You in?

Being a residence advisor is not all fun and trust games.

“I like being a part of something that is small and you know everyone’s name.”

“I wanted to be that friend for someone who might otherwise just get lost in the system.”

“My first-year residence advisor helped me through a lot of things. He inspired me to become an RA.”

Every year, about 1,000 students apply to become residence advisors (RAs) at UBC. They do so for a multitude of reasons and have a variety of expectations, but with one common thread: they are hoping to have a positive impact on the 11,000 students living in UBC residence.

However, the turnover is enormous. Of the 194 residence advisors living in residence this upcoming school year, fewer than half are returning, and most students leave after one or two years of advising. Returning after more than two years is seen as a rarity.

The Ubyssey spoke to 10 RAs — whose names have been changed due to the non-disclosure agreement they are required to sign with Residence Life — to find out what changed and why so many students — who go into the position with such good intentions — do not come back.

Aggressive Ambiguity

“A lot of people go in thinking that you just tell people to be quiet sometimes, but that’s not the case,” said Margot, who advised for one year. “They’re going to be dealing with a lot of hardship and just a lot of emotional stress … They’re not signing up for an easy-peasy job.”

On its website, Residence Life (ResLife) describes the RA position as “a valuable way to build important leadership skills, help other students succeed socially and academically, and earn income during the school year.”

“I think they really touch on the good side, which is important,” said Devin, who also advised for one year. “But I think they really need to tell people that you need to be ready for balancing all these things and all these extra commitments. Because people do leave. People do leave after first term.”

According to their contract — only a single page, double-sided document — RAs have to be “in” four nights per week, meaning they have to remain on their floor from 8 p.m. to 7 a.m. They have to host at least four events per term and attend any “additional meetings or events required at the discretion of the Residence Life Manager.”

Not only is the contract short but also “everything is hidden in sentences,” said Devin, noting the majority of the information about the job is included in addendums.

According to many RAs, the duties listed in the job description barely scratch the surface of what is expected of RAs.
According to many RAs, the duties listed in the job description barely scratch the surface of what is expected of RAs. Courtesy Emilie Kneifel

The job summary itself is included on another document which lists “living in the assigned residence area and promoting residence communities, which are: safe and secure, conducive to academic pursuits, conducive to personal growth and learning,” as requirements as well.

“When we were signing the contract, a person in management pointed out the line about extra mandatory meetings and said, ‘so that we can make you do more work!’ and laughed,” said Devin.

Michael, a student who also advised for one year, added that the contract is “vague as shit on purpose. It hides a lot of what they expect from you and a lot of the expectations are incredible.”

For example, RAs’ duty to do rounds — or patrol their residence hallways twice on weekdays and three times on weekends — is not mentioned on the contract. Instead, it is a part of their duty to “uphold standards.”

Discretionary duties make up a large portion of the time RAs spend working.
Discretionary duties make up a large portion of the time RAs spend working. Courtesy Emilie Kneifel

Throughout the school year, RAs are paid $7,120. This is meant to compensate them for their work and go towards housing and meal plans.

“The RA job is not considered a full-time job. It’s not,” said Tiffany Mintah, associate director of Residence Life. “It’s 10 to 15 hours a week, so it’s not a full-time job.”

However, “it’s just always been a thing for RAs to do more than they’re compensated for,” said Devin.

“They say it’s a part-time job but it’s not,” said Will, who advised for two years. “We work full-time hours. By the most conservative estimates we got about eight and a half dollars an hour. The most conservative of estimates.”

Dr. Steven Barnes, assistant head of the department of psychology and a UBC faculty well-being liaison, said that while it may be a part-time job on paper, it doesn’t work like that in practice.

“When a doctor at a hospital is on call, they’re getting paid to be on call. Even if they’re not doing anything, they’re getting paid,” said Barnes. “If these people are on call 24/7, that’s not realistic. That’s not good for their mental health and it’s not good for their grades.”  

This pay discrepancy is only the first misunderstanding about the kind of work that the RAs are actually doing.

“[Management] fully recognizes that we as RAs are made to do more work than we are compensated for,” said Devin. “They know that. And they’re okay with shamelessly and explicitly stating that to the people on the receiving end of the contract and laughing about it.”

RA Culture

Beyond finances and long work hours, RAs also experience extra burdens like the “emotional realities of the job that aren’t exceptions but built into it by design,” said Will, which add to the consuming nature of the position.

“[ResLife] is the first thing on your mind and it’s the first thing that you do,” said Sam.

During their training, RAs have a session where they are invited to think about “what balance looks like for them and how they’re going to get themselves through challenging times during the job,” said Mintah.

“[ResLife] is the first thing on your mind and it’s the first thing that you do."

— Sam, a former residence advisor

However, this balance is hard to strike.

“[RAs] care a lot about the people they’re mentoring and taking care of,” said Devin, “So there is a lot of self-applied pressure. [But even] if an RA is talking to your residents, doing your job well, but maybe not writing warm fuzzies for your residents every hour of the day, it can feel like you’re not doing enough.”

For this reason, competition runs rampant between RAs. This competition is often reinforced by management in practices like giving out awards to the “hardest workers” and the theme of “Above and Beyond” RAs were encouraged to strive for this year.

“It’s like ‘let’s out-work each other in order to be recognized,’” said Devin. “And we’re being fed the same narrative from our supervisors. You kind of get in trouble if you do the minimum.”

It may be the case that the students hired care a lot and put undue pressure on themselves, but there are other factors that contribute to the “feedback loop” of the “RA culture.”

Living, sleeping and studying where they work is one of them. Though this reality may seem like something that prospective RAs should have already considered, “actually living it” takes a greater toll on advisors than even they anticipated.

According to Devin, it’s difficult to be “on all the time.”

“You need to display that not only are you an involved person, but also that you are academically successful, focused, and emotionally and physically well,” they said. “I think that’s already a lot to do for anybody.”

Their concept of home also changes completely.

“There are no nooks and crannies for you to just chill in,” said Alan, who advised for one year. “Just being home places responsibility on you, which can be difficult because that’s your only space.” But this feeling of responsibility doesn’t just apply to “in” nights.

“Even on ‘out nights,’ as soon as you step on the property and you observe something that needs to be dealt with, you need to deal with it,” said Devin of the nights RAs are permitted to be away from residence. “You are a student leader always. No matter where you are. If you’re in class. Even outside class. You don’t know all the residents who know you. It’s like you’re being watched all the time.”

According to Andrew Parr — managing director of Student Housing and Hospitality Services, the department which houses Residence Life — this is part of maintaining the residence atmosphere.

“When they’re off duty they still have to […] continue to be respectful and caring in the environment that they reside in,” said Parr.

The time commitment and living situation can also create social isolation, causing many residence advisors to quickly lose their support networks outside of ResLife.

“You’re steeping in ResLife 24 hours a day,” said Sam, who advised for three years. “You have to actively, consciously make relationships a priority. That takes a lot of energy. And you’re already using up all of your energy.”

“Your friends just stop inviting you to parties because, odds are, you’re going to be in,” said Margot. To make matters worse, Margot’s friends didn’t understand the realities of their job. “[They made my job] the butt of the joke without realizing that I have five suicidal residents and that I never sleep.”

The nature of the position also has an effect on advisors’ academic performance.

"The reality of ResLife is so at odds with ‘School first, ResLife second.'"

— Sam, a former residence advisor

“There’s a saying in ResLife that your academics come first, but with the amount of work that we’re expected to do sometimes that can’t be the case,” said Margot, who had never pulled an all-nighter until they became a residence advisor. As an advisor, they averaged five all-nighters per month.

“It’s to the point where it’s a joke when you’re coming in that your GPA is going to drop 10 to 15 per cent,” said Sam. “The reality of ResLife is so at odds with ‘School first, ResLife second,’ but nothing is done to change that.”

Residence 911

On top of that, it is not at all uncommon to deal with extremely serious resident situations.

“By the time I was 18, I had four people tell me they wanted to kill themselves and one person tell me they had been sexually assaulted,” said Margot. “I was young. I was really young. And so were they.”

While it’s not the responsibility of an RA to solve the issue themselves, “it’s an expectation that residence advisors listen and make an appropriate referral [for a resident]. So being a good listener is an expectation,” said Mintah.

But sometimes only a referral isn’t enough.

“Yes, we can just refer them, but how do you just shove someone off?” said Alan.

They can’t. And they don’t.

Before they start the job, residence advisors are trained for 10 to 12 days at Advisor Orientation, which includes training on active listening, assertiveness and role playing. The final part of the training involves something Mintah called “developing personal leadership practices” in which students journal and are invited to share their experiences.

“We take one [crisis] question-response course but we have five sessions on how to make a poster.”

— Margot, a former residence advisor

However, many felt that they were not properly trained to cope with difficult resident situations.

“One of the emergency situations in the [training] booklet — along with asbestos and if something was on fire — was sexual assault,” said Sam. “Every year I’ve worked as an advisor, I’ve worked with at least two students telling me about being sexually assaulted.”

Margot echoes Sam’s concerns that RAs are not trained for the realities of the job.

“They put us through simulations,” said Margot, “[But] at the end of the day, the amount of leadership training we get doesn’t train us for how to respond to a resident who is suicidal ... We take one [crisis] question-response course but we have five sessions on how to make a poster.”

“It sounds like they do get the necessary training for referrals,” said Barnes, “but that doesn’t mean that they are not affected by [serious resident situations]. It is very emotionally taxing to deal with people who are suffering with severe mental illness because it takes a toll on you as well.”

“The challenging experiences [of RAs] are definitely challenging,” said Parr. “But I guess the positive is that you as an individual learn and grow and help you develop mechanisms you didn’t have before.”

However, RAs don’t feel that their superiors understand the reality of their experience.

“[Management hasn’t] spent a week there. They don’t know the community,” said Margot. “They claim that they know what students’ needs are, but the fact of the matter is that they don’t. We are the ones that know.”

Learning to Cope

Students learn how to cope with these realities in different ways. For Trevor, who advised for two years, it included a lot of partying. Other students reach out to their fellow RAs, but this itself can be a stressor.

“You’re expected to have residents confide in you, but it’s not in your job description to be the therapist for your co-workers,” said Sam. “Inevitably that ends up happening just by virtue of how difficult the job is on so many people. So all of a sudden you’re taking on all of this emotional labour and dealing with that on top of everything else.”

These inter-RA relationships are also complicated because they are muddled between the realms of the personal and the professional.

“From the beginning it’s set up so that you have these extremely close personal relationships with everyone you work with,” said Sam, noting that this makes dealing with other RAs especially difficult. “It doesn’t feel like you’re being a therapist. You’re being a friend. But you’re never given any training on how to deal with these unclear ethical boundaries between ‘This is my friend. This is also my colleague.’”

Not only that, but in difficult situations, RAs cannot confide in their coworkers because they are contractually bound to maintain residents’ confidentiality.

Even then, said Barnes, “their coworkers aren’t clinical counselling psychologists — they’re not social workers.”

The support that Residence Life provides to students include weekly meetings with their supervisor about an hour a week in first-year residence and twice a month in upper year residences.

“The idea is that you get that one-on-one time to just talk about you and how you’re doing,” said Mintah.

On top of the regular time the students get off every week, they have access to a Wellness Pass, which gives them a night off — no questions asked. ResLife has refrained from putting a number on it because they want people to use it when they need it; they've had no reason to make more rules about it. However, the Residence Life manager does track the amount of wellness passes that are used by each residence advisor.

For more serious incidences, Residence Life has brought in external support, such as counselling for the students directly involved, according to Mintah. However, the only person students have 24-hour access to is a residence life manager, who is “trained to a certain level to deal with those conflicts,” said Parr, noting they would work with referred professionals should they be needed as well.

“It’s weird,” said Trevor, “Because I feel like there is so much support around, but I didn’t feel supported.”

Revolving Door

And in some cases, RAs’ mental health problems can lead to professional consequences.

“Often I’ve met residence advisors who have not been able to return because they were not supported with their mental health. They’ve been told they can’t be rehired,” said Margot.

The Ubyssey found someone with one such story.

Sam was advising for their second year. In first term, they struggled with their mental health and were briefly hospitalized because of it. However, in spite of these difficulties, their job performance was not affected.

“They were a star advisor that semester. They had the best events in our team,” said their former co-worker, Will.

Sam remained “completely transparent” with their manager throughout this process, including when their road to recovery included dropping some classes. Their manager kept in touch and offered personal support.

However, “when things got serious, the blurring of personal and professional really became a big deal,” said Sam. In the second semester, they received a “really friendly email” inviting them to come into their manager’s office to “chat about the semester and financial advising.”

“The meeting ended up being about me being asked to resign because I hadn’t met the academic standard,” recalled Sam. They were shocked.

“I had spoken with my manager at each step of the way […] and I hadn’t been informed of any potential professional consequences,” they said. “It was presented as a choice, but it wasn’t a choice. It was an ultimatum of ‘either you resign or we will not hire you again.’ It was very clear that the only reason for it was struggling with mental health.”

Sam had known residence advisors who hadn’t met the 65 per cent average requirement stated in the contract and had only gotten “a tap on the wrist.” Additionally, in order to live in residence at UBC, one has to be taking at least three classes, but Sam was registered with Access & Diversity so they could take two classes and still be considered a full-time student.

"Any other employee at UBC would’ve had time off and compensation and payment for that time off. So why didn’t [Sam] get treated like anyone else here?”

— Dr. Steven Barnes, assistant head of the department of psychology and a UBC faculty well-being liaison

According to Mintah, when an RA’s average falls below 65 per cent or has a sessional grade that is significantly lower than their cumulative average, ResLife takes note.

“We develop an academic planning document with that advisor [and] they get the chance to sit down one on one with their Residence Life manager to talk through it,” she said.

For Barnes, he sees this as not aligned with UBC’s policies towards other staff members.

“[Grades] should not be a factor given the fact that they were sick. They should be subject to accommodations,” said Barnes. “Any other employee at UBC would’ve had time off and compensation and payment for that time off. So why didn’t they get treated like anyone else here?”

Despite Sam’s requests, there was no appeal process. Instead, ResLife told them they would place them at the residence of their choice.

“I paid the organization that had just fired me $3,000 to continue to live on campus,” they said.

Additionally, Sam was no longer allowed to participate in or help run events. They were also prohibited from participating in their team’s “All Out Night,” a night in March where RAs from the same building all have the night off.

“They removed Sam from their system of support,” said Will. “They took away their salary and added a financial burden.” 

“The managers and the supervisors treat RAs like they are students and provide the same care and support to the RAs that the RAs provide to their residents and their community,” said Mintah.

However, when Will spoke to their manager about why Sam had not been treated the way a resident would have, they were told “point-blank” that “‘it’s different when you’re a resident and an RA. The same rules don’t apply.’”

“I’m not even sure the way they handled my situation was legal,” said Sam. “And I wasn’t in a place to pursue that.”

Will and Sam pushed for manager feedback, which they got, but their manager was not fired. According to other advisors’ accounts, the manager’s behaviour the next year was no different.

"You can’t blame the whole organization for one manager, but you can blame the whole organization for the conduct and the procedure by which they handled it.”

— Sam, a former residence advisor

When Sam was rehired as an RA the following year, it was because a previous manager vouched for them. In a meeting about rent payment, the assistant director also offered an apology for the loss of their job.

However, “there was never any visible change in the way the organization was run — there was never any accountability at all,” said Sam.

"You can’t blame the whole organization for one manager, but you can blame the whole organization for the conduct and the procedure by which they handled it.”

Moving In and Moving On

If Sam could change anything about the RA position, mental health would be at the forefront.

“Mental health issues are rampant in ResLife,” they said. “[Support] never really gets beyond venting to your coordinator and just dealing with it. When there’s something serious, there’s nothing there. So the response is exclusively policy. That is the exact opposite of what someone needs and what is responsible of the organization.”

In spite of the sheer number of residence advisors, most agree that changing the system from the inside is nearly impossible.

“The people who are on the forefront of experiencing the structures that exist and the protocols that exist have the least power to reform those things,” said Devin. “You can send out those [feedback] surveys all you want but let’s be real … the way that some of the questions are asked are in a way to get the response that they want.”

Even for RAs who are returning this year, it remains to be seen whether ResLife is hiring to retain the best students at all.

“We’re hired to be leaders,” said Margot. “But the second we take any kind of initiative within the position in terms of making a change to the position, we can’t do that. And we aren’t rehired. We lose our job. They reward obedience, but not the ability to make positive change.”