As we all learn what safety, education and community look like in the midst of a global pandemic, resident assistants and resident directors have been tasked with finding ways to adapt and create spaces of belonging for all their students.
RAs from all residence halls said that one of the biggest challenges produced by the pandemic is the increased amount of separation between residents.
“The fear surrounding COVID has caused people to be more secluded even when they are not in isolation,” said Shonna Ritz, Stegenga Hall RA.
Because of the virus and new hall safety procedures like mask-wearing and room capacities, more people are leaving their doors shut. As many students try to limit their exposure to others, meeting new people and connecting with wingmates and dormmates is more difficult.
“The mask requirement isn’t encouraging new students to get out of their shell,” said Michael Simmelink, Hospers Hall RD. “It’s just been slower making connections with everyone.”
The room capacity is an especially difficult obstacle for creating an inclusive environment in the dorms. This is one way Hospers RA Josh Fischer’s job has changed a lot from last year.
“Before, I was able to facilitate large group gatherings and let the community sort of build itself,” he said. “This year, I have had to do more one-on-one relationship building.”
In addition to coming up with new ways to create community, the residence life team grapples with feeling like the campus safety police.
“One huge challenge this year has been trying not to come off like an absolute jerk when being on top of our COVID protocols,” Colenbrander Hall RA Kirby Willats said.
Other RAs agreed that, while calling people out — even for something as simple as an incorrectly worn mask — is never fun, it’s a necessary part of their job this year.
Willats said that it’s been a struggle to balance the value of community with the health of students and the people they interact with.
Dorm events and activities, normally a staple of residence life, have also been limited. There are more considerations as RAs and RDs analyze the cost-benefit ratio of every group gathering.
If dorm or wing events happen at all, they are encouraged to take place outside. RAs must have their event assessed by NW’s Pandemic Response Team, and they must consider a variety of safety precautions, such as hand washing, sanitization of common objects, masks, number of attendees and more.
But this doesn’t take away from the core mission of residence life team members.
“I look forward to helping people figure out who they are and what they believe in,” Fischer said. “I love being a facilitator of growth.”
Although a lot looks different in the dorms this year, there are still ample opportunities to find a place of belonging; the RAs and RDs are eager to continue building their dorms’ community and getting to know the men and women in their halls.
“The conversations and people are worth the extra effort and slight inconvenience at times,” Willats said.
RAs are indeed in a unique position as they work to draw people in during a season that calls for distance.