First-year dorms at the University of New Hampshire (UNH) are turning to creative solutions to facilitate a sense of community while following coronavirus (COVID-19) restrictions.
Social events in residence halls have taken a new shape. It especially affects resident assistants (RAs), whose job is to create a welcoming environment, and first-year students who are trying to find their place in the campus community.
Cassie Sleboda, a first-time RA in Lord Hall, understands that she is expected to foster a sense of community within her building. She is determined to make her hall an inclusive and welcoming place for the newest members of campus.
“Freshmen are coming here fresh from high school. They don’t really have that friend group yet,” said Sleboda. “I know as a senior, I have a lot of resources and knowledge about the campus that I can spread to everybody in this dorm.”
Although Sleboda’s job expectations didn’t change during this unusual time, UNH has amended certain protocols in response to the pandemic. She says the process of acquiring supplies is different this year.
“Typically, an RA can go out and get the items that they want for their socials, and then bring it back and do the social,” said Sleboda. Now they must first go through their hall director. “We have to tell him what we want, and he has to get it for us,” Sleboda said. “It’s a little bit more difficult that way.”
Convincing first-year students to attend socials is also becoming an increasingly difficult task. Rachel Richards, a first-year student in Christensen Hall, said the idea of going to socials can be worrying, especially after the bonfires that took place during the first weekend of the semester.
“I know that the first couple of days when I wasn’t here, they had fires and a lot of people showed up,” said Richards. “I’m just not a fan of big crowds of people.”
To adjust to the new rules put in place because of COVID-19, Sleboda recognizes the importance of putting “creative twists” on hall events to ensure that everyone is safe and comfortable. A few activities that she found to be successful were “knock and talks,” where the RA knocks on residents’ doors and has a conversation with them, and walks through college woods.
Residence halls are making use of social media to reach out to students. Instagram is especially popular among the four first-year dorms. Williamson, Christensen, Lord and Alexander all made a point to introduce their staff through videos, short bios, and newsletters.
Their Instagram accounts have also been used to promote socials such as mask decorating and outdoor movie nights. Maddy Maynard, the resident hall director at Alexander Hall, invited her residents to an Instagram live where she gave them a tour of her apartment and an opportunity to ask her anything.
Information regarding hall council has been advertised on Christensen’s and Williamson’s social media as well. According to Williamson’s Instagram account, Zoom info sessions were held, and students have also been provided with details about voting.
In a post on Instagram, Christensen Hall said that they will be conducting hall council meetings in person in the basement lounge.
Richards pointed out that socials and hall events aren’t the only ways to create a close-knit environment within one’s floor. She was pleasantly surprised by the way UNH has reacted in response to COVID-19 and enjoys talking to the girls who live on her floor, going out for walks, and just hanging out with friends. “I didn’t think it would be as open of an experience as I’m having,” she said when asked how much her expectations for freshmen had changed since being on campus. “My experience has been great. The people, they’re so nice. We all care about each other.”
When asked what made her want to be a RA, Sleboda brought up an RA who lived in her building freshmen year. “He kind of mentored me a little bit, and he showed me how inclusive this university is, and how an RA can make a difference within somebody’s career here,” she said.
She tries to put herself out there as much as she can by sitting in the lounges, creating a GroupMe for her floor, and greeting her residents whenever she sees them to get to know them better.
“You have to put yourself out there,” said Richards, acknowledging that it is easier said than done. “You can guarantee someone’s going to bite. Someone’s going to be like I want to be your friend.”