Senior Elyse Rybka was dragging a trash bucket of hot water through the Tyson breezeway as music thumped in the background from a party going on in one of the student apartments.
She pulled the bin down the stone steps and crossed the street, headed toward the covered patio outside of The Anchor -- or what most community members call “the manger.” Inside of the manger she saw something that made her stomach crawl -- the chunkiest, most discolored vomit she had ever seen.
She turned the trash bin upside down and the hot water did its best to clear away the mess.
This was becoming almost routine for Rybka. It was just another Sunday night as an Resident Assistant on night duty.
According to Director of Residence Life Chris Haug, every dorm needs to have a senior staffer and a resident assistant on call each night. Some might take for granted what this means for those in the role of an RA.
Most RAs have at least one night a week on duty. However, because of differing sizes in hall staff among the dorms, it is up to each Hall Director how the hours on duty are distributed.
For instance, all RAs in Christie have night duty twice a week. Each RA has a designated weeknight in which he is always on duty and then they rotate the weekend nights, so someone who has a Friday on duty one week will then have a Saturday on duty the next week.
Yet a much larger dorm like Mehling has a different system. With nine RAs total, each RA normally only has to stay on call one night per week. However, instead of rotating weekend nights, the residence hall “doubles-up.” Two RAs are assigned to both Saturday and Sunday.
All the dorms specify that RAs who are on duty must stay up from 7 p.m. until 2 a.m. on weekends and 12 a.m. on weekdays.
Within these hours, an RA can serve many roles. In fact, RAs are remarkably underrated for the services they provide on campus after hours.
When an RA is on duty he or she is arguably, in some sense or another, a firefighter, a janitor, a security guard and a community leader.
Senior Mehling RA Katie Ha had just received a call on her black nondescript duty phone, which looked like if you threw it up against a brick wall as hard as you could, it still wouldn’t crack (#nokia). The call was about a problem with the toilet on the fourth floor.
“I was like what am I supposed to do with that?” Ha said. “It’s not like we can call a plumber over.”
But Ha says that most of the calls she gets on night duty consist of lockouts or kicking a roommate’s boyfriend out of the room after a certain hour.
She will also, on occasion, get calls relating to personal health.
Ha says that residents will call her because they’re going through a hard time and need someone to talk to, or because they are worried about a roommate or a friend who is in a bad mental state.
Ha is used to her own residents sharing their lives with her, but when she’s on duty she’s responsible not just for her residents, but for the entire hall. She might be checking in with the young women on her floor 24/7 as a peer counselor and as a friend, but when she’s on duty, she feels a different dynamic.
She’s in response mode.
Senior Tyler Tennant is one of three RAs in Christie Hall. Tennant says that he and the other RAs often live by the motto: even when you’re off duty, you’re on duty.
Tennant was once called into response mode as he was headed home from a concert. One of his friends in Christie called him and told him that he better get back to the dorm as soon as he could because there was a resident who had become very violent.
“I had to go find this guy on this street corner,” Tennant said. “I called P-safe to come pick him up and I met him back at the dorm and he just destroyed the bathroom. I mean everywhere...it was absolutely awful. It was super intense and just super gross.”
Intense situations like Tennant’s are often the thoughts that keep Ha up at night as she lays beside her duty phone, hoping it doesn’t ring.
“Sometimes I almost feel like a firefighter,” Ha said. “You never know when something’s going to happen.”
Often times it isn’t the direct action that RAs deal with; rather, they deal with the aftermath.
As Rybka circles all of the breezeways of Tyson and Haggerty on her hourly rounds, she finds empty -- and sometimes half-full -- cans of Miller High Life, Rainier and PBR scattered around the entrance.
Rybka stops at the Anchor halfway through her rounds so that she can reorganize the chairs to their proper position, make sure all the lamps are turned on and reposition the blinds, which are just a few of her several housekeeping duties for the residence.
Though for any RA, the most common, and likely the most disgusting, item of housekeeping is vomit. Cleaning up vomit is practically part of the job description. It’s an RA right of passage.
Ha is lucky enough to have only done it once.
“It was in a shower stall, which seems like it wouldn’t be so bad, but it was lining the wall so the shower couldn’t get it,” Ha said. “I thought I would be okay with the smell but it was definitely a little bit worse than I expected.”
When you ask an RA about his or her residents, the general, resounding response is one of a gushing parent. They’ll modestly say that they have very little complaints.
But for RAs like Rybka and Tennant, who have a treasure chest filled with puke-cleaning horror stories, one aggressive suggestion to residents might be, “If you’re going to puke, at least puke in a way that is convenient to clean up!”
“On house crawl night, I had to clean up some puke and it seemed like whoever did it was like ‘Oh I’ll do it in the toilet! Wait toilets are gross…’ and then just did it everywhere else except for the toilet,” Tennant said.
Since Rybka only has to deal with messes out in the open air, she often finds herself praying for rain to wash away the gross smell of hacked up tequila and cove fries.
“Last weekend, the whole staircase was covered in throw up,” Rybka said. “I woke up and heard the rain and I was like thank heavens!”
There are certainly similarities between an RA and a security guard, especially for someone like Rybka who is responsible for roaming the grounds. She checks in the halls’ trash rooms, the chapel, the elevator -- she heard a rumor that an RA had found someone passed out in there once. Even in Mehling, Ha has to check the basement and peek at the entrances, watching for “funny business.”
Part of their job is to “observe and report.”
They encounter the strange and wild behavior of college students on a Saturday night -- Rybka was lightly stabbed by a fork last weekend. Tennant had to control a resident who wouldn’t stop taking his shirt off and running -- and they file a report when they see fit.
According to Haug, if an RA sees a policy violation occur, they fill out an incident report. Then the hall director makes the determination as to whether the student will be punished.
Generally an RA will get other people involved if a student’s safety is at risk.
“A person who’s intoxicated, we want that person to get safely to their room,” Haug said. “A person who’s intoxicated and vomiting, we would call that more severe. That person has become intoxicated to the point of not being in control of their faculties.”
In that instance, an RA should try and get public safety involved in order to check the student’s vital signs and determine if they need medical attention.
While watering down vomit, picking up beer cans and chasing down shirtless residents might be the more glamorous aspects of the job, Haug argues that being an RA is really about taking care of your community.
“It’s important to remember that RAs are not police officers,” Haug said. “We see our RAs as members of the community who have stepped up for an important leadership role and yes, a part of their job is definitely keeping the building safe, but a lot of it is building relationships with people in the hall.”
Rybka ran into a resident as she was examining a staircase in which four people had vomited on the night before (“It was THE staircase to puke on,” she said.) They began talking about an encounter they shared the night before when the resident wasn’t in quite as sober a state.
She told the resident that she had tricked him into drinking water by telling him it was actually alcohol. “But you pounded it like it was alcohol! I was so proud of you for drinking that water!” Rybka joked.
This appears to be the quintessential role of an RA: the house mom, the friend, the protector, the person who’s door will never be closed.
“I think duty is more just being present and saying hi to everyone,” Ha said. “Yeah you have to do other stuff, but it’s not that crazy.”