Thanks to online classes, students spend much more time in their residence halls than they would in an ordinary year, but because of COVID-19-related restrictions, fostering community within dorms has been an uphill battle for resident assistants.
Not to be deterred, many RAs have worked especially hard to build safe, welcoming and tight-knit dorm environments.
“It’s a lot more difficult than it has been before. There is a required element of creativity and resourcefulness now,” said senior Alex Kintzer, an RA in Edens.
Kintzer noted that safety restrictions related to food and common room capacity have been particularly challenging obstacles for event planning. “RAs are no longer able to simply put a pizza in the common room,” he said.
While these rules have certainly made the RA job more difficult, they have encouraged RAs to be particularly intentional with their programming, Kintzer said.
“I don’t think that the restrictions are necessarily even a hindrance,” Kintzer said. “It has forced RAs to think more and to have more engaging events. In general, we have risen to the challenge to create more engaging events.”
Kintzer added that RA-sponsored events are more varied than ever, with hybrid and online events in addition to the typical in-person gatherings.
“I held some online events for Kahoot games, Spotify playlists and music vibe nights … We were also lucky to be able to do outdoor in-person events. Residents were able to see each other and understand themselves as a community. Having the variety of programs was definitely helpful for building community,” Kintzer said.
Kintzer added that he has created gift packages for his residents on several occasions this year, including a wellness kit and a Halloween gift bag.
Junior Andy Zhang, an RA in Trinity, said that he has also experimented with online events this year. He held a virtual game night for his residents that was “pretty well attended,” he said.
On the other hand, sophomore Shari Tian, an RA in Brown, prefers to plan in-person events, which she finds tend to draw a better turnout than virtual events.
“Last semester, I held a Cookout milkshake and coloring event for my residents to chill outside as a way to destress for the first round of midterms. It went really well. I also held a stress watercolor painting event where we had Insomnia Cookies. This semester, I held a movie night in the common room,” Tian said.
Get The Chronicle straight to your inbox
Signup for our editorially curated, weekly newsletter. Cancel at any time.
Kintzer noted that in previous semesters, RAs often felt stressed about meeting a required number of events and tended toward choosing to host easier events with fewer logistical details. However, now more than ever, RAs are prioritizing “quality over quantity” for their events, Kintzer said.
Sophomore Shari Tian is an RA in Brown dorm. She's found that in-person events have a better turnout than virtual ones.
“In previous semesters, when there have been quotas to meet in terms of numerical number of events, it was easy to fall into a ‘pizza in the common room’ event, or sending people to an event hosted by someone else. That is no longer acceptable. People need the connection to each other. It needs to be quality at this point,” Kintzer said.
Kintzer and Tian said that they’ve had to lower their expectations in terms of event turnout this year. However, they’re both grateful that they’ve had fairly good turnout to all of their programming.
“I’m really grateful that my residents are very involved. The turnout is pretty good, with low expectations. I have a total of 12-13 residents and at least three residents show up to each event. Everyone has super busy schedules, so it warms my heart when people come to my events and is part of the reason I love this job,” Tian said.
Several RAs reflected that students are far more likely to turn out to events when there is food involved. “The more food, the more people come. Of course, the food is individually wrapped to follow COVID guidelines” Zhang said.
Interim Dean for Residence Life Deb LoBiondo wrote in an email that “despite a truly unique and challenging year, our RAs continue to do a wonderful job of building an intentional and inclusive community, while working within all COVID health and safety guidelines.”
In addition to community-building duties, this year’s RAs are responsible for enforcing COVID-19-related safety precautions among their residents. Several RAs reflected that this adds an additional stressor to their job and has the potential to strain relationships between RAs and their residents.
“It is scary in terms of COVID. The job has become more ethical than it has in the past,” Kintzer said. “On rounds, I usually hear noise. In previous years, I made the judgement call that the resident is fine, but now I have to think about whether the room could be a potential COVID hotspot.”
Zhang added that it’s tough because being an RA is to serve “as a mentor and person of support for the residents,” rather than “just someone who enforces the rules.”
Despite the challenges associated with hosting community-building events during a pandemic and enforcing COVID-19 guidelines, Kintzer reflected that he still feels appreciated by the student body.
“The student population has, at a base level, understood that RAs are doing their job, supporting the community responsibility that the Duke Community Standard is putting forward,” Kintzer said.