Interview with Vikram Perry: The Trials and Tribulations of a Barrows RA

by Cal Ransom


Vikram Perry

[originally published May 20, 2022]


Vikram Perry (they/them), a fourth-year history and musical studies double major, has spent their entire college career living in a dorm that has a reputation as one of the most run-down dorms on campus, available only to first-years, Barrows Hall. They describe themself as “curmudgeonly,” a bit like a gnome that has always guarded a lawn– watching the freshmen, who are like young seedlings, start their life in the Oberlin “garden.” They sat down with me and told me a little about what they’ve learned through their time being an RA.

So could you tell me a little bit about what your first year living in Barrows was like?

Yeah, I was on the second floor. It was a good first year. I really liked my RA. We were quite close. I went to a lot of their card games and we played cards. And I had a good group of friends and two of my friends lived in 224, which is this giant room. It's like a lounge that got converted into a double. And so we all sort of wound up having that become a hub for a number of people and we sort of hung out in that room a lot. My first semester, a sort of 20-ish person friend group formed, which then started to split up and break apart a little bit. But as far as the freshman year experience goes, it was pretty good. There were tensions and things that changed. But when I was going through it, it was a very useful resource for me, the hall and the cohort of people.

Having a space that's just first years.

Yeah, yeah, totally.

Can you tell me a little bit more about your RA? What were they like? I heard you mentioned something about card games.

Well, the first day of orientation my parents left, I was doing fine. And then around 10:30 at night I was like, “Wow, I'm a little sad.” I was going to go see and ask if my friend was up. And it turns out he was playing cards with our RA in the kitchen. So I sat in and hung out with them and played cards and then continued to do that semi-regularly, whenever they would arrange a game. And it was very good. I stopped going in as regularly as I found my own people, but that RA is still my friend to this day. We maintained a friendship after I was at their residence. But, you know, that was a really good first impression of my RA–I'm quite lonely and I don't really know what to do in this new weird space. And then, oh, look, I can play cards. That was good.

That's really awesome. So when you were thinking about becoming an RA, what was that process like for you?

A little bit complicated. My RA had been really helpful for me. And I wanted to provide that. I didn't have a particular want to live with any of my friends or anything. I didn't have a particular want to be in another building. But I mean, you know, this building is kind of crappy, but it also just has never really gotten on my nerves in the way that I think it gets on a lot of people's nerves, as much as I live the joke of like, "Barrows is a crappy dorm", I'm also just like, eh, it's fine. It's a room. And a friend of mine had been going through something really hard that first semester and I had spent a lot of time helping him through it, so I'd gotten to see a lot of what RAs do in crisis. And I thought it was something I could probably do. So then I interviewed. It was a funny thing because I think I came into it with a sense of like, everything about this is going to be about crisis, so the thing I need to let them know is that I will be okay in a crisis. And I think that actually isn't what they're looking for. So I actually got waitlisted as an RA, and my now best friend did make it, but then he had to drop out of the program. And so a month before coming back in the second year, I got this email being like, you're off the waitlist.

How did you feel getting that notification?

I felt good. I felt stressed because all of a sudden I was like, Oh, I gotta move, and I had to come back early for training. There was a real sort of immediate change of plans. But it was nice. I was glad to do it. And I was on the second floor, but on the other side of the second floor so that I hadn't really moved at all, it was kind of fun.

That's awesome. What was it like your first semester? What were the challenges that you had trying to navigate your first semester as an RA?

Well, my first year as an RA was actually kind of crazy. I had a really lovely hall. And they all really liked me. I think my residents generally liked me. But they all really enjoyed the vibe I was putting down for whatever reason. So, you know, we had our initial hall meeting and they all clapped afterwards. And it was a funny thing because those hall meetings are boring and hot. It's not a fun time. But they were all so genuine. And so it was really quite nice. But there were some pretty significant challenges that semester, which I don't want to get too into the details of. But I did wind up actually having to deal with a number of crises, which was a funny thing to have felt like, well, I guess this wasn't really what they were looking for, but wound up being quite useful that I had gone through various processes with what do you do when there's an emergency.

And so that was something that you kind of picked up on your own working with your friend as opposed to, like through the training.

Yeah, the training is not really about crises because they don't happen that often. But my friend freshman year had been going through such intense stuff and so had a number of nights where I'd had to call an RA who then called the area coordinator. I was familiar with that process, to a degree that was kind of funny. Although stressful at times.

Yeah, for sure. And can you tell me more about the area coordinator? I'm not familiar with that term.

Yeah, so our supervisors are the area coordinators. And so if there's a call that RAs can't deal with we will call them. And students can also call them. You can always call up campus safety and ask for the area coordinator on call.

OK. Interesting. Yeah, that's a resource that I don't think a lot of students know about.

It's not super well-communicated. I mean, the entire process of RA duty is not super well-communicated. I don't think everyone always knows what the duty board even is...

Moving forward in time when COVID started being a thing, what was it like being an RA during that time?

It was a weird time because it kind of relied on us to be a different thing than I like to be as an RA. The way that that our job is set up is really quite confusing on a like a philosophical level because it is half building community and half policing community and those two things–maybe this is getting into my own politics about the police, but I don't actually think those two things are fundamentally possible and they are at odds with each other. And so I have some trouble with that. It was the first time as an RA that I really had to deal with my coworkers and other students moralizing the issue. And I also came off of being totally isolated for about 10 months. My mom is immunocompromised, so I saw maybe two people that weren't in my family the entirety of that time. I got there the first day and I had a panic attack because there were like six people in a lounge. There's way too many people all of a sudden. And so I got used to that and I got used to this sort of moralizing. But it was a thing we had to talk about. I don't think our jobs are best done If you are consistently moralizing the actions of a bunch of 18 year olds, especially for their first year.

You mentioned there's more that first years need in terms of sharing resources and our emotional states are different than people who have been here for a while. What are some techniques that you have built up to help first years?

The way that I have framed my job in my head is that basically the goal of being an RA Is to develop a community and be trusted enough by your residents, such that if there is a crisis, you will be a person that they turn to. And for me, what that means is that I try to not make assumptions about the drama of the hall or who's dating who or whatever. I don't want to think about y'all in that way. I have my own opinions and politics and worldview, and of course, if I'm challenged on it by one of my residents or if I'm asked about it, I will happily share but my goal is not to inscribe my own personal feelings on to residents. If they want to talk to me as peers outside of being an RA next year we can have a conversation and I might be more likely to fight people. But then the flip side of that is that you really have to be jovial and kind. I'm sort of curmudgeonly, but you know, in a way that I think is endearing. I try to be a kind presence in the hall and say hi to people in the lounge and stop and chat and talk sometimes. And of course, you have your events, but spontaneous ways of interacting are quite important because it gives people a sense of, "Oh, Vikram, is a person." And then from there, if there's something that somebody needs, they can contact me. That has been sort of my guiding force.

Yeah, I definitely see that in the ways that you've been interacting with people in Barrows. And then since COVID, has there been more responsibility on you as an RA to like kind of help with the social dynamics? I know a lot of people are having mental health issues with the pandemic. Have you dealt with more of that?

I think that is true. It is a thing that has been noticed by every RA to some degree. Last year, when everything was quite strict, it was hard for everybody. I felt my own mental health waning in a way that made it hard. I got the sense that most of my residents were consistently probably a little lower than they might have been. But I think I didn't actually see more intensity because my previous year had been quite difficult. This year, my hall has actually been quite remarkably chill. But I have a lot of coworkers who have not felt the same and have felt more of that question. But for me, I like all of my first years and all them are easy…

Easy going?

Easy going. But I think there have, you know, there continue to be sort of sort of social issues and factors that are difficult. In spring of 2021, there was this issue where some people were gathering in the laundry room as a place to be private but emotional because not enough people were allowed in each other's rooms. Situations like that were sort of difficult because those were common spaces and that's not great. It was a tricky thing. You're supposed to maintain social distancing, but people need to be hugged sometimes. This year, because the social distancing guidelines have been more relaxed, it's been a lot easier, I think, honestly, because people can hug each other.

Yes, for sure. You're a graduating senior this spring. What experience do you take from being an RA and dealing with people who are going through such major changes for four years? Is that going to impact your life in the future? And if so, how?

I think so. I hope that being an RA has helped me be more willing to watch people change. I think it's easy to look at a person and nail them down. In my years at Oberlin, in the last two especially, I have become oddly more cemented in my beliefs and ideas. But I have felt myself become less judgmental of people who are not cemented in their ideas and beliefs. I've gotten the sense of like, "Oh yeah, no, you change a lot". And I’ve seen myself change and I've seen at least 80 different residents of mine change. And it does, I think, shape the way that I see growth. I'm hoping to maybe go into education or social work or something, and I think being in RA is an exercise in just consistently being kind to people who are living a different part of their life from you. I'm hoping that that's one thing that I can keep as a skill.

Yeah. It's very interesting hearing a senior be like, “I don't know what I'm going into” because as a first year, I'm like, I need to figure out my major. I need to know what I'm doing.

If you really have a plan that's awesome. But also we're all struggling. I mean, you have put stuff out there like, I'm actually going to be living in Oberlin next year. So I have to have a job. So I'm putting out feelers for a lot of different things, but I don't have a sense of career.

There's a lot I don't talk about as much in this building as outside of here. But I don't know what a career is with the current sort of economic reality and existential dread of the future that is present for Gen Z. I don't know what doing the same job for forty years looks like when I feel like maybe the world is over in thirty. So I'm just trying to figure out both what I want to do and what form of happiness I can find in my life, and how much of that should become tied to a sort of career. How much do you let capitalism rule the life that you live?

A very Oberlin perspective. Yeah. And one last thing - I feel like you very much separate Vikram the RA from Vikram the person. Is that true?

Yeah, I mean, I think I think it's true. I do. I do separate them. It's not so much that I separate my person from being an RA. But we go to Oberlin where the idea of the hot take is this hot commodity. And I I think that that's fine, but I don't feel like that is as fun for me to share with all my residents because I want them to feel comfortable with me. I think the only thing I really separate is, you know, I think of myself as a pretty radical person. I am. I'm quite political and I'm currently doing a private reading on sort of the revolutionary history of the Global South. I'm going to be reading a lot of revolutionary theorists and actors and what they had to say about their various socialist experiments in the 20th century. Those kinds of things and the way that I view our existence, how we live morally, ultimately, they're just the political side, to the thing I'm saying about kindness. It's about cultivating kindness for a group of people. I think, you know, being good too, politically, is about cultivating that kindness in a more global sense.