Carey Swanson, a junior and resident assistant in Elder Hall

(Photo by Andrew Campbell)


The favorite pastime of junior Alex Ortolani — the author of this article — is simply hanging out with his residents and getting to know them well.

(Photo by Andrew Campbell)

Like other RAs, senior Alarra Allen helps organize outings to build camaraderie. In the fall, her students at 610 Lincoln joined her to see a Chicago Loop theater performance of Cabaret.

(Photo by Andrew Campbell)


Last year Elder hall RA and senior Neel Jain, left, had to be much more of a disciplinarian, but this year he has had fewer discipline issues. He's with senior Ed Ha, middle, and junior Phil Lee.

(Photo by Andrew Campbell)


Shane Carlin, right, area coordinator for residential life, chats with freshman Kelly Puig in the new Kemper Hall. The resident hall administration hired three live-in coordinators this year.

(Photo by Mary Hanlon)


It is 1 a.m. on a Monday morning, and I sit at my laptop. By my side is a large cup of coffee. I am trying to analyze a Shakespearean sonnet without falling asleep in the process. There is a light knock on my door. I open it to see a female resident with red, watery eyes. She wears a blue tank top and baggy jeans and carries a chemistry book.

The resident says she needs to talk. I motion for her to sit. I am tense from what had been a difficult Sunday and anxious about a 10-page paper due at 9 a.m. I ask her how she is doing. The thin girl brushes stringy blond hair from her eyes, holding back tears. I ask her more slowly this time: What is going on?

The freshman tells me that her appearance has been bothering her, that she is always tired and doesn't have the time to exercise. In high school, she played soccer and ran track. In high school, she had loads of friends. In high school, she was one of the most beautiful girls. Now, she says, things have changed.

We sit together and talk until 2 a.m. It turns out that she is a plane trip away from home for the first time in her life. She knew it would be tough but never expected to be this lonely — or scared. In her eyes, everyone around seems so confident, assured, while she feels adrift.

While I listen to her story, I am not surprised. Five residents had already come to me with essentially the same tales. And like them, this girl just needed to hear that she was not alone, that others were feeling the same way.

Eventually she feels a little better and goes back to bed with chemistry book in hand. I go back to my paper, wide-awake and a little less concerned with what Shakespeare was saying in sonnet No. 20.

I am a resident assistant at 600 Lincoln St., one of 97 juniors and seniors who receive room and board from the Office of Undergraduate Residential Life in exchange for overseeing the residence halls. We are both confidants and authority figures for our classmates, sometimes dispensing advice and sympathy, other times enforcing rules.

My hall, 600 Lincoln, is a small, usually peaceful residence that makes up one of seven small residential halls on the University's North Campus. Many would consider Northwestern students to be extremely privileged, maybe even pampered. But from my own experiences and from talking with other RAs, I've come to realize that serious problems among my peers are not uncommon and often stretch far beyond the classroom.

Each of the 31 halls on the Evanston campus has at least one RA living in the residence. And 13 of the large buildings, or groups of buildings, are overseen either by adult coordinators, or graduate or undergraduate resident hall coordinators (RHCs).

While not all the decisions RAs make affect the lives of students, some of the issues we deal with carry greater weight than busting up a party or answering questions. One RA in a South Campus hall found that out in dramatic fashion.

Carrying a basket of laundry down to the basement, she observed a female resident banging on the door of a fellow RA who was not home. Although the woman was not one of her residents, the RA asked the student what was wrong. She responded that her roommate had drunk a lot at a party and then swallowed some pills.

The RA followed the girl to her room to find the friend crying. She told the RA, through sobs, that she had consumed four or five beers. Then, the girl said, she swallowed nine or 10 pills.

"Her friend showed me a pill case of diuretics with nine empty spaces," the RA recalls.

The RA immediately woke up her hall's RHC, who gave her the appropriate contacts and helped her decide what to do. After calling Searle Health Center for the doctor on duty, the RA spoke with an intern from Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS). The two of them decided to alert the paramedics and get the girl to Evanston Hospital. No more than one hour had passed from the time the RA was carrying her basket of laundry, but it seemed to her like ages.

Outside, in the cold November air, a slew of University Police cars and an ambulance had gathered. Knowing the girl would be dehydrated from the mix of alcohol and pills, the paramedics immediately hooked her up to an IV tube. At about 2:30 a.m. the resident and the supportive RA were off to the hospital.

"I wasn't sure what to do when we finally got there," the RA says. "It was easier when we were in the hall, but, outside of a residential setting, it was, like, what do I do next?"

The RA, wearing ripped jeans, a T-shirt and lime-green bathroom flip-flops, sat down in the waiting room and picked up a magazine. She spoke with the CAPS intern four more times during the night and even called her parents around 5:30 to pass the time. In the early morning she sat down to chat with the recovering resident until it was time to go.

"I think, for this particular student," the RA says, "it was a case of the newness of school wearing off and being replaced by stressful finals. Her boyfriend had also just broken up with her, so at that point she was just grasping at straws. ... In November the party is over for many students."

At 8:30 that morning the RA and the resident were driven back to school.

"It was quite an experience," says the RA. "When we got back, I showered, changed and headed off to my 10 o'clock class."

For young adults, being an RA carries a large amount of responsibility, so not surprisingly the application and interviewing process for choosing them is intensive. Because RAs are also full-time students, the period allotted for training and staff bonding takes place during the week before the start of the academic year.

Mary Goldenberg, associate director of residential life, says that RA training is intended to provide students with the "nuts and bolts" of how to be RAs.

"It is basically a parade of names and faces to give people a baseline knowledge of contacts and resources," she says.

In one unique exercise called Behind Closed Doors, RAs-to-be respond to real-life situations role-played by former RAs. While Behind Closed Doors can be a fun way for former RAs to put the rookies through their paces, it also provides an invaluable opportunity for the newcomers to learn from veteran RA staff members.

In one session two former RAs staged a realistic fight between a student and her boyfriend. The RAs in training walked in on two extremely upset people yelling and cursing at the top of their lungs.

At one point the "actress" threw a bottle at the wall, making a large hole. When the scene was over, the future RAs laughed uncomfortably. They discussed various ways of handling such a situation but admitted they had trouble envisioning such an interchange in a Northwestern residence hall.

The two former RAs who staged the fight set them straight. "We didn't make this up out of nowhere," the young woman in the scene said. "I had to deal with this very situation last year."

After training week the freshmen start moving in for New Student Week, and reality descends. This is the busiest time of year for RAs. Parents and students are in and out of the hall all week. RAs have to check everyone in, hand out keys and inspect rooms.

Some RAs will make elaborate signs with the residents' name, school and class year and hang them on the room doors. Caleb Durling, an RA at the Foster-Walker Complex, taped up maps of each resident's hometown as an icebreaker.

"I took some time on the Internet to figure out where they were from," Durling says. "I thought it would make them feel welcome in a new place."

In the first few weeks of school Ayelish McGarvey, who oversees 40 freshmen and sophomores in Willard Residential College, took on a duty she had not anticipated.

"My room is down near a pack of freshman and sophomore guys," she says. "Every night in the beginning of the year, they'd come into my room, hang out for awhile and then tell me, 'We're going to bed now.'"

McGarvey believes the boys felt the need to check in before bedtime, just as they may have with their parents at home. As time passed, the nightly stopovers subsided. "I felt like the hall mother for awhile," McGarvey says.

The beginning of school is also the time when freshmen get acquainted with the University and environs. Common questions: What is this Norris place I keep hearing about? Is there a curfew? And, of course, how do I get to downtown Evanston?

It is also the time of year for RAs to meet residents and learn names — crucial for avoiding embarrassing gaffes. One day about a week into the year, one RA saw a strange face in the hall. Hi, he said, are you visiting someone? No, she answered, I live here. When I first applied to be an RA, I had a lot of apprehension. I harbored some concerns about being an authority figure, worried about losing my identity and becoming "that guy who wrote me up" or even just "my RA."

I also heard some horror stories. "We used our RA for target practice with water balloons," a friend told me. "I hear one guy had a dead fish put outside his door," said another. In the end, I convinced myself it would be a good experience. Beyond the free room and board, I enjoyed the idea of meeting new students, of having a sense of responsibility — a purpose beyond classes.

If 90 percent of success in life is just showing up, it's no different for RAs. Some make it a point to be in their rooms during the evening. Others try to eat in the dining halls or study in the hall.

Vijay Vaidya, a two-time RA, logs in more hours at the cafeteria than most food service employees. "It's a good time to see residents and talk to people," he says. "I've been known to spend a good two hours chatting after I'm done eating."

An RA at Foster House, an all-male hall, Vaidya agrees that being available to residents is a major key to success. "You don't have to be best friends with all of your residents, but you need to be a presence," he notes. "They need to know you're around if something comes up."

Being a presence, though, means dealing with some unexpected occurrences. RA Lauren Fletcher got a phone call late one night about an uninvited guest.

"I picked up the receiver and heard, 'Lauren! What do I do? There's a skunk in our room!'" Fletcher says. Fifteen minutes later, animal control came in to find not a skunk but a small dead mouse.

Alcohol and partying in general are among the more troublesome issues that come up for RAs. Although Northwestern is not a "party" school, circumstances definitely arise when RAs either have to let things slide or lay down the law.

In one instance, an RA had to deal with a conflict of interest. "I have a real good group of students in my hall," she says, "and I have established friendships with all of them. That's what made this situation difficult."

One Saturday night, the RA heard a lot of noise coming from one of the rooms. She and another RA knocked on the door and found a roomful of people, music and alcohol.

The party was not hard to break up, and the residents poured out the liquor without complaint. Because of the relationship of trust and respect already established, the RA chose not to write up her residents. It was a difficult decision for her, but she felt it was the right choice.

"At that point, I had to put on the RA hat instead of the friend hat," she says. "Fortunately, my relationship with them did not change at all. They knew I was doing what I had to do, and we haven't had any problems since then."

Although we RAs must abide by certain rules set down by the Undergraduate Department of Residential Life, there is, fortunately for us, a fair degree of latitude and flexibility. Most differences in residence hall governance come down to the type of residence — large, small, all-male, all-female, mixed-gender, whatever it may be — and the personalities of the RA staff in each one.

In all cases, though, it's a lot of responsibility on young shoulders, especially regarding noise and alcohol violations and disruptive behavior. In the end, the main goal is to make the residence hall as welcoming as possible for students who recently left their families.

"Our main job is to maintain community," says Willard RA Ayelish McGarvey. "This is home for all of us, so we need to do the best job we can to make it a comfortable and inviting environment."

The RA system has come a long way in the past 35 years. When Bill Tempelmeyer (McC64, GMcC67) was an RA in 1965, every RA was a graduate student. Tempelmeyer, who is now director of undergraduate housing administration, says there were far fewer responsibilities back then.

"We lived with the residents and did some of the same things RAs do now, but we were not required to get involved with activities," says Tempelmeyer, who was an RA and then RHC in Sargent Hall.

The Office of Undergraduate Residential Life, in the basement of Scott Hall, runs the residence halls on campus and handpicks the RAs. Gregg Kindle, director of residential life and assistant dean of students, trusts the system. "There are several different people who get to see these applicants, including current RAs and other staff members," he says.

They look for students who have confidence, a sense of humor and a realistic picture of what it means to be an RA. "It's important that the person has a good understanding of his or her position as a role model," Kindle says. "The residents will look up to them, and they have to know this going into it."

The administration has a dual role: protector and enforcer. The RAs, Kindle says, are an invaluable part of the process.

"We count on our student staff to be in touch with what's going on in the halls," he says. "We're making tough decisions all the time, and we hope those decisions will have a positive effect on students' lives."

A few weeks ago, I went out for Korean cuisine with fellow RAs. As the food came to the table, we didn't talk about the residential life administration, residents or even our halls. Over the past few months, we have become good friends, and whether we are laughing together or bickering, our relationship is more than just occupational.

I don't know if it's because of the selection process or the bond we established through our jobs as RAs, but in my eyes these are some of the best people I have met in my three years at college. They are individuals who, I think, are bound to do good things in the future.

So, despite my initial reservations, my experience as an RA has worked out well. I haven't been target practice for any residents with water balloons, and no dead fish have turned up outside the door ... although I shouldn't be giving people ideas. (Office of Undergraduate Residential Life)

Alex Ortolani (WCAS01) of Cape Elizabeth, Maine, is majoring in English/writing and American Studies.