Breaking the ice with Swarthmore’s RAs

Breaking the ice: a look at RA orientation

As first-years, it’s easy think that the Swarthmore experience begins the instant you set foot on campus, waving the plane/train/automobile that delivered you to academic salvation off into the haze of Philadelphia. However, for the alphabet soup of upperclassmen who facilitate the transition to Swarthmore for the incoming class, behind-the-scenes work begins days earlier, with workshops on everything from alcohol awareness to coping with sexual assault included in the training regimen.

Swarthmore’s 53 Resident Assistants (RAs) undertake the most rigorous of the student training schedules, meeting with a myriad of representatives from resource centers, offices, and departments before collaborating with Campus Advisors (CAs) and Student Academic Mentors (SAMs) to form a support network for their bright-eyed residents.

There’s a lot to cover, and, as with most things, it takes a village. “It takes the support of deans, other RAs, CAPS, Worth and the whole of many other campus resources in order for even just a single hall to function effectively,” returning RA Sam Buchl ’13 said. “Learning how to synergize with these resources, both in RA training and ‘on-the-job,’ was probably the most valuable perk of being an RA [last year].”

Buchl, along with the 13 other returning RAs, found himself included on the long list of resources throughout orientation week. With a full year of hands-on experience under their belts — and, in Buchl’s case, an additional summer spent as an RA for students living on campus — the second-year RAs found their expertise to be in high demand.

“In many ways, it makes most of us feel old [to be second-year RAs], but it is a fun and exciting prospect to share our perspectives with people whose seats we filled just a year ago,” Wharton’s Seth Udelson ’13, who worked on Dana basement last year, shared. “The ‘braintrust’ of perspectives within the returning RAs is really cool. In many ways, we do this job so that we can give back, and helping to guide first-year RAs through the job is a task we all relish in.”

First-year RAs aren’t without their own experiences to draw on. Many were inspired to apply for the competitive position after having particularly standout first-year and sophomore-year RAs and, as Alice Paul’s Susana Medeiros ’14 noted, “It’s college, so we all manage to come out with a few horror stories that have prepared us… once you can tell your residents that you’ve done half of the questionable things you’re warning them against, they’re definitely going to respect where you’re coming from.”

The collection of juniors and seniors, while uniform in its commitment to forging relationships and keeping residential charges safe, healthy, and happy, brings together an eclectic mix of personalities. From the gregarious and fun-loving to the conscientiously studious, RAs are matched — with uncanny precision, in most cases — to the reputation of their dorms and fellow hall mates. Medeiros, who described the stereotype of Alice Paul as “Cool, chic and environmentally friendly,” noted she is also “Cool, chic and recycles occasionally.” Nathaniel Lo ’13, an RA on single-sex Parrish 4th,  says its reputation as somewhat quiet and antisocial is undeserved — after two years of living on the hall, he likens himself a “Goofball extrovert who likes to do something wacky once in a while,” to the true nature of his dorm.

As occupants begin to breathe life into dorm rooms around campus, RAs hope to facilitate their own unique hall experiences — and, most importantly, spend some time getting to know their residents. Richard Scott ’14, an RA in Palmer, plans to include hall members in a yoga study break with Wellness Coordinator Satya Nelms, whose RA yoga was “The highlight of [orientation] week.”  Lo hopes to deliver fun and games with a Mad-Lib hall theme and a competitive Bananagrams tournament.  Lauren Sanchez ’14, an RA in Mertz and Rhythm N Motion dancer, will help residents adjust to their hall theme — “ Bust a Move” — with introductory dougie lessons, and Medeiros will host a make-your-own-comic study break.

The RAs, however, can’t do it all, even when armed with glue sticks and board games. “The dorm really is a shell that residents can fill with their own enthusiasm,” Udelson said, whose “Super Smash [Bros.] happy freshmen” in Dana allowed for “organic hall life” to develop around the central lounge’s game station last year.  Because of this, many RAs are itching to meet their residents.

“I can’t wait to see my residents across Parrish beach and do a really embarrassing and public ‘mom shout hi,’” Sanchez said. After years of nurturing her twin sister and mediating conflicts that erupted in a household of women, she’s ready for the challenge and the new relationships her position will bring.

While their easy demeanor and ice-breaking antics may seem sure signs of confident Swarthmore upperclassmen, don’t let the smiles fool you. Orientation for the upperclassmen is not without anxiety, especially as the arrival of the first-years nears. “Sometimes I can feel like I’m on a first date, thinking, ‘Will they like me?’ or ‘Am I being too loud?’ or things like that,” Udelson shared.

For others, the anxiety is less self-directed. “I’m just hoping people throw up on the right places on my hall,” Medeiros said. (For first-years: the “right places” include garbage cans and nearby toilets).

After surviving their week-long orientation, one thing seems clear to the RAs of David Kemp. “After several successful planning sessions this year, a fellow DK RA, Vienna Tran, smiled really big, and said, ‘I think we’re a really great group, guys,’” Buchl said. “Each time, I smiled back. I think she’s right.”

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