Some West Campus resident assistants are frustrated at a Housing and Residence Life decision to move back their end of semester leave dates by a week to May 18, saying it was made without sufficient communication and transparency.
Until last week, many West Campus RAs were under the impression that they would be relieved of their responsibilities on May 11, citing emails from HRL, as well as emails and meetings with resident coordinators, who act as RAs’ direct supervisors. A July 26 email sent last year from HRL to all RAs and obtained by The Chronicle included a leave and return date table that listed May 11 as the West Campus spring closing date.
Then last Friday, an anonymous email from an “Unhappy RA” was sent to resident assistants, resident coordinators and HRL leadership.
“Lately, I've heard the news from my fellow RAs that the Move-Out Dates for all RAs are on May 18 for everyone. I and many RAs around me believe this is unjust, unreasonable and irresponsible,” the email read, adding that the RA’s resident coordinator did not explain the reasoning behind the date change.
The Chronicle reached out to the email address for more information Saturday and did not receive a response in time for publication.
In conversations with The Chronicle, several RAs said this email was the first time they heard about the May 18 date. The three RAs that agreed to speak with The Chronicle requested to remain anonymous, citing concerns of retribution and fear of losing their jobs.
When the anonymous email was sent, “our quad group chat, where we express frustrations, started blowing up. I got 42 messages in three minutes,” one West Campus RA said.
His residence coordinator had communicated May 11 as the leave date as recently as December at the end of the fall semester, he said. When he prodded his residence coordinator over the weekend for more information, she didn’t respond.
“At the time, I was like, maybe [the Unhappy RA email] is a little over-dramatic. But over the weekend, as things began to fester ... a lot of [the email’s sentiments] began to ring true,” he said.
For some RAs, the leave date change is just the latest instance of what they see as HRL’s long-standing lack of communication and support for RAs.
“I think everything’s boiled up and this was the issue that broke the camel’s back,” the RA said.
Discrepancies with RA leave dates
On Monday, Brandin Howard, associate dean for residence life, responded to the anonymous email, saying that RAs were previously informed of the change in departure date.
“The departure date for RAs was changed to May 18th in August and was communicated to each RA staff by their Residence Coordinator, as well as in the Universal Manual which was sent on September 1st,” Howard wrote in his response, which was obtained by The Chronicle.
He also stated that the original leave and return dates were changed due to a shift in the academic calendar that occurred over the summer.
The 85-page manual, a copy of which was obtained by The Chronicle, lists May 18 as the leave date on page 24 with a note that reads: “Due to a shift in the academic calendar that has pushed commencement back, the Spring Closing date for RAs has changed from what was originally communicated in earlier versions of the leave and return dates.”
But several RAs said they never received the manual from HRL. Instead, they had been referring to the table of dates included in the July 26 HRL email and distributed by their residence coordinators.
Several RAs told The Chronicle that the May 11 date was confirmed by their residence coordinators during August training and multiple meetings in the fall semester. One RA said her quad uses Microsoft Teams, and that the May 11 date “has been in the Teams folder since the beginning of the year.”
Many said they could not recall ever being informed about the May 18 change by their residence coordinators or HRL.
One RA who is a member of the RA Advisory Council — a group of RAs that provide feedback to housing administrators — described Howard's email as “the quintessential example of an HRL cover play.”
“They try and redirect blame on the ‘Unhappy RA’ and other RAs upset about the situation by stating that ‘it was in the manual we sent out in September,’” he wrote in a message to The Chronicle. “Not everyone received that manual and even if everyone did, a change of this magnitude should have been a separate announcement as well.”
“The friend who I got the manual from got it from another friend who's an RA, and they said they only received that on August 31,” he said. “And that would have been well after we signed [our RA contracts].”
Another RA raised concerns about previously booked travel plans under the assumption of a May 11 leave date.
“An extra seven days, that upends travel plans, it’s a huge source of stress,” he said, adding that he has a flight scheduled to go to India on May 16, which would have proved impossible under the May 18 leave date.
According to Howard’s Monday response to the anonymous email, HRL has reviewed the closing dates for this year and changed the May 18 departure date to two departure groups: one on May 11, and one on May 16. RAs who “left early for winter break [or] arrived late, missed training, or are allowed to attend beach week” will be assigned to the May 16 group.
RAs may be dismissed earlier on a case-by-case basis as reviewed by their residence coordinator and Campus Dean, according to Howard.
“All RAs will have access to their meal plans as long as they are still in-house as an RA. Meaning, RAs who are here until the 16th at noon will continue to have their meal plan until that point in time,” Howard added.
The Chronicle reached out to all residence coordinators for comment, as well as to ask what leave dates they communicated to their RAs during fall and spring training, and if they believed they made the May 18 date a clear change to their RAs. The Chronicle also reached out to Dean of Residence Life Deb Lo Biondo, Ali Harrison, senior associate dean for residence life, and Howard for comment.
Katie Distefano, an assistant residence coordinator for Crowell, referred The Chronicle to Lo Biondo, who wrote that “RAs know that their move-out date is post Residence Hall closing - which is a requirement of the position as described in the position description.”
‘A little bit exhausting’
Several West Campus RAs indicated that this date change was not surprising, but rather indicative of larger communication issues. Others pointed to the incident as part of a trend of their work going unappreciated.
The RA involved in the Advisory Council said that he feels there is an overall disconnect in how necessary information is communicated with housing staff.
RAs will meet with residence coordinators weekly in their respective quads, who tell them information they hear from “higher up” — namely, Howard and Harrison.
“Sometimes this can lead to some teams knowing more than other teams about things that are about to be happening,” he said. “I kind of need to do this job in order to afford to live on campus. So I don't have the flexibility of just walking out because they've decided to just change the game on me.”
Another RA, who has been in the role for three years, said she finds it “a little bit exhausting” how HRL often switches policies and treats RAs like full-time employees.
A third RA echoed this sentiment, saying that he feels even more pressure under QuadEx.
RAs have been “tasked with creating a community that’s been shoehorned,” he said. “There’s no option. These kids have to live together [due to Quadex]. And we’ve been given this mandate that we have to create community here among these people.”
He said that he gets quizzed by residence coordinators on the social dynamic on his floors. Through resident surveys, RAs are also evaluated on whether they successfully “create community.”
But doing so has been harder than anticipated.
Students with friend groups don’t want to interact with their RAs, while it takes a “great deal of personal effort” to reach out to students without friend groups — what he sees as “the kids we’re trying to target.”
Since QuadEx took hold on campus, he said he’s noticed a “general sense of disdain towards RAs, more so than ever.”
He pointed to a difference in Duke and HRL’s messaging toward its residents versus its employees. For example, he said, many of his RA trainings focused on diversity and mental health resources for residents.
“Baked into that is an underlying sentiment that [HRL] respects [residents] as people and as students,” he said. “But when stuff like this happens, where [RAs] have actual concerns that could be addressed with a quick email or some reassurance, that didn’t really come.”
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Milla Surjadi is a Trinity junior and editor-in-chief of The Chronicle's 118th volume.
Katie Tan is a Trinity junior and managing editor of The Chronicle's 118th volume.