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How being an RA (Resident Advisor) set me up to run a business.

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I am a proud graduate of Western Michigan University.  I lived in the residence halls my entire collegiate career. All 5 1/2 years of it.  I went to this school of 22,000 students without knowing a soul and was placed in a room my freshman year with 3 total strangers.  Now it wasn’t my roommates who had a lasting effect on me, it was a group of guys who lived down the hall.  Let’s call them Norm, Bob and Kenny.

These guys were all Sophmores and had a peer group already established and they took me under their wing.  Some of their friends had become RA’s which started a chain reaction among us.  A Resident Advisor in a dorm is the person who lives on the floor and there are a number of responsibilities they have.  To provide the residents with things to do throughout the year.  To do a bulletin board on the floor every month to which every RA will tell you that this was the bane of their existence.  To also monitor activity on the floor and do everything from mediate roommate disputes, to reporting any wrongdoing (underage drinking, or violating quiet hours).  It’s a pretty complicated role to play.  The role is to foster community most of the time, but to also police the floor other times.  It’s like this strange mix of camp counselor mixed with an internal affairs officer.

I became an RA my 4th year.  I moved into a different building and there were twelve floors split by two buildings so there was a staff of 12 RA’s who are led by 3 AD’s (assistant directors, also students) and an RD (resident director/ Adult).  It was one of the best years of my life.

RA’s go through a 2 week training before school starts.  There is a large component of team building because we really need to function as a unit.  I believe this is due to the need for psychological support throughout the year.  Other things we were trained on were, conflict resolution, diversity training, communication and more conflict resolution.

Each of us were placed on a floor and we were  responsible for building community on the floor by organizing “programs”, which is fancy for things to do. We also are responsible for keeping the floor safe, and quiet after quiet hours.

Now my building was primarily freshman with a few sophomores sprinkled in the mix but completely absent of upper classmen and common sense.  The stuff 18 year olds do when away from home for the first time is unbelievable.

I walked outside my room one Sunday evening and saw a group standing at the end of the hall only to find a dead deer that someone had dragged into the building.  There was the night I was called to another floor and when I got there I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face because someone has discharged all of the fire extinguishers on the floor.

Then there was the time we had to follow a trail of blood from one stairwell, down three flights of stairs, through the lobby, into the elevator of another building, and straight to the student’s room.  We affectionately nicknamed him “sprinkler boy”.

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There was the time the football players on another floor decided it would be fun to throw beer bottles from inside their room and have them smash on the wall outside their room onto the carpet.  That confrontation was exciting, and there was a year or two there where I rooted against our football team.

There was the time I was on duty (there were nights we had to stay in and go on rounds to make sure things were OK in the building) when one of the girls on my floor came back from a party and I found out that she was sexually assaulted.

There was the time my friend’s floor went totally nuts and smashed all of the lights  and vandalized the whole floor.  If my memory serves correctly, I think he got everyone up out of bed at 2am and had them clean it up.

There was the time we caught two people climbing in the ground window with two cases of beer on a Friday afternoon and promptly went to their door, knocked on it, and confiscated it.

There was the time we were in a staff meeting and someone barges in and says, Matt you should get down to the ground floor Shawn is about to get into a fight.  Shawn is very good friend who was an RA on the floor below me and he had a tough floor, and a long year.  I got down there and there is a mob and he is screaming at one of his residents and pointing in his face.  Now Shawn could’ve kicked this kids ass, but 25 of them I am not so sure.

Those are the stories I can remember off the top of my head. There are dozens of others that are buried deep in my psyche and are probably choosing to stay there.  If you want to learn about teamwork and supporting your peers, I think this experience is 10 times more effective than playing on a team sport or being in a social group.  We were all 20-22 year olds going through these experiences together and it forged a bond that is stronger than oak (but not if you are Cush’s dad in Jerry Maguire, that dude is just a liar and doesn’t appreciate how strong oak is). It is truly a baptism of fire and we all grew up (most of us) at a advanced rate.

Over the ensuing years, I have stood up in 4 weddings with the friends I made during this time, and have staying close with many of them.  I grew to love these people and now we have spouses and families and always trade war stories of those days.

After that year, I advanced to the next role of Assistant Director so my skill set grew.  It was the first time in my life I had a supervisory role.  Again, that is another skill that can be a tricky balance because I was supervising people that I was peers with the year before.  It was at the end of that year, I learned that I could make a career out of this line of work.

I applied for and accepted a job as a Hall Director at SUNY Geneseo in Western New York and worked there for two years as a professional while earning a masters degree in College Student Personnel at Buffalo State College.  There is another blog entry in my future about that experience.

From there I accepted a job as a Hall Director at Washington State University where I pulled in and took one look at my building and asked myself what I had gotten myself into.  There was a 12 story building that was going to be full of 300 freshman in about three weeks.  I had a staff of 12 RA’s and oversaw the operation of that building for 2 years.

Many more skills were learned during that time.  I was the one teaching the RA’s how to do their job based on my previous 4 years of experience.  They were going through the same types of things I had gone through and I was able to help them through those long nights.  I was the one running the meetings and building the team and forging community.  My second year I was the head of the training committee and helped design the two week training for 135 RA’s before school started.

My third year, I oversaw the operation of 6 halls on campus and supervised the hall directors inside of each.  That is where my 10 years career of residence life ended.  I wanted to see where all of this experience would get me off campus. It is also the year I met my future wife. So I can say that my years in residence life provided me life long friends and my family.

The skills I learned during that time were invaluable.  Somewhere along the way, I learned to sell.  I believe it was because I needed to “sell” thoughts and I ideas to my teams along the way on how to handle certain situations.  Essentially, I was just teaching them skills that they needed to perform.  My sales approach uses the same strategy.  I am very educational in my approach to selling insurance.  Everyone who buys from me knows what they are getting and why it is important.

I hired and fired RA’s when I was a professional.  This gave me experience that I needed when I was building a team for my business.  I did a ton of team building and supervising which has served me well.  I endured plenty of conflict which has helped me with dealing with customers who aren’t fully satisfied.

I wouldn’t take any of those long nights back and the friends I made along the way, at every stop, are very special to me.  The job as an RA gave me skills I would have not gotten otherwise and believe it gave me a head start on running the successful agency I have today.

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  1. Those are some fond memories of our WMU RA days. I worked in Valley 3 for two years as a RA in the ’70’s. The job clearly prepared me for other leadership skills in life. I took the management route in Banking and the same personality types that you encounter in college you meet again and again in the Corporate world! Thank you Mr. Dietz for taking me down memory lane.

    • Thanks for reading Diane! It was a fun post to write. I was in Valley 1, Britton Hadley for 2 years. Built alot of character down there/ 🙂