I recently sat down with Anishka and Paula, two first-year IEDP students who are Resident Advisors (RAs). Anishka is from Colombo, Sri Lanka, and Paula (remember her?!) is from Ibagué, Colombia. 

Anishka is an RA for Gregory College House, and Paula is an RA for New College House

I don’t serve as an RA myself, but several people in my cohort do. I wanted to learn more about Anishka’s and Paula’s experiences with the application process, their thoughts about the role, and what it’s like to live and work in their specific houses. 

Quick links:

College House and Academic Services (CHAS) homepage: https://www.collegehouses.upenn.edu/  

Gregory College House (Anishka’s House):  https://www.collegehouses.upenn.edu/about/gregory 

New College House (Paula’s House): https://www.collegehouses.upenn.edu/about/west 

Here’s our conversation!:

How did you learn about the RA role? 

Anishka: When I was accepted to the program, I was looking for ways to fund the experience. Dr. GK mentioned to me that many students in the IEDP do the RA role and she recommended that I check it out. 

What was the application process like? 

Anishka: It was actually quite long. The first step was to fill out your application in the portal. You choose a reference who has worked with you previously in a role that involves working with students in some way.

I think there are also 3 sub-essays, or short paragraphs, and you can specify if you’d like to work in a specific house. 

During the application process, how did you decide which houses you were most interested in? 

There are 13 houses for undergraduates. (There is also a house for graduate students.) Each of the undergraduate houses has its own flavor, and sometimes even its own governance system. So it’s important to research the houses, the staff, and the programs.

Another thing to remember is that all of the houses are different physically: You have high rises with 20-plus floors and you have much smaller houses. I’m in one of the smallest houses – Gregory House – which is only around 300 people. So the experience you’d have in a smaller house is very different from what you’d have in one of the high rises; it’s a totally different vibe. 

It’s important to find where you’d have the best experience because in addition to being an RA you also have to live there. 

Paula: I think it’s important to try to match your personality with the vibe of the house. For example, if you are very outgoing, maybe one of the high rises is a good fit for you.

Anishka: It also depends on the kind of work you want to do. When you’re working with freshmen, there’s a lot more work. Upperclassmen have already established their lives on campus, their friends…and different houses cater to different populations. You have some first-year houses, some four-year houses (Gregory is one), and then you have houses that are just for upperclassmen. 

Paula: It’s totally worth it to take a look at every house website. That’s what I did, and I feel that I’m in the perfect place for me. On the CHAS website, they have many details about every house. They list the programs and the model for each house. 

Anishka: I looked at many houses, but Gregory was the first house I looked at and I knew right away, this is the house I want to live in. And some houses are a good fit based on your hobbies or interests — I know there’s a balanced living house and a sustainability program, for example. 

So that’s the first step – do your research, see which houses are a good fit, and write your essay.

Anishka, right, and the Gregory House RAs organized a fall field trip to an apple orchard! (Instagram: @gregoryupenn)

What happens next in the application process? 

Anishka: Step 2 is a one-way interview. They send you a link where a question pops up on the screen and you have 2 minutes to answer the question. You record yourself, and you have unlimited attempts to answer. For this step, you should dress professionally, you should speak professionally, and you should have done your research – as if you were attending an in-person interview. 

Paula: I think this step took me maybe half a day. 

Anishka: We are perfectionists, I think, Paula! So you do this interview which goes to College House and Academic Services (CHAS) — this is the department that employs RAs. After that, the houses that are interested in you will invite you to an info session for their house. So I got invited to 4 info sessions out of 13 houses. So not all houses were interested in me and also, more houses were interested in me than I had expressed interest in. It’s a matching system. 

I recommend stating that you’re open to working anywhere but also specifying where you’d most prefer to work. Because of the matching system, if I had said that I was only interested in working at Gregory but Gregory wasn’t interested in me, I don’t know if the other houses would have been interested. 

From left: Paula, Alina (another Gregory House RA!) and Anishka

Tell me about the info sessions – What are the expectations? 

When you go to the info sessions, they say it’s not an interview – but it totally is! By this point they are already interested in you, but they’re still looking to see if you’re a fit. So during the info session, I would say — Don’t take up too much space, but also make sure you say something. Don’t be too dominating, but make sure that you give your view and interesting contributions. 

Paula: And when it’s time for questions, ask thoughtful questions. There are benefits to being an RA, but you should show that you’re doing it for more than just the benefits for you. So I remember that my question for the house that I’m in now was something like, “Could we have a new program related to this theme, because I think that would be something very interesting for the house.” So that way they knew I was very interested not just in the benefits but in the house community. 

Anishka: And also, show that you’ve done your research. I remember, Paula, you asked something about the Spanish house because you already knew that there was a Spanish house, and it would have looked ridiculous if you as a Spanish speaker hadn’t seen that. So you want to think strategically. 

And by the way, because of the time change, I had to attend all sessions between 11:00 pm and 4:00 am — they don’t move the times for international students! 

What happens after the info sessions? 

After the info sessions, you rank the houses — but just the houses that you were invited to the info sessions for. So I only had the option to rank 4. And at the same time, each house ranks all of the people who have gone to their info sessions — and through some algorithm, you get an offer. 

And you get one offer, for a specific house. If you don’t take that offer, you won’t be placed with another house.

Paula’s beautiful view from New College House!

As incoming students consider applying to be an RA, do you have any advice for them about narrowing down their preferred houses?

Anishka: If you speak a foreign language, you should look at Gregory House…and I think there’s one other. Gregory House has Mandarin, German, Spanish, and French programs. When I was hired and came for the training, they were still looking for a German speaker. I told them that I knew someone in my IEDP cohort who spoke German, and she ended up as an RA there too. 

Paula: Yes, or if you don’t speak a foreign language, you may have an interest that could be a good fit for a house – so I know, for example, that one of the high rises focuses on sustainability. So if you are interested in sustainable living and want to go there, you want to let them know that you are interested in sustainability.

Anishka: You can even think about your undergraduate degree — I knew someone who was a classics major that was placed in Harnwell because there was a floor that had a Latin program. So think about your previous experiences, IEDP, your whole identity — see where you can really do something for a house community. 

What would you like people to know about your house? 

Anishka: Gregory is the best house! It’s a four-year house, it’s small…and so even though only freshmen and sophomores are obligated to live on campus, there are also some juniors and seniors who live there. Gregory has a language program and undergraduates can earn half a credit. It also has a film culture program, and we have a screening room that shows movies every single night. I’m the graduate house manager for film culture. 

We have house managers (students) who run most things; it’s a very student-driven house.

I have my own living room, my own bedroom, bathroom, kitchen — but not all of the houses have that. All graduates at Gregory do. And of course, it’s rent free — I don’t get paid; housing is the remuneration for this job. 

Paula: I’m in New College House West, which is the newest house. I love my place because everything is new — the architecture is very modern, contemporary. We have big spaces, a lot of technology, sustainable designs…and I love that. 

And of course, as a new house, we didn’t start the year with existing programs, a house motto, slogan — anything. So we have been having sessions with the undergraduates and for students this year and next year too, they get to be part of shaping the house’s first programs. 

In terms of the RA community in my house, the team is amazing because we are all very united. We are also very chill — we keep up with everything, but we do it in a tranquil way. And the vibe is different in every house. 

Paula, 3rd from left, and fellow RAs after a wellness event for residents

We also have the Quaker Kitchen, which is the gourmet kitchen on campus. You have to make a reservation and it’s always very exciting to go there because it has one of the most renowned chefs in the city. 

Anishka: You also get a partial meal plan, which I think averages out to around 3 meals a week plus about $200 dining dollars. You have a lot of options — vegan, gluten-free, and so forth. To be honest, for those of us who are used to cooking for ourselves, it’s hard to eat in the dining halls more than that. I didn’t even know what an American university dining hall was until I got here — but for people who do know, these are pretty typical dining halls.

Anishka & Alina set up snacks in Gregory House
(Instagram: @gregoryupenn)

So tell me about a “day in the life” as an RA. 

Anishka: There’s nothing that I have to do day to day, but there are some duties you should be aware of. First, there’s an obligation to be present in your house. You should engage with the residents — I socialize in some way every day, even if just talking to the residents. 

You also have a duty shift, which is when you need to stay within 10 minutes of campus, but it only totals about 3 weeks per year. 

And then you have to do programs, which means you have to manage a budget. So there are some admin things, and depending on the house you might change the door and hall decorations and help with the different house events. 

Paula: But if you know how to plan and manage your time, it won’t be a very big deal. It might seem like a lot in the beginning, but once you know what to anticipate, it’s very manageable. 

A delicious RA-prepared brunch in Gregory House ((Instagram: @gregoryupenn)

What are the ratios like – in other words, about how many residents do you each support? 

Anishka: Each house has at least one RA per floor. In Gregory House, we actually have 2 RAs per floor because we have very big floors. We have 44 residents on our floor, and there are 2 of us. 

Paula: In my house, most of the floors have 70 residents and 2 RAs. So in theory I have 35 residents, but I’m more in contact with some of them than others. And if someone from the other side of the floor needs me — actually, if anyone in the house needs me, I will always help. 

Anishka: We’re actually RAs for the house, but we’re assigned to a floor. So you should be prepared to respond to all of the house needs. 

Paula teaches the residents on her floor to make Colombian arepas

Any final thoughts for people who might like to apply for the RA role? 

Anishka: It is so convenient to live on campus — it’s so convenient to walk to class – I love it! I’m never more than 10 or 15 minutes away from anything. I also found out that the value of my room is around $11,000 per year and this is something that I don’t have to pay for. This is a huge relief. 

If you have questions about life as a Resident Advisor, post them in the Comments below!