Making a House a Home

Resident Assistants as Leaders in College Housing
Three student Resident Assistants pose on campus. From left to right: Morganne Ramsey, Ben Donvan, and Ashley Estes
Photo by: 
Zola Yi, College Visual Media Editor, Class of 2020
The idea of being able to go and foster a community in another house is what really drew me.
Ashley Estes
Chamberlin House RA

All first-year students begin their time at UChicago in College Housing, where many form bonds with their Resident Assistants. These lasting relationships support students as they transition into college and community living. We talked to three RAs about their experiences in the role, from the moment they decided to apply to the time they planned an epic house trip. Morganne Ramsey of Trott House, Ben Donvan of Hitchcock House, and Ashley Estes of Chamberlin House tell their stories.

What year are you, and what do you study?

Morganne: I’m a fourth-year. I’m studying global studies and linguistics.

Ben: I am a third-year history major and, hopefully, human rights minor.

Ashley: I’m a fourth-year in the College and I study biological sciences as a pre-med.

When did you know you wanted to become an RA?

Morganne: I don’t know if I ever knew. It was kind of predestined. Everyone in my old house, [Booth], would say “Oh, Morganne is going to be an RA.” So when RA applications came out [during my second year], I said “Let’s do this! Let’s see what happens!” Here I am two years later.

Ben: One of the major contributions was that in my first year, when I got here, I was kind of a lonely kid....I was out of my element when it came to making new friends. I think the RAs were very useful when it came to actually having friends during that time. I wanted to make sure that other people had the same sort of opportunities I did.

Ashley: I, actually, didn’t think I would [apply], but as I learned more about the position, I grew more and more interested. I really wanted to become an RA by the end of it. I  loved my house, and I love College Housing. The idea of being able to go and foster a community in another house is what really drew me.

Besides being an RA, what else do you do on campus?

Morganne: I’m a fake lawyer in my free time. I’m on the board of the Moot Court team. I’m also part of Leaders of Color at the IOP. Plus, I’m in a sorority, Pi Beta Phi. 

Ben: I sing. I’m in two groups: Chicago Men’s A Cappella and Run for Cover. Those take up the bulk of my time, but I do a few other things. I’m involved in Model United Nations as well.

Ashley: I tutor with the Neighborhood Schools program, and I’m a teaching assistant for Core Bio. I work in a lab on campus, I volunteer at the hospital, and I do a couple of events with OLAS [Organization of Latin American Students].

The housing system at UChicago is unique, and students form strong bonds with their houses. What is your role in fostering that community?

Morganne: [In my old house], “community” was sitting in the lounge at 1 a.m., but Trott is a very trip-oriented house. We have trips almost every single weekend. It was a big change for me. The RAs have to figure out what their own house communities look like and what works for everybody.

Ben: I try to just to be available. I spend a lot of time at the house table. I try my best to check in with people and see how they’re doing. I think I’m much more of a hands-off RA. For the most part, people can take care of themselves, and I don’t want to be interfering with every aspect of their lives.

Ashley: I’m a leader and I try to help bring people together and help create events, but it’s also about creating a safe space for people when they have a hard day. My position in partnership with House Council is a lot about me leading and giving others in the house a chance to lead and grow.

What is your favorite house trip or event you’ve ever led?

Morganne: Our house founder is a man named Byron Trott, who’s an alum, so last year we had a trip planned by our house president where we all went downtown and recreated this image of him. On College Break Day we went downtown to find the spot [and took pictures]. Now we do it every year, and all the photos are hanging up on the wall.

Ben: We went to Wicker Park a few weekends ago and all got ramen, which was really fun. I got to hang out with some of my residents that I don’t normally see and just chat with them. That was pretty low key but very fun.

Ashley: I really loved the tamale-making day I did last year. It gave a lot of people the chance to try something they either really loved or maybe they’ve not had before. It was also an opportunity to teach people how they are made. It’s really a community event. It’s about getting together with people, and I was really happy that a lot of people enjoyed it and got to learn about it.

Two cookie cakes made for study break by Ashley Estes. The cakes read "you're wonderful" and "Good luck on finals!"RAs also make food as a study break for their residents. Ashley made these cookie cakes before finals week.

How do you see your position fitting in with your UChicago education or your plans for the future?

Morganne: I’m not sure yet how it fits into my future, but I think in general the skills you get from being an RA are very transferable. I think being able to have conversations with all kinds of people and build relationships with them is a really important skill. 

Ben: My friends have told me that I seem more mature now. They say I’m “fatherly,” which is kind of weird. Even some of my residents say that, too. It’s totally a learning experience, though. I think it will definitely play a role to some extent in my future. I’ve become more level-headed as an RA, and a better listener. No matter what I do, I think this will be helpful.

Ashley: [This job] is very different than how I view academics. I see planning a house event and making study break as fun things to do. They tend to be good escapes from school when it gets stressful. As far as my career interests, it’s something that has helped me gain a lot more confidence and leadership skills, which I’m really grateful for.

If you had to give one piece of advice to someone thinking about becoming an RA, what would it be?

Morganne: My advice is to be open. I didn’t know how different every house was, so I thought being an RA [in a new house] would be just like being in Booth. But it wasn’t. Trott is a vastly different place that’s really great in its own way. So go in with an open mind and don’t have any preconceptions.

Ben:  It’s important that you make time for yourself. You can’t spend all your time making sure your residents are taking care of themselves because, if you do, you won’t be taking care of yourself. 

Ashley: It’s good to talk to someone else who’s been an RA to really understand what the job involves. There are quite a few things that go on behind the scenes that you should be aware of for time commitment reasons. For me, it’s been a really wonderful experience here and I really recommend it.

Finally, what do you love about your house? What makes it special?

Morganne: I like Trott House because it’s unabashedly weird. We love pandas. That’s a tradition we kept from Midway House, [Trott’s former name]. We’re also really into movies, so every year we have a big Oscar party and everyone gets dressed up.

Ben: I like how close-knit everybody is…I like the collective effervescence. That’s kind of a running saying in the house, but there really is a group excitement. I like seeing the first years figure out who they are. Obviously, that’s a four-year journey, but it starts now. 

Ashley: Honestly, the residents within my house are the best part. It’s really great to know each and every one of them, because everyone is really unique. I feel like I learn something new from my residents every day.

Thank you, RAs, for your continued dedication to your houses and our campus community!

These interviews have been condensed and edited for clarity.

Tagged: uniquely uchicago, resident assistants, college housing