March 7, 2021

GUEST ROOM | Give Thanks to Your Resident Hall Staffer

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It is safe to say Cornellians limped to the finish line last semester. With fewer breaks, unusually substandard dining hall sustenance and a monumental Student Assembly calamity, things certainly went smoother than expected. 

Cornell’s expansive testing capabilities and containment of the virus even garnered national media attention. The COVID-19 response was managed so effectively, in fact, it received the highest honor given to an institution: a Good Morning America segment anchored by Robin Roberts, featuring reporter sidekick Tom Llamas. Folks, we’ve made it.

Undoubtedly, the University deserves praise. Nonetheless, “If an institution has greatness, this is due in large measure to the purposes and ideals of those men and women who labor in its behalf and who pursue its objectives with courage and vigor,” as said by Flora Rose, one of Cornell’s first full-time female professors. Inscribed over mailboxes in Flora Rose House on West Campus, this quote artfully enshrines a notion we all should adhere to. Therefore, I feel compelled to recognize the valiant efforts made specifically by resident hall staffers, who are often overlooked, yet are fundamental components of the University’s containment success. 

As an undergraduate resident fellow in Carl Becker House during the 2019 to 2020 school year, I am fully aware of the job’s difficulty. Assuming the position is like being a camp counselor, therapist and parent; except the job lasts more than two months, you can’t charge by the hour, and the retort, “Because I gave birth to you!” never works (hopefully).

Before the fall semester began, I prepared for student arrivals by creating themed door name tags, so that everyone knew who the stoners, loners and loud moaners were. This past fall’s crop of staffers, instead, prudently readied for students with an insufficient PPE supply and overburdening work requirements (i.e. multiple mandatory Zoom check-ins per resident).

Compulsory chats never bode well in cultivating a staffer-resident relationship as some residents avoid us at all costs. It’s always clear when they don’t like us or care to acknowledge our existence.

Most floors, at least on West Campus, have a suite composed of four frat-esque individuals and a black sheep who fits in better at a physics department’s bi-weekly brunch de-stressor Feelin’ Drag?, than with his suitemates. Participating in floor events is definitely not their forté. 

Balancing being an authority figure and a peer is arguably the most challenging aspect of the job. The motto of our training sessions was –– to paraphrase –– “we spend 90 percent of training learning how to deal with 10 percent of the things we’ll encounter on the job”, namely inebriation, mental health situations and settling fights between roommates about the frequency one of their lover’s stays overnight. Treading delicately across such topics with residents requires a threshold of intimacy and closeness only physical proximity can accomplish. Reading body language and sensing physical discomfort are essential aspects in understanding a residents’ true visceral feelings, which is not a luxury current staffers generally have if the conversation occurs virtually.

I cannot fathom the immense pressure current staffers are under when the emergency situation is essentially perpetual. Meanwhile, I spent 90 percent of quarantine eating 10 percent of the world’s food supply, hence the global food shortage crisis of 2020.

Now, they must always be on high alert to enforce mask-wearing and social distancing, which surely isn’t what they expected the job to be like. The most displeasing thing I did during my tenure pre-COVID was host a failed event entitled ‘What’s in My Mouth?’ The four residents in attendance were blindfolded to guess the ingredients of eight unpalatable mystery food combinations like vegemite in Oreos or peanut butter pickles. A more apt title for the event would’ve been Down the Drain, where the idea should’ve gone in the first place. What’s in my mouth reminiscing about the experience? Vomit, because that’s apparently a symptom of peanut-induced anaphylaxis.

Because staffers went on strike in August, the University has come to the table to mitigate staffers’ qualms about being underpaid and unprotected. Nevertheless, I advocate for residents to provide greater recognition for their staffers’ who tirelessly place resident safety as their paramount mission during the pandemic. 

Therefore, I plead to those living in on-campus housing: Thank your dorm staffers through any means possible. Blow them a kiss over Zoom. Email them a meme of a turtle biting a strawberry captioned ‘Thank you berry much!’ The mechanism to articulate your adoration is irrelevant, just do something nice — and this is coming from the grinch who stole your Christmas dinner.

Lastly, in this relentless period of isolation, it’s easy to let our despondently crabby r/cornell personas clobber the wonderfully compassionate and highly empathic people I know Cornellians to be. Therefore, if you’re feeling hopeless or lonely, reach out and have a meaningful conversation with your resident hall staffer to make isolation a bit more palatable — especially you first-year and transfer students. The staff has trained ears offering solace in uncertainty, even though handling a pandemic was absent from the training protocols — something we evidently have in common with the federal government.

Again, residents, please show your staffers’ appreciation. They indisputably deserve it now more than I ever did. But then again, do you want guidance from someone who hosted an event  titled ‘What’s in My Mouth?’

Justin San Antonio is a member of the Class of 2020. He can be reached at [email protected].