(Based on my remarks to the UT Austin Resident Assistants at the end of training, 2015)
I’m finding it hard to believe, but 40 years ago this very month, I became a college freshman. It’s easier to believe that I graduated from high school forty years ago. And yes, I know, those two events were only three months apart, but the end of high school seems a lot further away in time than the start of college!
I didn’t get involved in my residence hall community that first semester. I’m sure my roommate and I looked like a perfect match on our applications; we were even enrolled in a class together – Beginning Russian for five hours – who does that? Turned out that the only other thing we had in common was that we neither of us knew anyone else. It was a lot of togetherness those first few weeks. I studied and went to class and don’t remember joining in. Well, one picnic, but for this introvert, it was awkward enough to keep me from doing much else.
One of my favorite authors and teachers is Parker Palmer. In his book Let Your Life Speak: Listening to the Voice of Vocation, he told a story of an Outward Bound trip. It was a great trip until he had to face rappelling down a cliff. Eventually, he began working his way down and then got to a deep hole in the face of the rock and he froze. As he tells it, the instructor finally said,
‘…[i]t’s time you learned the Outward Bound motto..’ ‘Oh, keen’ I thought. ‘I’m about to die and she’s going to give me a motto.’ But then she shouted the ten words I hope to never forget, … ‘If you can’t get out of it, get into it.’
I’ve always loved this story even though I have to work at practicing its lesson all the time
I eventually learned to get in to residence hall life, to get over my shyness and the inertia of taking the safe, easy way, and came to know several people and to make good friends. This year a group of us will get together for a 40 year reunion, it will be the 7th reunion of this group, my second time to join them. I did find my community, I was just kinda slow at it.
We had two RA’s that first year and I was involved enough that I can still tell you both of their names. On the other hand, I can’t tell you the name of our RA my second year; she showed me how not to be an RA. The fall of my sophomore year, I applied to be an RA and while I won’t go into the whole story here, I describe it as my second worst job interview ever. I didn’t get the job. But I’m stubborn and so I applied again the next semester which is why 38 years ago, I was sitting in RA training ready to try to make a difference for the freshman who were already moving onto my floor. I was nervous and excited, looking forward to the new venture and not at all sure what was going to happen next.
So, I also learned that try, try again actually is an important lesson.
In another of his writings for the Fetzer Institute, Palmer says that newcomers to the Upper Midwest get a valuable piece of advice about winter. You’ll go crazy in the winter time if you don’t learn how to “get out into it”. As an first-year RA I couldn’t behave in the same way as I did as a first-year student. To be an effective RA, I had to “get out into” the life of my floor. I had to be the one to make the effort, the one to step out of my comfort zone to help other adjust. And I knew I had to look for the students who didn’t come out of the room. It was challenging, I didn’t always succeed, but I learned that working with students was rewarding and just plain fun.
I didn’t understand it for a few more years, but I had found my career.
Being an RA isn’t always the start of a career, but I believe that in everything we do, there are always lessons to learn that will apply to whatever career or stage in life comes next. It turns out the RA job is like most things, including Outward Bound, winter in the Upper Midwest or life in general. To mangle Parker Palmer – You have to get out into it. You can’t get out of it, so you might as well get in to it and like so many things, what you get out of it is proportional to what you put in!
Information on Palmer’s writings is listed on the Bits & Pieces page.