Ronak Jain was in the market for a warm welcome. The first-year student in economics had enrolled at GSAS after undergraduate and graduate work in the United Kingdom, where she and her family had moved from Mumbai, India. Once more she felt the awkwardness that comes from being in a new country and a different culture. It was one reason she chose to live on campus in one of the GSAS residence halls. She thought she might find a community there that could ease the transition to life in the US.

Ronak Jain

Ronak Jain is a residential advisor (RA) for the 2021-2022 academic year. 

“Having lived in different countries and having friends in so many different parts of the world, I know how important it is to meet even one person with a smile who can help you settle into a new place and feel at home,” she says. “For me, that one person—the first person I met in the residence halls—was my resident advisor (RA), Mina Mitreva, who had also studied in the UK and was originally from elsewhere in Europe. It meant so much to be able to exchange stories and anecdotes about the differences and similarities between there and here.” 

In the two years since she arrived at Harvard, Jain has made many friends in the residence halls and elsewhere on campus. But it was the support and friendship of her RA—along with a genuine passion for serving others—that inspired her to become an advisor as well. And so, for two years, Jain has helped make the far-flung residents of Conant Hall feel as welcome and at home as she has ever since Mina Mitreva became that “one person with a smile.”

No Typical Day

GSAS is home to four residence halls—Perkins and Conant built in the 1890s and Richards and Child designed by renowned architect Walter Gropius and built in 1950. The halls have a capacity of more than 400 and are mostly populated by GSAS students, although those from other graduate schools at Harvard live there as well. Reflecting GSAS’s status as the University’s most international School, the halls are home to students like Jain who come here from around the world. “This year, about 73 percent of the students in the residence halls are from countries other than the US,” says Director of Residential Life Ashley Skipwi

GSAS has hired resident advisors to work in the halls since 1979. RAs get a room, up to 10 meals a week at GSAS Commons, and gain leadership, administrative, and interpersonal skills. Skipwith says that RAs are a primary resource—both social and practical—for the residents on the floor to which they are assigned.

“A large part of RAs role is community building: putting on programs, social events, and ways for residents to connect,” she says. “But they are also liaisons between residents and the managers of the facilities. They deal with emergencies, refer students to counseling and mental health resources, and of course, connect with us here at the Office of Residential Life.”

Like other RAs, Jain says there’s no “typical day” for her. One day she might spend some time connecting students with on-campus resources or helping someone locked out of their room. The next day, she might spend a few hours planning programming for residents, including recently planning the celebration of Diwali, a popular festival in India.

“We partnered with the GSAS Student Center fellows and the Graduate Residence Hall Council for a dance and Bollywood workshop that was a successful and safe event,” she says. “Three resident advisors performed. One of them, Yunyao, an RA who is originally from China, performed Bharatnatyam, a traditional Indian dance. Another two RAs played classical Indian music. It was amazing to see such great talent on our team!”

Stress Buster

Jain’s PhD work focuses on development and behavioral economics. The department’s doctoral program places great demands on her time, energy, and attention. Jain says that her work as an RA is a welcome break from the academic work that fills most of her days.

[Being a Resident Advisor] has enabled me to make a diverse group of reliable, dedicated friends, and to serve others in a really fun way—all on top of free room and board.

“Being an RA is a stress buster,” she says. “When you see residents smiling and being happy after an event or when they see you in the kitchen or dining hall, it cheers you up and reminds you there’s a life beyond academics too.”

As an RA, Jain has made connections that have not only enriched her social life but also been a boon to her PhD work. She tells the story of one occasion where she called on the skills of a resident and student at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design (GSD) to help make a project successful.

“We were trying to inspire school children by giving them motivational messages and setting teacher expectations high,” she explains. “We wanted to deliver it in a fun way. Tian [the GSD student] helped us design a poster with school children depicted as walking up the stairs towards a goal set by the teacher and with a shadow of themselves wearing a superhero cape to signal that they have the power to achieve their goals. It’s really beyond one’s imagination how residents from different disciplines can help you in your academic work!”

Beginning January 3, 2022, returning GSAS students and full-time registered Harvard graduate students who have lived in the residence halls for at least one term may apply to be resident advisors during the 2022–2023 academic year. (Check the Housing page on the GSAS website as well as Engage for a link to the application.) Residential Life Coordinator Mari Lentz says that she hopes many will follow Jain’s example and join their team.

“RAs can make their own schedule and plan ahead so that the job fits into the demands of their academic program,” says Lentz. “They also collaborate with other RAs. Once they’ve held their first program, it gets much easier to facilitate. And of course, I and Ashley—as well as the whole GSAS RA team—are available to help them out.”

Jain says she understands that the responsibilities of being an RA may seem a little daunting to prospective applicants at first. She says that she’s found the work more than manageable. Furthermore, being an RA has made her time at GSAS immeasurably richer. She urges her fellow students not to pass up an opportunity to have the same experience.

“Because graduate life is so rigorous, having something else to do outside of academics that you love is an excellent way to enjoy being at GSAS and to feel part of the community,” she says. “It’s enabled me to make a diverse group of reliable, dedicated friends, and to serve others in a really fun way—all on top of free room and board. Being an RA is a great way to make the most of your time at Harvard!”

Turning Strangers into Neighbors

Photos by Tony Rinaldo Photography