With the exception of lingering mask policies and common room capacity limits, the fall 2021 semester has restored a semblance of normalcy for resident advisers on North Campus.
A visit to North Campus this semester recalls familiar sights of friend groups gathering in common rooms, dinners at Appel and in person ice cream socials. Undergraduate RAs are learning to readjust to their jobs and build relationships with their residents as COVID-19 restrictions ease.
Some RAs say they feel as though conditions have improved compared to last fall, when more than 50 RAs went on strike to protest unsafe working conditions, feeling a lack of concern from the University for RA wellbeing. They presented a list of demands including more PPE and hazard pay. They threatened to boycott meetings and refuse to comply with on-call duties until University officials met their demands.
Immediately following the strike, the University administration met with the RAs, fulfilling some of their demands. Cornell filled in staff shortages to lighten the workload of the RAs and supplied the RAs with more PPE.
As a new cohort of RAs settle into their residence halls, Nick Gerard Weising ’24, who works as an RA in Holland International Living Center, said the news about the strike did not deter him from applying for the position. He said he appreciated the administration’s responsiveness to the demands and has had a positive experience as an RA this semester.
“I believe that Cornell really heeded the demands of the people last year, whose grievances were very justified,” Weising said. “There is a lot more support here when it comes to public health and public safety for the RAs.”
Currently, dorms require masks, prohibit visitors from outside Cornell and limit the capacities of dorm rooms.
Colin Schlissel ’22 was an RA in Mews last year, and he currently works as an Senior Resident Assistant for the dorm. He shared positive sentiments about the treatment of RAs this year.
“Everyone is pretty happy with the conditions,” Schlissel said. “I think there are fewer concerns about the spread of COVID and safety measures. I can only really speak to the staff in Mews, but I think people are happy and engaged.”
Makaila Lyn ’23 decided to become an RA so that she could be a resource for students navigating a new college environment. She shared her satisfaction being an RA in Mews Hall, finding community in relationships she has built with her fellow RAs and Residence Hall Director.
“You don’t even feel like you’re doing a job sometimes because everybody’s so close,” Lyn said. “My RHD is the sweetest person ever … It feels more like a family rather than co-workers.”
Aja’nae Hall-Callaway ’24 is an RA in Holland International Living Center and said she has enjoyed her experience so far, and has also not had any issues with residents disregarding COVID health measures in the dorms.
“The regulations aren’t as strict and rigid as they were last year, especially last fall,” Hall-Callaway said. “For the most part, everybody’s compliant. There’s maybe one or two students very rarely that do give you trouble, but then they eventually either put the mask on or they leave the building.”
In normal and pandemic years alike, a main role of RAs is to create and facilitate community programming, which aims to create an environment where residents can build relationships with one another. As COVID safety measures have eased, RAs have more tools at their disposal — most notably the ability to hold in-person events — to engage their residents in the community.
This semester, dorms can have in-person socials, which allow residents on each floor to come together in a structured environment. Some other events that were once online, like ice cream socials, have also been shifted to in-person this year, and more residents are showing up.
“The ice cream social was virtual last year, and it was just awkward,” Schlissel said. “But this year, we were able to do it out on the courtyard and a bunch of people came. People were there for a sustained period of time, playing some yard games, getting to know one another.”
In addition to allowing RAs to hold more community events, relaxed COVID measures have also improved RAs’ abilities to form individual relationships with their residents. Last year, due to the pandemic, RAs constantly reminded residents of the rules and the stipulations of the behavioral compact. According to Schlissel, this had a “chilling effect” on relationship building.
“Being the policeman of the dorm presents a challenge to trying to actually build relationships with the residents and now that there’s less stress and responsibility in that area,” Schlissel said. “I think it now opens up the ability for RA to sort of do what they want to do or to carry out the tasks that they envisioned they would be carrying out when they took the role.”
This year, the challenges RAs face are not necessarily COVID-related, but also center on striking the balance between personal life, academic life and work life. Lyn said she has also needed to navigate the boundaries between being a friend to her residents while maintaining her role as an authority figure. Despite those challenges, Lyn said she finds working as an RA fulfilling.
“The freshmen are new to the whole Cornell system, which kind of gets overwhelming and they just don’t really know where to start,” Lyn said. “It’s been really rewarding to help the residents, and I love being able to guide them towards the right resources.”
Schlissel has enjoyed his time as an SRA so far this year, and with the engagement from residents and greater ability to form relationships in the dorm, he foresees a promising year ahead for the residential life staff.
“We have greater opportunities to build relationships, both with the staff and the residents, which leaves me more optimistic,” Schlissel said. “Overall, and I can’t speak for all RAs, but there is a lot of reduced stress and I think people are in a much better place this year.”