Web Exclusives:On the Campus...

June 6, 2001:
Patience, patience, and more patience
Being a residential adviser to freshmen requires more than just a willingness to help

By Patrick Sullivan '02

Some people accuse me of doing too much.

Apparently, this trend has existed for a while. Like so many Princeton-hopefuls, I spent four years of high school in a state of hyper-activity. Not content to pursue merely the academic side, I competed in three varsity sports, edited the newspaper, and served three years as class president. Three outcomes resulted from my extracurricular intensity: a chronic lack of sleep, a corresponding addiction to coffee, and a cherished "Yes!" from Dean Hargadon.

Dean "Fred" must have made an error. However, I promptly decided to capitalize on the admission office's oversight: I FedEx-ed a reply to my mistaken offer of admissions.

As a freshman at Princeton, I promised myself that I would relax a bit. Rather than attempt six or seven activities, I reasoned, I would choose two or three.

Somewhere within the hazy blur of freshman-ness, an activity piqued my interest: My residential adviser (RA) had a terrific job, in my opinion. As the upperclass leader of our 20-person freshman RA group, Joe created a cohesive bond amongst us naïve, overwhelmed youngsters. He stopped to chat, offered pizza study breaks, and advised on course selection. When I discovered that the university gave him spending money, a cavernous suite, a tuition break, and free meals in exchange for his leadership, I resolved to apply for an RA position after my sophomore year. Certainly, this had to be the most rewarding activity possible!

Throughout the summer, I entertained fancies of what my advisees would be like. I sent them postcards, offering sage advice on what to bring to college. I even made nametags for their doors . . . a feat considering my artistic handicap. I would have 16 wide-eyed freshmen, eager to glean advice from an all-knowing junior: me. I would show them why I love Princeton. We would do everything as a happy group. My study breaks would always be full; other freshmen would be envious of my spoilt advisees.

This of course, was all in theory.

In hindsight, being an RA requires consistent effort and unfaltering patience. My first week on the job constituted a trial-by-fire, and I quickly realized the fallacy of my summertime imaginings. Whether something as simple as explaining voicemail, creating a schedule for cleaning the bathroom, or encouraging the group to attend freshman orientation meetings, my advisees challenged me every step of the way.

An RA must realize that for most freshmen, college means a necessary -- and often, difficult -- expansion of comfort zones. Place eight girls from five states and two countries in a suite with one bathroom, and conflict will erupt. Throughout the year, I found myself suppressing disbelief when confronted with questions or problems as basic as "where is the library" or "his alarm clock is too loud." Just look on a map, I wanted to scream!

The social learning curve here is remarkably steep. As a junior, I felt comfortable with aspects of Princeton that appeared completely alien to my advisees. In order to be a good adviser and friend to my freshmen, I learned to accept this fact, and to encourage my charges to broaden their horizons.

After nine months of pizza study breaks, disciplinary issues, homesickness, relationship soap operas, and suite meetings about the dirty bathroom, my advisees made it. Sixteen more Princetonians ascended that sharp learning curve. From the wide-eyed, nervous group I met in September emerged confident dancers, a cappella singers, athletes, and scholars.

I also benefited from my experience as an RA. Perhaps some of my utopian visions failed, but I succeeded in one vital capacity. I played my part in helping 16 freshmen become acclimated to Princetonia.

I cannot glamorize my role as an RA, however. Though a bit further up that learning curve than my advisees, I still have yet to learn from my propensity towards hyper-activity: Thanks to the hardest activity I've attempted so far, I still don't sleep enough. I drink too much coffee.

And though unrelated, for the life of me I still cannot explain why Fred said "Yes!"

You can reach Patrick at pas@princeton.edu