As a result of the decision by the University of New Hampshire (UNH) to remain in a virtual learning setting due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the university’s Department of Residential Life is left without a major aspect of its everyday structure- the vibrant residence hall communities.
However, though the vast majority of students in on-campus housing have moved their belongings out of their residence hall living assignments, Residential Life is planning on ways to virtually continue interacting with students.
In an email sent out to all campus resident assistants (RA’s), UNH Director of Residential Life Ruth Abelmann announced the department’s intentions to remain active in students’ lives through online programming and check-ins to mirror the department’s in-person initiatives.
“Our RHD’s [residence hall directors] are starting to plan out what a virtual residence hall can be – it takes some imagination and ingenuity to turn this concept into a reality. We are ready to take this on so that we can continue to be connected with students and bring community and useful information to our students during these strange times. We have been talking about the three C’s- connection, community and curriculum- as we plan for the coming months,” Abelmann wrote.
According to Joey Hitchcock, RHD of Hubbard Hall, he and the other 21 university RHD’s will continue to focus on the department’s annual educational curriculum blocks, teaching about topics such as personal health, campus diversity, academic and student leadership, etc. They have also begun to brainstorm more interactive programming that students will likely respond to, such as social media trivia and quizzes, pet show-and-tells and virtual bingo, to name a few.
Hitchcock said that, under the current circumstances, it’s as important to develop active programming aimed at maintaining connections with students as it is to educate on different curriculum topics.
“We need to provide students with opportunities to interact with each other, because they may not be getting that at home,” he said.
Additionally, Hitchcock stated that he aims to provide a Zoom link for one-on-one conversations with residents should they feel the need to seek him out. As everyone tries to “figure out what our new reality is,” Hitchcock is keeping in mind those students who may not feel comfortable in their current environment away from campus, regardless of reason.
“It’s important to get them the resources they might need for things we don’t know about in that moment,” he said.
Haaland Hall RHD Halie Laviolette has been meeting regularly with her RA’s and Hall Council representatives online, checking in with them and going over ideas on how to keep connecting with other Haaland residents.
With a variety of ideas on virtual programming for any residents willing to participate (such as making humorous videos on TikTok, a method she’s already begun using) Laviolette is confident that students will continue to look to her and other Residential Life professionals for support during this time away from campus. Like Hitchcock and other RHD’s, she plans on potentially offering Zoom “office hours” or phone calls with any student seeking comfort.
“I hope that students still see me as a support system. Bottom line is all the hall directors want to be there for students and that won’t change with all that’s going on,” she said. “My hope is that they take us up on that. There are students who I have great relationships with will continue to be engaged virtually, and I think the ones who may not be as present in the building kind of already have their groups but if they need it, I hope they find comfort in reaching out. I think we’ll still do great work.”
In her email to all campus RA’s, Abelmann noted that, since RA’s have their room and board fees covered but are no longer on campus, they are not expected continue working in their roles if they don’t wish to. She also noted that any RA who wishes to continue reaching out to their residents is certainly allowed to.
“That said, we would never discourage you from reaching out to your residents to connect, check in, offer support and perhaps even pull your floor together. This is totally up to you,” she wrote.
Laviolette is confident that the wide majority of RA’s selected for this academic year will be willing to continue their role from a distance.
“We try and hire people who are invested and people who care, so I don’t foresee anyone dropping this and not talking to residents or not reaching out to them. We normally hire people who are helpers. RA’s will probably feel odd or strange if they’re not going out of their way to do those things,” she said.
Nora Biron, a senior human development and family studies major and second-year RA in Alexander Hall, has enjoyed Residential Life’s efforts so far. Although she plans to remain active with under her RHD’s supervision and continue to collaborate with her four co-RA’s, she sees two sides to the idea of students participating in virtual programming.
“On one side, by the end of a school year RAs and RHD often struggle to get engagement from students because students are facing burnout and the future/summer is on their minds. In addition to the physical distance between the staff and their residents, I can see the response rate being low,” she said. “On the other side, people have created amazing bonds in their residential community and are faced with anxiety of the unknown following the COVID-19 university shutdown. I can see many students hanging on to those relationships when looking for support or even a distraction.”
Under such uncertainties, Biron applauded Residential Life’s efforts to move everyone out of housing so efficiently and their desire to keep up with connecting with their students.
“I personally think that Residential Life is doing the best they can in such an unprecedented time. I have been talking to a few friends who work at different institutions across the country and every school seems to be responding differently; no one expected this to happen and I trust the decisions Residential Life has made to support their students,” she said.
Connor Mathews, a junior mathematics major and second-year RA under Laviolette in Haaland Hall, has already begun speaking with residents on his floor on continuing his role throughout the remainder of the semester.
“These are unprecedented and stressful times for everyone and the adjustment to a new way of life and personal family will be at the forefront of student’s minds. I, like many RA’s, have taken the time to reach out and keep in contact with my residents to let them know I am still in my role as being an RA for them and someone they can always reach out to or ask questions,” he said.
Additionally, Mathews praised Laviolette for “getting the ball rolling” in her outreach to Haaland’s residents.
“She remains consistent in sending out a weekly update email for the building, although the information in them recently has been concerning the transitions off-campus and to online work. She has made it clear to everyone though that the hall staff is still available to answer any questions they may have or if they just need someone to talk to,” he said.
Williamson Hall RHD Kristi Leclerc, who oversees 16 RA’s, one assistant hall director (AHD) and nearly 450 students, has been looking for silver linings amongst the campus’ new normal- one without many students present. Despite the sadness of the situation and in seeing students move out, Leclerc credits her staff and the entire Residential Life department for “thinking on our feet” and still caring for each other amidst the stress of the pandemic.
Leclerc credited Abelmann and other Residential Life administrators for their flexibility and concern for students and community members in such a time of unease.
“In general, I think Res[idential] Life is good at adapting and problem solving. While this transition has been challenging, I was really impressed and grateful to hear about everyone’s ideas about the virtual residence halls, student engagement, and how we can support the university and the community at large,” she said. “Ruth and our other supervisors have been very supportive of us, as well as focused on students and their families. So far, the student perception has been positive!”
On top of the department’s planning for new ways of remotely engaging with students, members of the Residential Life team have been thrown curveballs in their job routines in recent weeks. For the university’s scheduled spring break room checkouts in every residence hall, RA’s, RHD’s and senior administrators had to comply with health standards and wear gloves as they went from room to room. In collaboration with UNH’s Department of Housing, Residential Life implemented an impromptu move-out schedule for students to retrieve their belongings from their living assignments between March 22-30. Now, in an effort to save money in utilities, all 22 residence halls will be powered down. As a result, all 22 RHD’s are moving to the on-campus Gables Apartment Complex for an indefinite period.
Despite the new standard for members of the department, Abelmann praised her team for their response to the COVID-19 pandemic relative to the university.
“We are a very strong team, we work to build this team at the start of every year, and the result is that we know how to come together under really challenging situations,” she said. “RHD’s are already adapting to implementing virtual residence halls with the same priorities that drive their work year-round: Connecting to students, building community and implementing an educational curriculum focused on student well-being.”
Abelmann’s message to students in these bleak times of uncertainty? Though our vision is blurred by a hazy, unknown future, the key to making it through is the practice of positivity.
“Hopefully, they will feel like their residence hall didn’t fizzle because of the changes due to COVID-19. Hopefully they will realize you can have hope, stay connected and support each other just as students do all year long in their halls,” she said. “That life can throw us off our course and it is up to us to adapt and adjust so that we can ground ourselves, accept what is happening, make the best of it and maybe even see the silver linings, which I have no doubt there are many. But we won’t see them if we don’t look for them.”
For more information on UNH’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, visit the university’s website for up-to-date information and resources.