Being a RA During the Pandemic: New Challenges and New Experiences

Jerilyn Garrett, Staff Reporter

At Shawnee State University, Resident Assistants (RAs) are an essential part of our campus community and leadership. In their usual role of creating a fun and safe environment for students, RAs are able to create helpful relationships with and between residents while enforcing university policies. However, the COVID-19 pandemic has readjusted the scope of the RA position and brought forth new challenges.

The Selection and Training Process

RAs at SSU are selected and interviewed during the academic year before they begin serving. Normally, the Resident Coordinators and those assisting with the selection process are able to interact with the candidates in person, allowing for a better atmosphere to connect with them. Due to COVID-19, this process has become almost completely virtual. Along with the selection process, RA training also had to become a mostly virtual experience. Sthefany Thomas, a SSU Resident Coordinator, said that the training content for this year’s RAs was provided through virtual presentations and pre-recorded sessions. “This year’s training topics covered new COVID-related policy and procedures, student engagement, connecting virtually with residents, caring for students in distress and self-care,” said Thomas.

First year RA, Callista Link explained that COVID-19 created an interesting experience during training. She observed that the Resident Coordinators and Training Committee were very proactive and flexible about keeping up communication and information for the trainees, though the constantly changing policies made it difficult. “Each RA would sign into a Zoom call and we would have either a special guest or our own fellow coworkers talk to us about the basics of everything we need to know, or could possibly encounter as RAs,” said Link. Some in-person sessions were able to be held in small groups while wearing face masks to address specific topics like the MyRA system.

The RA Role Evolution

As SSU RAs have been adapting to this new world because of COVID-19, it has not always been this way. “The Resident Assistant role used to focus on your housing community and upholding a healthy environment for your residents while providing minimal operational help to the Housing and Residence Life Office and SSU,” said third year RA and second year Senior RA Michael Shoemaker. Now, however, RAs help more with operational aspects of the Housing Office while still performing the usual RA responsibilities in combination with COVID-19 restrictions. “We are still trying our best, and experimenting, and finding new ways to create the communities that we used to with COVID-19, but we have not gotten anywhere near where we were,” said Shoemaker. 

Link spoke on her experience as a new RA this year and how she had to readjust her expectations. Entering the RA position, she wanted to build a comforting sense of community while letting her residents know that they were not alone as she and others had been through their first year of college already. “COVID-19 really put a damper on this idea of mine due to the fact that no one has been through COVID before, so we were all facing new challenges head on together,” she said.

Being a RA now means enforcing COVID-19 safety policies, like wearing face masks and ensuring social distancing between students, keeping our campus community healthy. Residents have been responsive to these policies and leadership, according to Shoemaker, understanding the sudden role RAs have been put in. However, there has also been a challenge for the RAs to create connections with their residents. “Even for long-time RAs like me, it is very hard to create those relationships and let our residents know that we are here for them,” said Shoemaker. Not only this, but students are also experiencing “Zoom fatigue” from being in online classes all day. It’s not too often that students will want to sit down and join a Zoom event in the evening as well.

Adjusting Building Events and Programs to a Virtual Format

With a lot of classes being online or virtual this year, many students have opted to stay home instead of living in campus housing. Due to this, the Housing and Residence Life Office made the decision to lower the amount of RAs for the 2020-2021 school year. This in combination with Zoom fatigue has made the student/resident attendance rates lower than ever for RA hosted events and building programs. “Participation has been a challenge but every RA is thinking outside of the box to engage with our housing students and make SSU feel like home during this pandemic,” said Resident Coordinator Thomas.

Despite the challenge of creating fun and enticing virtual events, the RAs have been able to hold several events for their residents throughout the year that students have responded positively to. Senior RA Shoemaker discovered that the majority of his residents have interests in art and gaming, so he was able to use this to cater events toward them. So far, his residents have enjoyed a gaming tournament, winter break goody bags and a virtual escape room. Fellow Senior RA Jacob Smathers hosted an Among Us game night and a face mask tie dying event, both of which allowed for great community development and fun interactions between residents.

A Learning Experience for the Future

Being a RA during the COVID-19 pandemic has provided many opportunities for learning and gaining unique experience toward different skills for the RAs, while allowing for some positive experiences for students as well. During the training sessions this past year, the theme was ‘flexibility’ which taught RA trainees to adapt to quick changes and concerns brought on by COVID-19. Along with flexibility, RAs have also been able to learn about communication and collaboration according to Link.

The Senior RAs noted how the pandemic has created an atmosphere where residents who were normally not as responsive to their RAs in past years are now more understanding and appreciative toward them. “One thing I have found though is that students who do actively participate truly value the events we put on as it serves as a much needed break from their day-to-day lives,” said Smathers. 

Moving toward the future, students and residents have multiple ways they can help out and support their RAs. Keeping up interaction and communication with RAs is extremely helpful and attending their events and building programs means more to the RAs than most students may realize. According to Shoemaker, RAs are often told policy changes and news at the last minute, so students should try to be flexible with the RAs as well. Shoemaker recommends giving thanks and appreciation to SSU RAs and Resident Coordinators for their hard work throughout the past year and these difficult times.

“RAs have stepped up in a major way being leaders on campus, and have learned the true definition of flexibility and rolling with the punches. While the RA position may look a little different than years past, our staff is resilient, creative, and dedicated to supporting our housing students,” said Resident Coordinator Thomas.

The current RAs are looking forward to beginning to integrate more outdoor and in-person events as we enter into warmer weather, remaining positive and optimistic for the future.