Opinion: One Albion Does not Mean One RA

The customized door of a residential assistant (RA) in Michelle Towers. This is representative of the more professional communication between RAs and residents, but isn’t quite clearly representative of the personal connection between RAs and residents (Photo by Aura Ware).

According to many Alumni, who have returned to campus for homecoming and various events, Albion College has gone from having all white students to, a few students of color to, as stated by President Ditzler at the Martin Luther King Jr Convocation on Jan. 28, about 500 students of color on campus. Since the growth of diversity on campus, Residential Life has worked to recruit and keep students of color on campus. They have also worked to recruit these students of color to be resident assistants (RA) in order to bring a more welcoming environment to residential halls on campus.

Student organizations were established to promote safe spaces for students of color, including Black Student Alliance (BSA), Organization for Latinx Awareness and Asian Awareness. Yet, once students leave these meetings, typically scheduled for one hour each week,  they have to return to their residential halls. In these halls, they are more than likely going to see their RAs in passing. 

Sometimes, students just need to know that their RAs will understand their ways of life, their experiences or even a simple phrase used in their specific cultures. To understand all of the troubles  students face is a lot to ask for, but for students of color, seeing a face that looks like theirs, they know it will be a little bit easier to have someone relate to them. 

Becoming an RA is not one man’s job. It is the collective effort of Albion College’s Residential Life and student leaders. The agreement between these two parties is that Residential Life will recruit and train student leaders of all backgrounds to become exemplary RAs. The expected agreement is that these student leaders will agree to go through training and do their best to become those exemplary RAs. 

There is a party that is missing throughout this decision: The students, who have to live under the protection and leadership of these RAs. 

Out of about 500 students of color, how many of those students are being asked who they want to see as a leader in their halls?

Marcus Dawson, Albion’s new Director for Residential Life, is working to hear the voices of these 500 students whose voices deserve to be heard.

“RAs of color matter because diversity is critical to an organization’s ability to adapt to an ever-changing world. But it’s not about just hiring students of color. It’s about hiring students that can embrace diversity and inclusion and want to learn from others,” said Dawson. “Every year, our office needs fresh new perspectives, culture and creativity.”

On July 1, 2019, Dawson began his journey to Albion with a mission to improve the residential life on campus. He  hosted an RA Informational Session at the Intercultural Affairs Office partnered with the AAG for a sushi rolling class and hosted an open dialogue with BSA to recruit students to apply for RA positions. His goal is to get students talking to him so he can make improvements to the system.

“An organization that values diversity performs at a higher level, and our students that live on campus need to see that leadership comes in all shapes, sizes, nationalities and backgrounds,” said Dawson. 

There is a  complicated relationship between being a person of color and being a student leader at a predominantly white institution. A distinct gap exists between the RA position and people of color. 

How can this gap become smaller? The answer to that question is in the words of the students.

 Why RAs of Color Matter

“When you get on to campus, especially as a freshman, it’s nice to have someone you can look up to and that you can relate to,” said Lily Goldberg, a junior from Allegan, Mich.

 College is a major life change for anyone, but for first-years of color who are entering a predominantly white institution, feelings of vulnerability and susceptibility to feeling alone and misunderstood are emphasized. Although there are other people of color on campus, we are still not the majority.

“Especially during your freshman year, when you’re living away from your home, every house and every culture has a different way of living,” said Sunny Kim, a senior from Midland, Mich. “You may have a certain way of doing the dishes, sharing your things, and certain beliefs about personal space, and all of these things are important when you are finding yourself immersed with a different living environment.” 

Creating a diverse RA staff is not just about showing a diverse representation in the dorms. It’s about making conscious efforts to recruit students of color and to make sure that students have role models at their door steps.

“RAs of color matter because the school is growing with diversity, and there are not a lot of resources and people on this campus that people of color can trust and go to when they need help,” said Alisha Bailey, a senior from Chicago, “Having an RA of color also gives us that assurance that it’s okay to be different and grow a good relationship with the RA.” 

It is also important to have a diverse panel of leadership in residential halls for cultural improvement and quality improvement. New students from different backgrounds bring new perspectives and new dynamics to the residential halls.

“It’s always nice to have people of color in different levels of power,” said Zekayla Slater, a senior from Chicago. “It’s a sense of comfort knowing that students of color from all around are coming to this school and have someone they will be able to relate to. [Students] would feel more comfortable being able to talk to someone they may be able to relate to more.”

Jose Hernadez, a junior from Chicago, said that having a friendly, familiar person around to talk to about specific issues is always a positive for people of color, who have unique experiences. People of color can grow tired of explaining themselves to those who haven’t had these experiences themselves.

“When you want to speak to someone, it’s more helpful if the person you are speaking to understands the struggles you’ve gone through. If you’re a person of color, you are more comfortable speaking to another person of color, not just because of racial reasoning, but because they understand your thinking,” said  Hernadez.

As a freshman of color from Memphis, Tenn., I automatically associated myself with anything that seemed soulful and and of color. I was fortunate enough to be in a dorm where there were more RAs of color in my building than other buildings, but taking the time to talk to my RA was not something that came to the forefront of my mind. 

With that, I could have missed opportunities for networking and positive conversation, or I could have dodged a bullet. For most people of color, indulging in in-depth conversations with people who are not of color often feels like it could be one of those two options. Most of the time, we’d rather not choose.

 “Your RA is the person you can count on to go to about conflict,” said Kim. “If that RA is not of color, and they really don’t understand, and they don’t have that experience, and they don’t come from that background, it’s really hard for RAs who are not of color to empathize with the issues of students of color. This leads freshmen students to be more silent about their issues.” 

No one can prepare a person who is not of color for certain conflicts through diversity training. Experience is important, and RAs of color have their own experiences in a society where people of color have constantly been misrepresented and misunderstood. 

“If it’s someone I can relate to, then it’ll be easier to go to my RA when they offer for me to come to their room,” Jamie Cazarin, a senior from Chicago.

Students of color aren’t the only ones who are longing for a more inclusive community in Residential Life. RAs of color are also hoping to see the community grow in the future.

“As an RA, having RAs of color matters to me because on my staff, there are some racial misunderstandings,” said Jose Rodriguez, a junior from Houston, Texas “For instance, noise complaints are more reported and treated differently when it’s a person of color involved, and this could be avoided if there was more representation on staff.”

There is not one, specific person to blame for not having enough RAs of color at a predominantly white institute like Albion College. There is an entire system that should be reworked for the disconnect between different cultures and representativeness. Until we work together to dismantle the many years of a system that prided itself with hierarchy and exclusion, we will have no progress toward the goals we talk about. We must put forth the action as one Albion.

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