Campus life draws alumni to make 'rez life' a career

By LeeAnn Kriegh ’94

This fall, 21 Pacific students participated in an intensive, three-week training course to learn how to be successful resident assistants (RAs) during the 2005-2006 academic year. If history is any indication, one or two of these students will likely find the work and its challenges so captivating they’ll make a career of it.

That’s precisely what happened to Tina Fuchs ’85, director of university residences at Western Oregon University (WOU). “I chose this career path because of my experience as an RA for two years in Clark Hall,” she said. “The greatest benefit I got from that experience was a better vision of what I wanted to do with my own life.”

Careers in residence life range from managing a single residence hall to supervising all on-campus living arrangements at a university, with numerous related positions available as well. Fuchs was hired to be the assistant director of housing and residence life at WOU. Sixteen years later, she directs the university’s combined housing and residence life departments, which involves oversight of 1,250 on-campus students and supervision of 50 RAs, assistant directors, area coordinators, and others.

“It’s an old cliché, but I got into the field because I really wanted to help people and be a part of easing their transition to college,” said Fuchs. “There are so many intangible rewards involved in our work.”

Though many people find residence life work rewarding, there is a high burnout rate, due in large part to the long hours and general stress of the work. Mary Catherine King, Psy.D. ’87, is the vice president and dean of student services at Portland’s Reed College, where her many responsibilities include supervision of residence life. She said people who work in residence life have to deal with eating disorders, fights, depression, rape, suicide, and a host of other immense challenges.

“It can be absolutely exhausting work,” she said. “Things don’t happen on a nine-to-five or even a nine-to-nine schedule. They’ve worked hard all day, and many times they face problems all night as well.”

At Reed, King said RAs as well as other residence life staff members meet with a counselor on a weekly or bi-weekly basis, just to go over recent situations they have faced. “Many times the people who work in residence life are themselves young – not far from the age of the students – and that adds to the complexity as they face these difficult and complex challenges,” she said.
Another former Pacific RA, Cullen Green ’99, is one of these younger residence life staff members. He is in the midst of his fourth year at Utah’s Westminster College, where he serves as director of residence life. Green said he expected to feel burned out by this point in his career, but he still enjoys the challenges of the position.

“I’m still really motivated and like the work,” he said. “Something at Pacific must have taught me good stress management skills. As an RA, you learn so much about communication skills, time management, and managing student needs.”

In contrast to Fuchs, who earned a master’s degree in student personnel development, Green entered residence life as a resting point of sorts before entering graduate school in a separate field. A biology major at Pacific, Green plans to receive his master’s degree in education in 2006. In the meantime, he will oversee life at five residence halls, supervise 14 RAs, work on code of conduct violations, and handle other student concerns.

“It’s not easy,” Green acknowledged. “These positions are really difficult and demanding, and you have to have a support network in place in order to make it through the rough times.”

King is herself the mother of a college student. She knows how important every feature of residence life is to her and her daughter – from the noise level to the security system and wireless capabilities of each room – and she recognizes the reasons people choose to dedicate their careers to what is often called “rez life.”

 “Some students arrive as old souls, and then others are very young emotionally. Some are terribly dependent and others don’t seek residence life services at all,” King said. “It really is a wonderful thing to work with all the different students and see them change before your eyes.”