredibly inconsiderate of candidates’ statuses as students, but are also failing?

Nearly every government and media source will tell you that COVID-19 is a “rapidly emerging and evolving situation” to make the public aware that guidance may change, and it may be necessary to stay up to date on best practices. Penn State is no different. The website virusinfo.psu.edu and administrative policy AD101 are touted as being the one-stop shops for all questions and policies pertaining to COVID-19.

However, this website is almost devoid of policies specific to residence halls, aside from the no-guest policy. There haven’t been and there are currently no official online references that on-campus students can reference to see all the policies pertaining to COVID-19, despite being held accountable to all of them. Residents are fully dependent on often ignored posters hung in their building and their individual RA to keep them up to date on the changing policies and guidance, or risk being placed through the Student Conduct process, which can have serious consequences for repeated violations. Additionally, these policies may differ widely depending on the housing area.

In the Pollock area, changes to these policies are principally announced in the form of a confusing Teams announcement from our area director, leading RAs to need to seek additional clarification from their individual supervisory RLC. With so much ambiguity, unclear distribution and the lack of published policies, it is no surprise that many thousands of Student Conduct cases, consisting mainly of COVID-19 policy violations, were reported by RAs.

The ethics of other policy violations are clear. Policies about prohibited items, underage drinking and other behaviors are clearly outlined in official university sources such as the Housing and Food Services Contract. The same solid ethical justification is absent for COVID-19 policy violations. These policies can only be found on posters throughout the dorms and through announcements from a resident’s RA. There is no published online reference for resident students and RAs to refer to in order to hold students accountable.

Historically, RAs have not been fully trained in the methodology and strategy behind the policies present in the residence halls. If an RA was to ask about a specific policy, they are often told they have no need to understand a policy, only to enforce it. The precedent that RAs are not consulted at all when creating policy, but are expected to enforce them is a slippery moral slope and takes away an opportunity for RAs to advocate for their residential communities as the leaders Residence Life would see to describe them as.

The department is routinely defensive about RAs speaking as advocates for their peers and their communities. Most recently, The Daily Collegian retroactively made an RA source anonymous after the source faced pressure from the department for an article in the news outlet about the February Wellness Day being used for RA Training. Why doesn’t the Department of Residence Life (and higher university structures) utilize student and student staff feedback to shape policies and training? Otherwise, there would have been no need for RAs to advocate for themselves and their peers publicly.

The lack of support goes beyond policy enforcement and discouraging advocacy. RAs and RLCs routinely face student crises that have strongly adverse effects on their own mental health. RAs and RLCs are trained to encounter crises ranging from alcohol policy violations to suicidal ideation and sexual assault, but do not receive any training on how to support themselves and their own mental health after encountering and supporting students through these serious crises.

RAs are often left unsupported financially, as well. RAs are remunerated with a $500 tuition stipend, in addition to on-campus housing and a level-three dining plan each semester. However, RAs are still charged for on-campus housing and often the equal remuneration comes weeks later, leading to the possibility of RAs having financial delinquent holds placed on their accounts. This spring, RAs were informed that their remuneration would be delayed, but would be posted to students’ accounts before the return date of Feb. 7. The resulting holds restricted RAs’ abilities to request transcripts during a time when many were preparing to apply for internships and graduate schools.

It took nearly three weeks after the start of the semester for the remuneration to be posted to RA accounts. While RAs could individually call and request the delinquent hold be lifted, this was a temporary fix and would need to be done every three days until remuneration finally was posted two days before the RA return to campus. RAs received no updates, explanation or even an apology for this circumstance. This inconsiderate management of funds is held in tandem that first-semester RAs must receive permission from an area director to hold another part-time job, on which they may be financially dependent.

Interestingly, after the Collegian published an article about RA training occurring on a Wellness Day (a third of the university’s allotted time for students’ wellbeing), the department awarded RAs who worked during the fall 2020 semester an additional $300. Though this may just be unfortunate timing, one cannot shake the feeling that this additional award may be hush money as just a week before, the department wasn’t even able to pay its RAs.

Unfortunately, even once remuneration came to RA accounts, the bungling of funds had only just begun. A total of 56 RAs were doubly remunerated, and Residence Life set out to recollect this erroneous compensation. To do this, the 56 RAs who were erroneously remunerated were meant to be charged again for housing and the RA tuition stipend for the spring semester.

However, this is not what happened. RAs who received excess payment were charged two additional times for spring 2021 housing and again for fall 2021 housing. This charge was meant to correct the erroneous compensation totaling $4,680, but the total value of the items billed to affected RAs’ accounts was in excess of $14,000. If the RAs were to call the bursar in confusion, they were informed to immediately return the entirety of any refunds they received and to pay the balance owed to the university, and were told the error stemmed from Residence Life. If RAs were to call the central office of Residence Life, they were met with hostile and belittling language saying blame exclusively laid with the office of the bursar. RAs that called the central office were told they needed to show “grace and patience,” even as a department representative refused to do so much as apologize.

All these slights, from a department whose foundation lies on supporting the development of Penn State students.

This stems from the exhaustive process to become eligible to be an RA, the lack of guidance of departmental leadership, the insensitivity to student staff members’ financial circumstances, lack of support for mental health of student and professional staff, and the repression (and perhaps even oppression) of RAs as advocates for their peers and their residents.

I wonder how much longer this list must become before change is made. How long will it take for a department that has either directly or indirectly influenced the experience of every Penn State student to adapt to better its perception? Many RAs are high-achieving students with diverse education focuses and experiences. Why does the department fail to draw from this when creating more equitable and ethical policies to hold resident students accountable?

Regardless of all the points in this letter, it’s important to say that if you are an on-campus student, your RA is there as a resource for you, even if the Department of Residence Life is not there to support you.

~ RA Steve from Pollock

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