As a somewhat naive 19 year old, I took on a job as a Resident Assistant just before my second year of college. I remember feeling an excited anticipation at the prospect of my first real job as an independent adult (my parents had helped me with housing costs during my first year so I could focus on transitioning to college, a gift I will ever be grateful for). Though I was rather ill-prepared for the administrative duties of the post, I have always loved people and I hoped that would count for something. In addition to a private room, private phone and a living stipend, I was promised the opportunity to grow individually as I worked with the individuals in my dorm. Apart from an ability to lock doors and quiet people down, I was not sure how this job would translate into the the useful life skills that were being heralded but that wasn’t why I took the job in the first place so I didn’t really worry about it.
As I began to get to know the residents in my beloved Fox Hall, some of whom were years older than myself, I was necessarily humbled at the prospect before me. At the same time, I was intrigued by the opportunity to be a resource to these girls I was quickly coming to love so I pocketed those tall claims about what I could become and went about my work, checking in with residents and compiling weekly reports about the well-being of each apartment, attending training meetings and learning about the university’s resources, and meeting with my Hall Advisor and fellow RAs to better understand how to assist the residents.
Far from being an experience that I could easily sum up in a few words, my work that year held awfulness and beauty that left me changed in substantial ways. I remember trying to take on 48 other people’s problems and feeling frustration, care and concern for all of them and a certain helplessness at the same time. I remember feeling so tired I thought I would fall asleep walking home, only to find a blinking light on my phone and a message alerting me to a dorm fire across the parking lot. I remember eating my way through countless tubs of refrigerated cookie dough because, unbeknownst to me, I was learning how to navigate heavy emotion and that seemed like a soothing avenue. I remember drawing on creativity to help people see a way through seemingly deadlocked conflicts (a skill I rely on heavily now as I parent my preschooler :)). I remember a light coming on as I learned to value and advocate for the creation of intentional guidelines. I remember realizing, for perhaps the first time, how varied and unique people are in personality and experience. And I remember trudging up stair after stair after stair as midnight approached to make sure everyone was safely ensconced behind locked doors. By the end of the year, worn out, slightly disillusioned and ready for some off-campus magic, I took another job as a Peer Advisor. I remember racing out of the dorm with hardly a glance back, sweaty and disheveled after completing my own final cleaning inspection and barely catching my plane home.
Far from being able to immediately process the events of that year, I would need some space to really let the experiences germinate. I am hard-pressed to name any polished skills came out of those hours at Fox Hall but somewhere in the midst of the hustle of my responsibilities, during the late nights, phone calls home (no wonder I had my own phone), and moments of quiet contemplation, I was graced with a few essential kernels of humanity. It would be years before I would cover those seeds with enough experience that they would would grow into knowledge and I would recognize their Origin:
1. People don’t change because you tell them to, they change because they want to.
2. Oftentimes people are more inclined to change when they feel valued, have resources patiently made accessible to them and are given the space and time to choose a course of action.
3. Lasting change occurs when people internalize principles they learn by experimenting with the resources they have invested themselves in.
4. The process of genuine change can be agonizingly, painstakingly, and rewardingly slow.
My profound gratitude at the opportunity to learn those lessons is matched only by the frequency with which I employ them.