Despite COVID-19 restrictions, RAs work to build community
When Residential Advisor (RA) junior Leo Karp passes the common room for Lee 0 or 1, he typically finds it empty. The empty South 40 halls are a very different picture from the freshman year most upperclassmen experienced at Washington University, an observation that the freshmen more than anyone are likely tired of hearing. But the obstacles to normal residential life for underclassmen are an ever-present concern for their RAs, who are working to make their residents’ year memorable in the best way.
Navigating the obvious health questions is a challenge for all RAs, and one especially poignant for Karp, whose traditional dorm has him sharing a bathroom with his residents. “From what I understand,” Karp explained, “Wash. U. and ResLife have been in close contact with infectious disease experts at the medical school, and they basically told us, if it wasn’t safe to live in LeeBeau [Lee House and Beaumont House], we wouldn’t have opened it up.” Karp also observed that health regulations were a “driving force” in RA training this year. “For example, when we had a presentation from the Office of Student Conduct, which I believe they normally do every year, they made sure to emphasize the protocols for people who break the public health guidelines that the University has put into place.”
Virtual training for RAs began three days before freshmen moved in, and the blend of synchronous and asynchronous sessions continued as residents arrived. Modules included how to support students of concern, the multitude of campus resources for students, emergency protocols and restorative and social justice topics. Juniors Isra Ahmed and Naasik Syed both recall experiencing “Zoom fatigue” after six hours of modules each day. Although online training compounded its demanding nature, senior Davis Holmes spoke similarly of his experience last year. “Regular training is very intensive, it’s very in-depth and it’s easy to get lost in it sometimes, because there’s so much content,” Holmes said.
This year returning RAs like Holmes were spared the bulk of the required training if they passed a review assessment. In Holmes’ view, “that’s a much more fair and appropriate way to structure training.” Holmes said that if Residential Life activities are normal next year, they would like to continue a hybrid version of that programming so former RAs only have to attend certain sessions.
Zoom training quickly transitioned into Zoom programming. Syed acknowledged that “ResLife’s guidelines have made in-person programming a little tricky,” and many RAs are hosting Zoom sessions to play games like “Among Us.” Despite the challenge, RAs have found creative ways to get their residents off-screen.
Syed and his co-RA junior Beth Althouse are planning a human foosball game for their Shanedling House residents. Junior Emily Xu designed a campus scavenger hunt for her Wheeler House residents, awarding points to teams for taking selfies at obliquely described locations, such as “Minecraft lookin rocks.”
To fill the gap in active programming, RAs have been asked to up the frequency of one-on-ones, a mildly dreaded experience of Wash. U. residential life, especially through Zoom. Holmes acknowledged that from the RAs’ end, “it could be awkward at times, because there are certain questions ResLife gives us to ask, which can be really weird and sometimes difficult to weave into natural conversation.” These questions include whether the student is getting the academic resources they need, and whether anyone has caused them stress since they’ve been on campus.
All of that said, Holmes still sees the benefits in these one-on-one conversations. “It’s definitely nice to get to know the people on your floor,” Holmes said. “Like I know that there are three other people on my floor this year that are from the same 30-minute radius as where I’m from…At the end of the day, it’s just a conversation.”
Xu echoed that the one-on-ones have been integral to connecting with her residents. She finds it understandable that residents are not always as enthusiastic about the conversations as her, and remembers feeling similarly.
“I didn’t realize at the time that the vibe can actually be really casual.”
Even in the absence of community events like the annual Residential College Olympics, Xu believes that each additional one-on-one and weekly staff meeting have deepened her sense of belonging with not just her floor but also the William Greenleaf Elliot residential college, encompassing Danforth, Shepley and Wheeler Houses. “It’s surprisingly comforting to walk by someone in this corner of the 40 or see people hanging out on the WGE lawn and realize they’re probably a WGE walrus as well,” she wrote in a statement to Student Life.
It is clear that all RAs are putting serious thought and effort into building a home for their residents and how, despite the obstacles presented this year, students are still forming those critical relationships. “The most rewarding thing for me has been that my residents have gotten really close,” Ahmed wrote. “They are mostly very friendly with one another, and they are casual in our GroupMe and when talking to me and my co-RAs, which makes me feel like we’ve done a good job.”