Hunter Bowers, Residence Life Coordinator- Appalachian State University
Sarah Tokar, Graduate Hall Director- Bowling Green State University
Residence Life entered an unprecedented time in March of this year. With COVID-19, many campuses were forced to clear the residence halls in record time in order to contain the spread of the virus. This presented the field with several substantial challenges: how will students be engaged with their community, what will happen to our existing staff, and what will support for students look like in this virtual realm of education? The profession was forced to adapt, overcome, and create different intervention strategies for our residential students.
One strategy that was implemented, particularly at our campus, was the “Virtual Resident Advisor” position which kept Resident Advisors responsible for their respective halls but from a virtual setting. The training that Resident Advisors already received allowed them to be exceptionally equipped to develop community and support their residents in their physical halls. However, the Virtual Resident Advisors were quickly required to adjust to and navigate the virtual realm of resident support and interactions. It was imperative that the hall leadership and the Virtual Resident Advisor create a partnership and formulate effective ways to best meet the needs of students in this new environment. While the Fall 2020 semester is still uncertain for many residential campuses, there are several ways that Virtual Resident Advisors can be used to cultivate relationships and support for residential students.
While residential students are adapting and overcoming numerous new obstacles that they are now faced with, so are our student staff. They are tasked with balancing their academic work while simultaneously training themselves on how to best support their residents in this new and uncertain world. Having these added responsibilities, experiencing above average stress and anxiety is an understandably common occurrence for student staff. Supporting our Virtual Resident Advisors while they transition and adjust to these new “norms” is imperative for their success as students and in their roles. As professionals, we are often looked to for guidance in the midst of uncertainty, and we must be prepared to act as such for the foreseeable future. While our students remain cut off from campus and thus the physical interactions that many have become so dependent on, it is crucial that we find alternative ways of providing encouragement and support. In terms of our student staff, this means finding new and different equivalents of providing the passive support that was once so naturally achieved. Just a few short months ago, it was not uncommon to cross paths with a student staff member while walking across campus and exchange a few encouraging words, or to have staff unexpectedly drop into your office for a quick vent session. While these avenues are no longer viable, the door has been opened to find creative new solutions that will still make our student staff feel supported and appreciated. One method that we found to be particularly beneficial was to create staff superlatives that would be routinely unveiled in the staff group chat. Each staff member was given a different superlative that highlighted the hard work they were doing, while simultaneously providing the opportunity to gain explicit praise from their supervisors and peers alike. They were each recognized on a different day, allowing everyone to have their own space to digest their specific appreciation. This intentional recognition did wonders for boosting staff morale when supporting them in-person was not an option.
Virtual engagement with residential students is uncharted territory for many residence life professionals. We have been trained to be experts at creating community in a physical space and encouraging growth and development for our students in our residential communities. The COVID-19 pandemic forced many of our roles to change and develop new outreach strategies for our students. This has shown to be hard work because the ways that Generation Z engage with virtual communities differ from the professional members of our profession. It has been of utmost importance to root our supervision with our Virtual Resident Advisors in Marcia Baxter Magolda’s Learning Partnership Model. Since our Virtual Resident Advisors are peers with the students in our halls, they understand the most effective ways of communicating and creating systems of support for their virtual residents. Creating a learning partnership gives our Virtual Resident Advisors a platform where they contribute to our field and develop more effective strategies.
In a meeting with one of our Virtual Resident Advisors, we discussed what worked and what did not in terms of outreach for their community. Our typical outreach consisted of sending emails, but our Virtual Resident Advisor told us that it was not an effective strategy. When we asked what she would suggest, she talked about what today’s students use to engage with each other and their community. She discussed how she utilized her personal Snapchat account to post passive programming, such as bulletin boards, and has experienced increased student interaction. We then gave her the platform to share her experiences, which, in turn, allowed other members of our Virtual Resident Advisor team to collaborate and implement similar programs and activities. As a team, we also developed a list of national organizations that students could utilize for mental health support so that they can be supported in their virtual community.
The coming months will be a time where we not only have the chance for innovation, but where innovation will be necessary. As we navigate the new world of higher education where our students will likely experience a combination of in-person and virtual schooling, it is imperative that we work alongside our student staff— listening, and learning— to invent new and creative ways of creating communities of support that bridge virtual and material realms. Our student staff have unique perspectives and insights, as they are experiencing the recently developed changes in higher education as both students and staff members. We would be doing our field a disservice by not including our student staff as partners in this important work, as they have routinely proven that they have creative ideas to bring to the table. We must continue to branch out into new forms of technology that we are sometimes unfamiliar with in order to best interact with the students of today, even if it is from six feet away.