As thousands of students were set to move into dorms in August, more than 50 residential advisers decided to go on strike, citing low pay and inadequate resources as their main sources of worry.
Even though the strike ended in less than 24 hours, RAs are still struggling to balance health concerns while striving to fulfill the needs of their residents six months later.
Three days before the start of the spring semester, the University reported a cluster of at least 12 positive COVID-19 cases, forcing campus to shift to a yellow alert. As campus cases climb, RAs are growing increasingly concerned because they interact with dozens of students every day.
Kenny Wong ’23, an RA at North Campus’ Low Rise 6, said he now faces the immense difficulty of having to enforce Cornell’s behavioral compact, while also trying to remain a welcoming face and resource for his residents.
Although Wong has only been back at work in Low Rise 6 for two weeks, he said he has already caught many of his residents partying.
“People are tired of being home, so they come back and they’re really excited to see their friends,” Wong said. “College students will be college students and you can’t really stop them from engaging in social activities because that is what people do in college and we can only try and make the environment safe for them.”
These health concerns are only the tip of the iceberg as RAs attempt to enforce mask-wearing policies within their dorms — a constant point of tension for them.
“When I do rounds, I’ll be like ‘Hey, put on your mask,’ but then they just take it off three seconds later,” said Thomas Petluck ’23, an RA in Court-Kay-Bauer. “There is no set punishment for it.”
Petluck expressed worries about contracting COVID-19 from one of his 30 residents. Petluck said he was interested in receiving a vaccine because of his constant exposure to residents.
“If teachers are getting the vaccine to sit there in person, then why don’t we get it?” Petluck said.
But Wong and Petluck said they have not received clear communication from the University on vaccinations.
Many RAs have also asked their residents to stay mindful of their community — Wong said he constantly tells his residents to stay safe and follow regulations.
“I tell my residents this all the time, ‘My life is in your hands,’” Wong said. “If they get sick, I am sharing the space with them, then I’ll get sick.”
Even resident fellows in West Campus — many of whom expressed support for the August RA strike — face many of the same difficulties. Student Assembly president Cat Huang ’21, who has been a West Campus residential fellow for four semesters, said adapting to these new situations and external circumstances is simply a part of the job.
“We want our residents to feel at home, but at the same time that level of comfort and familiarity makes some people take these rules less seriously,” said Huang, a residential fellow of Baker Tower on West Campus.
But Huang added that she remains worried about her exposure to her residents. “We can’t control who they see, what they do and the fact that we’re living so closely and a lot of us share bathrooms with our residents,” she said.
Despite the many health concerns, Wong said he continues to diligently carry out his daily duties, keeping in mind that his work benefits the Cornell community.
“That’s the thing about being an RA, you always have to be there for your residents,” Wong said.