Editor’s note: Multiple RAs spoke on this issue anonymously and will be labeled in order of appearance to avoid confusion.

Resident Assistants (RA) and Residential College Ambassadors (RCA) are the lifelines and primary support systems for every student living in on-campus housing. Many staff members agree about the lack of respect and underappreciation these student workers receive, despite the value they provide to campus life. These dedicated student employees are important to the wellbeing of their peers, committing valuable time and energy to uphold the image and mission statement of Housing and Residence Life (HRL).

Many student workers said they feel as if they are overworked and underpaid. Junior Mikayla Lopez, an RCA, was one of few willing to speak on the record about her experience working in HRL.  

 

The “new and improved” HRL

Before each semester, all of HRL — including professional staff and student employees — gathers for training. Spring 2022 training ended with a proverbial bomb being dropped on many of the staff who were present. 

Due to a lack of physical evidence detailing these changes, the verbal accounts will be summarized below.  

The department stated it will be moving toward removing any mention or association with the word “resident.” RCA positional responsibilities will be altered to include more general duties in the hopes of better supporting students — a transition from catering toward individual academic colleges. RAs will resume shifts at the front desk, a duty they were relieved of in past semesters, in addition to receiving a reduced dining package.

HRL’s actions contributed to some passionate feelings from the student staff.

“Cutting benefits is just NAU trying to save more money and everyone knows it,” anonymous RA #3 said. 

An RCA adviser took notes during spring training, which was provided in an email and is the only tangible document The Lumberjack could access. These notes indicated HRL’s reason for the change was to, “[move] away from the phrase ‘resident’ and ‘residential halls’ to respect the trauma experienced by Indigenous nations who were forced into residential boarding schools.” 

The language replacement is as follows:

  • "Residence Hall" is changing to "Campus Living Communities" (CLC)
  • “Residential Assistant” (RA) is changing to “Community Assistant” (CA)
  • "Residential College Ambassador" (RCA) is changing to "Campus Living Initiatives and Partnerships Peer Supporter" (CLIPPS)
  • "Desk Assistant" (DA) is changing to "Campus Living Operations Assistant" (CLOA)
  • "Residents" is changing to "Community Members"
  • "Community Development Center" is changing to "Campus Living Resource Center"
  • "CARE Plan" is changing to "Community and Resident Engagement Plan" 

Considering these alterations, Lopez explained she is worried it may confuse students when multiple positions located behind the building’s front desk and discourage rather than encourage students from requesting help. 

Anonymous RA #1 recalled their reaction to the news: “The way they said it was just so ‘spit in our face.' You don’t get a meal plan to feed yourself, you get a meal plan to converse with your residents, that is a paraphrased statement they said to us during training.”

 

Training and responsibilities within the department

Lopez’s concern with continuing in her position was mostly due to the lack of attention provided by the authority figures within HRL. Alicia Voytek, associate vice president of Campus Operations, offered a forum after the training for employees to voice their concerns. However, current staff believe their worries consistently remain ignored. 

“We specifically wanted higher pay, which we did get. Now we will make minimum [wage] which is $15,” Lopez said. “We wanted different meeting times because all student Housing and Residential Life meet Wednesdays from 7–9 p.m. and that’s kind of a daunting time that did not get changed, unfortunately. And we just wanted more control in our role.” 

Instead of receiving more control, they received a complete alteration in their positional responsibilities. 

The biggest dilemma is the complete revision of the job description imposed on the RCAs. There are eight academic colleges on campus; RCAs operate on a college-to-college basis with staff assigned to their major's corresponding hall. Next semester, that will change. 

“They took the individuality out of it [the RCA position], because we’re no longer in our majors,”  Lopez emphasized. “We are no longer working with students who we can talk to about things. Especially because we are all upperclassmen students. That wisdom we can pass on, I’m not sure how we are going to come across that next semester.” 

RAs indicated these departmental reworkings were not transparently shared with staff nor does the general NAU community have access to these changes. During the training, these alterations were vocalized and accompanied by a PowerPoint presentation, but no physical paperwork was distributed. Staff was also not provided additional information regarding the changes. 

A superior for the RCAs created a document that was shared among themselves, but it was deleted at an unknown date.

Across campus, and through social media channels, HRL distributed the flyer promoting the changes and the beginning of its hiring process. However, the flyer was deleted from social media after the application closed — with screenshots as the only evidence the change occurred. 

Though these adjustments are not initiated until the fall 2022 semester, the HRL website has already been updated with the changesOne line revealed the alteration in the hiring process and workflow of HRL: “In May to June 2021, we set out to reestablish our mission and foundational values.” 

The semesterly training is another example of the lack of awareness administration has on what their employees undergo, Lopez said. RAs and professional staff who live in on-campus housing have a place to stay during training, but the remaining staff must make additional housing arrangements. 

“There was very little respect, especially in that a lot of us didn’t have housing over the summer,” Lopez said. “So I knew a lot of people had to get Airbnbs that cost a lot of money that they barely made up throughout this semester.”

 

Staff responses 

These student employees said they are passionate about helping others and truly enjoy the student interaction they experience in their role. 

A former RCA spoke on the subject anonymously. They said they have passion for helping students and true dedication in wanting to educate students on the benefits within the College of the Environment, Forestry, and Natural Sciences — the academic college they oversaw — instead of “just being commercials for the university.” 

In prior years when smaller changes were made, the staff received little notice beforehand. 

“There were changes that would happen from year to year and we wouldn’t even know they were like happening,” the former RCA said. “It would be like, ‘Oh, we’re not doing this anymore.’ And they never even really told us it would just be like, ‘What happened to this?’ And they’d be like, ‘Oh, we don’t do it anymore.”

This is not the first time there have been conflicts between RAs and the rhetoric used toward them.

“I’ve had pretty bad experiences,” anonymous RA #1 said. “I’ve been told we’re ‘expendable.’ It’s just tough sometimes because my RHDs care and my coworkers care, but it often feels that the higher-ups don’t care.”

If HRL administration would spend more time on the staff level they would understand a lot of the practical problems these changes will create, Lopez said. She expressed that an arrangement where her position and other student workers could be shadowed by a professional staff member could solve some of the disconnect. Anonymous RA #3 agreed with Lopez and mentioned this action would increase respect on all sides.

Anonymous RA #2 said the support provided by their supervisors is one aspect of the job that remains consistent. The supervisor is the RHD, who — depending on the building — may have one to two RAs per residence hall.

“I have had supervisors who will actually put their neck on the line sometimes, but from the higher-ups of the department, it just feels so distant,” anonymous RA #2 said. “They make decisions without ever consulting RAs, and then they wonder why we get upset when a decision doesn’t make sense [to us].”

Some RAs said the university does not take into account the value of their work.

“I think the university has been so disrespectful and uncaring in the treatment of RAs because they view us as replaceable,” anonymous RA #3 said. “They know that other people are there to fill in empty roles as alternates and so they don’t need to retain the RAs they already have.”

Former RA Micah Kneeshaw said his experience was less hostile, but pointed out while he was an RA, there were not as many changes.

“I wouldn’t particularly say that the interactions or environment was hostile because during my time as an RA, there weren’t a lot of changes that occurred for the benefits side,” Kneeshaw said.

Overall, there seems to be a common thread of appreciation and respect toward the RCAs' immediate coordinators, which include graduate assistants and Tommy Newsom II who is the assistant director of Student Life Experience. From the student staff perspective, the respect ends there, according to the anonymous RAs.  

“They make these huge decisions and then they get confused why we get upset,” anonymous RA #1 said. “It just feels so disconnected, so often it feels like we are the boots on the ground and they are just generals behind screens.”

 

Hiring and communication issues

There is also a lack of professional staff, which can be expected post-pandemic. However, some roles were empty before March 2021 and have remained empty since. The anonymous RCA said these vacant positions have forced coordinators into tough situations. These are crucial elements of the HRL team and the lack of initiative to fulfill those positions leaves the responsibility on those lower in the hierarchy, allowing less of a support system for student employees. 

The anonymous RCA estimated they had three separate supervisors during their first semester working within HRL, and even more since. These vacancies are not simply about bad luck, the RCA explained.

“A lot of us just come in with really high expectations and feeling like we’re doing something good and then it all comes down to money and image,” the anonymous RCA said.

At the end of the day, RCAs are repeatedly overlooked, the anonymous RCA said. 

“I think RCAs were probably screwed over the most,” the anonymous RCA stated. 

The situation could have been avoided if staff were given more than a few days’ notice before the news was made public. Opening up transparent lines of communication would also allow the administration to show their student staff’s worth, Lopez said. 

While the positional job responsibilities have been altered, the title change is also confusing and lacks clarification. The language correction eliminates the use of the word "residence." There are possible negative associations with the term residential schools due to the history of Indigenous assimilation into white, Euro-American culture, the anonymous RCA said.  

“It was just a big change to make and I didn’t think anyone was actually associating [the connection between the two titles],” the anonymous RCA said. 

Administration blindsiding their employees with this change demonstrates the lack of value they have for those who are the face of HRL, the anonymous RCA said. The workflow and student staff positions are being completely upended, while the same cannot be said for the entirety of the department.

“The crazy thing is they’re still called Housing and Residence Life when they changed all of our names, but not their own name,” the anonymous RCA said. 

Although there are issues within the department that affect students on a daily and systemic level, anonymous RA #1 said they still enjoy their job. Their issue does not lie with the job they have — it resides in the lack of communication and loss of benefits, anonymous RA #1 said. 

“Ultimately I love this job, and I truly don’t have too many honest complaints,” anonymous RA #1 said. “Most RHDs are awesome, sure some bad apples, but that’s any job. The ultimate problem is a severe lack of communication between our higher-ups and us.” 

Some RAs said they believe the university does not fully understand their purpose on campus. 

Anonymous RA #3 said HRL claims they care but do not actually listen to what their employees say. They explained the university sees their employees as “replaceable,” further contributing to the disrespect they receive.

“We are the ones seeing and doing things first-hand and when we give input for department decisions we are ignored; they do not view us as students and only see us as employees for their use,” anonymous RA #3 said. “I know I’m not alone when I say this job can be very draining and leave you feeling burnt out with little to no support from your supervisors.”

Professional department staff including graduate assistants did not receive approval to speak to The Lumberjack about this issue and declined to comment.

John Chaffeur contributed to parts of this article.

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