LAWRENCEVILLE, N.J. — A residence hall assistant 34 years ago, Jack Collins recalls the training requirements imposed by his small Ohio college as being minimal at best.
"Basically, you just showed up," said Collins, the president of the Association of College and University Housing Officers International.
Thirty years later, when David Errigo decided to become a resident assistant, Rider University schooled him in mental-health awareness, diversity, recognizing the signs of alcohol abuse and getting tutoring for academically challenged students, among other things.
To prepare Errigo for residence hall stewardship, Rider — a small independent university located between Philadelphia and New York — also required his presence at two extensive training classes. He received credit during the school year as well as an intensive mandatory refresher courses each summer.
"The role today has evolved into dealing with some pretty serious and complicated problems that students bring with them," said Collins, who is also director of housing at the University of Illinois, where the RA training program has also moved beyond mere fire safety and evacuation — still the most important role played by resident assistants.
RAs act as supervisors and advisers in the dormitories, solving problems and keeping order.
"RAs are the front-line people out there who, on a day-to-day basis, are asked to address a series of problems, challenges and issues that those of us who were RAs 20, 30 and 40 years ago never dreamed about."
Although he is better trained and more aware that real students bring real-world problems to campus, Errigo's daily routine as one of 54 assistants assigned to Rider's 10 on-campus dormitories is not significantly different from Collins' tenure as an RA.
"It's like we signed up to be their friends," he said of the students in his freshmen residence hall. "Most of the time what we do is listen."
Aside from homesick laments about pets and loved ones left behind, the RAs say their ears are primarily bent by student complaints about roommates. Rather than assign an assistant to each floor, Rider scatters the advisers throughout its coed dorms.
To prepare them for the more serious situations, Rider's director of residence life Cindy Threatt's staff uses role playing to help RAs identify the difference between the student distraught over academic failure or a broken romance and the student intent on doing harm to him- or herself or others.
When it comes to extreme mental health problems, Threatt said, the assistants' most important lesson is not to resolve matters on their own.
"We stress that it's a sign of competency to refer" significant problems to the school's professional staff, she said.
While Collins acknowledges that college-student depression and binge drinking were not unknown when he served as an RA, schools back then "weren't as open and honest" about those issues.
To promote trust between assistants and residents, Rider asks advisers to report violations of the school's prohibition of underage drinking on campus to the proper authorities.
"We encourage them to let us be the heavies," said Threatt.
Under most circumstances, however, Rider RAs are on their own. Which often means providing a master key to a locked-out student at 4:30 a.m.
What's toughest, the RAs say, is standing in as parents for students barely younger than they are.
"You can't get away from it, it's 24/7," said junior Megan Botscheller, a second-year RA.
Senior Jason Wooden, in his third year as a residence assistant, said his worst days were the hours spent counseling distraught students after the 2001 terrorist attacks.
He said it was difficult "because we had to take care of the residents, but at the same time we had to take care of ourselves."
Despite long hours and what often seems to be a constant assault on his privacy, Wooden said the benefits extend beyond $6,700 per year stipend that includes tuition reimbursements, scholarships, housing compensation and the best perk of all — a dorm room of one's own.
"I can see how it will help me in the future," he said. "It has taught me basic skills within myself that I've learned by helping other students."
And sometimes, Wooden added, there are short-term benefits as well.
Last Feb. 14, for instance, Wooden awoke to find over a dozen homemade Valentines stuck under his door from grateful residents of his dorm.
"That was cool," he smiled. "I didn't have a Valentine and then I had 15. It helped me to forget some of the hardships of the job."