I’m an RA. Here’s Why.

Erin Sipple is a sophomore at Carnegie Mellon University majoring in neurobiology and Hispanic studies. She’s also an RA in Fairfax Apartments. Here, she explains what being an RA means to her, discusses things she was nervous about before applying to become an RA, and shares the many ways that being an RA is personally rewarding to her.

Why did you want to become an RA?

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Last year, Erin traveled to Nicaragua with Global Medical Brigades to work with patients in a triage clinic. Care for others is clearly a personal value for Erin and one that serves her well in her role as an RA.

I believed that as an RA, I would be in a position to foster significant and positive personal development in students, which would consequently cultivate a meaningful impact on the campus community as a whole. Moreover, I felt that my personal values and strengths aligned very well with the roles and responsibilities of an RA. Although I knew being an RA would require a substantial commitment, I also knew it would be incredibly rewarding.

What do you both love and find most challenging about being an RA?

I love that being an RA isn’t something that I can clock in or out of. I am an RA 24/7, which means I am there for my residents and the community at all times. This commitment has allowed me to have a meaningful impact on the well-being of my residents. However, because I am so committed to my role, I find it challenging to feel comfortable taking time for myself when I know I could be working to help my residents in some way.

When you decided to apply for the role, what were you most nervous about and how did you conquer that fear/anxiety?

I was very nervous that my residents would be out of control, wouldn’t like me, or would need constant disciplinary action, all of which could easily inhibit my ability to form meaningful connections with my residents. In order to prevent all of these things, I was determined to establish a community built on respect among residents and between my residents and myself. This respect was fostered by being genuine and open with my residents about my expectations for the community and about myself. This way, residents could feel comfortable connecting with me on a personal level and feel comfortable as a member of our housing community.

Complete this sentence: “For me, being an RA means … .” 

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Erin and her roommate Kara enjoyed the activities at Janufest 2015. Having fun is a big part of being an RA, mentor, and friend.

Being the ultimate resource for my residents. If I cannot directly resolve an issue, I am able to connect them to the appropriate resource that can. I am whatever they need me to be: toilet paper supplier, shoulder to cry on, brownie baker, cheerleader, friend, pseudo mother, and (most importantly) someone who they can talk to and receive support from.

What skills are you gaining from your role as an RA that will help you reach your future goals?

I am gaining and developing a multitude of skills, but some of the most impacted are my time management, leadership, and communication skills.

Why is the Fairfax community awesome?

The Fairfax community is awesome because we have apartment-style living that provides a sense of privacy and independence that other housing communities don’t have. At the same time, because we are a campus housing community, we are able to promote positive personal growth among our residents as well. Residents at Fairfax get the best of both worlds.

Share one of your best memories/stories from your experience as an RA.

One of favorite experiences as an RA was when a resident of mine felt comfortable reaching out to me to talk about some personal issues regarding his/her mental health. I immediately was very open with my residents about my own struggles with depression, hoping that my openness would encourage them to come to me if they ever experienced something similar. I invited the resident to talk over tea and he/she felt more comfortable sharing his/her issues with me than with his/her friends. Because of my own experiences with psychiatrists/therapy and CaPS, this resident trusted my advice to seek counseling with CaPS and has been pleasantly surprised by how helpful is has been for him/her.

After our initial talk, this resident continued to update me on his/her progress and even knocked on my door one day saying: “Hey, I was just heading to my room but I saw you were in, and I just wanted to tell you you’re the best and thank you so much for everything.” Then, he/she gave me a hug. Moments like these, where I can see that I’ve actually made a difference in a resident’s well-being, no matter how small, are incredibly heartwarming; these moments are why I am an RA.

What is an important life lesson you have learned while being an RA? 

I’ve learned that although everyone is extraordinarily unique, there are always common threads that can connect us, and the only obstacle to connecting with someone is taking the time to find that thread.

What other organizations or interests do you take part in on campus?

I’m president of Mellon College of Science Dean’s Student Advisory Council (MCSSAC), I’m an EXCEL leader for Academic Development, and I conduct research in Dr. Gittis’s neuroscience lab.

Piece of advice you’d give a student who is considering becoming an RA.

Before becoming an RA, I believed there was a certain RA mold I’d have to fit to excel. Now though, after seeing the varied strengths of my housing community’s staff and how well we work together, I have learned that anyone can bring something to the table and play a significant role in the community. In the process of helping both your residents and the community grow, you will find yourself growing as well. It’s extremely rewarding.

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Erin and her friend Amna at Pittsburgh’s Light Up Night 2015.

Tell us something about yourself that your residents might not know.

I believe the majority of my residents know how much I care about them and how much I enjoy being there for them, but I don’t think many of them realize how much they have helped me. Even the smallest interactions with my residents make my day, and I feel so lucky to have them as my residents.

Getting to Know Josh Schaldenbrand

Josh Schaldenbrand is the Housefellow for Neville Apartments and the Residence on Fifth first-year community in the Oakland neighborhood of Carnegie Mellon University’s campus. He is also the university’s Coordinator of Community Standards & Integrity.

Josh earned his Bachelor of Arts in history in 2005 and his Master of Arts in counseling in 2008, both from Edinboro University. “Edinboro is located about two hours north of Pittsburgh and 20 minutes south of Lake Erie,” says Josh. “If you have seen the movie, Frozen, then you would be familiar with the weather in Edinboro from October to April.”

How did you come to join CMU?

I previously worked in residence life at three other universities where much of my work was focused on residential education and staff selection and training. I joined CMU in September 2014. During my interview process, I was so impressed with everyone I met and with how invested everyone is in their work. I was also eager to gain more experience relating to community standards and wanted to return to Pittsburgh, where I was born and raised.

What’s awesome about the Residence on Fifth community?

I would be remiss to not point out that flamingos are among the noblest creatures on this planet. Also pink (in all of its shades and hues) is by far the most glorious and majestic color in the history of time. In addition to our symbols of pride, the Rez is a great place to live – exploring Oakland is right at your fingertips! Students are close to a hub of educational activity that bridges the CMU and University of Pittsburgh campuses. This includes the shops and restaurants on Craig Street, the Carnegie Museums and library, and Schenley Plaza. Beyond that, our community is unique in that we are relatively small. This allows for “Rezzies” to get to know one another on a more personal level.

What are you most looking forward to for the Neville community in the year ahead?   

Who wouldn’t be looking forward to being the Housefellow for a community named in honor of Grammy award-winning, R&B vocalist, Aaron Neville? Most of the residents of the Neville community were first-year students in the Rez, so I am looking forward to welcoming them back to the Oakland community for their second year at CMU. I am also excited about how the Rez and Neville residents might interact with one another.

Share one of your most prized CMU memories.

Spring Carnival is always a highpoint in the year for me. Timing the buggy races with other staff members is something I love to do. It allows me to see the creativity and hard work of our students in action as they push their teams’ buggy across the finish line. More importantly, the time invested in building relationships with students has been incredibly meaningful for me. Those relationships are what I treasure the most about being a Housefellow and being a part of the Carnegie Mellon community.

What is an important life lesson you have learned from a student or students?

In this work I have learned many things from students. The most important lesson that I have had confirmed for me is the importance of being authentic. The moments when people are truly themselves are the moments when reflection and resilience can flourish. This applies to good times, bad times, and in between times. The students whom I have been fortunate enough to work with have taught me a lot about how important it is for me to maintain my authenticity and to allow others to see who I am.

Outside of work, what are your hobbies/interests? What are you passionate about?

Josh's pups, Jack and Sam
Josh’s pups, Jack and Sam

I am a doctoral student in the Higher Education Management EdD Program at the University of Pittsburgh and that takes up quite a bit of my time. Beyond that I read, I Netflix, I cook, and I attempt in vain to train my two dogs, Jack and Sam. I’m extremely passionate about Pittsburgh sports teams, specifically the Pirates. Most importantly, I enjoy spending time with my partner, Meredith, and also my nephews, Henry and Baker.

All-time favorite book(s): You could ask me this question and I’d give you one answer on Monday and a different one on Tuesday. Right now I am really immersed in reading for classes, but in reading “for fun” I really enjoy memoirs, biography, and autobiographies because they are often both historical and personal. Most recently I read Eric Clapton’s autobiography.

If you could have dinner with anyone in the world, dead or alive, who would it be?

Barack Obama

You get to eat a meal where fat, calories, sodium, and cholesterol get completely wiped off the books. What would be your food of choice for this very special (and sadly impossible) meal?

Mineo’s Pizza in Squirrel Hill.

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Getting to Know Michaela Page

Michaela Page is the Housefellow for Webster Hall and Shirley Apartments in Oakland. Additionally, as the Coordinator of Residential Education, she spearheads Y2@CMU, a program that supports sophomores and their second-year experience as Carnegie Mellon University students. She also works with transfer and global exchange students.

Michaela completed her undergraduate studies in psychology and theater at Smith College and earned her master’s degree in higher education administration from Boston University’s School of Education.

Let’s learn more about Michaela!

How did you come to join CMU?

After moving to Pittsburgh in 2011, I took a slight hiatus from student affairs. I served as an AmeriCorps Member and worked in the non-profit sector. They were enriching experiences and I fell in love with Pittsburgh because of those opportunities. Still, I missed working in student development tremendously. I saw the Carnegie Mellon housefellow position and knew I had to apply. A few months later, I was hired!

Why is the Webster community awesome?

Webster is a great place to live during that transitional time between a student’s first year and becoming an upperclassman or woman, when some students are seeking more independence. Sophomores to graduate students find their home at Webster, and I think they enjoy it for many reasons: the Oakland location, getting to cook their own meals, a great management team that is on top of maintenance concerns, the tasty food at Kevin’s Deli (you have to check out Kevin’s!), and a friendly, committed RA staff that is passionate about creating a sense of community with programming and events but without cramping each resident’s individual style. Webster residents enjoy the range of programs offered – progressive dinners, career-readiness workshops, meditation sessions, and trips off campus to check out the awesome city surrounding us.

Share one of your most prized CMU memories.

Being part of the human tunnel during PlayFair, otherwise known as “the biggest ice breaker ever,” during first-year orientation. It was astounding to watch as hundreds of first-year students scurried through the tunnel, as upper-class students cheered them on. They were totally unaware of the human chain whirlwind that was coming up next!

PlayFair during CMU Orientation 2014
PlayFair during CMU Orientation 2014

What is an important life lesson you have learned from a student or students?

That dreaming big is a great way to live life, and home is wherever you want it to be.

Outside of work, what are your hobbies/interests? What are you passionate about?

I love to be active in any way through exercise and group endeavors, like road races. I also love to sing, dance, and act. Currently, I am a member of the Renaissance City Choir. I love to travel and learn about the cultures and histories of places. I also enjoy cooking, reading, watching movies, and snuggling up with my dog, Rufus, and my cat, Gandalf. I am passionate about many things, but giving back through service is super important to me. Whether it’s on a small or large scale, service teaches you a lot about yourself and others and keeps you continually evolving as a person.

All-time favorite book: Stones from the River by Ursula Hegi

If you could have dinner with anyone in the world, dead or alive, who would it be and why?

Geoffrey Canada, the founder of Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ). He started a movement to reform public education by utilizing the community around him. HCZ has a very successful graduation rate from high school and college. There aren’t many cities that have been able to replicate a model like his, and I would love to hear his story and how he got started. I want to know the secrets to creating an equitable, enriching education experience for all children.

You get to eat a meal where fat, calories, sodium, and cholesterol get completely wiped off the books. What would be your food of choice for this very special (and sadly impossible) meal?

Chicken Parmesan with lots of Parmesan sprinkled on it, fresh pasta, and a rich tomato sauce. Yum! Okay … now I am hungry!

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