A one-hundred-euro rent reduction, a guaranteed roof over your head, and ‘a great way to meet new people, and to quickly learn about everything Leiden has to offer’: to international students, the life of resident assistant (RA), student caretaker of their own international student house, probably sounds very good.
However, practice shows otherwise.
Especially until the end of the pandemic, and before the university handed many housing tasks back to Duwo, RAs had a long list of responsibilities. Not only did they have to enforce house rules - including intervening in illegal lockdown parties; they had to keep an eye on the mental well-being of their housemates, resolve conflicts, organise meetings, throw intruders out of the building, and submit extensive incident reports on all of these matters.
In doing so, they would sometimes find themselves in dangerous situations, says Sophia Healy, who was an RA as a first-year international student. ‘I became a resident assistant shortly before the COVID-19 crisis started’, she says. ‘When Covid broke out, many people returned home, so it was quiet. But the semester before that was intense. I found myself in situations I didn’t know were unsafe at the time, for example when addressing strangers in the building and throwing them out.’
Another former RA, who wishes to remain anonymous, says that the atmosphere in her building grew very threatening during the lockdowns, especially for female RAs. When students were having parties, she was required to intervene, and during such interventions, she would sometimes be threatened and harassed. Residents organised a separate group chat in which they made threats.
She did not receive any help from her supervisor, she says, so she tried to contact the university’s Housing Office and the confidential counsellor - whose email address did not work. She showed Mare documents that substantiate her story.
Healy also experienced hostile behaviour. ‘One time when I was in the lift, someone called the RA - aka me - a “bitch”. I kept my head down and hoped they wouldn’t recognise me, because there was a picture of me right there, on a poster. They were drunk and it was quite scary.’
RAs are part of the so-called ‘Residence Life Programme’, which, according to the university’s spokesperson, ‘was established a few years ago for the Duwo buildings where new international students rent a room through University Housing’. This concerns eight locations, six in Leiden and two in The Hague. Most of the buildings have two or more RAs.
In return, the students get a one-hundred-euro rent reduction and unlike other internationals, they are not required to move out after just one year: as long as they are resident assistants, they can stay in the building. They do have more social tasks than student caretakers in non-international student houses: they have to show fellow residents around, identify mental health problems, and organise parties. On top of that, they have to perform so-called ‘wellness checks’, meaning they have knock on everyone’s door to see how they are doing.
Up until January last year, RAs were supervised by the university. At that time, the RAs’ list of responsibilities was a staggering 14 pages long. The document, entitled ‘Responsibilities of Resident Assistants The Hague’, states among other things that ‘no question or concern should be left unanswered’ in the group chat.’ And: ‘Always, always, check your phone!’ Under the heading ‘provide psychological support’, it says that RAs ‘should always be alert to mental health problems and signs of alcohol or drug abuse’. They must ‘contact residents daily’. Below that, written in capitals: ‘BE THE ROLE MODEL.’
It also says that they are ‘constantly assessed through daily observation, evaluation of their activity on WhatsApp/Slack, and their feedback during meetings with the coordinator.’ The RAs can ‘receive official feedback on their performance every month’.
‘If you add up all the hours we spent on it, it was much more than what we were compensated for’, says Healy. ‘We had to be on call three, four days a week. That doesn’t mean you’re working all the time, but we did have to be in the common room, ready to help when needed. Every little incident had to be communicated via Slack, in a specific manner. And there were lots of them - students break things all the time. The “wellness checks” took up a tremendous amount of time. We organised clubs for which we had weekly meetings. Plus, we were the ones who had to help out whenever someone was stuck in the lift, or if someone had locked themselves out.’
‘We did receive training on how to deal with mental crises’, says Healy. ‘But I wonder about the question of liability: to what extent are RAs responsible? There is no contractual protection.’
The coordinator of the so-called Life Residence Programme was the RAs’ ‘boss’, and in addition to being the main point of contact, they were the person who evaluated them. RAs are not employees, but they were liable to a 50-euro fine if they received a poor evaluation, which would be refunded if they performed better the following month. RAs who continued to perform poorly could lose the job - and with it, their housing.
The anonymous former RA received a bad evaluation at one point, due to the incidents during the COVID-19 crisis. She did everything she could to find out what this would mean for her: after all, the document stated that, in addition to a 50-euro fine, she was in danger of having her lease terminated if she had to quit as an RA. She never got clarification about her employee status, she says.
Some RAs were under the impression that the coordinator was an international student themselves, or a recent graduate, or someone without an official position. A presentation by the Housing Office introduced the coordinator as an ‘international student’, so whether they were an official employee of the Housing Office was also not clear. After some urging, university spokesperson Caroline van Overbeeke informs that this was someone with a ‘(minor) position’.
The structure of the programme is also difficult to comprehend. Some information could be found on the RAs of Leiden University College, but they work under a different system than the ones at University Housing: the coordinator of the LUC RAs reports that she knows nothing about the system outside of the LUC campus. There is still a link on the website to the Housing Office, but upon enquiry, it turns out that this no longer exists: there is only a single Housing Officer now. Last week, the page was taken offline.
The university does not reveal much about the course of events during the COVID-19 crisis. The programme has since undergone a major overhaul and most of the Housing Office’s tasks have been passed on to Duwo. They now coordinate the RAs together.
‘For example, the university provides the training sessions to train the RAs and coordinates the social activities. Duwo takes care of the more practical matters and fire safety courses, for example’, says Van Overbeeke. ‘There is also a social manager (from Duwo, Ed.) whom RAs can turn to in case of problems.’
There is no longer a coordinator, and no document either, according to Van Overbeeke. When asked about the workload and the number of evaluations and fines, the spokesperson did not respond.
Current resident assistants confirm that the programme has changed. Fabiana Neto Gaspar (psychology), RA at Sigmaplantsoen, does know the old document but says that there are ‘fewer official responsibilities now’. According to her, the monthly evaluations were also part of the ‘old system’. There are regular meetings with social managers from Duwo and other RAs. She says that she did not have to break up any parties during the lockdowns herself: ‘We were advised not to.’
She also says the ‘wellness checks’ have become less important. ‘We mainly did those during Covid.’ In the current task description for RAs, on the university website, the wellness checks are still listed.
Initially, RAs were indeed required to knock on fellow residents’ doors and break up parties, but that is no longer the case, says Sirius He (23, international studies), RA at Leemansplein in The Hague. It is ‘completely different’ now, he says. ‘The focus is much more on organising activities.’ He thinks it is ‘a chill job’ and does not have to spend many hours on it. ‘I can complete my degree in three years, and have also been an RA for two years.’
Neto Gaspar says there are busy and quiet periods. ‘It’s usually fine. Things don't happen all the time, but when something does happen, it can be overwhelming. There are six floors and only two RAs, so that’s a lot of people to look after.’
‘People often lock themselves out these days, which means I have to go there. Even when I’m in the library. I don’t have to spend many hours on it, but it is inconvenient. It taught me to set boundaries. I’m not available after midnight and I’ve also communicated that in the group chat. That doesn’t mean the phone never rings at two in the morning to break up parties or help someone into their room.’
‘As an RA, you sometimes feel like you’re the “mother” of the building and like you have to help everyone the moment they send you a message. I’ve come to learn, though, that that’s not a realistic expectation. It stems from having a lot of empathy: I know what it’s like to be far away from your family and what the students are going through.’
Both RAs are pleased with the one-hundred-euro reduction, but they are mainly happy to have a roof over their heads. ‘It’s a good deal, because it’s so hard to find housing’, says He. Neto Gaspar: ‘Some weeks are less busy than others so the amount is fine. I also feel like I can’t ask for too much. I already feel so blessed to have accommodation.’
Van Overbeeke reports that the students ‘have no formal responsibility’. ‘The RA is primarily asked to help promote social cohesion on the floor and to alert in case of unsafety and conflicts. The social manager is the first contact person and is responsible for resolving problems. The RAs have to be very clear in setting their limits and they receive training and help in this.’
A new document is forthcoming, she says. ‘We noticed that RAs still need a detailed description of their tasks. This is because some tasks were not quite clear to RAs, like the signalling function they have with regard to students’ personal problems. The document will be drawn up at the end of this month.’