For many first-years, the COVID-19 behavioral compact has meant increased control over their lives in a year usually marked by newfound freedoms.
Dorm regulations include wearing masks whenever outside of the dorm rooms — including in the bathrooms, hallways and kitchens — and following capacity limits in all rooms.
For Bennet Staffa ’24, these limits have posed significant barriers to making friends in his first year at Cornell.
“The main outline to my experience so far has been this struggle between trying to remain social, but trying to remain safe,” Staffa said.
Fellow first-year Harry Samuels ’24 said that many “feel so desperate for social interaction,” compounded by a majority-online semester. Without entire suites trekking to get dinner together or large groups studying in common rooms, the draw to break the rules, for Samuels and Staffa, is large.
“Is the temptation too great to just go in the lounge anyway?” Samuels said. “[The alternative is,] ‘Oh, I guess I’m going to go back to my room alone and not hang out with my friends.’”
Samuels, who is the president of the Mews Resident Hall Council, said RAs have had to assume a more disciplinary role beyond catching drug and alcohol offenses. But Samuels sympathized with the RAs, whose roles now focus less on supporting students’ transition to college and more on enforcing safety guidelines.
”Because the severity of what’s going on is so much different, stopping the spread is a very important thing to them and the entire community,” Samuels said.
Per University guidelines, when students are caught breaking a behavioral compact rule, they are written up and receive disciplinary action. These actions usually begin with a warning, depending on the infraction’s severity. But first-years have found that there is a great variety in how the rules are enforced.
“Every RA is different,” Staffa said. “Are they trying to keep us safe or are they trying to punish us?”
Beyond navigating making friends online, the threat of punishment complicates first-years’ social lives.
“I was upset at the beginning,” Staffa continued. “If I’m alone, I’m not at the opportunities I have to meet anybody. If I’m in person, I’m running the risk of getting in trouble. You’re really asking me to choose between my social health and my legal standing.”
While students recognize the importance of maintaining health, many said that enforcement has sometimes seemed arbitrary and too inflexible, recounting numerous cases of being written up. Staffa described seeing the police called for a group “under the limit” and “wearing masks,” unsure how they were breaking the rules.
“There are so many points at which you could get in trouble for violating even the most minor rule,” Staffa continued.
Kion Yaghoobzadeh ’24 was written up for having his door open while studying without a mask.
“[The RA] told me to put a mask on and he didn’t say he was writing me up,” said Yaghoobzadeh, who ended up written up anyway.
The tensions from the behavioral compact have shifted relationships between residents and their RAs, the first-years said — but the stressors of maintaining a healthy and safe environment are not lost on them.
“Students do find themselves at odds with RAs,” Samuels said, “because they feel that they’re doing something safe, even if that’s outside of the scope of what the code of conduct says they can do.”
Kayla Riggs ’24 contributed reporting.