RAs play a special role at Swarthmore. Part advisor, part confidant, part cheerleader, this small group of fifty students are essential to the well-being of the school’s residential life system. They serve as friends and allies of the rest of the student body—not enforcers.
“I think the RA role here is about the ideal one for a highly selective residential campus like this,” said Dean of Students Jim Larimore. “[RAs] have an interesting blend of leadership responsibilities, and they are often first line resources for students who might be sick, struggling issues, or getting bad news from home.”
Though according to Parrish RA Genevra Pittman ’08, “RAs are asked to enforce a handful of rules like quiet hours and smoking bans,” the role of an RA is not primarily to act as an enforcer. Dean of Residential Life Myrt Westphal, who oversees the RA program, explained that the role of RAs “stems from our philosophy that students are adults and are expected to police themselves and monitor their own behaviors.” The College knows things happen—RAs serve as elders to help students when issues come up, and do not have the ability to punish their peers.
Housing Dean Liz Derickson ’01 described RAs as wearing three different caps: Counselor, social director, and authority figure—but only to make a safe place.
For many Swarthmore students, this seems like the way an RA program ought to work. In interview after interview, Swatties guessed that residential life programs at other schools were rather similar to Swarthmore’s model. This is only true for a tiny handful of schools however. Nationally, Swarthmore-style RAs are the exception, not the rule.
Other elite small liberal arts colleges appear to be the most similar to Swarthmore. Williams College, for example, has a system of Junior Advisors (JA) which are remarkably similar to Swarthmore’s RAs—but only serve freshmen. All Williams freshmen live separately from upperclassmen.
One freshman at Williams told the Gazette that, “JAs are only for freshmen, and they have no authoritative power at all.” The student explained that while “upperclassmen have a faculty advisor, they are only for academics.”
At Amherst College, Resident Counselors are required to be “positive role models” and “stay in good academic standing,” according to their application form, but—like Swarthmore RAs—they have no enforcement power.
These similarities wouldn’t surprise Larimore. The role of RAs is largely defined by a school’s sense “of what it means to be a residential campus,” and this sense comes from “differences in the student body.” Small schools can afford to pay more attention on the residential experience. “In an environment where there are ten, fifteen, fifty thousand students, there are fewer resources available to focus on the community,” he explained.
Bucknell University bills itself as the largest liberal-arts school in the nation. The Gazette got a chance to speak with Tanya Roth, a Residential Assistant there. “I’m responsible for 26 First-Years,” she said, “and I do … rounds and policy enforcement in the dormitory.” Roth found it necessary to establish herself “as an authority figure so that policy enforcement is hopefully lessened.” Even when not on duty (she patrols the dorm one night a week) she is responsible “for incidents/policy violations.”
At Dartmouth College, the RA-equivalent is a graduate student called a “Graduate Advisor.” These students “serve as a career and academic resource for all undergraduate students.” Their job description focuses more on the job search and academics. In a sense, they appear more similar to Swarthmore’s SAMs than to Swarthmore’s RAs.
Larimore served as Dean at Dartmouth before coming to Swarthmore, and he firmly believes that there are big differences between Swarthmore and Dartmouth—and that Dartmouth should move closer to Swarthmore’s model. “I’ve encouraged my former colleagues at Dartmouth to come and visit to see the more mature and fully developed system in place here,” he said.
At Central Connecticut State University, Residential Assistants are described as “paraprofessionals” and are expected to enforce school rules—including an absolute ban on alcohol in any dorm. The Resident Assistants at UMass Amherst unionized in 2002 and battled their university for a raise. Larimore described public school residential life systems as “much more focused on authority and discipline.”
At the University of Chicago, a school which is Swarthmore’s greatest competitor for applicants, dorms are led by a significantly older Resident Head or, frequently, a married couple. In some halls, there will be a single Resident Head for more than a hundred students.
It isn’t clear where RA systems are headed nationally. “There has been more of an emphasis … to bring the human scales down to a smaller level with residential life communities,” explained Larimore. Still, schools with tens of thousands of students would have difficulty of mimicking Swarthmore.