This blog series features different writers responding to the prompt, “What is the future of the RA role?”
Guest Post by Brett Connors, Professional Staff Member
Three years later, campuses have begun to return to the “normal” operations we blissfully took for granted in January and February 2020, before the COVID-19 pandemic dramatically changed our lives. It was a generation-defining event, much like the Kennedy assassination and the 9/11 attacks, but unlike those, it completely overhauled the way residence life functioned. No, this is not an excuse to prattle on about the effects of COVID, because we’ve all lived them; rather, let’s look back at the ways residence life and student affairs overall used to operate and how it may be necessary to evolve going forward.
Gone are the days of reminding residents to put on their masks before entering the residence halls, of closing common areas or clearing them of small to moderately sized gatherings, of instructing residents to socially distance before they enter the bedroom they share with a roommate. Thank goodness! That was a time many consider a harsh blight on the history of residence life, and for good reason. But now, as we return to “normal,” we find that things are not what they used to be. The whole shutdown, soft open, and grand reopening were, together, a flashpoint in our time, albeit an extended one. Our experience has changed—or, rather, or student populations have changed. It’s time we change with them.
We have always considered RAs our “boots on the ground,” our “eyes and ears” in the halls. They, perhaps more than anyone, have shown us the dramatic difference between what came before and what is yet to come. RAs are stuck in both worlds: students who have learned to self-teach through distance education in their own room, yet who are prodded by administrations to recreate the glory of campuses circa the 2019 they never experienced. They have always kept a pulse on the student population but now,more than ever, they’re able to share the unique student perspective that will help our field and our educators reshape our focus to adapt to the students we have now, not the students we remember having. Things are different and that’s okay. It means we can rely on our RAs to help shape and guide more now than ever before.
In response to our campus limitations and our own administrative demands, we have seen firsthand the ingenuity of RAs. Not unlike the switch from cable to streaming, programming has begun to shift in ways that better suit the residents we have now, particularly in their own time. Major programs used to feature massive gatherings of students, such as the Martin Luther King, Jr. Day march to celebrate the strides of the civil rights movement. This has evolved by necessity, becoming a reflection route for residents to stroll at their leisure, to read mile markers adorned with the visage of major and unsung civil rights leaders that detail their fight for the society we have today. This comes with a challenge for each resident to reflect independently on the injustice they’ve witnessed and pledge themselves to the continual fight for social justice.
Large social gatherings may not appeal to all residents now as they once did; this is something of which RAs are acutely aware, and they are the ones poised to moved our field in this bold, new direction. They are the creators of grab-and-go programs that may have been frowned upon before but now offer new, innovative ways to connect with residents. Goodie bags feature individualized notes and personalized snacks or QR codes linked to campus resources. QR codes have become commonplace on posters and doors to connect residents to their RA or their program—with technology as pervasive as ever, RAs have leveraged new uses just as much as professors. Hall group chats on GroupMe, Line, Snapchat, Discord, and WhatsApp became lifelines as reliable as knocking on their RA’s door. Programs like virtual escape rooms have shown that residents are still willing participants, but they are more accustomed to joining on their own time, not unlike their distance education courses.
As enrollment numbers continue to climb and as the campus occupancy returns to full capacity, it’s important for administrators to remember that, although they have worked for years in their fields, their customer base has only known the COVID experience. It has shaped a generation. We cannot force new residents to adhere to an old archetype. Rather, we must listen and learn, just as we preach to our students, and our RAs will forever serve as our liaison.