Enforcing the Guidelines During COVID-19: An Inside Look at First-Year RA's

Image of the predicted new first-year dorm. Photo provided by Facilities Management.

From the awkward first encounter with roommates and neighbors to the unpredictable South Quad fire alarms, living as a first-year on Depauw’s campus is distinct to say the least. As students who’ve already been in their shoes, Resident Assistants (RA) are there to help navigate the chaos of transitioning to college. This semester, though, first-years and RAs are facing new challenges together as they explore what it means to live on this campus amidst COVID-19.

New Policies

To ensure the safety of students living at Depauw this semester, RAs were given extensive instruction on how to enforce new COVID-19-related policies. 

“It’s about campus safety especially in the residence halls, since it is such a communal space,” said Amerti Guta, a sophomore and First-Year Resident Assistant (FYRA).

The new guidelines for residencies around campus are consistent with the rest of DePauw’s COVID-19 restrictions, such as mask wearing in all public spaces and 6ft social distancing. Another major rule residents have to abide by is visitor restriction. There is a three person limit per dorm room and absolutely no outside visitors are allowed in a residency. 

Senior RA, Emma Rees puts it simply; “If you don’t live there, you should not be there.”

This change in particular strays pretty far from the school’s usual rules relating to guests and residence halls. Unlike other universities, DePauw did not monitor entry into dorms and living spaces. While entry was restricted by ID scanners-- only those who lived in the building were able to scan in-- visitors from outside of the residency were permitted as long as they were accompanied by a student who lived there. 

“I can’t say obeying these rules and regulations is easy and something that comes naturally to us,” said Guta, “but still we have to do it to keep each other safe.”

Trouble Already?

For an RA, the weekends can be a dreadful time to be on duty. As DePauw’s first week of classes concluded, they noted dealing with a handful of violations as nighttime gatherings among first-year residents were frequent. RAs reported having to break up groups of more than ten and often remind residents to social distance. Many residents were compliant but some, who had repeatedly violated mask/distancing policies or snuck visitors into their buildings, were written up.

Some chalk this up to the new COVID-19 policies being unfamiliar. Hannah Buchanan, a Junior and First-Year RA claims that her residents just haven’t “gotten used to” these restrictions yet. The most common issue that RAs have noted is residents failing to wear masks. Buchanan mentions, however, that residents often violate the No Visitors rule “which is hard to keep track of when they have their doors shut.”

When they’re not busy telling residents to wear their masks, the RAs are also responsible for monitoring the violation of non-COVID-19 related violations. This can include anything from alcohol and drug use to noise complaints. However, other than an incident involving a resident’s prohibited pet snake getting loose in Mason Hall, RAs explained that violations of this nature were few and far between.

Guta, like many others, explained that any rules she had to enforce were COVID-19 safety policies and that she hasn’t had to deal with much else. As RAs assigned to the houses and duplexes on campus, Rees and senior RA Abi Smith add that most of their duties have been mediation.

“A lot of it has to do with diffusing how people live together and work together,” Smith said.

Staying Connected (And Out of Trouble)

Every DePauw student knows what it feels like to go through hours of first-year orientation only to go back to their dorm and sit through more awkward ice-breakers in that first, mandatory floor meeting. While uncomfortable at first, these kinds of events are a crucial part of the freshman experience, as they give residents the opportunity to meet neighbors who will soon become friends and RAs that’ll act as pillars of support throughout the year.

While COVID-19 restrictions limit the programs RAs are able to put together, many are still working hard to make these events happen, especially since having them deters residents from gathering in ways that go against new policy.

Many RAs are using social media to keep in touch with their residents. A sophomore and FYRA, Nathaniel Swanson, said that group chats in the Groupme app have helped him connect with his residents. Buchanan explained that she made an Instagram account that her residents can post on and introduce themselves to each other. Though not in person, actions like this have aided in efforts to socialize with residents.

COVID-19 safe programs, like those held virtually or outdoors, have also been important. Utilizing Zoom and other video chat platforms, RAs have planned things like arts and crafts events for self care and DIY virgin cocktail hours. Buchanan mentioned that the RAs of Mason have been thinking about planning an outdoor water gun fight in Ubben Quad. All of these activities, while different from years prior, can engage residents in a safe way.

Apart from programs, many RAs have implemented other strategies to ensure that living situations this semester go smoothly. Both Rees and Smith host “office hours” for their residents. During this time, the two are available to meet and talk about issues that they might be dealing with or just chat and get to know each other. Guta mentioned enacting a peer accountability system that allows her residents to take turns monitoring the floor to ensure that everyone is abiding by COVID-19 policies. This works to enable residents to get to know each other while also keeping everyone safe.

Forming a Bond

The change in policy has definitely put a strain on the RA-resident relationship. Guta expresses that this difficulty comes from a shift in role for the RAs. “As an RA, you’re supposed to be the person pushing people to be socially active, to interact” Guta said, “this time you’re the person who is actually saying “please keep your distance”.”

Swanson and Buchanan express similar sentiments, claiming that the reason they both became RAs was to connect with more people, first-years specifically. The limitations brought on by COVID-19 safety policies has made that increasingly difficult. Swanson notes that masks “block out faces” and that even keeping track of residents was made difficult because of that at first.

Returning RAs like Rees and Smith explain that the bonds that they are able to form with first-years and other students in general is what they’ve always loved about the job. They note that this year has certainly limited their ability to know their residents. Rees described how it’s difficult to befriend people in this time of COVID-19 restrictions due to a lack of physical interactions. Establishing these relationships when you “barely ever see them” isn’t easy, said Rees.

Some first-years expressed feelings of doubt and worry about socialization while living on campus. Hunter Seaborne, a Mason hall resident said he wasn’t sure what to expect when coming here, and felt that new restrictions might make meeting friends challenging. He soon learned that maintaining a healthy social life was possible as long as residents are sure to “follow directions.”

Similarly, Tyler Suchar, another first-year resident noted that changes to the on campus living situations were socially discouraging at first. The three-person per room limitation and the fact that no residents share rooms at all seemed disappointing, but the convenient grouping of students-- many athletes are placed in Ubben, School of Music students live in South Quad, etc.-- has helped students like Suchar bond with his neighbors. 

Many of the RAs emphasised the importance of small interactions with individual residents. While it’s not as safe to meet with them in groups or visit rooms, utilizing brief, one-on-one moments like “saying good morning or asking how their day was” as Guta puts it, can make a world of difference.

RA Advice

With the interest of their residents in mind, many of the RAs shared tips for a comfortable and safe semester. Most emphasised that while much of the semester will be socially distant, you can still be social. “Don’t feel too isolated,” Buchanan said. “There’s plenty to keep you engaged and connected.”

The importance of following COVID-19 safety policies was stressed by RAs like Swanson, who said “I don’t think anyone else wants to get sent home so just wear a mask and stay 6 ft apart.” Guta adds that “this is a good time to show our care and support to others.”

Finally, all of Depauw’s RAs want it to be known that they are there for their residents. Rees expresses that all residents should feel free to reach out to their RA and Smith agrees, stating “we’re not alone, we have each other.”