On the Front Line: A Conversation with Resident Assistant Dan Oltersdorf

By Roach, Colleen | Matrix: The Magazine for Leaders in Higher Education, October 2000 | Go to article overview

On the Front Line: A Conversation with Resident Assistant Dan Oltersdorf


Roach, Colleen, Matrix: The Magazine for Leaders in Higher Education


Approximately 100,000 resident assistants work and live on U.S. college campuses. Since college administrators can't be everywhere all the time, an RA can be their eyes and ears when it comes to safety and other student issues. Training RAs properly so they can be a resource for students in need should be high on a university's list of priorities.

At Colorado State University in Fort Collins, resident assistant Dan Oltersdorf was leading an effort to support and guide RAs from across the country. In December 1998, 0ltersdorf set up a Web site of resources for RAs called http://www.residentassistant .com/that is averaging 25,000 hits a month. Last July, the Collegiate Empowerment Co. published a book Oltersdorf co-edited titled Inspiration for RAs. At the time of this Matrix interview, Oltersdorf was a 22-year-old senior who was completing his second year as an RA and preparing to graduate from Colorado State with a bachelor of science degree in human development and family studies. Oltersdorf is now enrolled in a master's degree program in student affairs at Florida State University in Tallahassee.

Matrix: What made you decide to become an RA?

Oltersdorf: I was taking a leadership class and a couple of the people in the class were RAs.

They told me the selection process was coming up. I thought it would be a really great opportunity to develop my own leadership skills and some good life experience, and to have an opportunity to have an impact on other people. It's gone far beyond what I ever anticipated. It's been an amazing experience.

I have a passion for working with students. I've discovered that that's what I love to do. And I really enjoy working with freshman transition issues. I think it's a really exciting time when students are starting to ask themselves a lot of questions like "who am I apart from my family and apart from my home town and my high school friends?" There's so much growth and development during this time--it's really a fun field to work in.

Matrix: Describe what it's like working as an RA.

Oltersdorf: It will vary from week to week. We are really an RA 24 hours a day. This is one of the challenges of the job that you have to learn to deal with. Once you're an RA, you're an RA everywhere. Like any leadership position, you have to realize that you are an example, you are a role model. And that can be tough for people to transition into sometimes.

One example: You sign a contract as far as your substance abuse is concerned, alcohol or whatever. If you're underage, that applies whether you're on campus or off campus. Because if a student off campus sees you drinking and you're underage, that can be a problem if you have to write up a report on them for that same situation later on that week.

Matrix: Is there a lot of "binge drinking" that goes on at the campus?

Oltersdorf: It is a problem and I think part of the problem is perception. Studies have shown that the perception of binge drinking is actually worse than the actual drinking is. That perpetuates the problem--it's a vicious cycle. I worked in freshman orientation for the last two summers and we would bring a couple hundred students in a session and we would ask them their perception of how much alcohol the average college student consumes.

Their perceptions are considerably higher than what studies show is reality. These students' perceptions then affect what actually happens. So in orientation we try to give them more accurate perceptions of what the actual use is--which is still more than it should be. It helps them make an educated decision about what their use is going to be once they get here.

Matrix: How do you handle underage drinking?

Oltersdorf: There's a considerable amount of under age drinking that happens. We always document a situation. A really big key to the RA position is consistency. When I say I "document a situation" I mean that I write up a report. …

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