Maintaining Community in an Age of Isolation

Scenario: The year is pre-COVID, let’s say any year before 2019, you are applying to the Resident Assistant or Resident Director position. You’ve practiced a few interview questions, so you know they are going to ask you about community building. They present this scenario to you: There is a pandemic plaguing the world. This pandemic comes in the form of a virus that requires everyone to social distance from one another allowing at minimum 6 feet between you and the individual you are next to. Additionally, everyone must wear a mask. How do you build and maintain community among your residents?


If this scenario was presented to any RA or RD, anyone would be fathomed with confusion and be taken aback at how impossible that scenario would be to actually take place. Ask an RA or RD presently and I’d imagine their sentiments would be very similar to my own, “I would have never seen this coming, not in my wildest dreams or rather nightmares, but we are finding ways to make it work”.


With any semester, there are challenges, but add the challenges and changes that living on campus during a pandemic brings and the once familiar landscape of semester becomes unfamiliar. In working in Student Affairs, most will tell you that every day is different from the one before and rarely ever goes according to the scheduled plan you set forth in your Outlook calendar. A common mantra in the field, “expect the unexpected”, but in reslife we are trained – there are standard operating procedures on how to handle so much of what could happen. No one was trained for a pandemic. As Resident Directors, we were faced with scrapping the typical community building training that we give to RAs each semester and starting from scratch.


Our goal for the Resident Assistants and our residential community; however, was and continues to be to try to provide as much normalcy as possible. As a residential staff, we try to not allow the pandemic to taint what the residential experience typically is, but everyone’s first concern is safety. Safety has since been the principle that guides every action that is done in the building, so much so that paperwork has become digitized eliminating several small, but valuable interactions and opportunities for residents to get to know the residential staff of the building.


As an RA I was fortunate enough to be able to give a presentation to my fellow RAs. I chose to present on the “Lollipop Moment” philosophy which is based on the importance of small interactions and their value to the residential experience. Taking this philosophy and implementing it in the present day is most definitely not the same as when I gave this presentation 3 years ago.


Start with the first in person interaction a residential student has with the residential life staff; it’s typically during check-in when moving in or their first building meeting. These two interactions are foundational and can shape a resident’s entire experience. It’s the smile and wave of residents seeing their friends and maybe a former RA. It’s the buzz of residents being enthusiastic to be on campus that brings the campus to life. It’s an RA taking a resident up to their room and completing their room inventory form with them. This year, move in took place maintaining social distance regulations, behind masks hiding smiles, with minimal excitement and an increase in anxiety due to the looming apprehension of COVID and the unknown, many fearing we wouldn’t make it through the semester and the events that took place in March would repeat themselves. Conversations that took place when leading a resident up to their room establishing a bond of trust were eliminated. Building meetings attempted to bring unity through the barrier of a phone or computer screen. 


The next event that a resident would attend is a program by their Resident Assistant. Programs serve a variety of purposes, but regardless of what category they fulfill their common ground is that they are a tool to build community; however, the common grumbling amongst my staff was program attendance. For safety purposes, virtual programming has been favored, but has yielded minimal attendees for a couple of reasons, one of which is that with limited in-person classes taking place, residents are already looking at a screen all day. On the flip side, not all RAs have felt comfortable hosting in person programs, if that wasn’t a barrier for them, then it was the lowered occupancy levels of our common space in the building. It’s these in person interactions that we didn’t know we shouldn’t have taken for granted, that are the building blocks of creating and fostering the growth of community.

Beyond building community within the building in which one lives in, the RAs and RDs work at fostering an overall residential life community and a relationship between other residence halls. This has since ceased, making each residence hall their own island in a bubble, isolated. In this isolation, there is safety from unknowing asymptomatic super spreaders visiting other residence halls; however, in this protection from the virus, there is also the rise of another danger – the danger of mental health distresses. As previously mentioned, there are always mental health crises that arise and we are trained in how to best respond to those situations; however, with a significant decrease in human interactions between students and a drastic drought of places in which residents can meet, there has been an astronomical increase in students experiencing mental health crises.


That is the paradox we in residence life find ourselves in. In being alone, there is safety from the virus or spreading the virus especially for our residents in quarantine; however, in being alone there is a danger of a mental health crisis festering to the surface. It’s a fine line that we are working through with hopes that the world will soon return back to normal, but until then, community is being built upon the establishment of wifi, through email check ins, and with a mixture of in person and virtual programming. We find ourselves brainstorming creative and innovative ideas in hopes of perforating through the walls of isolation to hold on to whatever connection is there to make residents feel at home. 


Eden Edwards-Harris

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