What is The Future of RAs? The Lingering Effects of COVID-19

What is the Future of RAs

This blog series features different writers responding to the prompt, “What is the future of the RA role?”

Guest Post by Sam Ferrigno, Professional Staff Member, UMBC

In years past, the RA role has been an indispensable touchpoint for residential college students as they navigate the policies and procedures of living on a college campus. Whether it’s hosting an educational tie dye program that teaches residents about identity and expression, facilitating a roommate mediation to address a resident’s body odor, or documenting a resident caught riding their skateboard down the hallway, RAs wear many different hats when interacting with their residents. But is this model of interaction still what the modern college student needs?

The lives of today’s college students have been significantly impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Many students matriculating through K-12 during the pandemic fell behind on crucial social, emotional, and cognitive development, and the recovery process is still very much a mystery. However, what I do know is that more than ever before, I see students who struggle immensely with confrontation, mediation, and empathy. On one end of the spectrum, there are students who choose to suffer in silence rather than tell their roommate that their loud midnight video game sessions are negatively impacting their sleep schedule. On the other end, there are students who, when their behavior is addressed, state plainly that they don’t care about the wellbeing of anybody except themselves.

Let’s not forget about the impact that the pandemic has had on students as staff members. Finding coverage for dropped duty shifts due to a runny nose or mild headache has become a regular practice, and asking for a commitment to a staff bonding gathering creates a level of decision paralysis I never knew existed. The anxiety around health and social commitments for all students, but especially student staff, is palpable.

These rapid and drastic shifts in student behavior and development are a call for change desperately seeking a response. While curricular models for residential living are becoming more and more mainstream on college campuses in the US, and existing curricula are becoming more and more tailored through their review processes, we need to fall back on the essentials now more than ever. The seventh essential element of a residential curriculum is that it should represent developmentally sequenced learning. As a student progresses through their residential experience, they should be building upon the learning acquired in previous semesters, creating depth in the skills and knowledge we hope for them to have by the time their journey in residential living has ended.

While developmentally sequenced learning can be approached many ways, there is some assumption about the baseline of knowledge students have. Not all students may have done laundry for themselves when they start college, but I can confidently say they probably all understand the concept of laundry. Post-pandemic, I’m a little less confident in students’ baseline understanding of empathy, emotional intelligence, and social skills than I am in their laundry skills. How can we expect them to be so well-versed in empathy when the last two years have necessitated a focus on mental and physical self-preservation?

As we look at the future of the RA position, we also have to look at the future of implementing residential curricula on college campuses. The developmentally sequenced learning that has been so carefully curated for each college’s unique culture and student population needs to expand to create an even more foundational outline to account for students’ social, emotional and cognitive deficits, and we need to work with our RAs to facilitate that learning. While there may be no clear panacea to help our students get back on track developmentally, the RA role can be reshaped, if only temporarily, to give residential students more traditional social experiences that will hopefully begin filling in the gaps in their social, emotional, and cognitive development.

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