The RCA Program and the Shaping of the Freshmen Experience

by Geneva Wright

On November 30, the Office of the Dean of Undergraduate Students closed online applications for the position of Residential College Advisor (RCA). The post, which is open to juniors and seniors, is “an extremely important job,” according to current RCA Alex Craig, a junior. “You have a lot of responsibility over your freshmen, not just how they act, but how they view the school.”

According to the ODUS website, RCAs work “to promote appreciation of the diverse Princeton residential community and to foster a welcoming, safe, and stimulating environment for all residents of the college.” They provide guidance and support for underclassmen, creating “a safe environment in which their advisees can thrive, personally, socially, and intellectually.”

Trainees must attend a 5-6 hour training session in the spring and a 4-day program in the fall, as well as in-service training workshops throughout the year. The spring session, according to Craig, is “mostly an introduction to each other” as RCAs. The bulk of the training occurs over pre-orientation, during the four days leading up to the start of school.

“It’s three-and-a-half days—marathon sessions,” says senior Dan May, a former RCA. “A combination of lectures by administration and role-playing of instances where students are having emotional problems, family problems, doing badly in school. Learning how to ask the right questions to have our zees (freshman advisees) tell us things, which is sometimes half the battle.”

Training is intended to equip RCAs with information on alcohol use, sexuality, diversity, and a host of crisis situations. “It focuses on the most extreme situations you can encounter,” Craig says, “—not so much so you respond with a set formula, but so you’re comfortable responding to anything you encounter.”

RCAs are educated about all the different resources available, including psychological counseling and various programs at McCosh Health Center. “They want us to know enough about the things so we can transmit that information to our zees so they can make safe decisions,” says Craig.

Alcohol policy is one case where the administration disseminates information while relying on students to make the right choices. While the University officially recognizes that New Jersey law bans alcohol consumption for students under 21 years old, it acknowledges that attempting to enforce this restriction would likely prove futile, given the prevalence of underage drinking on campus. Instead, the University largely encourages students to make their own decisions about when and how to drink. The RCAs are expected to pass on necessary information for making responsible decisions, supplementing the online Alcohol Education course that all freshmen are required to complete.

An important change to the program has one RCA in each residential college on-call from 8 p.m. to 8 a.m. every Thursday, Friday, and Saturday night, as well as selected nights such as Dean’s Date and Newman’s Day. Those nights, according to Kathleen Deignan, Dean of Undergraduate Students, are “when most of the high-risk drinking occurs and students are most likely to be in need of assistance.” This initiative could be interpreted as a tacit admission by the administration that its current efforts to encourage responsible drinking habits have failed, necessitating more traditional policing measures.

In issues of diversity, too, RCAs are given information about potential problems in order to solve them. Diversity is of considerable importance to the university, and RCAs are expected to tout its benefits to their students. An RCA “promotes the community’s awareness of and sensitivity toward the experiences of underrepresented groups,” according to the job description posted on the ODUS website.

“With the guidance of the college staff and the support of ongoing training sessions,” the article continues, “the RCA actively engages with students who identify themselves with these underrepresented groups and supports them through the development of college diversity programs.” These “underrepresented groups” can be defined according to “race, ethnicity, socioeconomic background, religion, disability, gender identity, and sexual orientation.”

Sexuality is another area in which RCAs exercise considerable influence over their students. As with the alcohol policy, the university does not seek to ban students from having sex outright; instead, it expects them to make their own decisions using information and advice provided by the RCAs.

Presumably, part of the university’s desire to neither spur nor hinder students in having sex is the policy of giving the RCAs condoms to have on hand for students who want them. Although Cole Crittenden, Associate Dean of Undergraduate Students, assures that “we do not require that RCAs hand out condoms,” according to May, the RCAs “were certainly encouraged to; the office handed them out to us for that purpose.” At the same time, he says, “I feel like if I had a conscious moral objection to handing them out the University would have been willing to compromise.”

The availability of condoms for the asking, particularly within larger concerns about the way the University presents sensitive topics like sex, has provoked criticism from more traditional voices on campus. “When one of the first things an RCA tells a freshman is that condoms are readily available,” says Shivani Radhakrishnan, President of the pro-chastity Anscombe Society, “students may inadvertently get the sense that a lot more of their peers have been or will be sexually active during their time at Princeton than is accurate.” She adds, “this is a phenomenon of pluralistic ignorance that we see with respect to drinking on campus.”

In addition to alcohol, diversity, and sex, many RCAs choose to take a stand on issues relating to sexual orientation. Several of the LGBT Center’s efforts are closely tied with either the RCA program as a whole or with individual RCAs. The center regularly hosts study breaks in the Residential Colleges, and several RCAs also serve as LGBT Peer Educators. Perhaps most prominent is the Ally Project, whose members post an “Ally” sign outside their doors to indicate a safe, nonjudgmental atmosphere. RCAs “are encouraged to put the Ally signs up in our rooms,” says Craig, “the point being to make students who might join those groups or who might want to come out feel comfortable.” He adds that most, although not all, of the RCAs post the sign outside their door.

RCAs are chosen by the residential colleges through a careful process that includes recommendations, application essays, and a personal interview. What each college looks for, says Dean Crittenden, are “responsible, dependable, and trustworthy students who care about their peers and want to make Princeton a welcoming, safe, and inclusive place for all students.”

Because RCAs are so often the crucial link between students and the academic or psychological resources they need, it is essential that students feel comfortable talking with their RCA about their personal problems. “You have to be approachable, and generally tolerant,” May says. “You have to be willing to live with the foibles of different individuals; people have to want to talk to you about the problems in their lives, to be with you.”

The RCA population appears to be somewhat self-selecting, populated heavily by students who are indifferent to, or in agreement with, University policy on diversity, sexuality, homosexual activism, alcohol use, and other concerns. Although the bulk of the program is non-ideological, focusing instead on highly beneficial areas like helping students to get oriented, deal with stress, and overcome emotional troubles, official handling of more sensitive topics displays an unmistakable liberal bias.

Potential counterweights to the RCA curriculum’s subtle bias include providing special training in the area of abstinent and chaste behavior and alternatives to the annual “Sex on a Saturday Night” program and discussion. However, it is the character of the individual RCAs themselves that will likely remain the biggest factor in shaping freshmen views and perspectives. If underclassmen are to experience a program with a more equitable ideological balance, it will be because more conservatives, particularly social conservatives, decide to serve as RCAs.

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