by Emma Scoble
Within NYU, there are innumerable student leaders; in classrooms, on sports teams, in student clubs, and in student government. But perhaps the most essential of these leaders are Resident Assistants. They touch the lives of every student living in NYU housing.
In their contracts, Resident Assistants waive their right to speak to the press in order to protect the privacy of their residents. Brett Chamberlin and Kendall Galloway, former RAs and current NYU alumni, were gracious enough to go on record for this interview.
“Have you ever been written up?” Brett Chamberlin asked me.
“No,” I told him. “I’m just that good.”
“Oh,” he said, disappointed.
For any other leadership position at NYU, there is a clear divide between leader and follower — dean to student or president to member or teacher to pupil. But RAs are often just a few years older than their charges. They share a building, a floor, and sometimes even a room. More often than any other position, the boundaries between authority figure and friend are murky.
I was slightly saddened by Chamberlin’s designation of me as uncool. But, I also began to realize how different RA leaders could be, and how often the lines could be blurred.
For Chamberlin, an RA of Rubin and Brittany Hall, community and friendship among the residents come before strict rules. Bad behavior is never something to encourage, he said, but the repercussions of breaking the rules just a few times weren’t severe.
On the other side of the spectrum was someone like Coral Towers RA Kendall Galloway.
“If your residents respect you — they won’t expect you to look the other way. If you make the policy clear from the beginning, the residents know what to expect from you,” Galloway said.
Both Chamberlin and Galloway were so very different in personality and leadership style. I wanted to see how each handled that precarious balance of peer and supervisor. What happened when an RA had to choose between their roles as friend and superior?
For Chamberlin, a story said it all. Once when he was waiting to write up a student in the bathroom at an underaged drinking party, he and a few drunk underage residents took a few commemorative pictures on Photo Booth.
“As an RA, I’m not a police officer,” said Chamberlin. “I’m not ruining anyone’s life.”
At state schools, Chamberlin said, RAs were required to call in legal violations like underage drinking or possession of illegal drugs to law enforcement.
“Then,” he said, “when the resident opens the door they are actually greeted by an officer with a taser and handcuffs. If I had had to call the police, I wouldn’t have taken this job.”
But for Galloway, there was a distinct difference between her responsibilities as an RA and as a peer. When she once smelled weed coming from under her resident’s door, she opened to find her resident who claimed that the weed belonged to his roommates. Both had just left the dorm. Galloway knew the student, and she believed him.
“But, as an RA, you don’t write down your personal feelings in reports,” she said. “I just wrote what I saw — that I smelled smoke, and there was one resident in the room. That was my role.”
But her role didn’t stop there. Afterwards, Galloway approached her Residence Hall Director to say that the student was a good kid who was probably scapegoated. From Galloway’s perspective, leading was doing your job first and then speaking up for those who were innocent. The rest wasn’t part of her role.
“RAs aren’t jurors,” she said.
With all the disciplinary action, nightly hall monitoring, and formal floor meetings, we sometimes forget that RAs are just like us. But as Chamberlin found, duties as an RA are inseparable from your personal life. During a friend’s 21st dorm birthday party, he spotted a number of his underaged residents. Though the party was outside of the dorm, Chamberlin told the residents that he was going to go to a nearby bar and wait for them to leave. Afterwards, he told his Residence Hall Director what had happened to avoid any rumors that an RA had been drinking with his charges.
“That was the only time I really felt like I was an RA and those peers were my residents,” Chamberlin said.
After hearing their stories, I found that many of the difficulties and successes of being an RA aren’t based on the grand decisions or monumental acts of valor. To borrow Chamberlin’s words, “As an RA, you learn to see people as people. You see the unique awesomeness of humans. You concretely make a difference in someone’s experience at NYU.”
It seemed that being an RA isn’t a job, but a temporary dedication of your life to others. In that lies the bravest decision a leader can make.