SAN DIEGO COUNTY, Calif. — Imanni Wright, a sophomore resident adviser at Chapman University, had recently handled an incident involving students in her dorm when she heard some disturbing news: The people she’d met with had all tested positive for COVID-19.
“I was really scared and really nervous,” said Wright of the exposure, which took place in September.
Wright ended up testing negative, but the experience rattled her. It was the first time she had been knowingly exposed to COVID-19, and it happened during an already stressful time on campus: Chapman saw a surge of the virus during the first week of school, reporting more than 250 cases.
Resident advisers are often the first people students turn to for help navigating the party culture, roommate dynamics, and academic stress that can make college life complicated. But during the COVID-19 pandemic, the role has come with an added risk.
For many RAs, being back on campus this year has meant they are now enforcing their schools’ pandemic policies, while navigating the rules themselves.
RAs that spoke to the CalMatters College Journalism Network — some anonymously out of fear of reprisal from their universities or to protect the identities of students in their residence halls — described struggling to balance their coursework with the demands of the job.
At Stanford University, RAs called a strike during training sessions before the semester started. The impetus was an RA testing positive for COVID-19, which made others feel it was unsafe to move forward with in-person training, several RAs involved in the strike said.
About 100 RAs signed a letter calling on Stanford to offer a virtual alternative to large, in-person trainings; provide additional compensation for fall trainings; cover the full cost of room and board for student staff; and include student staff in decision making.
In response to the concerns, Stanford Assistant Vice Provost for Residential Education Cheryl Brown told RAs in a Sept. 4 email that the university wouldn’t make any changes to RAs’ current stipends and that the decision to train RAs in-person was based on several factors, including that new and returning student staff requested it.
But Stanford RAs who spoke to CalMatters said they ultimately returned to work because they felt a responsibility to help students.
“At the end of the day, we all chose to RA because we want our students to be safe,” one RA said.
RA strikes have played out on campuses across the country during the pandemic. Last year students went on strike at the University of Michigan and Cornell University, largely over COVID-19 concerns.
Some RAs said the ongoing pandemic has added pressure and confusion for them, and their residents, this year. Helping students with emergencies can sometimes mean putting schoolwork or their own personal lives aside, they said.
For Isaiah Wilkes, a junior at the University of Southern California, any time he walks into his dorm he is confronted with one of the central challenges RAs face — his dorm is his home, but it’s also his job.
“It’s kind of tough after a long day of class and things like that to come home and also be on,” he said.
Further complicating things was the university’s pandemic-related ban on guests for students living on campus. Until the ban was lifted earlier this month, RAs had to take seriously any reports of people breaking the rule, and treat them, essentially, as intruders. In one case, Wilkes said he had to call the Department of Public Safety after hearing reports of a disruptive person who had entered his dorm.
“It’s been like a much more serious situation than it would be just asking someone to leave or writing them up, like as a guest,” Wilkes said.
While USC trains RAs in COVID-related policies, Wilkes said he often has to rely on his intuition to decide exactly what to do when a student tests positive for COVID-19 — offering the roommates a rapid test or the option to temporarily transfer rooms, for example.
“It’s really just being aware of the situation — like if someone has COVID, clearly you don’t want to walk them throughout the building,” he said.
Despite the challenges, some RAs said this year feels safer than last year, now that most students are vaccinated.
At Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, for example, about 95% of students have gotten their shots. RAs said that makes for a very different dynamic than last fall, when Cal Poly had to rent rooms in a nearby hotel to quarantine students exposed to COVID-19 because on-campus isolation and quarantine beds were full. In April 2021, the university’s students accounted for 70% of COVID-19 cases in all of San Luis Obispo County.
“After what a disaster and how terrible last year was in terms of housing, it’s really hard to complain about anything now,” one Cal Poly RA told CalMatters.
The RA said it’s easier to build community this year because putting on small indoor events for residents is now a possibility.
“This year it’s a more traditional community where people are like saying, ‘Oh come to my apartment to watch Squid Game’,” the RA said.
Hayden Rivas, a sophomore dance major at USC, felt completely new to the world of being an RA: Rivas is from Canada, where RAs aren’t a part of the college experience.
But he has gotten to know his residents on a personal level through one-on-one conversations, checking in on them and asking about their course load, he said.
“It doesn’t feel like a job on my end; it’s more or less a position in which I can help out other people and tell them about my own experiences, and help guide them in the right direction,” he said.
Valeria Araujo, a sophomore RA at Mills College in Oakland, is using movie nights and Halloween-themed events to create a sense of normalcy for students in her dorm — especially important as the college prepares to merge with Northeastern University.
She’s nervous about the combination of the pandemic and flu season this fall. But her biggest concern is that her position will create distance between her and other students.
“I’m still one of their classmates, I’m still a student on campus, I don’t want them to think that I have this special authority over them,” she said.
Luna, Doshi, Rashad and Vargas are fellows with the CalMatters College Journalism Network, a collaboration between CalMatters and student journalists from across California. College Journalism Network fellow Bernard Mendez contributed reporting. This story and other higher education coverage are supported by the College Futures Foundation.