I would imagine there are not many seniors who would happily choose to live in Harbin Hall again. In fact, all year long, my peers asked me why I would choose to be a resident assistant for first-year students. Often, my responses revolved around the financial benefits of free housing or were spun into a joke about my fear of ever living in a different building on campus. Both were partially true, but deep down, I loved being an RA because it gave me the opportunity to learn from a diverse community of new Hoyas.
A first-year floor at Georgetown University is a chaotic and beautiful space. Beyond potentially picking a roommate, most first-year students have no control over their surroundings. Athletes live next to musicians, students already planning their presidential campaign share a bathroom with aspiring CEOs and international students are undoubtedly surrounded by plenty of folks from New Jersey. I still remember being awestruck by the amazing people around me when I first moved into the blue cluster at the start of my first year. I also, however, came to realize just how introverted I was in this new world. I sadly missed out on maintaining strong connections with my floor as the year wore on. My frustration from this experience sparked my naive idea that if I were the leader of a floor, then I could climb out of my shell and build a better community.
Having been a Harbin RA for two years now, I can confidently say I was dead wrong. By pretending to be an extrovert and imposing my ideas for community-building, I ended up excluding the more timid folks on the floor — those like my first-year self. The biggest, and maybe hardest, lesson I learned in college was the importance of listening as a leader.
Reflecting on my Georgetown experience, I believe many older students feel their primary responsibility to first-year students is to be a mentor. They have knowledge to offer but have no inclination to learn anything themselves. I certainly fell on both sides of this pattern numerous times. I was that first-year afraid to question the supposedly sage advice of older students. Then, I was that senior acting as the expert on matters like which “Problem of God” professors to take or which clubs to avoid.
Offering advice to younger Hoyas is certainly good and sometimes essential. My issue, however, was repeatedly failing to consider the recipient’s perspective and goals. As an RA, moving beyond these one-way talks with my residents led to some of my favorite Georgetown memories. For example, this spring, I loved frantically running around Safeway looking for ingredients like Napa cabbage, which I knew nothing about, to help residents prepare a piece of their culture to share with us all.
Many political discussions in our common room were equally as insightful as the lectures from famous politicians who visited campus. I often loved simply being present in the common room to listen to people’s stories and keep things civil when topics inevitably became controversial. Instead of lecturing my residents as someone with more experience, everyone learned from each other. Such a diverse group of backgrounds and views were shared in a way that could not easily be replicated in most other spaces on campus.
Life as an RA was not always great, especially when I had to do lockouts at 2 a.m. on cold winter nights. But learning from my amazing community of first-years, most of whom I probably would never have met otherwise, absolutely outweighed the low moments.
Listening was an important lesson to learn as a leader of a community, but I could not have imagined just how much there was to gain by taking this lesson to heart. While not everyone has the opportunity to be an RA with first-year students, we can all take the time to engage more deeply with younger folks in our lives. Humble yourself for a minute. I bet you will be surprised by what you might learn if you give someone you consider lower on the totem pole the space to speak up.
Gordon Ahl is a senior in the School of Foreign Service.