Behind closed doors: inefficiencies, inconsistencies and the culture of silence inside ResEd

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Michelle Ito (sophomore) looked forward to becoming a Resident Advisor (RA) for first-year students when she applied for the position last spring. She enjoyed serving as a prefect at her high school and wished to continue that role under Residential Education (ResEd). Since being hired as a Stewie Hall RA, she feels she has been a valuable source of support and guidance for her students.

Her love of the job was evidenced by an above-average mid-semester evaluation—a four on a five-point-scale—which she agreed upon with her Graduate Hall Coordinator (GHC), Janet Salgado, based on feedback from residents. But despite positive evaluations from her supervisors and peers, Ito received an email March 6 that stated she would not be rehired for the position. According to Ito, she was not given a clear reason for the decision until she requested a meeting with her supervisor.

Ito contacted Salgado to set up a meeting after the decisions were released. In the one-on-one meeting held March 16, Salgado cited two recent incidents as contributing to ResEd’s decision not to rehire Ito, both of which occurred the day before decisions were made.

Salgado cited one instance where Ito expressed frustrations about the upcoming summer training start date, which had been moved up to Aug. 7 from last year’s Aug. 9 start date. An earlier start date means that RA’s summer jobs and internships are more likely to conflict with training, which they cannot miss if they wish to work during the year.

Salgado also cited an instance in which Ito made a joking comment to a GHC during office hours. Offhandedly, she said that, as an RA, she “might as well major in personal development and double-minor in programming and fostering community.” Ito was surprised to hear Salgado bring the conversation up.

“[The GHC] never told me she was offended by this,” Ito said. “She did not give me any ability to respond, and I personally did not see it as an offensive comment.”

Nonetheless, Salgado referred to these two incidents when informing Ito that she was placed as an alternate.

“Frustration and anger came immediately to mind when [Salgado] told me this,” Ito said. “Even in my meeting with [Salgado], she admitted that I am one of their best RAs. Finding out that I wasn’t rehired because of something that happened in the span of two hours—for reasons nobody addressed to me—I felt very cheated. I felt very undermined.”

Both Salgado and Associate Director of the First-Year Experience Meredith Mickaliger declined to comment for this article.

Braun RA Chrissy Hart (senior) said that Ito performed her job well and did not believe that Ito voicing her concerns justified the professionals staff’s decision not to rehire her.

“She has great programs and she’s always on time for everything,” Hart said. “The only thing was, she had some concerns and she voiced them. They felt like she would have a negative attitude next year.”

First-year RA Skyler* was also surprised to receive an email about not being rehired for next year. According to Hart, neither Ito nor Skyler received formal warnings for their behaviors.

“I was a little taken aback,” Skyler said. “I can recognize I may not have been the best RA on staff, or I hadn’t built the necessary relationship [with my residents]. But overall, I had completed all the assignments asked of me, gone above and beyond and done all the work that ResEd expected me to do.”

Skyler and Ito are two of four RAs—all on the Braun-Stewie staff—who were not rehired on what they believe were questionable grounds. Associate Director of ResEd Juls White did not comment about employee evaluations or their relation to the rehiring process, but she said that various factors go into rehiring decisions.

Some RAs believe this incident is indicative of the strained and insufficient communication between the ResEd professional staff, or “Pro Staff,” and RAs. Without feeling they have a safe or consistent forum to express their opinions about policies or practices, many RAs are compelled to either sit silently or risk losing their on-campus employment.

“The people who got rehired from our staff are great RAs, but they are not as liberal in voicing their concerns,” Ito said. “Those who didn’t get rehired seemed to trust our GHC much more. We felt like when it came to trying to improve the department, we should have every right to talk to her about it. Sure enough, the three most vocal people did not get rehired.”

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“I didn’t realize how political everything would be; political in the sense of, ‘Who do you talk to?’” Ito said. “If you have your own reservations, if you have a resident in trouble, who do you talk to? Is it your supervisor, or do you go up to the next supervisor? How much information do you tell them? How honest can you be?”

Many RAs had certain expectations going into the job: expectations concerning time commitment, the ability to provide mentorship and types of administrative responsibilities, to name a few. Those expectations changed once the job began—at least among the individuals who were interviewed. RAs most noticeably expressed surprise, and discontent, with the excessive amount time they felt they had to dedicate to the job.

Based on their contracts, RAs are required to put on two “residence programs” per month, attend weekly two-hour weekly staff meetings and participate in weekly half-hour one-on-one sessions with their GHCs. RAs are also required to attend Office Hours in Berkus Hall for two hours each week. During this time they address resident concerns, respond to lockouts and perform various secretarial tasks, but some RAs feel that the “bureaucracy,” according to first-year RA Morgan*, hinders their success on the job.

“Going into the office, it makes us feel like we’re doing busy work and putting up with the administration of the department,” Morgan said. “Then we go back to communities and feel a little diminished—like that excitement has drained; not because of the residents, but because of who we are working with.”

Extra paperwork and administrative duties were not the only things mentioned as take-aways from the residential experience. RAs stated that they dedicate up to 45 minutes of the two-hour staff meetings to ice breakers, team bonding activities and administrative items instead of dialogue about specific concerns.

“What they value is not what you would think is valued in RAs,” Hart said. “I feel like they don’t care if I got to know my residents or connected with them. They care more about getting things done—administrative things—because that’s what they can measure. I don’t feel anything else matters to them.”

Many RAs felt that their time could be used more productively, either during the meetings or outside of them. Last semester, Skyler had a morning class the day after 10 p.m. staff meetings and often had to wake up at 6:00 or 6:30 a.m. to study for midterms, which they often performed poorly on.

“ResEd rhetoric states we are students first,” Skyler said. “But a lot of the times, it feels like this job comes before our studies. A lot of the times when we have these meetings, it feels like my midterm the next morning doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter at all.”

Despite these concerns, Associate Director of ResEd Juls White believes the meetings are valuable times to connect GHCs to staff and improve the ResEd environment for all students.

“One of our departmental goals is to effectively recruit, train, develop and support a diverse team of staff members who strive to meet and exceed student needs and expectations,” White said via email. “Our staff meetings serve as one of the avenues we use to do this.”

The RAs interviewed also expressed concern over the 20-plus day training period at the beginning of the year, which has started earlier each year for the last three years: Training began Aug. 11 in 2013, Aug. 9 in 2014 and begins Aug. 7 this fall. The decision to begin training for the 2015–16 school year Aug. 7 was one of Ito’s main concerns because she would have been a returning RA with a year’s worth of experience under her belt.

“People always say, ‘I’d be a returning RA, so why do I need more training?’” Ito said. “To that point, I can’t help but say the same thing. The training they have now is not sufficient and not effective. I think they try to make effective training equivalent to time [spent training], which is really not the case at all.”

Several current and former RAs shared Ito’s opinion. Despite praise for certain activities such as “Behind Closed Doors”—an activity in which RAs role-play scenarios they may confront on the job—many feel that training involves too many skits, games, scavenger hunts and PowerPoints and too few sessions on practical job skills.

“Most of our training was, ‘Let’s make skits, and play games,’ but we didn’t touch on the fundamental things like how to call in for duty until the end,” Morgan said. “Training focused more on administrative duties rather than interpersonal relationships [with students], which is pretty much the most important thing about our jobs.”

Samuel Wylie (senior), an upper-division RA during his sophomore year, also believed training was “wildly ineffective” given the length of the training sessions.

“We would have hour-long sessions of crucial information, padded with two hours of team building and superficially fun activities.” Wylie said. “By the time school started, I was exhausted. I spent two weeks smiling, pretending to have a lot of fun on scavenger hunts. I didn’t want to do that.”

According to current RA Taylor*, returning RAs approached Pro Staff during 2014 Winter Training with feedback about various policies concerning programs, time management and food and lodging. One concern was the prolonged training period for returning RAs and how it is inefficient for returners to participate in its entirety.

“A lot of time is wasted during training, especially for returning RAs who are forced to go to most sessions every single day when really they should only be there if there are any changes to the policy or if there needs to be a refresher for going over true-to-life simulations,” RA Jessie* said.

Many RAs cite the First-Year Residential Experience (FYRE) program—a series of RA-led sessions in which first-year residents discuss issues like race, identity and sexual assault—as one responsibility they felt unprepared to take on. Though summer training spans over two weeks, FYRE preparation itself, according to multiple RAs, was not thoroughly discussed last fall until RAs reviewed a packet on the series during the first in-service program meeting for all RAs.

“We were pretty much expected to talk about subjects—pretty heavy topics, like sexual assault and identity,” Newcomb RA Spencer Goldman (sophomore) said. “We had discussed these topics in training in indirect ways, but we were never had to learn how to address a group of 10-12 freshman and keep them engaged and in the conversation.”

Despite the many qualms with training and its inefficiencies, ResEd requires mandatory attendance at all training events.

“In a single day, you may learn three important things, but you have to be in training for 12 hours a day,” Wylie said.

Several RAs mention that they turn down jobs, internships and summer abroad opportunities because of the training start date, knowing that ResEd will not budge.

“The RA position is an important job,” White said. “As a result, training is critical in the success of each and every RA. We understand that RAs have other commitments, so we make [the attendance for all training days] requirement clear up front. Unfortunately, we may lose a few great RAs because they choose another excellent opportunity.”

Former RA Siddharth Saravat (senior)—who also held South Asian Students Association, Telefund and ASOC positions during his first two years as an RA—points out that active involvement on campus can be a positive trait in an RA.

“I think the best RAs are the ones who are very involved on campus,” Saravat said. “I think that people who are busy are almost discouraged from applying because it’s a lot of work.”

Some RAs, including Skyler and Ito, said they felt compelled to withhold information from ResEd about their summer plans or sacrifice them due to the stringent attendance requirement. This sometimes stifles communication between RAs and their supervisors, according to multiple RAs interviewed.

“They basically tell you that it’s unacceptable [to miss training],” Taylor said. “If you’re honest about them [about your existing commitments] before you’re even rehired, they’ll make that decision for you. I was always afraid to talk to them about it, afraid of whether they would hire me or not.”

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Hart works as a graphic designer for Occidental Design Services (ODS), formerly known as The Occidental Agency (TOA). During Summer 2014, she worked once a week in the Berkus Hall ResEd offices as part of her summer RA job. During her eight-hour shifts, she answered phones and organized paperwork: administrative responsibilities during the slow summer session.

White approached her one day during work and asked her to design nine separate posters within the span of three hours—a project that normally has a 10-day turnaround for ODS. Hart said White constantly checked in on her and looked over her shoulder. She felt could not object to the assignment despite believing the process was rushed.

“When she asked me to make the posters, I was fine with it but at the same time, I didn’t really feel like I had a choice,” Hart said. “I wasn’t hurt or frustrated about it, but I don’t think that it was fair. Artists are getting targeted for their skills and having to do extra work. They’re definitely picking us out.”

This semester, White also asked Hart to create the Oxy411 logo during office hours in her spare time. Logos, according to Hart, are more tricky than posters and can require 6-7 hours of work for a professional look. Hart felt as if White did not have a good sense of the time commitment for these type of posters, which made her slightly uncomfortable with these assignments.

“I wasn’t hired to be ResEd’s graphic designer,” Hart said. “I was hired to be an RA.”

According to pages three and four of the current RA contract, RAs are required to perform a number of administrative duties. These include participating in leadership training workshops, attending staff meetings and assisting Room Draw. But not all the RA duties are explicitly outlined in the contract. One item on the list of responsibilities reads, “other duties as assigned.” Some RAs believe Pro Staff invoke this clause beyond its original intent and that it restricts them from speaking up when they feel overworked.

“‘Other duties as assigned’ is really just a blanket statement to be available for them to take advantage of us,” Morgan said.

In a case similar to Hart’s, ResEd contacted Skyler about their professional skills but neglected to compensate them for their efforts, according to Skyler.

“My issue wasn’t so much my ability as a professional, but their ability to access me and manipulate my ability for their event,” Skyler said. “At the same time, I thought I was doing this for my fellow RAs, for my department; and it was a social pride for me to show people I had these skills and abilities.”

Like Hart, Skyler felt pressure to perform these tasks and took professional pride in ensuring that they were done well. However, Skyler, in particular, felt as if Pro Staff’s requests were arbitrary and exploitative. But due to ambiguities in their contract, neither Skyler nor Hart felt they could voice their concerns.

“Because we don’t really know what we can say no to and what we can object to, it just feels like we can’t refuse because our jobs are on the line,” Hart said.

Despite RAs receiving mid-year evaluations from their supervisors, RAs do not fill out mid-year or end-of-the-year evaluations about their supervisors, according to Jessie. ResEd instead encourages students to speak more informally about any worries or concerns.

“RAs can share their thoughts in many ways,” White said. “They are invited to stop in and speak to any of the staff members.”

When RAs bring forth a concern to their GHC, their hope is that their feedback will be received positively. But sometimes depending on the GHC, according to Morgan, RAs do not feel as if they are in a safe space to deliver feedback. Referring to the feedback session at the beginning of the Spring 2014 semester, Taylor felt as if ResEd took their critiques “defensively.”

“Basically, it felt like the feelings of Pro Staff and GHCs and administration were hurt by the fact that we would complain about the different issues that we have encountered during our position,” Jessie said.

One incident this year in a first-year hall, for instance, involved multiple non-Occidental “strangers” (according to Jessie) approaching a resident in a way that raised concerns among the RA staff. When this was brought up at a staff meeting, RAs did not think their GHC looked genuinely worried about the safety of the student.

“There was no show of real concern for that resident,” Jessie said. “Instead, we were lectured and reprimanded on putting in our programs on time. It seemed like that was more important than the safety of our residents.”

A separate first-year residence hall experienced an emergency with a resident this semester that involved a Pro Staff member amidst emergency personnel, RAs and residents. The Pro Staff member acted in a way that Morgan and them believed was uncalled for—a complaint that the staff took to their GHC.

“The [Pro Staff member] on the scene said things like, ‘This is disgusting! Jesus Christ! This is ridiculous!’” Morgan said. “I remember them saying those words in a very condescending tone. It just made us feel like she was being very unprofessional and disrespectful, and threw out all the stuff in the contract of ensuring a safe space for support.”

Among the RAs concerned about the Pro Staff member’s behavior were those who were not rehired for next year. Most of them are afraid to speak out on in this article because they fear it would impact their appeals process.

While RAs can share their worries with their GHCs during one-on-ones or staff meetings, they said they do not always know whether that information would be relayed to their superior. Skyler said they were part of a group of RAs who approached their GHC about the associate director’s behavior, but their name was invoked negatively by Pro Staff and RAs during the follow-up process. Wylie said he felt like he was “never just talking to his GHC” and that his words could be passed onto other Pro Staff members out of context.

Skyler said that sometimes, even constructive criticism can negatively affect Pro Staff’s perception of a particular RA.

“I realize my GHC doing best job she can do,” Skyler said. “But at the same time, it is discomforting to know that anything I say in the room can be taken out of context, relayed to Pro Staff and reflect negatively on me.”

Goldman believes a disparity exists between ResEd’s official stance on feedback and how they actually respond to it.

“In formal settings, our bosses talk a lot about how they want you to be critical of us, and our doors are open,” Goldman said. “But in practice, it feels as if there are a lot of RAs who have concerns that if they do bring them up, it will be a slap on the wrist, and it will hurt their possibility of being rehired again.”

During Ito’s conversation with her GHC March 16, Salgado cited Ito’s decline to comment on her summer plans as an indicator of a non-trusting relationship between Ito and her GHC. According to Ito, Salgado was more concerned with Ito’s withholding of information than with her concern about the summer start date. According to Ito, Salgado claimed that Ito was not “for the department” because she withheld her summer plans. But Ito felt her decision was justified based on her experience with ResEd.

“I didn’t feel comfortable going with them,” Ito said. “I felt that whatever I said was going to be reported to the department. I did not want to give them dishonest information, and I wanted to keep my cards closest as possible. I did not think it was relevant at this certain point in time.”

Salgado and Ito both want to improve the community they work for. Any business or organization cannot operate successfully without feedback; however, the RAs interviewed were agreed that complete honesty with Pro Staff is a risk that is sometimes not worth taking.

“We feel that we can’t be completely honest with how we feel about the administration of the system,” Morgan said. “We see what can be improved, but then there’s not the space to talk about that, so nothing ever really gets better.”

When asked whether ResEd encourages feedback from RAs, White responded by stating they “encourage them to share ideas for improvement.” Page 10 of the contract also states, “While constructive criticism is welcomed, ‘bad mouthing’ peers, supervisors, department and/or the College is not acceptable.”

Page two of the 2015-2016 Terms of Appointment for Resident Advisor Positions states that under the “professionalism” clause, RAs are required to present a “united front” to the Occidental community and to “avoid talking negatively about other staff members, including the GHCs and professional staff.”

“We expect that as they are employees of the College, that they uphold College policies with a united front,” White said. “There are appropriate avenues for bringing up concerns and using the media to present a one-sided view of the situation is neither ethical nor professional.”

A first-year RA informed Jessie that this clause had been interpreted to mean that ResEd did not allow RAs to speak to The Weekly about their positions unless they had supervisor permission and oversight, according to Jessie. Several other RAs shared the sentiment that speaking out would negatively impact their job security.

“Especially with the recent [rehiring decisions], if you’re reapplying for the job, its pretty clear that if you’re saying negative things about the department, then they really don’t like that,” Goldman said. “You’re kind of walking on eggshells to not say negative things about the department if you want to get rehired.”

But Ito believes ResEd would benefit from refining their approach to student feedback.

“I think any GHC or anyone who works in ResEd should take feedback and say, ‘Wow, I’m happy they approached me about this,” Ito said. “This is clearly on their mind, this is clearly bothering them, so how can we improve the situation instead of being upset with them for voicing their opinion?’”

Goldman called for an evaluation process that would give RAs a safe space to provide feedback on their supervisors.

“We as students give teacher evaluations to our professors and they use that as helpful information,” Goldman said. “I think some kind of process for the ResEd department could be a useful tool.”

Ito hopes that the recent rehiring decisions expose the apparent trade-off between having job security and voicing concerns and show that it not only affects the greater Occidental community, but also the individual lives of RAs.

“ResEd is such a big part of my life, but the average student doesn’t know what’s going on,” Ito said. “Nobody knows about it, yet it’s affecting people’s abilities to be at this school, because they are dependent on the financial support that ResEd gives them.”

According to White, there is no formal appeals process for RAs who did not get rehired.

Initially placed as an alternate, Ito will not seek an RA position in the fall. Part of the reason for this, she said, is that she would not be happy “trying to tip-toe around the job again.” Skyler is also not interested in seeking a position next year.

“If I was to put my name on this article, without any reservations, I think they would, first and foremost…see, I don’t know,” Skyler said. “You never know what can happen with this department. And this year, when four RAs aren’t rehired, you never know.”

*Pseudonyms have been used in lieu of the names of students who requested anonymity.